First 5, a whole-of-Government strategy for babies, young children and their families was published in November 2018. It sets out a ten-year plan to improve the lives of children up to the age of five and their families. The actions will be delivered by a number of Government departments, State Agencies and wider partners.
One of the actions in First 5 is to develop mechanisms to provide additional supports to Early Learning and Care settings where there are high proportions of children who are at risk of poverty in order to mitigate the impacts of early disadvantage. The development of this model will be informed by the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools model, DEIS, which operates at both primary and second level.
The Implementation Plan for First 5 is currently being developed in preparation for publication in May. The plan will cover Phase I of implementation and set out annual milestones for each of the first three years of the strategy.
Given the significance of the work to develop a programme for the delivery of Early Learning and Care in the context of concentrated disadvantage, and the importance of putting in place robust systems to benefit children and to ensure accountability for public money, it is essential that proper scoping, detailed analysis, piloting and evaluation takes place for this project. Some of the first steps, which will proceed this year, will include developing a methodology for assessing levels of concentrated disadvantage in Early Learning and Care settings and analysis of the types of additional supports in Early Learning and Care that will help to address disadvantage. It is likely to take some time before the model is refined for roll out, with funding secured.
In the interim, I can assure the Deputy that the current targeted subsidy schemes are not being dismantled. Rather, they are being streamlined in to one comprehensive scheme from October: the National Childcare Scheme (previously the Affordable Childcare Scheme). Streamlining the existing targeted subsidy schemes will make them more accessible for both parents and providers. The Scheme will provide a fair and consistent system of progressive financial support towards the cost of Early Learning and Care and School Age Care, with a particular focus on low income families but also incorporating universal supports, and provide a robust and flexible platform for future investment.
Applications for the subsidy programmes currently in operation may still be made until the National Childcare Scheme goes live in October 2019, after which applications to these programmes will close. Therefore, for the 2019/2020 programme year, both the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) and the existing support programmes will run simultaneously. The Community Childcare Subvention Scheme (CCS) will be merged with the Community Childcare Subvention Scheme Plus (CCSP) for the final programme year and will cease completely in 2020. To make the transition to the new Scheme as smooth as possible, parents will be able to join the NCS as soon as it launches or remain in their current programme for the final programme year. If a parent wishes to change to the NCS at any point throughout the year, they can remain on their current support programme right up until their Early Learning and Care or School Age Care provider registers them for the NCS and they confirm the registration.
The National Childcare Scheme will comprise two types of subsidies, universal and income-related. The universal subsidy is not means-tested and is available to all qualifying families of any income level, for children between the ages of 24 weeks and 36 months. Income-related subsidies are payable for children between 24 weeks and 15 years, and the level of subsidy payable is determined by the family’s reckonable income. This reckonable income represents gross income minus tax, PRSI, and other deductibles and any applicable multiple child discount.
In addition, the Childcare Support Act 2018 allows for additional support for families where there is an identified need for Early Learning and Care or School Age Care on grounds of child development or child welfare. Families with high levels of need, who require Early Learning and Care or School Age Care for child welfare, child protection or family support reasons, may be referred for support by a specified “sponsor” body. Where such a referral is made, the family will automatically qualify for a subsidy for the number of hours considered appropriate by the sponsor without having to satisfy the scheme’s eligibility, income or enhanced hours requirements. There is no general minimum or maximum age limit for a child who is the subject of a referral by a sponsor. However, sponsor bodies will adhere to strict criteria for qualification for referral as set out in Agreements made under section 14 of the Childcare Support Act 2018.