CHILD benefit payments could be cut to fund improved pre-schooling, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has indicated.
He raised the possibility of diverting part of the €2bn annual spend on child benefit towards providing a second free pre-school year.
Mr Quinn also wants to see improved training and qualifications for "pre-school leaders" in an effort to narrow the education gap between children from advantaged and disadvantaged families.
"We have one (pre-school) year free at the moment. (Social Protection Minister) Joan Burton and (Children's Minister) Frances Fitzgerald have indicated if we could get a second year into that it would have a dramatic effect on the life chances outcomes of young people, particularly young people coming from disadvantaged areas or environments," he said.
He wasn't necessarily talking about children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds but from families in which there is a lower level of education.
"For a very small sum of money, approximately €5m, we could begin to improve the quality of pre-school leaders, up their qualifications and up the qualifications of all of their childminders in that sector," the minister told Morning Ireland.
He said it costs the Government about €150m to provide a free school year.
"International studies and surveys indicate the (pre-school) year is important but what adds the serious qualitative addition is trained pre-school leaders and trained school minders with education qualifications at level 5, level 6," he added.
As a way of funding the proposals, the three Labour ministers believe the Government should be examining the child benefit budget to see how much "could in fact go into providing quality pre-schooling for young people".
Currently, the entire sum is spent on direct payments to 600,000 families in respect of more than 1.1 million children, starting at €130 for the first child.
Mr Quinn said the international evidence shows that equal societies are more prosperous and competitive.
In Nordic countries, the education gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged families has narrowed because pre-school is not just a childminding service but "an educational service geared towards early learning".
The Minister added: "A child coming from a middle-income, middle class type family where there is normal discourse will have a vocabulary three times the size of a young person coming from a disadvantaged background where there are very poor levels of literacy and very poor levels of conversation."
He said the debate on the issue is just starting now and he would not expect any changes -- if they are agreed -- until this time next year.