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 and some 68,000 children are availing of it at this time. The programme is expected to cost in the region of €175 million this year.
I am aware of the need to further develop the early childhood care and education sector. However, any development that involves further pre-school provision would require considerable additional funding. I am also very conscious that work is continuing on improvement of quality within the pre-school year. All of the available evidence indicates that the quality of the provision is key to good outcomes for children. In particular, I would like to see further progress in workforce development within the sector given the demands which expansion would place on the current pool of trained staff.
Future developments relating to early years care and education are being considered in the context of the National Early Years Strategy.