I propose to take Questions Nos. 531 and 542 together.
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. In childcare services that qualify for the standard capitation, the pre-school leader must currently hold the full FETAC 5 qualification on the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) or equivalent.
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 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.
I have indicated my intention to increase the qualification requirements for all staff working in pre-school services. The minimum requirement of Level 5 for pre-school leaders delivering the pre-school year will be increased to Level 6. In addition, all pre-school assistants, and all other staff caring for children in a pre-school service, will be subject to a minimum requirement of Level 5. This requirement will be effective from September 2014 for new services, and from September 2015 for existing services. My Department is currently examining measures to support training for childcare staff in line with the increased qualification requirements.
Pobal, which administers the childcare support programmes on behalf of my Department, compiles an Annual Survey of the Early Years Sector. According to its 2011 Annual Survey, there are in the region of 4,300 childcare services participating in the ECCE programme and approximately 3,133 of these services responded to the question relating to the number of staff employed. The results, which did not distinguish between those working with children enrolled for the ECCE programme and other children in the childcare service, show that some 17,123 staff in the 3,133 services that responded were working directly with children.
Figures compiled earlier this year indicated that approximately 20% of the 4,300 services participating in the ECCE programme are in receipt of the higher capitation. All participating services must provide information relating to the qualifications of staff currently delivering the pre-school year, and we are examining the possibility of extending this to a national registration system. Given the vast range of childcare qualifications and awarding authorities, including international awarding bodies, this will not be an easy task. A national qualification and registration system for all early years professionals would be useful, and my Department will be liaising with the Early Years Education Unit, which is co-located within my Department, to determine the optimum means of building and maintaining such a register.
The ECCE programme is designed as an education programme for children. Services are required to implement Siolta, the Early Education Framework developed by the Department of Education and Skills. The programme also encourages services to implement Aistear, the Early Education Curriculum for 0 to 6 year olds. Services opting to participate in the programme must be in a position to deliver these programmes and ensure that qualifying children have access to quality pre-school provision.
Pre-school services are subject to the Child Care (Pre-School Services)(No.2) Regulations 2006, as provided for under Part VII of the Child Care Act 1991. All childcare services that are notified to the HSE pursuant to the Child Care Act 1991 are subject to the Regulations and must satisfy the requirements set out in relation to the standard of facilities, health and safety issues and other measures relating to the well being of children enrolled in pre-school services.
It is also a condition for childcare services participating in the ECCE programme that they undertake to comply with all relevant legal and regulatory requirements which include planning legislation, employment legislation, health and safety legislation and data protection requirements.
Only services who meet the standards set out in the Regulations and are prepared to comply with the terms and conditions of the free pre-school scheme are accepted into the ECCE programme.