My policy priorities in relation to supporting the provision of early learning and care is articulated in First 5, Ireland’s first ever whole-of-Government strategy to improve the lives of babies, young children and their families. This 10-year strategy sets out a roadmap for development and investment over the next decade and builds on recent and very substantial developments in early learning and care. These developments include the extension of the universal pre-school programme which now provides two years of free pre-school education to all children, schemes that subsidise the cost of early learning and care to parents and extra supports to ensure children with additional needs, including children with a disability, homeless children, programme refugee children and children in low income households, can access early learning and care. I have also given priority to a range of initiatives, including regulations, to improve the quality of provision. These developments have been made possible by an unprecedented 117% increase in investment since 2015.
Over the next decade and through First 5, this work will intensify, however, the focus on accessibility, affordability and the quality of early learning and care will remain. Initial actions include:
- introducing the Affordable Childcare Scheme, which will alter the landscape of early learning and care provision in Ireland - providing financial support for parents and establishing a sustainable platform for additional investment for decades to come ;
- developing a strategic capital investment plan to deliver the large-scale capital investment of €250 million earmarked under Project 2040;
- developing mechanisms to provide additional supports to early learning and care settings where there are high proportions of children who are at risk of poverty to mitigate the impacts of early disadvantage
- piloting a meals programme in early learning and care settings to address food poverty among young children;
- extending the award winning Access and Inclusion Model (AIM), which currently supports children with a disability to access the universal pre-school programme;
- extending regulations and supports to all paid non-relative childminders and school-age childcare;
- moving progressively towards a graduate-led professional early learning and care workforce with high quality CPD in the national quality and curriculum frameworks and setting standards for initial professional education at higher education and further education level qualifications;
- developing a new funding model for early learning and care that will support improved quality of provision for children while ensuring improved affordability for parents through mechanism to control fees and sustainability for providers; and
- doubling investment in early learning and care over the next ten years.
A three-year implementation plan for this Strategy will be published in the coming months by my Department. This will set out a timetable for delivery of these and other First 5 actions.
My Department will monitor and report on the implementation of First 5 on an annual basis.