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Statement by Minister Andrews on the free Pre-School Year in Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Irish Independent's coverage on Monday 10 August 2009, under the headline that the free Pre-School Year in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme is being "spurned" and "snubbed", was inaccurate and misleading in a number of respects, including the front page headline saying "just one-in-six childcare providers has signed up for new 'free' deal".  The actual rate of applications to the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is 85% and it is considered that the way in which the scheme was reported by the Irish Independent had the potential to cause serious and unnecessary concern to parents who are looking forward to their children benefiting from the scheme from January next, and in future years.

It is important, therefore, to clarify the following facts in relation to the ECCE scheme and the response which it has received to date:

• 4,000 pre-school services have applied to enter the scheme which amounts to 85% of services.  In total, this will mean 93,000 pre-school year places, or 50% more than the expected number required, will be available and the scheme is fully subscribed across all areas of the country.
• Services can participate in the scheme only where they meet requirements regarding staff qualifications and where they implement an appropriate programme of educational activities; neither of these requirements apply to pre-school services outside of the scheme.  This is the first time specific educational standards will be in place for pre-school provision.
• The suggestion that the scheme will lower standards is at odds with the fact that the scheme introduces new requirements for services and will pay a higher capitation fee to services which have highly qualified staff (€2,850 p.a. compared to €2,450).

A key focus of the Irish Independent's coverage of the scheme on 10 August 2009, was the threat it was said to pose to the current profit margins of services, particularly in the case of Dublin services which it claimed are charging €115 per week for playschool.  The example was given of a playschool in which 2 staff members are paid €24,000 per annum for working a 3 ½ hour day over 43 weeks a year.  This would equate to €32 per hour or a full-time pay rate of €66,000 per annum.  The reality is that many qualified childcare workers working full-time over 52 weeks a year earn less than this amount.  Additionally, even at the height of the economic boom, very few pre-schools could have hoped to charge anything approaching €115 per week for a playschool service with the average being closer to €65.

The disparities which exist between the cost bases and fees charged by every pre-school service, including services which provide full daycare and those which are playschools, arise from a wide range of factors.  In a small number of cases, the free pre-school year may not suit, however, the vast majority of services, including those in Dublin, are satisfied with the capitation fee that has been set.  In line with other State schemes and the capitation fees paid to schools, a single rate of payment is provided for.

The scheme is a national one and just in the same way as primary schools and social welfare recipients outside of the Dublin area receive the same level of funding as those within the Dublin area and in the same way that people across the State are levied for taxes on the same basis, it is not proposed to pay a lower rate to pre-school services outside of Dublin.  Applications from the Dublin area indicate that the number of places will exceed the requirement by some 34% which would not be expected if the capitation rate was too low.  More than half the costs borne by the childcare sector are wage-related and services which have higher costs due to employing more highly qualified staff, will qualify for a higher capitation fee.  In addition, most services participating in the scheme will benefit from the exemption from commercial rates, which has been a particular concern for services in Dublin.

The free Pre-School Year (ECCE) scheme is universal and is designed to benefit all pre-school children and remove the inequity that not all children come to primary school with the same level of educational preparedness.  The scheme will raise standards in that all services wishing to participate must employ qualified staff and implement the national framework for early childhood care and education of Siolta to help them deliver appropriate educational programme based activities.

It is accepted that not all services are in a position to meet these requirements, but the very high application rate of 85% indicates that the great majority of pre-school services already meet high standards.  While additional applications are not required, the higher capitation fee for services employing highly qualified staff is intended to signal the Government's intention to support pre-school services in moving to even higher standards.

When the scheme was announced it was stated that some local shortages of places was possible in the early days of the scheme.  However, the number of applications has exceeded expectations and every county is expected to have sufficient places to meet demand with any shortfalls being very local in nature.  Contracts for the scheme are expected to be issued to services at the end of this month.