Preschools have warned that many of them may not be ready to provide the additional free childcare places required under Government plans due to capacity and recruitment challenges.
From next month, the scheme providing free preschool for children in the year before they enter primary school will expand.
Children will now be eligible to start free preschool when they reach the age of three and continue to avail of free preschool until they start primary school - as long as the child is not older than five years and six months at the end of the preschool year in June.
The extension poses a major challenge for the sector, which must almost double the number of childcare places from about 67,000 to 127,000 over the coming months.
Teresa Heeney of Early Childhood Ireland (ECI), the main representative body for preschools, said she expects shortages in places in many urban areas where there has been rapid population growth.
“It is a huge jump and it’s an enormous national policy which the Government is trying to deliver for relatively little money,” she said.
“There is no strategic plan to ensure there are enough places to deliver on the expansion. We warned about this last year and it is still the case.”
One of the biggest challenges, she said, is the new “rolling enrolment” system, which means children can enter pre-school during September, January or April, depending on when they turn three.
“There is real uncertainty among providers over what the demand will be for those places in January or April,” she said.
“Many services cannot afford to keep places on hold for children so it remains to be seen how it will work out.”
She said there was also a danger that the expanded scheme could “cannibalise” paid-for places for younger children.
A spokesman for Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said she was consulting closely with county childcare committees, childcare groups and others to ensure the readiness of preschools to accommodate the additional children due this September.
“She is committed to working with providers to help tackle any challenges that arise,” he said.
He said the Minister secured a significant increase in capital funding for more than 1,000 childcare providers to help them expand their premises in recent times.
These grants are worth up to €10,000 individually and amount to €6.5 million in total.
Detailed demographic estimates were also provided to county childcare committees earlier this year.
These estimates provide information on the number of children eligible for the scheme in each electoral division.
This data indicates that almost 90,000 children will be eligible to enrol in the programme from next month.
This is projected to rise by an additional 22,000 in January and a further 15,500 from April 2017.
The extension to the preschool year is estimated to cost about €45 million this year, rising to about €85 million over a full year.
It is estimated to be worth an average of €1,500 for the parents of young children.