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. Almost every preschool service in the State is participating in the ECCE scheme, ensuring that it is available to children in all areas, and 63,000 children, or 94% of the eligible age cohort, are currently availing of the preschool year. In 2011, the ECCE programme is expected to cost €166 million.
Services participating in the ECCE programme are required to provide age-appropriate activities and programmes to children within the Síolta framework for early learning. They are also encouraged to implement the Aistear curriculum which has been developed for children aged from birth to six years. The ECCE programme is universally available, free of charge, to all preschool children and this is critical to ensuring equality of access and school readiness.
Clearly resources are scarce, however, my objective is to incrementally develop the ECCE programme over the term of the Government. A key element of this will be to support 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. The workforce development plan provides a framework for ensuring that personnel working in the ECCE sector have access to accredited training, enabling quality and standards in ECCE services to be continuously improved.
From May of this year, my Department has been working with two major voluntary child care organisations to provide subsidised online accredited training courses to staff working within ECCE services. I hope to continue this initiative next year by supporting training modules which have a specific focus on educating children with special needs and children with literacy and numeracy difficulties. In addition, I will collaborate 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 support preschool children and their families to be undertaken by my Department.
Additional material not given on the floor of the House.
The current arrangements within the Health Service Executive for the provision of support services to preschool children with special needs are being examined by the office of disability and mental health in the Department of Health, and my Department will continue to liaise with that office. In addition, I have asked officials in my Department to examine various options for additional provision or improvements to the ECCE programme, in particular for marginalised groups, including children with special needs.