The Learner Fund is a funding stream offered by my Department to practitioners working in early learning and care and school-age childcare seeking to upskill and gain higher qualifications. It has operated for several years by providing either pre-award funding or a post-award bursary. The initiative was initially rolled out from 2014 to support the introduction of the minimum National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) Level 5 qualification requirement that came into force in 2016, to allow practitioners who were already working in a setting to meet the new minimum requirement. Since then, the Learner Fund bursary has been extended to provide financial support for practitioners undertaking a range of other training and education programmes for awards at Level 5 to Level 9 on the NFQ.
As part of the overall Learner Fund, since 2019 Learner Fund bursaries have been opened to childminders who achieve a level 5 or level 6 major award in early childhood care and education recognised on the NFQ and who register with Tusla. Childminders who are registered with Tusla can also avail of the Learner Fund graduate bursary for level 7 and 8 and 9 graduate-level awards in early learning and care.
In 2020, a total of €300,000 was spent on the overall Learner Fund bursary programme. This includes both the graduate and childminder bursaries which operate simultaneously and are funded from the same budget.
The 2020 round of the Learner Fund saw bursaries awarded to 397 applicants for completion of relevant degrees (who may include both centre-based practitioners and childminders), and 3 Tusla-registered childminders for completion of Level 5/6 awards (following receipt of 3 applications). The Learner Fund round for 2021 will open for applications later in the year.
The number of childminders availing of the Learner Fund is expected to remain very low until regulation is extended to all childminders and bespoke training and qualifications are developed for childminders. Currently there are 77 Tusla-registered childminders. In line with commitments in First 5 and the Programme for Government, a Childminding Action Plan will be published in April 2021. The Childminding Action Plan will seek to extend the scope of regulation and supports for childminders, accelerate access to subsidies for childminders through the National Childcare Scheme, and develop bespoke training for childminders.