FOUR out of five children are now availing of a free pre-school place in the year before they start primary education.
New figures show that there has been a huge uptake of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme which began in January.
Over 51,000 children, or 80pc of children in the year before starting school, are availing of the scheme.
This rises to over 53,500 (almost 85pc) of children when account is taken of those availing of a pre-school year under the Community Childcare Subvention Scheme (CCSS).
Approximately 4,700 pre-school services in the State are registered with the HSE and some 4,000 of them are participating in the ECCE scheme.
Children's Minister Barry Andrews noted that more children may actually be attending pre-school but he does not have figures for those who opt to stay out of the ECCE scheme.
"The age range in which children qualify for the scheme spans a period of almost 17 months and includes all children aged more than three years and two months and less than four years seven months in September of each year," explained the minister.
A county-by-county breakdown of child places shows that the largest number of children have been signed up the scheme in Co Cork. This is followed by the Fingal area of Dublin where 3,358 children are attending 330 childcare centres.
In Dublin city, 3,255 children enrolled in 342 services, while 2,684 are in 240 centres in the south Dublin region.
One of the smallest uptakes has been in Limerick City where just 597 children have enrolled under the scheme.
Providers offer children free pre-school provision of three hours per day, five days a week over a 38-week year.
The scheme is being funded by the scrapping of the €1,000-a-year early childcare supplement. The supplementary payment cost the State €480m in its last year, but Finance Minister Brian Lenihan estimates that the free pre-school year will cost just €170m, bringing in significant savings for the cash-strapped exchequer.
He described the move as "an example of how a programme can be reshaped and made more effective at a lower cost to the taxpayer".
Under the scheme, childcare providers will be paid a standard capitation fee of €64.50 per week for 15 hours for each child.