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. Under the Regulations the HSE has responsibility for the inspection of pre-school services. While pre-school inspections are necessary to ensure compliance with the regulations, it is important to realise that inspections alone are not the answer to improving quality. What is required is a multifaceted approach, and since this Government came to office we have been working to ensure issues relating to child protection and welfare are put front and centre. The establishment of a Department of Children and Youth Affairs was recognition of the huge body of work which needs to be done in this area.
As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, driving the early childhood care and education quality agenda is one of my key objectives. I believe we can achieve this objective by taking a number of steps in conjunction with the Department of Education and Skills, including the adaptation of the existing pre-school inspection system to provide a more comprehensive and broader-based inspection regime for preschools, moving to a greater focus on outcomes for children.
The Government has approved the Heads of the Child and Family Agency Bill and has also agreed to the priority drafting of this Bill. The necessary legislative and organisational preparations are being prioritised so that the Agency can be established as soon as possible. The Agency, upon establishment, will assume full statutory responsibility for a range of child and family services currently provided by three separate agencies; namely the HSE which will include the services provided by the Childcare Inspectorate, the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board.
The majority of preschools in this country are participating in the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme and providing a free pre-school year to almost 68,000 pre-school children each year. The programme is subject to terms and conditions which are strictly implemented to ensure that quality pre-school care and education services are provided to qualifying children. To ensure compliance by participating services, Pobal who assist my Department with the implementation of the programme, carry out annual compliance visits and will also engage further with services when required.