I propose to take Questions Nos. 96 and 98 together.
Among the range of commitments in the programme for Government, addressing affordability in early learning and childcare is a priority for me. I am confident that work under way through First 5, including the national childcare scheme, NCS, and new funding model, will deliver on that.
Annual investment in early learning and childcare has increased by 141% since 2015. This funding has been directed towards improving accessibility, quality and affordability. It has, for example, funded a second year of the free preschool programme.
The two years of the ECCE programme are considered to save parents who use early learning and care services more than €5,700 on fees. The increased investment has also enabled the introduction of the national childcare scheme. The national childcare scheme represents the first ever statutory entitlement to financial support towards early learning and childcare costs.
Since it was launched in November 2019, and despite closures and reduced demand caused by Covid-19, 44,000 children have received subsidies under the NCS. Subsidies can be as high as €225 per child, per week.
The OECD's 2017 Faces of Joblessness report compared early learning and childcare costs for lone parents before and after the NCS. It found that the NCS will bring net costs down from being the highest across the OECD, to the 11th highest. This analysis did not take account of NCS enhancements in budgets 2019 and 2020.
Notwithstanding this progress, the cost of early learning and care and school age childcare remains unacceptably high for parents.
In addition to further investment, and First 5 has committed to a doubling of investment, a key project to address affordability is the development of a new funding model. An expert group is leading on this work, with a central objective being to consider a mechanism to control fees.
Extensive research has already been commissioned to inform the group's work. The research identifies international practice and learning that will be of value for the reform of the funding model in Ireland. Recommendations from this group are expected next autumn. Bearing in mind that the budget takes place in autumn, I contacted the group when I took over as Minister and suggested that we might support some of its initial key proposals earlier next year, towards the end of the summer, to shape what we were bringing forward for budget 2022, and it agreed to try to bring forward some of its final work. It has published very interesting work on models to control fees and how funding would be targeted, in particular in disadvantaged areas. That research is on the First 5 website and it is available to read should any Deputy choose to do so. There are about five detailed research papers and I would advise any Deputy for whom this is a particular issue to go to the First 5 website and read some of that research. I am happy to engage with all Deputies about this issue.