The free Pre-School Year in 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 this universal programme. The ECCE programme has been extremely successful to date with the number of children availing of the free pre-school provision consistently high each year since the programme was introduced in 2010. In the current pre-school year, 2012/2013, approximately 68,000 children, or an estimated 95% of the eligible cohort, are participating in the free pre-school year. Access to quality and affordable childcare has a major impact on the lives of children, and this programme has been particularly important for those children who may be socially or economically disadvantaged and would not otherwise be in a position to avail of quality pre-school care and education.
In each year some 3 to 4 thousand eligible children do not participate in the pre-school year and we are aware of some of the reasons for this. For example, over 1,500 children within the age cohort participate in the Early Start Programme run by the Department of Education and Skills and I am aware that some children with disabilities attend special preschools funded by the HSE. To date no research has been carried out on the factors impacting on decisions made by parents in relation to participation.