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 line with the Programme for Government, my Department has made a significant commitment to maintaining the universal free preschool year. About 65,000 children, that is approximately 95% of children in the year before school, are availing of the free preschool provision at this time.
In 2011, the ECCE programme cost approximately €166 million. Additional funding has been made available for 2012 when the cost of the programme is expected to rise to €175 million to cater for changing demographics and provide for the increased number of children in the relevant age cohort.
I am aware of the need to further develop the early childhood care and education sector and it is my view that it could be extremely helpful to some children if the free preschool provision were extended to a second year. This could be particularly beneficial for certain children with special needs who currently can avail of the preschool year on a pro-rata basis over two years. The length of the preschool provision is being reviewed, and will form part of the Early Years Strategy. However, any development that involved further provision of preschool would require considerable additional funding and given the financial constraints under which the Government is currently operating it is not possible to provide for any enhancements to the programme at this time.
However future developments relating to early years care and education will be considered during preparation of the new National Early Years Strategy 2012.