I wish to highlight the changes in the early childhood care and education scheme that are scheduled for introduction in September and issues and concerns that have been brought to my attention by many parents and childcare providers who have contacted me in recent months. They are deeply concerned and believe the system is unjust and needs to be revised.
We all agree that early childhood is a time of great opportunity for learning and development. In these early years, children learn through discussion, exploration and play. Much work has been done to develop Aistear, the early childhood curriculum framework, to assist parents, early years educators and care providers to create enjoyable and challenging learning experiences which allow children to grow and develop as competent and confident learners. This is a very valuable programme. I have seen the level of work and preparation that our childcare providers and teachers of junior infants put into this programme to make it such a success. It is certainly working.
Undoubtedly, a child's early years development is substantially enriched by activities which nurture well-being, identity and belonging, communication, exploration and thinking. The Department's early childhood care scheme, which provides access to such early childhood care and education for children of preschool age, was well received. It has enriched the universally available offerings in community childcare settings across the State. However, the proposed changes in September will compel some children to enter the programme too early while denying others their right to start when ready to do so. That is far from child-centred. We are moving away from a child-centred approach to an approach that is unworkable and will disadvantage children.
The issues here arise as a result of two factors. The first is the reduction from three entry points each year to just one. The second is the reduction in age eligibility from three years to two years and eight months. Until now, the scheme has provided for three intakes, namely, in January, April and September. Children who became eligible entered the scheme at the enrolment point closest to their birthday. My consultations with parents, childcare providers and the county childcare committee, suggest that there were no particular logistical issues arising from this rolling system. They were quite satisfied with the system and felt it was working well. A very small minority questioned the value to children of the April intake because it was so close to the summer recess but all reported that the January and September intakes worked well and were flawless.
The proposed change to introduce a single point of entry only, in September, has caused great concern to parents and childcare providers alike.
The current arrangements will deny many children who will become eligible after enrolment access. They will be obliged to wait it out until the following September. Children will be affected in varying degrees, depending on their birth dates. Some children may have a significant loss of entitlement below the 76 weeks provided for over the course of their preschool years.
The second issue arises from the reduction in age from three years to two years and eight months. This has implications for childcare providers because many children in this age bracket are not yet fully toilet-trained. Concerns will arise in this context if childcare facilities are not co-located with full day-care facilities. The universal opinion of those with whom I have spoken is that three years is the optimum age for entering preschool. There is anecdotal evidence that children aged two years and eight months are being enrolled even though they are not ready. It is unsatisfactory that parents have to do this. However, they feel they have no alternative. These issues need to be addressed.