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.