Tuesday 16 July 2019

Minister suspends planned cuts to early education scheme for children with special needs

Parents' groups put Children's Minister under pressure following decision to scrap over-age exemption for ECCE

Children's Minister Katherine Zappone. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Children's Minister Katherine Zappone. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Denise Calnan

Denise Calnan

CHILDREN’S MINISTER Katherine Zappone has suspended planned cuts to an early education scheme for children with special needs.

The move comes following pressure from parents of young children with special needs who could apply for an extra year in preschool, under the overage exemption.

Families of young children with special needs claimed the minister removed the over-age exemption from the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme without warning last week.

Now, the minister's department have "paused" the planned cuts pending consultation with parents' groups.

Colin Yeates with son Odhran and daughter Robyn
Colin Yeates with son Odhran and daughter Robyn

Dad-of-three Colin Yeates told Independent.ie he is delighted with the news, and hopes it means the cuts will be permanently reversed.

"She took away the potential to give these kids the best start at life," Colin said.

Mum Trish Yeates and her son Odhran
Mum Trish Yeates and her son Odhran

"Effectively this cut has meant that some of our children could be forced into primary school from as young as 4 years and 8 months.

"Most primary school teachers will tell you that 5 years of age is the minimum a ‘typically developing’ child should be to attend.

"This cut effectively puts our children on the back foot straight away and they may never recover within the school system so will be prevented from achieving their full potential."

Mr Yeates said he, along with his wife Trish and the Reverse ECCE Cuts parents group, were pleading with Minister Zappone to reverse the cut with immediate effect.

"Our little boy, Odhran, is three and a half years old and has Down Syndrome,” Mr Yeates continued.

"He’s currently in preschool. It’s not an extra cost given to parents like us, basically we would just split the year’s hours over two years, or now [since the Budget]the two years’ hours over three years, basically to give him the extra year to be prepared socially and to be prepared developmentally to start in primary school.

"Getting rid of the overage exemption to have that extra year is a disaster. It means Odhran could be sent to school and he won’t be ready to start with people of his age.

"It takes our kids a little longer to reach the milestones that other kids reach at a certain age."

Speaking to Independent.ie, Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Disability Margaret Murphy O'Mahony TD said she was delighted with the move to suspend the cuts.

"It was first highlighted to me by the Down Syndrome Association," she said.

"I used to be an SNA and I'm very familiar with children, especially those with special needs.

"Most children with special needs get there in the end, it just takes a little bit longer.

"Parents use the extra year to their advantage, it means kids are on the same playing field in national school and it's fairer.

"There was uproar about the cuts. A lot of this government's cuts are done under the darkness of night, I have huge issues with how this was handled. There was no consultation process, no lead-in.

"Parents of children with special needs have enough going on, they don't need this extra hassle on top of everything else.

"I hope I was a part of this decision by highlighting it in the chamber.

"I'm delighted to hear it. I hope going forward this is a lesson for the government."

In a statement released on behalf of Minister Zappone today, the department confirmed that parents of children with disabilities are to be consulted on plans to change current rules of the free pre-school programme.

"Minister Zappone says while the proposals were intended to ensure optimal outcomes for children with a disability could be achieved, she has also been contacted by many parents concerned about the impact of the changes," the statement reads.

"The Minister says these concerns deserve careful consideration – and while the consultation takes place the proposals for children with disabilities which were due to start in September 2018 will be paused."

The Minister said; "Everyone is entitled to be heard as we continue our path to truly accessible affordable quality childcare – that is the very core of my approach.

"However I have become increasingly aware that parents, who must be central to decisions concerning their children, are concerned about the changes planned from September 2018.

"In order to ensure those concerns are responded to, I am now pausing the changes and will shortly announce a consultation whereby all voices, including those of parents of children with disabilities, can be heard.

"I do not want to predict the outcome of that consultation – but I will say that its results will be central to guiding our path forward.

"Our other childcare changes continue to benefit more and more families and in the coming week I will take the next step by publishing a bill which will form the legislative backbone of our radical new approach to transform one of the world’s most expensive childcare systems into the best.” 

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