Burton keen to extend preschool scheme


MINISTER FOR Social Protection Joan Burton wants the provision of free early childhood education extended for a second year.

At present more than 60,000 children take part in the scheme, getting one year of preschool care at a cost of €166 million per year, but Ms Burton has said she wants to extend the scheme to cover two years.

Ms Burton also said that “core” social welfare rates would be maintained in the upcoming budget, although she did not say what payments or allowances would be covered under this definition.

Since 2010, children between the ages of three and four have been entitled to one year’s free nursery or Montessori education under the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme.

Ms Burton said yesterday she had been impressed by the impact of the ECCE scheme. “I think that we should seek to expand that. To that end there is an interdepartmental working group between my department and Frances Fitzgerald’s department [of children] and we have to have more discussions with Brendan Howlin about how we do this.”

She has just returned from a two-day trip to Sweden where free childcare is provided for every child aged between three and five. The Scandinavian childcare model grew out of the banking crashes in those countries in the mid 1990s, she said.

“People there set targets for things that should be fundamentally reformed and among those was helping women, regardless of relationship status, to be active in the workforce, to boost their own income and their families’ incomes.”

The State currently pays a weekly capitation fee of €62.50 over 38 weeks to playschools and daycare services to provide the one-year preschool service.

Asked whether the current one-year free preschool education should be increased to two, she said: “It’s a matter for the whole Government but I certainly think we have to look at ways of improving the outcomes from poverty and for children and this is one of the ways undoubtedly to do that.”

Ms Burton made her comments at a pre-budget forum attended by more than 30 charities and non-governmental organisations.

Calls for no cuts to child benefit, for no cuts to the free travel scheme for older people and for cancellation of the plan to move single parents from the lone-parent’s allowance to jobseeker’s allowance once their youngest child reaches seven, were among the loudest at the event.

The forum is an annual event giving groups working with some of the vulnerable sectors an opportunity to spell out their concerns in the run-up to the budget directly to the Minister.

Among the 31 groups represented were the Irish Senior Citizen’s Parliament, Social Justice Ireland, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, housing charity Threshold, the single-parent organisation Open, Inclusion Ireland and Care Alliance Ireland.

One of the first submissions was from a woman, Sarah, a single mother and a member of Open. She said she worked 22 hours a week, her income supplemented by a reduced lone-parent allowance. If the jobseeker’s plan came in she would lose her lone-parent family payment by 2015 and would have to get a full-time job, “which in this climate is very hard”.