The early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme was introduced in January 2010 and provides a free preschool year to all eligible children in the year before commencing primary school. In September 2010, the first full year of the programme, 63,000 children participated, amounting to 94% of all eligible children. Some 4,300 preschool services, or 95% of all services, are participating in the programme, thus ensuring it is available to children in all areas.
Children qualify for the free preschool year where they are aged more than three years and two months and less than four years and seven months at 1 September in the relevant year. This means that children born between 2 February 2007 and 30 June 2008 will qualify for the free preschool year in September 2011. Exceptions to the upper age limit are allowed in cases where a child is developmentally delayed or it is necessary due to the enrolment policies of local primary schools.
Exceptions to the lower age limit are not allowed under the ECCE programme. This is because the objective of the preschool year is to make early learning in a formal setting available to children in the year before they commence primary school. To achieve this, participating services are expected to provide age-appropriate activities to children. This requires targeting the preschool year at a particular age cohort limited by minimum and maximum age limits. It is considered that the eligibility range, which spans almost 17 months, is reasonable.
Subject to the local enrolment policies of primary schools, parents are entitled to enrol their children in primary school in the September in which they reach four years of age. In practice, the majority of parents choose to commence their children in primary school when they are aged between four years and six months and five years and six months. While targeting a specific age cohort, the ECCE programme has also tried to facilitate the preference of as many parents as possible. The fact that some children continue to be enrolled in primary school when they are not more than four years and two months and that this means they cannot avail of the preschool year was the subject of a complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. The complaint was not upheld.
It is difficult to achieve a cut-off point in any scheme which accommodates the preferences of everyone. Inevitably, there are those who fall just outside any age range. Nevertheless, as a new, universally available and free programme intended to precede entry to primary education, the ECCE scheme provides a beneficial basis for all parents to plan their child's early education.