Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Questions (193)

Peadar Tóibín


193. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she will address a matter (details supplied) regarding an additional pre-school year for a child. [5895/19]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

It should be noted that the Early Childhood Care and Education programme (ECCE) is a two year pre-school programme. There is no routine provision for a third year which may not be in the best interests of a child and may lead to breaching the statutory school starting age.

Overage exemptions were introduced at the onset of the ECCE programme in 2010. At that time ECCE operated for a 38 week period, or one programme year. For some children with special/additional needs, attending preschool five days a week was not feasible so, therefore, an allowance was made. Their ECCE place was split over two years, e.g. a child may have availed of three days ECCE provision in year one and two days in year two. In order to facilitate this, in the cases where the child would have been overage for ECCE in the latter year, an overage exemption was granted.

It is important to note that this provision of an overage exemption by my Department for the ECCE programme was never intended as a mechanism to delay a child’s entry to primary education or to address any issue of non-availability of a school place. In the past, the operation of the system of overage exemption has caused confusion where some parents and providers have incorrectly believed that an overage exemption approval from the DCYA represented a derogation from age requirements attaching to the statutory requirement that a child attend primary school before the age of 6 years.

The overage exemption process has recently been the subject of a consultation process and a report was produced by the National Disability Authority (NDA). Officials from my Department are now considering policy options following on from this report. The new policy will consider the future of the system of exemptions and how best to support parents and children in the important transition from pre-school to primary school. It is worth stressing that the only rationale underpinning these considerations is what is in the best interests of the child. There are no funding or other considerations whatsoever. I would also note that research shows broad agreement that it is in the best interest of the child to start school with their peers.

As regards the specific case you have raised, I would stress that each application for an exemption is considered on its own merits and never in the context of the outcome of any other case.

In this instance, the application was declined on the basis that the full two year ECCE entitlement had already been availed of and with regard to the fact that the child named would be over age 6 years starting school. A key finding of the NDA report, which will be published in the near future, is that generally it is in children's best interest to enrol in primary school with their peers and to transition to becoming a teenager with their peers.

The report also seeks to ensure that schools offer all the assistance necessary to meet the child's needs, with the assistance of the National Council for Special Education (NCSE). We will be happy to assist the family, if requested, to make contact with the NCSE to ensure that adequate preparations are in place for the child to start school in September 2019. The family should make immediate contact with their local school to make sure it has appropriate arrangements in place to support this child from September 2019.