I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin for his comments about my predecessor and accept his good wishes towards myself. More than 4,300 preschool child care facilities, which is nearly all of the preschool services in the country, are participating in the early childhood care and education programme, ECCE. The objective of the ECCE programme is to make early learning in a formal setting available to all children in the key developmental year before they commence primary school. Approximately 68,000 children benefit from the programme annually. It is a condition of the scheme that participating services must provide an appropriate educational programme for children which adheres to the principles of Síolta, the national quality framework for early childhood education. I agree with Deputy Ó Caoláin's assertion that the process should be based on education, which should be a fundamental scope in the scheme. Síolta is a quality assurance process which addresses all aspects of practice in early childhood care and education services. It is designed to support practitioners to develop high quality services for children from birth to the age of six.
In addition, the curricular framework for early learning, Aistear, has been developed in consultation with the sector by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. Aistear supports practitioners in planning for and providing enriching, challenging and enjoyable learning opportunities for children up to the age of six.
It is intended that the current minimum qualification requirement of FETAC level 5 for preschool leaders delivering the preschool year be increased to level 6, and that all preschool assistants, and all other staff caring for children in a preschool service, be subject to a minimum requirement of level 5.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
There is significant international evidence of the benefits for children's outcomes of the provision of quality education and child care in the earliest years, and my Department continues to support the development of quality child care services with a particular focus on educational components.