In the first instance it should be highlighted that the Early Childhood Care and Education programme (ECCE) is a two year pre-school programme. There is no provision for a third year which may not be in the best interests of a child, and could have the capacity to 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 and so therefore an allowance was made. Their one year 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 mistakenly assumed that an overage exemption approval from the DCYA represented derogation from age requirements attaching to the statutory requirement that a child attend primary school before the age of 6 years.
The application process for an exemption from the upper age limit for the ECCE programme was introduced within a context where:
- The ECCE programme was for a year only; and
- The Access and Inclusions Model (AIM) did not exist.
Given the extension of the ECCE programme in 2016/2017, the further extension of the programme to two full years from September 2018, and the introduction of AIM in June 2016, the rationale underpinning the policy intent of the system of overage exemption came under review as the initial premise for the provision of an exemption might have been considered to be no longer valid, i.e. an overage exemption as originally designed allowed for a child to avail of one programme year of ECCE over two years, whereas the standard provision is now a full two programme years.
The overage exemption process has recently been the subject of a consultation process and report 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.
A key finding of the recently published NDA report is that it is in children's best interests to enrol in primary school with their peers and to transition to becoming a teenager with their peers. I would also note that associated research shows broad agreement that it is in the best interest of the child to start school with their peers.
Until such time as any new policy proposals are implemented, I have stated that the current system should continue. Overage Exemptions currently provided by my Department are governed by three guiding principles as follows:
- Letter of Recommendation from a specialist clinician
- Child's age - not being over 6 years of age during the exemption year (as per Educational Welfare Act, 2000)
- ECCE Allocation taken - if a child has utilised their full 2 years of ECCE provision they will not be eligible for any further ECCE allocation.
My Department is working closely with the Department of Education and Skills and the National Council for Special Education to ensure that planning for a successful transition to primary school with the child's peers begins as early as possible, and that the necessary resources are in place in the school to enable the child settle in comfortably and optimise their learning experience.