The free pre-school year is provided through the Early Childhood Care and Education Programme, which is the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The objective of this scheme is to make early learning in a formal setting available to eligible children in the year before they commence primary school. I understand that certain flexibilities are built into the scheme in an effort to accommodate children with special needs, such as an overage exemption, or waiver, for children with special needs who do not meet the age criteria and the option to avail of the free pre-school year over two years.
As the Health Service Executive has no statutory obligation to provide assistant supports for children with special needs wishing to avail of the free pre-school year, there is no standardised national application procedure in place. However, it works at local level and in partnership with the relevant disability service providers to address individual needs as they arise. This is done in a number of ways such as by providing grant-aid to support pre-school provision in community pre-schools and by funding special pre-schools that cater specifically for children with disabilities. In some cases at local level disability services have also facilitated children with disabilities to attend mainstream pre-schools by providing assistant supports where possible.
The HSE’s role in supporting children with disabilities involves it working in close co-operation with the disability service providers that it funds, with the education sector, with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and with the parents and families of the children in question. However, there is a need to strengthen these arrangements. A dedicated Cross-Sectoral Team, comprising representatives of my Department, the HSE, the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs plays a key role in fostering greater collaboration on children’s disability issues and to build on the cross-sectoral working arrangements that are already in place. A sub group of this Cross-Sectoral Team has been set up to examine the issues around the integration of children with disabilities into mainstream pre-school settings, building on previous analysis in this area. Representatives of the Departments of Health, Children and Youth Affairs, Education and Skills, the Health Service Executive and of the City and County Childcare Committees are members of this group and it is chaired by the Department of Health. The issue of supports for children with disabilities in mainstream pre-school settings is being looked by this sub-group.