I am aware of the complaint and of the concerns raised. I am strongly committed to supporting all children to develop to their full potential, especially those who are most disadvantaged. There will always be some debate about how best to do this, but I do not believe that the national childcare scheme, NCS, discriminates in the way that is stated. The NCS represents the first ever statutory entitlement to financial support for early learning and care. It marks a shift away from previous schemes, which were based on medical card and social protection entitlements. We now have a progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies. Thanks to the NCS, significantly more families are eligible for support.
The scheme is designed so that those on lowest incomes receive the greatest support. It is also designed to ensure that access provided is at a level necessary to support positive child development outcomes regardless of whether parents are in work or study. This approach is taken in other jurisdictions, and there is strong international evidence that it is to the benefit of children. The definition of work or study is broad, covering all forms of work or study arrangements. This makes the scheme as flexible as possible. Indeed, the minimum hours required to engage in work or study to qualify for enhanced hours is very low, at just two hours per week.
Officials in my Department have engaged with Solas to increase awareness of supports available through NCS for parents considering further study. There is a link to the NCS website on the further education and training course hub. The NCS also includes sponsorship arrangements that allows for additional support for vulnerable families where there is an identifiable need for early learning and childcare. I have directed Tusla to take a broad interpretation of the sponsorship referral criteria.
On the complaint, I recently contracted Frontier Economics to undertake a review of the NCS and have asked that this review specifically considers the concerns raised. Separately, my officials have brought the complaint to the attention of the expert group convened by my Department to develop a new funding model for early learning and childcare. This group is reviewing the effectiveness of current approaches to funding and will submit recommendations later this year on how additional funding could be structured to deliver for children and families including the most vulnerable.