The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme was introduced in January 2010 and provides a free pre-school 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 pre-school year.
In the current pre-school year approximately 65,700 children are availing of the ECCE programme. This figure will increase as late entrant applications to the programme are submitted and processed. €175.8 million has been provided in 2012 to cover the cost of the programme.
I am aware of the need to further develop the early childhood care and education sector. However, any development that involved expanding the pre-school year would require considerable additional funding. It is estimated that an additional year's free pre-school provision would cost in the region of between €124 to €180 million, depending on the cohort of children supported.
I am also very conscious that work is continuing on improvement of quality within the pre-school year and all of the available evidence indicates that the quality of the provision is key to good outcomes for children. I would therefore hope to invest further in quality before expanding the programme.
Future developments relating to early years care and education will, of course, be considered during preparation of the new National Early Years Strategy 2012.