Childcare providers say it is impossible to extend their premises, opening hours, and staff to cater for all 60,000 extra children made eligible for the scheme in a budget move last October.
Teresa Heeney, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland, which represents pre-schools, said: “The Government made an announcement and sat back and waited for it to be delivered. There is no way it can be delivered in time.”
In an attempt to speed up the provision of extra spaces, the Department of the Environment wrote last week to the chief planners in all local authorities asking them to “expedite” planning applications by childcare facilities needing to expand to meet the extra demand.
However, the Department of Children has still not completed an audit of existing places to identify where the most serious shortages will occur.
Ms Heeney said the best most preschools could do is create extra places by running second sessions in the afternoons but the feedback from parents to this proposal was negative.
“The problem is that they’re not starting with a clean sheet,” she said. “They have children currently in the free preschool year who were due to start school in September and who now will be staying on; they have children in their creche rooms who are due to start the preschool year and they have children from outside on waiting lists.
“Services are now hugely concerned because they’re having to ask children to leave which they really don’t want to be doing. It’s extremely difficult and it is certainly not a place where our members would want to be and it’s not of their making.”
Currently 67,000 children benefit from the free preschool year under the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme but, by changing it to a two-year scheme, the number will be 127,000 by next April. Some 22,500 extra spaces are needed by this September, 22,000 more by January, and a further 15,500 by April.
Children’s Minister James Reilly told the Dáil in January that the system had an estimated 13,000 spare places that would help meet the demand but said childcare organisations would have updated figures, broken down by local areas, within weeks.
Ms Heeney said they were still waiting: “Most of our members are operating with no profit margin whatsoever but they are expected to take the risk to expand, to get the bank loan, to look for planning permission, without knowing if their investment is viable or sustainable.”
Mr Reilly also said in January that “efforts are being made to streamline applications for planning permission” but the circular to local authorities was only issued last week.
His department said yesterday: “An exercise is currently under way to ascertain projected ECCE capacity from September 2016.”
It also said 1,020 childcare providers had applied to a €4m grants scheme to help with expansion costs. That is an average of €3,920 each.
It added that, each year, more facilities applied to run the ECCE scheme and said: “The expansion of the programme announced in Budget 2016 is expected to encourage an even greater number of applicants.”
Fianna Fáil spokesman on children, Robert Troy, said the childcare sector had not been consulted.
“We don’t have the capacity for this expansion,” he said. “This was done as part of a pre-election budget as something to help with the cost of childcare after five years of doing nothing. My concern is that there are going to be many, many families severely disappointed.”