| 14.5°C Dublin

Mary Feely: Want to get your way with childcare scheme? Get angry

I must admit I was enraged when I read the fine print on who would -- and would not -- get to go to preschool for free under the Early Childhood Care & Education scheme.

My daughter, who turned five on January 10, is still in playschool. Yet, under the scheme she was too old to avail of free preschool. (To qualify, kids needed to be between three years, seven months and four years, ten months on January 1.)

Result: one furious mother. See, I didn't keep my daughter in playschool an extra year on a whim. I felt I had no choice, given the outrageous overcrowding in our schools.

I could have sent my daughter to our local national school last September. But I didn't, because 44 children applied to start junior infants.

Yes, 44. Even though our government says no class should have more than 28 children. Even though international best practice is no more than 20 children.

The junior infants class was eventually whittled down to 36, in part because of parents like me who agreed to hold their children back a year.

One morning, months later, I was helping my daughter out of her coat at playschool. I overheard another mother being told she no longer needed to pay out of pocket.

Turns out I was one of the few mammies who'd still be forking out cash every week. It's a wonder I didn't go up in flames on the spot.

I rang and e-mailed everyone I could think of. My local childcare committee. My TD's constituency office. Various civil servants.

Everyone was sympathetic but discouraging. Yes, the scheme did allow exceptions to the age rule, but generally only for kids with special needs or those who'd been turned away by the local school.

And then, amazingly, common sense won out. I got a reply to one of my umpteen e-mails, this time from someone in Minister for Children Barry Andrew's office. Given the reasons my daughter is still in playschool, it said, they'd waive the age rule in her case. Hallellujah!

I'm astounded, to tell you the truth. It seems too good to be true.

I'm sure I'm not the only parent who held back a child from junior infants for good reasons. So, if your child has been denied free preschool, get onto the minister's office NOW. The scheme will be closing this week, and your son or daughter shouldn't miss out.

For next year, this scheme needs to be rejigged. Why not simply say that every child in the country is entitled to one year of free playschool, and let parents decide at what age the child should take it up?

Secondly, parents should have a right to appeal if their child is turned down. Meanwhile, I'm delighted someone in the minister's office listened to the story of one very angry mum. Now, if we could only bring down those class sizes...