My Department remains committed to the proposals outlined in the programme for Government and the recommendations in the national anti-poverty strategy. The enhancement and development of early childhood services in accordance with the White Paper on early childhood education, Ready to Learn, is being undertaken on a collaborative, phased basis and will draw together and build upon the many examples of best practice in early childhood education that have emerged over recent years. To help combat disadvantage and promote access to education, special emphasis will be placed on the provision of appropriate pre-school education in areas of social deprivation and for those with special needs. To that end, my Department supports the early start scheme which funds 40 centres which aim to expose children aged three to four years from disadvantaged areas to a positive pre-school environment to improve their overall development and long-term educational experience and performance. The Department also funds 48 pre-schools for Travellers which aim to develop children's cognitive, language and social skills, prepare children for entry to primary school and provide a foundation for further learning.
My Department established the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education, CECDE, in October 2002 to develop, within a three-year period, a quality framework for early childhood education and to develop, through active research with existing programmes, targeted interventions for children who have special needs or who are disadvantaged. The centre is developing a conceptual framework of early childhood learning and development, which will be completed early in 2005. In addition, Ireland recently participated in a major OECD review, which assessed quality, access and co-ordination in early childhood provision. The review was published on 24 September and offers a number of important recommendations and observations which will inform policy and programme development in the sector and will assist the work of the CECDE, among others.
Early childhood education and care is a horizontal policy issue involving several Departments and agencies. The policy implications of the recommendations arising from the OCED review are under active consideration within my Department and also by the relevant sub-group of the Government's high-level working group on child care and early education.