I propose to take Questions Nos. 995 to 997, inclusive, together.
The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme provides for one free preschool year for all eligible children in the year before commencing primary school. The programme is normally provided for 3 hours per day, 5 days per week, over 38 weeks. The Government has made a very significant commitment in maintaining the preschool year on a universal and free basis despite the current budgetary situation.
The ECCE programme is funded by my Department through the provision of capitation grants paid directly to participating services. This capitation payment is for the provision of services, including preparatory and supportive work such as engagement with parents, training and organisation. No other form of funding is available under the scheme, the key objective of which is to benefit children through providing access to preschool education. The standard capitation fee paid to participating services is €62.50 per week per eligible child. A higher capitation fee of €73 per week per eligible child is available to preschool services with more highly qualified staff. It is a fundamental principle of the programme that the preschool provision is available to parents free of charge. Preschool services participating in the programme can charge parents for additional services provided these are clearly optional to parents and appropriate programme based activities continue to be provided to children not availing of such services during the preschool year hours.
There are in the region of 4,300 preschool services participating in the programme with new services applying to enter the programme each year. The funding provided under the programme is a guaranteed source of income, paid in advance, and is an important support to services at this time. Services applying to enter the programme should be satisfied that they can meet the full cost of providing the preschool year from the capitation provided.
The ECCE programme represents an investment of almost €170 million annually in preschool services and in light of the current economic situation there are no proposals to increase this provision. My Department provides annual funding to seven voluntary childcare organisations in the childcare sector, who provide support to childcare services throughout the country. This funding, which will amount to over €2.6 million in 2014, enables the voluntary organisations to provide a range of support services to their members, including on-going training supports.
The Deputy may be aware that as part of the childcare quality agenda aimed at improving the quality of childcare services, new qualification requirements for childcare staff working directly with children were announced last year. A minimum qualification of Level 5 (or equivalent) on the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) will be required for all staff working with children in preschool services and the minimum qualification for all preschool leaders delivering the free preschool year under the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme will be increased from Level 5 to Level 6 (or equivalent) on the NFQ. The new qualification requirements will apply to all new services from September 2014, and to all existing services from September 2015.
To support staff who are seeking to meet the new qualifications requirement, funding of €3 million is being made available over the two years 2014/2015 under the new Learner Fund which was launched in March this year. The Fund is being administered by Pobal, with the assistance of local City and County Childcare Committees (CCCs). Issues relating to workforce development, curricular support and capitation, will be considered as part of Ireland's first-ever Early Years strategy, work on which is at an advanced stage.