Andrews has 'fight on hands' to save €170m childcare grant
THE future of a €170m childcare scheme for more than 50,000 children is in doubt after Children's Minister Barry Andrews admitted he has a fight on his hands to save it.
The free pre-school year (Early Childhood Care and Education -- ECCE) grant -- introduced 18 months ago after the Government axed its early childcare supplement -- could be dropped as the Cabinet looks to cut €3bn in the next Budget.
Axing the grant would be another blow to cash-strapped parents already struggling to pay for childcare and nursery places.
Mr Andrews said he has had "general discussions" in relation to cuts in his department but in terms of guaranteeing the ECCE, he could only say he was "anxious" the scheme would be kept.
"It's certainly my ambition to do so, but as I say, every minister will be fighting to protect as much as possible. In the health family, we have a lot of work to do there, but I'll be very anxious to keep the free pre-school year."
The scheme was introduced in the April 2009 Budget. It provides a capitation grant to pre-schools that provide free services to qualifying children.
The scheme replaced the more expensive early childcare supplement (ECS), which was worth over €80 a month per eligible child.
The ECS cost the State €480m in 2008, while the current scheme is a more modest €170m a year, with the capitation worth just under €50 per child per month.
The existing scheme applies to all children aged between three years and three months and four years and six months on September 1 each year.
Mr Andrews also said while he acknowledged new figures from charity Barnardos which revealed the average basic cost for a child starting first year in second-level school is €815, the Government cannot afford to step in.
"I'm sure the Government could do an awful lot but we are in a difficult economic position. We are in an extremely challenging situation and €3bn has to be taken out for Budget 2011. Providing additional support is probably further down the line."
The minister was speaking before the launch of a support structure for youth workers across the country.
The strategy, called the National Quality Standards Framework for Youth Work, will operate out of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
Commenting on delays in holding the referendum on the rights of the child, Mr Andrews, said it was being held up because of legal stumbling blocks.
He said while everyone seems to be obsessed with a timeline for the bill, there is still a need for "tweaking" of the wording.
- Parents eligible for the scheme have to register with their local pre-school or county or city childcare committee. The pre-school then applies for the grant by completing a government form. The capitation grant is paid directly to the pre-school at the start of each term in advance of the service.
However, the school must agree to meet the conditions of the scheme including providing three hours free pre-school, five days a week, 38 weeks a year, or two hours and 15 minutes, five days a week, 50 weeks a year.