The ECCE programme is a universal programme available to all children within the eligible age range. It provides children with their first formal experience of early learning prior to commencing primary school. The programme is provided for three hours per day, five days per week over 38 weeks, free of charge to parents.
The rules of the ECCE scheme clearly state that:
2.4.7 Requirement to provide ECCE free of charge
ECCE must be provided free of charge to parents/guardians in return for the capitation.
2.4.8 Optional Extras
Childcare providers cannot charge for any activities/items which form part of the ECCE service. Childcare providers may charge for optional extras, but where a parent/guardian does not choose any of the optional extras, their child must be provided with the full ECCE service provision. Each optional extra must be identified individually on the fees list. Services cannot prioritise ECCE places on the basis of uptake of optional extras.
There is one exception to this rule pertaining to services who offer 'sessional only' (up to 3.5 hours childcare provision per day), as stated below.
2.4.9 Additional 30 minutes in sessional service
A sessional service provider may offer an additional 30 minutes per day but this must be categorised as an optional extra. Therefore the parent can choose to opt for paying for an extra half hour or equally, choose not to.
However, as per the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Programme grant funding agreement, part-time and full-time services may prioritise places for children who wish to avail of extra hours over those availing of the ECCE Programme only, on the principle that Early Learning and Care services are private enterprises and are therefore free to set their own admission policies which can include prioritising part- time or full-time places.
Parents who cannot access a free ECCE service are encouraged to look around for an alternative service that is in a position to offer it. Their local City or County Childcare Committee (CCC) should be able to assist them, or advise if there is no local alternative. The website www.myccc.ie can help parents locate their CCC. The City and County Childcare Committees in turn keep my Department advised on capacity issues and whether parental preferences are being met.