Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Ceisteanna (107)

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Ceist:

107. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs his plans to extend the free preschool year to a second year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21036/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

I seek to establish if the new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will prioritise the roll-out of a universal free second preschool year during the remainder of the Dáil term.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which not for the first time is being discussed in the House.

The Early Childhood Care and Education programme was introduced in January 2010 and provides a free preschool year to all eligible children before commencing primary school. Approximately 68,000 children are availing of the provision in the current academic year. In spite of the challenging budgetary situation, the preschool year has been maintained as a universal and free programme, ensuring a significant number of children can avail of quality preschool services who would not otherwise be in a position to do so.

There is an increasing body of Irish and international evidence quantifying the benefits of early years interventions in improving outcomes for children and in delivering significant economic and societal return to the State. In this context, I believe the introduction of a second year would benefit children’s educational and developmental outcomes. A second free preschool year would represent €2,500 to €3,000 worth of free child care to parents and would be likely to generate 4,000 to 5,000 new jobs, albeit mostly part-time.

However, the introduction of a second preschool year would require considerable additional funding, broadly in line with the cost of the current one-year provision which is €175 million per annum. This additional funding is not currently available due to the financial constraints under which the Government is operating. In addition, all the available evidence indicates the quality of preschool provision is key to good outcomes for children. The preschool quality agenda being progressed by my Department, which involves a range of actions in key areas aimed at improving quality within early years services and enhancing the regulatory regime, is a key building block for any further extension of universal child care provision.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the national policy framework for children and young people 2014-20, recognises the value of early childhood care and education in supporting children's early cognitive, social and emotional development. The Government is committed to the introduction of a second free preschool year within the lifetime of the framework, once the required quality standards are achieved and subject to the availability of resources. My Department and I will be keeping this commitment under review in the context of the progress of the preschool quality agenda.

There can be no question that the provision of the free preschool year was a positive move. It was, as was understood at the time of its introduction, a step on the road. It is well-documented that many parents want to keep their child in preschool for a second year but the reality is that they cannot afford to do so. There are consequences, accordingly, not just for the child but for the parent or parents. We also know that children with special needs would greatly benefit from a second year of support from a special needs assistant.

The Minister may not be familiar with the Donegal County Childcare Committee's Indecon research report entitled, Supporting Working Families - Releasing a Brake on Economic Growth, but I refer to it. The report highlighted that such a move would have a significant economic benefit. I emphasise that because it is critically important. While the Minister's initial response is in terms of what would be the outlay on its introduction, we must also look at the significant return on this proposition. In real terms, the return would be a multiple of that investment over time. Will the Minister consider prioritising the roll-out of a universal second free preschool year over the remaining time of this Dáil?

I do not disagree with anything the Deputy has said. In fact, I agree fully with his sentiment and comments. The Deputy will be aware that Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the national policy framework for children and young people over the years 2014-2020, recognises the value of early childhood care and education in supporting children's early cognitive social and emotional development. The Government is committed to the introduction of a second free preschool year within the lifetime of the framework once the required quality standards are achieved and subject to the availability of resources. The Deputy has asked me specifically, in order of priority, to list objectives, aims and targets, and this is one. I agree with what the Deputy has said in terms of outcomes regarding the importance and the benefits.

The one area where perhaps we disagree is the availability of funding. The Deputy seems to suggest that funds are readily available. Notwithstanding that, I assure the Deputy that both my Department and I will be keeping this commitment under review in the context of the progress of the preschool quality agenda.

I readily accept that funding is not available as simply as that and I am willing to acknowledge it. If the prospects of extending the free preschool year to a second year are impeded by budgetary constraints, as the Minister states, and I would argue that such is penny wise and pound foolish because there is never bad time to invest in preschool care for children as the return will unquestionably justify all the investment made, will the Minister at least give some commitment to extend the current single year scheme to 48 weeks as proposed by Early Childhood Ireland in its recently launched pre-budget 2015 submission? Early Childhood Ireland advocates for a system which allows for services to mirror the timeframe of primary schools operating for 38 weeks of the year and for staff to have contracts of employment covering an initial 48 weeks. This development, Early Childhood Ireland states, is essential to create viable careers in early childhood which is what we want to see, not part-time low-paid jobs. We want to see careers from childhood provision to retain qualified staff and to build on existing investment in training.

I will have a look at the commitment sought by the Deputy, but I reiterate the commitment is to the introduction of the second free preschool year within a period of six years provided the required quality standards are achieved. We will be keeping that commitment under review in the context of resources. I will specifically check out the issue of 48 week contracts as raised by the Deputy and I will revert to him at an early date.