DÁIL QUESTION addressed to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Dr. James Reilly)
by Deputy Anthony Lawlor
for ORAL ANSWER on 02/12/2015
To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the measures that will be put in place for the smooth and prompt implementation of the extension of the Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme to a second year; if he will ensure that every support will be offered to childcare providers to ensure they receive payment for this scheme without delay; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Anthony Lawlor T.D.
At present, the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Programme covers children who have reached the age of 3 years and 2 months by 1st September of the relevant year. From September 2016, I am expanding this Programme to allow children enrol in free pre-school from the time they are 3 years of age and to remain there until they start primary school. This extended free pre-school provision was first recommended by the Expert Advisory Group on the Early Years Strategy in 2013. It was also one of a series of recommendations of the recent Inter-Departmental Group on Future Investment in Childcare, which I established in January last. The Group consulted widely with a range of stakeholders, including the early years sector, during the course of its work.

Under this extended Programme, there will be three opportunities for eligible children to enrol during the pre-school year: children who reach the age of 3 between April and August will have the opportunity to enrol in September; children who reach the age of 3 between September and December will have the opportunity to enrol in January; and children who reach the age of 3 between January and March will have the opportunity to enrol in April. As a result of this extension, the number of children benefiting from the Programme is expected to rise from around 67,000 to 127,000 in a given programme year. For the 2016/17 programme year, it is estimated that 89,500 children will be eligible to enrol in the Programme from September 2016, 22,000 from January 2017 and 15,500 from April 2017.

In order to provide the early years sector with the time to build capacity to meet this increased demand, a decision was taken to introduce this new measure from September 2016. As the increased demand for Programme is not expected to peak until January and April 2017, this timeframe should allow pre-school providers to make any necessary infrastructural or service changes and to put in place extra staff resources to accommodate the additional demand.

I am satisfied that there is already additional capacity in the early years sector to cope with some of the increased demand. Indeed, the Annual Survey of Early Years Services, which was conducted in December 2014, estimates that there are more than 24,000 vacancies in early years services across the country with almost 13,000 of these vacancies in sessional services. I am also aware that every year a significant number of new pre-school providers apply to participate in this Programme. The increased demand for, and additional investment in, free pre-school provision going forward should encourage a greater numbers of applicants.

The restoration of capitation rates to pre-2012 levels from September 2016 should also encourage a greater number of new applicants and encourage existing pre-school providers to expand.

I am clear that more capacity will be required and that the implementation of this extended programme of free pre-school provision may pose a challenge for pre-school providers. Officials at my Department are already working closely with the City and County Childcare Committees and the Voluntary Childcare Organisations to develop a range of measures, which will assist with meeting this challenge. Further information on these measures will be available shortly.

My Department has recently completed the development of an on-line management platform – the Programmes Implementation Platform – to provide for the administration of a range of childcare programmes including the Early Childhood Care and Education Programme. The objectives of this development are to reduce paperwork and duplication of effort, to simplify administration and to enhance the service experience of pre-school providers and the other stakeholders involved, including City or County Childcare Committees. The IT system also provides more efficient work practices, greater visibility and control of funds and assists greatly with prompt payment of pre-school providers.