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30,000 children to miss out on free pre-school

Parents of up to 30,000 children are set to miss out on free pre-school for a year because of low uptake of a new Government scheme.

With the new term starting today and the deadline on Wednesday, thousands of eligible families have failed to apply.

Childcare providers, struggling with a drop in numbers, have blamed the Government for the low public awareness of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme.

It has replaced the Early Childcare Supplement parents which had been paid directly to families.

Those who miss the deadline for this term can still apply for a place in September.

Under the scheme, providers get a fixed fee per child from the State -- €48.50 per child per week for a daily two hours 15 minutes session.

The scheme is open to children aged between three years and three months and four and a half years.

If a child is already in a creche, parents can apply for the free service as long as the pre-school is taking part in the scheme.

Some 33 county childcare committees have been set up throughout the country to advise parents on services available in their locality.

Parents then have to contact their service provider and fill out a declaration form that is sent to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

Childcare workers have blamed the Government for the low participation in the scheme.

As well as helping cash-strapped parents, it was meant to act as a stimulus to the industry which has suffered from the recession.

The slow uptake has caused concern for both the National Children's Nurseries Association (NCNA) and the National Association of Private Childcare Providers.

"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.

Cost

The department said it would not have exact figures on how many children were participating in the scheme until the end of the month but stressed it was expecting a significant rise in September.

A spokesperson said 90,000 pre-school places had been made available under the scheme.

It will cost the State €170m -- just a third of the €480m spent last year on the previous scheme.

aphelan@herald.ie


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