Sinead Ryan: Free pre-school scheme smacks of amateurism

Sinead Ryan

Did you wave your little three-year-old off to 'big school' this morning?

Did you tell her about the new friends she would make and pack her snack carefully in a Dora the Explorer bag?

Did you spend the weekend telling her she was a big girl now going off to school or did you instead spend the time trying to wade through the complex information and forms and get to grips with how much pre-school education your child is actually going to get?

Today is the first day of the new free pre-school scheme for tots, described by Minister Barry Andrews as "revolutionary". That remains to be seen. It's certainly confusing. Alarmed at the low take-up rate, the deadline for applications was extended by a week because of ... ahem, the snow, apparently.

Now mums and dads know a good thing when they see it. Something provided free, by Government to improve their child's welfare should have them hammering down the doors. But they aren't.

Some 25,000 children out of an eligible 60,000 will be starting their pre-school classes today. It is a classic example of a fantastic idea badly implemented.

No advertising in newspapers, television or radio was done by the department in order to save money. Brilliant. Introduce a scheme but keep it a secret.

A single letter was sent out to prospective families but most heard about it on the creche grapevine. For a plan costing €170m a year to run, it smacks of amateurism.

Those who can't afford expensive creche fees because they've lost their job might have missed the opportunity altogether.

Those who prefer the idea of a childminder or au pair for their child get nothing in lieu, even though they have lost the Early Childhood Supplement which this cheaper scheme replaces.

Pre-school Montessori education is generally considered a 'good thing'.

In other countries such as France and Scandanavia they take it so seriously, it's mandatory. Every child goes and the government pays. Children who avail of pre-schooling stay in the education system longer and do better. There is no argument about this.

So why are Irish parents not chomping at the bit to get their tot to school?

Well, it's not because of the snow, that's for sure. The take-up is low because parents are suspicious of the scheme; creches are not happy with the fees they are being given and the amount of care provided barely leaves a mum time to grab a coffee or put on a wash, never mind go out to work.

The snazzy website of the Office of the Minister for Children doesn't help. It's overloaded with heavy legislative language and it's difficult for a parent to find out exactly what's involved and how it will be monitored.

Is it 15 hours a week or 11 and a half? Is it over 50 weeks or 41 or 38 weeks or somewhere in between? The website will tell you all of the above.

Some creches are claiming that the allowance (€64.50 per week) is not enough to pay for the staff costs, and are suggesting parents pay an additional 'voluntary donation'.

If such a scheme is to work then Government needs to bite the bullet and provide free, consistent, quality child-care to all.

Getting women back into the workforce has been a Government policy since Charlie McCreevy's day. That is how you do it. Not a mealy mouthed couple of hours a day with your creche begging you for a tenner today or a fiver tomorrow to pay for extras.