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On Tuesday, September 27th Minister Frances Fitzgerald replied to a question submitted by Mick on the future of the free pre-school year, which all children are entitled to. Mick asked the Minister to outline whether the free pre-school year would be extended to two years as a 2009 OECD report shows that Ireland only 20% of Irish public expenditure on children is spent on children under six years of age, compared with 37% on 6-12 year olds and 44% on those in the 12-18 age bracket. The dialogue is outlined below and you can watch the full discussion here.

Mick Wallace: To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to extend the entitlement to free provision that began with the free pre-school year to a second, earlier year; her views that the extension of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme would be a major boost to the future lives of our young persons and to society in general; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

Frances Fitzgerald: I assure the House again of the Government’s ongoing commitment to early childhood care and education. The ECCE scheme, which Deputy McConalogue mentioned, was introduced in January 2010 and provides a free preschool year to all eligible children in the year before they commence primary school. Almost every preschool service in the State is participating in the programme, so it is available to children in all areas, and some 63,000 children or 94% of the eligible age cohort availed of the programme in the 2010-11 preschool year. In 2011, the ECCE programme is expected to cost €166 million. Services participating in the programme are required to provide age-appropriate activities and programmes to children within the Síolta framework for early learning and they are also encouraged to implement the Aistear curriculum, which has been developed for children from birth to six years.

My objective is to develop the ECCE programme incrementally over the term of this Government. However, all programme funding is considered in the context of the annual Estimates and budgetary process and I must operate within the financial constraints under which the rest of the Government is operating. As I have just said, a key element of this development will be to support the implementation of the workforce development plan by the early education policy unit of the Department of Education and Skills, which is co-located within my Department. In addition, I will be collaborating closely with my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, in implementing the recently launched literacy and numeracy strategy. Early intervention is crucial and the strategy provides for a range of actions to be undertaken by my Department to support preschool children and their families. I have been impressed by the work that is going on throughout the country in relation to early intervention. It is increasingly evidence and research based, which is a good thing. We are seeing programmes that have been tested and which we know have a good impact and support families properly.

It would be extremely helpful to many children if a second preschool year was provided. It would probably be particularly beneficial to children with special needs, who can currently avail of the preschool year on a pro rata basis over two years. I would like to be in a position to deliver on this, but as I said, I must operate within the financial constraints under which the rest of the Government is operating. I assure Deputy Wallace that the ECCE programme will continue to be evaluated and developed as resources permit.

Mick Wallace: I thank the Minister for her answer. I realise that money is scarce and the Minister is constrained, but she will know that a report by the OECD in 2009 showed that we spend a lower percentage on the education of children under six than any other country in Europe. It is a fact of life that we have underestimated the importance of investment in children at the earliest stages. Even if the overall spend cannot change, we need to consider rebalancing spending with a view to greater investment in children in the early years. As the Minister admitted, all the research shows that such spending is the most productive of all. Every euro spent on children under six years of age saves the State €8 in the long term. That is dramatic. Surely it would be a great investment on the part of the State to spend more money on the early years.

Frances Fitzgerald: I certainly take the Deputy’s point. He does not have to convince me of the importance of early intervention and support and quality child care. The situation has improved greatly in recent years and the ECCE programme, which 94% of children are attending, as I said, is certainly beneficial. I would like to see more resources in the area. In July, at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, I indicated my objective over the coming years to seek to develop further the free preschool year in early childhood care and education. As the Deputy well knows, we are in an extraordinarily difficult financial situation and my Department is subject to the expenditure review, as are all other Departments. However, I would like to work towards further development as resources permit. It would certainly be beneficial. I will discuss the matter with the Department of Education and Skills, but there are serious fiscal constraints on all of us and I must operate within them.

Mick Wallace: Aside from the social benefits, it is still just 15 hours a week. To add to that, parents are already in a difficult place financially, yet childcare in Ireland is among the most expensive in Europe. We put the lowest funding into it of any country in Europe and the costs are among the highest. As an aside, I commend the Minister on her speech at the Amnesty briefing yesterday, which was very good.

Frances Fitzgerald: I thank Deputy Wallace. There is no doubt that Ireland was slow to develop comprehensive child care, but great progress has been made in the past number of years, primarily thanks to EU funding but also because of some national funding. Further developments in the area are hugely constrained despite the worldwide evidence because financial resources are limited. However, I assure the Deputy that I am personally committed to the area and I will seek to see whether resources can be made available, perhaps in the first instance to accommodate children with special needs and give them some extra time. I accept that the ideal would be to have a second year and I will progress work on that, but we are operating within tight financial constraints, as the Deputy knows.

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