THOUSANDS of parents have not signed up for the Government's free pre-school year for children as the new term starts today.
It is estimated that around 30,000 children eligible to attend pre-school every day for free for a year are missing out following a poor uptake of the scheme.
As the majority of pre-schools start the new term today, childcare providers are accusing the Government of failing to make people aware of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme.
It offers children a free year of childcare with providers receiving a set fee from the State based on the number of places filled.
Childcare facilities earn €48.50 per child per week for a two hour and 15 minute daily service for children aged between three and four.
Brought in as a replacement for the Early Childcare Supplement, which was paid directly to parents, it will cost €170m -- just a third of the €480m spent last year on the previous scheme.
Parents who have not yet signed their children up for the scheme have until this Wednesday to enrol. Those who miss this term's cut-off point can still send their children to pre-school in September. A deadline for applications for September has not yet been announced.
Creches said the new scheme, which was designed to aid cash-strapped parents and act as a stimulus to the flagging industry, was only adding to their financial woes.
Sean and Aine Murphy, who run five pre-schools in Co Cork known as Hopscotch Childcare, revealed that they had received just 13 inquiries from parents about the scheme and just two extra children had signed up for the new term. Their numbers in September were down 20pc on the previous year due to the recession and they were hoping for a boost in business once ECCE started.
"Many parents had to keep their children at home instead of sending them to pre-school because the recession made things too difficult," Mr Murphy said.
"We were waiting for the calls (in relation to free childcare) in November and December but they never arrived.
"The payment per child is a drop in income already, but now the numbers haven't increased to balance that out so it is very disappointing."
Mr Murphy said the department had not done enough to inform parents about the new scheme.
They issued an information brochure on ECCE during the summer but no further communication has taken place.
Many parents whose children are not in childcare facilities already are unaware of the scheme.
"That information came out during the holiday period and obviously has been forgotten since," Mr Murphy said.
"Parents have had no other correspondence to say that there is free pre-schooling."
Both the National Children's Nurseries Association (NCNA) and the National Association of Private Childcare Providers have raised concerns about the slow uptake.
"Our members are trying to communicate with as many parents as possible . . . but there has been no concerted national campaign to raise awareness of the scheme," NCNA director of services Teresa Heeney said.
A Department of Children spokeswoman said Minister Barry Andrews had done extensive media interviews in relation to ECCE and also pointed out that a detailed account of the scheme was available on their website.
"The 33 county childcare committees, responsible for promoting the scheme in their respective areas, have held information nights for parents."
The department said they would not have exact figures on how many children were participating in the scheme until the end of the month but stressed they were expecting a significant rise in September.
They said 90,000 pre-school places had been made available under the scheme.
Mr Andrews was already forced to increase the size of capitation grants after providers warned it could drive them out of business.