Parents to get €1,500 a year off childcare costs with extra free preschool places
FREE preschool places will be available for children for up to two-and-a-half years before they start school.
The new measure is estimated to be worth an average €1,500 a year to parents of young children.
It is part of an €85m cash injection into the childcare sector announced in the Budget - with increased funding for after-school care.
Child benefit is also being increased by €5 per month, bringing it to €140 per child, meaning parents will get an extra €60 per year per child.
Special funding will be provided to ensure children with special needs are able to take up preschool places.
Children's Minister James Reilly said that the extra €85m increases childcare funding by his department by a third, and was a demonstration of the government's commitment to children and hard-pressed families.
"It's by no means a big bang, but it's a good first step on the road to affordable, high quality and accessible childcare for every family who needs it," he said.
The new funding extends the Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme for children from the age of three up to five-and-a-half years. The current scheme only provides one year of free preschool for children, who must be aged between three years, two months and four years, seven months.
The new scheme will also allow for children to start preschool in September, January or April - whereas at present they are restricted to September.
Like the current scheme, it provides three hours of care a day for 38 weeks a year - parents must pay the extra for longer days or holiday periods.
Dr Reilly said the new scheme will not start until next September, because the childcare sector needs time to prepare for the extra intake to ensure high quality care.
Currently around 67,000 children a year avail of free preschool and the department estimates an extra 50,000 a year will benefit from the new measure. While the benefit will vary depending on what age children start school it's estimated that, on average, children will get 23 extra weeks of free preschool, reducing parents' childcare costs by €1,500 a year.
Laura Haugh of Mummypages.ie said: "Today's Budget announcements mark an important first step in tackling our country's long-standing national childcare crisis. Our mums deserve to be treated as equal members of society."
Dr Reilly said new measures will be introduced to allow children with special needs to take up preschool care as, to date, this had been on a piecemeal basis.
Funding of €15m is being provided to enable children with disabilities attend preschool. The money will go towards staff training, grants for equipment, minor alterations, access to therapies - and in certain cases a reduced child ratio.
Dr Reilly said the extra free preschool places would ensure there was no longer pressure on parents to send children to school too early before they were emotionally ready for it.
The package consists of €47m for extended preschool care and another €15m for special needs provision. Another 8,000 low-cost childcare places are being provided at a cost of €16m under the community childcare subvention scheme - which will be opened to private facilities for the first time.
Some €3m will also be allocated in capital funds to develop after-school care at schools and community buildings.
Early Childhood Ireland, which represents creches and Montessoris, said the new investment was welcome but couldn't be a once off.
"What is missing from today's Budget is more support and real investment in after-school care, with only €3m being allocated for after-school care - and that's within school grounds," it said.
Dr Reilly also announced extra funding of €38m for Tusla, the child and family agency, bringing its total allocation to €676m. However, children's charity Barnardos said that it was inadequate.