Q&A Dominic Coyle: Why can my grandson not get free preschool?

Is there any chance the second ECCE year will be in place by January 2016?

My grandson aged four is in preschool and his parents have already availed of the free year and are paying for his preschool this year.

Is there any chance the Government may introduce the new free preschool scheme in January next, thus freeing his financially stressed parents from the huge fees they are currently paying?

The child will attend national school from next September.

Ms H.F., email While the extension of the Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme (ECCE) is very welcome for parents generally, it does not look as if it will alleviate any of the pressure for your family.

The Government has decided to expand the scheme which currently provides for one year’s free pre-school for all children. Under the new rules, children between the ages of three and 5 ½ will be able to benefit from up to 2½ years of preschool free of charge.

In addition. rather than allowing parents to enrol their children only in September, the new rules will allow parents to put them into preschool in the September, January or April after they turn three.

It’s a major expansion of the scheme but, from your perspective, the downside is that it is not coming into play until September 2016 – when your grandson will already have moved on to primary school.

In a situation where childcare is a very heavy financial commitment for working parents, this is clearly a cause of concern across the State.

To be fair, it would be a reach to expect the sector to be able to ramp up overnight to accommodate that number of extra bodies and the staff to care for and teach them. There is also much negotiation to be done between the department and the preschool sector on the funding of the arrangement.

The schools maintain they are already running on wafer-thin margins – between 3 and 5 per cent – in a situation where paying parents, like those of your grandson, effectively supplement the cost of providing free places under the ECCE scheme.

The figures put to the Minister suggested private places were costing about €24 a day while the ECCE scheme was running under €15.

Having said that, Minister for Children James Reilly said over the weekend that there were 10,000 spaces unfilled at present in the system.

And, with that in mind, the Department has already urged parents who may have deferred taking up places for their three-year-olds on the basis that they would prefer to put them in a year later and have a seamless transition to primary school to apply for late entry this year.

All of which is no real help to your grandson and his parents. People who have already availed of their free year are caught in limbo and will have to continue paying for care up to September next year. If, at that time, they are still younger than 5 ½ and are not yet in primary school, they will receive some benefit.

Unless, of course, the measure is adjusted before the enabling legislation is put in place to action the budget measures. I think, in this case, that is unlikely because of the logistical and financial issues involved.

Send your queries to Dominic Coyle, Q&A, The Irish Times, 24-28 Tara Street, Dublin 2, or email dcoyle@irishtimes.com. This column is a reader service and is not intended to replace professional advice.

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