THE Government has abandoned plans to introduce a second free pre-school year for toddlers, the Herald has learned.
The proposal has been parked for the time being because of the €175m cost required for its implementation, according to Children's Minister James Reilly.
The plan to extend the benefit by a second year formed a core pledge of the Coalition, with former Minister Frances Fitzgerald stating that it would be in place by 2015.
But in response to a parliamentary question by Fine Gael TD Martin Heydon, the minister has outlined that the scheme may now not be extended until as late as 2020.
"The introduction of a second pre-school year would require considerable additional funding, broadly in line with the cost of the current one-year provision, which is €175m per annum," he said.
"This additional funding is not currently available due to the financial constraints under which the government is operating," he added.
The decision to abandon the scheme's implementation in the lifetime of this government was strongly criticised by a children's rights activist last night.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout has expressed deep concern about the continuous delays in the implementation of the scheme.
"This does appear absolutely to be a row-back," she said.
"There is an urgent need for a second pre-school year, particularly for children with special needs," she told the Herald.
"At the very least, this should be rolled out on a phased basis. I would be concerned that it will now be pushed beyond the mid term of the next government.
"It is something that would particularly relieve the pressure for families with young children," she added.
Mr Heydon said that he is just one of several backbenchers who have lobbied for the introduction of the second pre-school year.
"We need to make it as easy as possible for parents to go back to work," he said.
"For me this is an absolute priority, as it is for my constituents, and I will continue to push for this to come into play sooner rather than later.
"There is a huge and significant financial burden on parents with young children and they expect to see that burden lifted," he added.