Overage exemptions were introduced at the onset of the ECCE programme in 2010. At that time ECCE operated for a 38 week period, or one programme year. For some children with special/additional needs, attending preschool five days a week was not feasible and so therefore an allowance was made. Their ECCE place was split over two years, e.g. a child may have availed of three days ECCE provision in year one and two days in year two. In order to facilitate this, in the cases where the child would have been overage for ECCE in the latter year, an overage exemption was granted. It is important to note that this provision of an overage exemption by my Department for the ECCE programme was never intended as a mechanism to delay a child’s entry to primary education or to address any issue of non-availability of a school place.
This Department does its best to ensure, in so far as possible, the equitable treatment of all children and families who apply for childcare funding under the ECCE Programme. In order to ensure objectivity and fairness, it is essential that clear rules exist for the scheme and that they are applied evenly. The child in question has utilised their full allocation of two years of the ECCE programme.
It should be highlighted that the Early Childhood Care and Education programme (ECCE) is a two year pre-school programme. There is no routine provision for a third year which may not be in the best interests of a child and could have the capacity to lead to breaching the statutory school starting age.
In the past, the operation of the system of overage exemption has caused confusion where some parents and providers have mistakenly assumed that an overage exemption approval from the DCYA represented a derogation from age requirements attaching to the statutory requirement that a child attend primary school before the age of 6 years.
The application process for an exemption from the upper age limit for the ECCE programme was introduced within a context where:
- The ECCE programme was for a year only; and
- The Access and Inclusions Model (AIM) did not exist.
Given the extension of the ECCE programme in 2016/2017, the further extension of the programme to two full years from September 2018, and the introduction of AIM in June 2016, the rationale underpinning the policy intent of the system of overage exemption came under review as the initial premise for the provision of an exemption might have been considered to be no longer valid, i.e. an overage exemption as originally designed allowed for a child to avail of one programme year of ECCE over two years, whereas the standard provision is now a full two programme years.
The overage exemption process has recently been the subject of a consultation process and report by the National Disability Authority (NDA). Officials from my Department are now considering policy options following on from this report. The new policy will consider the future of the system of exemptions and how best to support parents and children in the important transition from pre-school to primary school. It is worth stressing that the only rationale underpinning these considerations is what is in the best interests of the child and research shows broad agreement that it is in the best interest of the child to start school with their peers.
As regards the specific case you have raised, I would stress that each application for an exemption is considered on its own merits and never in the context of the outcome of any other case. In this instance, the application was declined on the basis that the full ECCE entitlement had already been availed of.
I regret if this process and decision has caused any upset to the parents involved, but I can only seek to assure you that the decision was taken with due regard for the best interests of the child, especially as it relates to research showing broad agreement that it is in the best interest of the child to start school with their peers. We will be happy to assist the family, if requested, to make contact with the NCSE to ensure that adequate preparations are in place for the child to start school in September 2019. The family should make immediate contact with their local school to make sure it has appropriate arrangements in place to support the child from September 2019.