Getting your child into a free scheme
Along with primary schools, thousands of children all over the country will be starting their free pre-school year in playschools and creches.
Now in its second full year, the pre-school year under the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme entitles any child born between February 2, 2007, and June 30, 2008, to three hours of free care per day during the school year.
This means that your child must be aged at least three years and three months by September 1 to qualify.
Although there has been little research to date on how the scheme is faring since it started in January 2010, childcare experts and the National Children's Nurseries Association (NCNA) report that parents are generally happy with it.
"An indicator of this is the large number of parents who are availing of the scheme," says Steve Goode, a childcare consultant. "Practically every eligible child in the country and an increasing number of providers apply to join the scheme."
In one county, he says, there were 23 new entries to the scheme this year, 13 of which were new services.
While the scheme is free, providers are entitled to charge parents for certain "optional extras". When the scheme started, this was the cause of some debate, locally and nationally, between parents and childcare providers participating in the scheme.
There were, it seems, very different interpretations among providers of what could be classified as an optional extra. So what would be optional in one creche or playschool would be included as part of the free scheme in another.
According to several threads on parenting websites, parents complained about being asked by scheme providers to pay up to €80 a week for so-called optional activities, and being made to feel guilty about not paying.
"When the scheme was first introduced, providers were given guidance on what constitutes an optional extra," said Teresa Heeney, director of the NCNA.
"Parents were invited to contact the DCYA (Department for Children and Youth Affairs) if they felt the optional extras were unfair or if they felt the free pre-school was indeed not 'free'."
It is not clear if these problems have been resolved, although Mr Goode believes the issue has been mainly sorted for the new school year.
The DCYA now has clear guidelines for providers about what constitutes an optional extra, such as food (most parents would provide a packed lunch anyway), swimming classes, birthday parties, transport or trips that incur a cost.
But providers are not allowed to charge for anything that is "required for effective participation in the class", such as art and craft materials, worksheets, insurance, dancing and graduation diplomas.
In its guidelines, the DCYA says it actively discourages providers from charging for optional extras as part of the free pre-school year scheme, and says that most participating providers don't seek them.
"However, it is recognised that some preschools have additional and genuinely optional activities, and that in many cases it may not be reasonable to prevent participating services from charging for these, provided they are genuinely optional."
An important rule is that if an optional activity takes place during class time, children not attending the activity must still be given a full session with the required level of staff supervision under the scheme.
But Ms Heeney of NCNA says some providers feel that there is an issue with some parents paying for additional extras while others won't.
"They feel this creates a two-tier system of care, but say they cannot afford to subsidise optional extras for parents who cannot or will not pay for additional extras."
Of course, many parents would argue that if all providers were prevented from offering optional extras in the first place, the problem wouldn't arise.
Some parents also report being asked for voluntary donations.
Mr Goode says that this remains a tricky issue. Services are entitled to ask for voluntary donations, but they should be voluntary and parents should be able to contribute anonymously.
"Services have to give bank account details that parents can use. Anecdotally, I have heard of cases where the voluntary donation is expected, and that parents don't have the option."
A separate issue that has a cost implication, at least for some parents, is the minimum age qualification, which many would like to see lowered to three, says Mr Goode.
While parents are generally happy with the scheme, scheme providers have very mixed views, with some actually financially worse off under the scheme than before it started.
Among the many sticking points are that the rate of €64.50 per child is too low and that there is no allowance in terms of time for planning or training.
It is also only paid for 38 weeks of the year, which means a shortfall for a number of weeks of the year.
Some full-day care providers are annoyed that they cannot avail of the exemption from local authority rates by participating in the scheme, as the rules state they must be fully-funded by the ECCE to qualify for this exemption.
Irish Independent Supplement