Childcare package will not help parents paying for preschool

Free preschool measures not expected to be introduced until September 2016

Parents of children paying for pre-school care will not benefit from the childcare measures announced in Budget 2016.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin said the €1.1 billion increase in allocation to the department allowed him "to bring forward a package of measures to ease the burden on working families".

The centrepiece of these measures is a significant expansion of the Early Childhood Care and Education scheme, which provides free pre-school education to families across the State and the introduction of two weeks' statutory paternity leave.

At present, children are entitled to one year of preschool education paid for by the State when their child is between the ages of three years and two months and four years and seven months.


Paying privately

“From now on, children will be eligible for free childcare from three years of age, up until they are five and a half, or until they start primary school,” Mr Howlin told the Dáil.

However, parents whose children have already received their free entitlement under the current scheme and who are now paying privately for preschool ahead of their child’s entry to primary school discovered that they will not benefit as the measure is not being introduced until September 2016, alongside the paternity leave proposal.

Children who have begun their free preschool this September will be able to continue into a second year unless they are moving on to primary school.

“Is there any chance the Government may introduce the new free preschool scheme in January next, thus freeing my grandson’s financially stressed parents from the huge fees they are currently paying?” asked one parent yesterday.

Toby Wolfe, policy and research officer of Start Strong, an advocacy group promoting high-quality care and education as a right for all young children in Ireland, said it was "regrettable" that a large number of families with preschool children would lose out, though he said it was inevitable with such major reform that a lead-in time would be required.

“We have welcomed the extension of the ECCE scheme,” he said. “The free year has been a success and research evidence shows that preschoolers positively benefit from the experience.

‘Roll of the dice’

“The problem currently is that many children do not access it until they are four years old. Bringing it back to three and allowing entry at various points in the year brings it closer to what the research says should happen.”

Teresa Heeney, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland, which represents the industry, said it "seemed to be a bit of a roll of the dice" in terms of who would benefit from the scheme, and said she would raise the issue with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

She also expressed concerns at the time available to plan strategically for the introduction of the expanded provision.

“We need a town-by-town study on how many additional children are expected to be looking for places and sufficient time to get people trained,” she said.

While children will be able to enter preschool in January or April as well as September under the new arrangement, she said places would not be left vacant in September in the expectation of other children signing up later in the school year.

“The margins in this business are tiny – between 3 and 5 per cent,” said Ms Heeney. “No operator is going to keep places open.”

Dominic Coyle

Dominic Coyle

Dominic Coyle is Deputy Business Editor of The Irish Times