Sunday 18 February 2018

In My Opinion: Ministers, do your homework and extend free pre-school scheme

Irene Gunning

As part of our pre-budget submission, Early Childhood Ireland, which represents over 80pc of preschools and day care services nationwide, has recommended that the free pre-school scheme be extended to two years from its current one year timeframe.

Today, 66,000 children are taking up their entitlement to the free preschool scheme, that has potential to be great with the right investment at the right time, i.e. now.

Most parents and teachers agree that what happens in the early years lays the foundation for our adult lives.

We are constantly reminding and proving to policy makers and politicians that a good quality preschool experience makes a significant positive difference to children's learning and development.

The benefits of attending high quality preschool are long lasting and the latest estimates suggest that investment in quality pre-school provision makes a return of 17:1.

Today, children's well-being is often confused with children doing well. At Early Childhood Ireland, we strongly believe that extending the free preschool scheme over two years would provide significant savings to the State, as well as strengthening the foundations of language, literacy and numeracy.

In parallel, we are making the case for establishing a minimum school starting age of 5-years-old for primary school.

There are huge savings to be made by extending the scheme and we contrast the €5,667 cost per pupil per year in primary school with the cost of €2,850 per child in preschool and the teacher pupil ratios of 1:24 in primary school with 1:10 in preschool.

However, while saving money is hugely important, it is not the primary motivation for making this change. It is the right thing to do for our children. It is in line with our vision for an Irish society where every child gets a secure and stimulating start in life.

We are also calling for quality improvement by investing in graduate led preschool services by 2020; the provision of early childhood specialists in every county; provision for continuous professional training for staff, as well as rates exemption for early childhood care and education services.

The early childhood care and education sector generates almost €320 million in salaries with a further €105 million spent in the wider economy on day to day overheads and annual running costs.

However, a recent survey of Early Childhood members highlights a projected shortfall of income to costs in the region of €13 million in 2012.

We have a small window of opportunity to get children's early years education right and we would ask Ministers Fitzgerald and Quinn to really sit down and do their homework on this sector.

Irene Gunning is CEO of Early Childhood Ireland, the merger of Irish Preschool Play Association (IPPA) and the National Children's Nurseries Association (NCNA) whose members run pre-schools, crèches, parent & toddler groups and after school services supporting over 80,000 children and their families nationwide.

Irish Independent

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