The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme provides for a free pre-school year to all eligible children in the year before they commence primary school. Almost every pre-school service (more than 4,300) in the State is participating with over 68,000 children, or 94% of the eligible age cohort, availing of free pre-school this year.
Under the ECCE programme my Department provides a capitation payment to participating services for each eligible child enrolled for the free pre-school year. The standard capitation rate is €2,375 per annum (€62.50 per week) and a higher capitation rate of €2,775 per annum (€73.00 per week) is payable to services with more qualified staff. The higher capitation fee is payable to pre-school service providers where all pre-school leaders delivering the pre-school service hold a bachelor degree in childhood/early education (minimum of Level 7 on the National Framework for Qualifications (NFQ) or equivalent) and have 3 years experience working in the sector, and where all pre-school assistants in the service hold a relevant major award in childcare/early education at level 5 on the NFQ or its equivalent.
It is a fundamental principle of the ECCE programme that participating service providers must operate the pre-school provision free to parents in return for the applicable capitation fee, and parents should be given access to the service where their child only attends the pre-school element. However, service providers may charge parents for optional additional services e.g. hours which are additional to the free pre-school year requirement. Optional additional services can also take the form of various one-off or on-going activities or services such as outings, specific teaching resources such as dance or music, and food, but must not include activities which would generally be regarded as a normal part of a pre-school service, e.g. general arts and crafts activities.
In all cases, service providers must ensure that parents are aware that their agreement to additional hours or to any optional charge is not compulsory, and that agreement to additional hours or optional charges is not a condition of initial or continued enrolment. In addition, appropriate programme-based activities must be provided to children not participating in an optional activity where such activities take place during the required period of pre-school provision.
All childcare services participating in the ECCE programme are required to submit a fees policy which sets out their fees calculations and the non-ECCE rate that applies before deductions of the programme funding is made. Parents should also establish the overall cost of the service provided before enrolling their child in the childcare service. Following this, if the parents have concerns about the fees they are being charged, they can contact their local City or County Childcare Committee (CCC), who approve the fee policies in the first instance, and they will be in a position to determine if a particular policy is being correctly applied. Local CCCs also assist my Department in the implementation of the programme and will, if contacted by parents or my Department, raise with providers any concerns that may arise in relation to the implementation of the free pre-school provision.
Pobal, which also assists my Department with the implementation of the ECCE programme, carries out compliance visits throughout the school year to ensure that participating services are adhering to the terms and conditions of the programme.