The early childhood care and education programme is a free and universal programme to which all children, including children with special needs, have access. The objective of the programme is to make early learning in a formal setting available to eligible children before they commence primary school. Participating child care services are, therefore, expected to provide age-appropriate activities to children within a particular age cohort.
Children born between 2 February 2011 and 30 June 2012 will qualify for the programme in September 2015 and children born between 2 February 2012 and 30 June 2013 will qualify in September 2016. All children have an opportunity to avail of the programme. However, some parents whose children were born in the months of July and August, who wish to start them in primary school when they reach four years of age, have to make a choice between enrolling their child in primary school or availing of the free preschool year. There are no exemptions for children who are below the eligibility age range.
The issue of access to the free preschool year for children with special needs was taken into account when the free preschool year was launched, and measures were introduced to make the programme more accessible for those children. The measures include an exemption from the upper age limit and permission to have the preschool year split over two years on a pro rata basis, where it would be in the child's best interest. Parents could decide to send a child two days a week in year one and three days a week in year two.
Most children with special needs avail of the free preschool year in mainstream child care services. The Health Service Executive, HSE, does, where possible, assist children with special needs who may require additional support to enable them to avail of preschool services in mainstream settings. However, these supports are not provided in a nationally consistent way. My Department has been working with the Department of Health and the Department of Education and Skills to build better supports to facilitate children who have special needs. The aim is to develop an agreed framework for the provision of resources to support children with special needs in mainstream child care settings.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
I have established a high level interdepartmental group to examine the issue of future investment in early childhood care and education, and child care for school-going children. As part of its work, the group will consider how best to make appropriate provision for children with special needs who are accessing mainstream child care services. I have asked the group to report to me by the summer.