Since September 2018, all children meeting the minimum age requirement of 2 years and 8 months are eligible for a full two programme years on the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme. This measure refines the development introduced in 2016 and increases the duration of each registered child on ECCE from a previous average of 61 weeks, to a potential duration of 76 weeks (two programme years). This delivers fully on a commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government that is good for children, families and Early Years providers.
This new measure will address the previous situation with regard to multiple entry points whereby there was a broad fluctuation in the number of free preschool weeks a child could avail of (between 61 and 88 weeks depending on the date of birth of the child) and will ensure a programme that is equitable for all children. The situation where there was more than one entry point created a perception of inequality to some parents when they considered the variance in the number of weeks of ECCE provision, dependant on their entry point.
It must be noted that age limits have been used to determine eligibility since the inception of the ECCE programme in 2010. These rules are a necessary component of any Government scheme and ensure that Exchequer funding is used for its intended purpose.
The upper age limit for the ECCE programme was set in consultation with the Department of Education and Skills. It ensures that children transition into primary school with their peers and limits the age range of children beginning primary school. Limiting the diversity in age ranges in children beginning primary school education is considered generally to be in the best interest of children, in relation to peer interaction in junior infants, as well as other educational considerations.
My Department does its best to ensure, in so far as possible, the equitable treatment of all children and families who apply for childcare funding under the ECCE Programme. In order to ensure objectivity and fairness, it is essential that clear rules exist for the scheme and that they are applied evenly. An essential component of the ECCE programme rules is an eligibility start date to ensure that the programme can be administered and budgeted for in an appropriate manner.