Early childhood education generally means education before the start of formal schooling or before the age at which children are generally required to attend school. It covers the period from birth to 6 years. Legislation on school attendance requires children to be at school (or receiving an education) from the age of 6. In practice, almost all 5-year-olds and about half of 4-year-olds actually attend primary schools.
Early childhood education services include infant classes in primary schools and a range of childcare and preschool services. Pre-school childcare services are regulated by the Health Service Executive.
The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme provides for a year of free early care and education for children of pre-school age. In general, the provision amounts to 3 hours per day, 5 days a week over a 38-week year for children enrolled in participating playschools.
The ECCE scheme is administered by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
The involvement of the Department of Education and Skills in early childhood education focuses mainly on interventions for children who are disadvantaged or have special needs. The Early Years Education Policy Unit of the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs work on policy issues affecting early childhood care and education.
There is a special grant allocation to national schools to help buy equipment and materials for infant classes in primary schools. The amount depends on the numbers involved, up to a maximum of €1,904.61.
The Early Start Programme aims to tackle educational disadvantage by targeting children who are at risk of not reaching their potential within the education system. It is a one-year preventative intervention scheme offered to pre-school children (3 to 4 years old) in some schools in disadvantaged areas.
Up to recently, the Department and other bodies funded a number of pre-schools especially for Traveller children, who might not otherwise have been able to avail of a pre-school year. However, since the ECCE scheme was introduced, all children can avail of a year’s free pre-school, so the Department no longer funds separate provision for Traveller children.
Local Health Offices and/or voluntary bodies provide services for young children with severe or profound disabilities. The services are provided in Child Education and Development Centres and are generally run by a clinical director and staffed by nurses with an intellectual disability qualification, with teaching inputs supplied typically by Montessori-trained teachers. Play therapists are also employed in some of these centres.
Pre-school children do not have a specific right to education. However, they are entitled to certain health services which are related to education. The Health Service Executive is responsible for providing psychological services and speech and language therapy services for pre-school children with disabilities who are assessed as needing these services. Assessments of children under the age of 5 are carried out under the assessment of need provisions of the Disability Act 2005.
The Visiting Teacher Service of the Department of Education and Skills provides a service to young children with visual and/or hearing impairment, from the age of 2 years.
There are a small number of special pre-school class units for children with autistic spectrum disorders. These units are attached to primary schools.
The White Paper on Early Childhood Education 'Ready to Learn' is concerned
with children from birth to 6 years. It sets out the core objective of early
childhood education as 'supporting the development and educational achievement
of children through high quality early education, with particular focus on the
target groups of the disadvantaged and those with special needs'.
It sets out a number of guiding principles:
The White Paper proposes early support for families of children with special needs; such parents should have access to an early education expert, initially as an advisor to parents, then as a teacher.
Síolta: the National Framework for Quality in Early Childhood Education was published in 2006. The Early Years Education Policy Unit of the Department of Education and Skills manages the implementation of Síolta.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has developed Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework, for children from birth to 6 years of age. This framework, published in 2009, describes the types of learning that are important for children of this age group and sets out broad learning goals for all children.
If you have a question relating to this topic you can contact the Citizens Information Phone Service on 0761 07 4000 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm) or you can visit your local Citizens Information Centre.