FURY erupted last night over a decision to deprive children with severe disabilities from getting a second full year of pre-schooling, the Irish Independent has learned.
The move, which will save less than €500,000 a year, will hit families of Down Syndrome children, those with autism and other severe disabilities.
Many had assumed their children could avail of a second year, but now their hopes have been dashed.
Instead, they have been given the option of a full year starting in September, with their children attending Monday to Friday, or splitting the provision over two years.
The INTO last night described the move as a "shocking and mean spirited" decision by the Government, which had promised as far back as 2002 to ensure early education services for children and prioritise children with disabilities.
The highly successful free Early Childhood Care and Education pre-school year began in January 2010. An overwhelming 94pc of eligible children are now participating in the scheme.
About 170 children with severe disabilities were allowed to avail of a second full year starting last September. They were approved on a case by case basis.
But Children's Minister Barry Andrews' office has decided this will not be available to children starting in September this year.
A spokesman for the minister said the 170 children were allowed to enrol in the second year because the first free pre-school year was a "short" one", having started in January 2010 and finishing in June.
"No child at any stage has ever been approved for two full years," he told the Irish Independent.
But the decision has angered many parents. "As parents, we will not sit on the fence on this. Our children are already facing sweeping reductions in services due to drastic cutbacks," said Down Syndrome Dublin chairperson Miriam Masterson.
She said the decision could not even be considered a cost-saving measure, when these same people will, in later years, require a lot more help than if they had been given the best start from the outset.
Irish Preschool Play Association chief executive Irene Gunning said the decision was very disappointing as it had not been signalled in advance and parents had an expectation of a second year.
However, Fine Gael last night held out the prospect of reversing the decision. Fine Gael education spokesperson Fergus O'Dowd said the party was committed to spending €20m on a First Step programme to help disadvantaged pre-school children. He said this would include those with severe disabilities.
"A Republic is judged by the manner in which it treats its most vulnerable citizens," Mr O'Dowd added.