2014, Volume 17, Special Issue: Early Childhood Policy

Early Childhood Care and Education Policy: Ireland Country Note

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Full Reference
Horgan, D., Martin, S., Cunneen, M., & Towler M. (2014). Early childhood care and education policy: Ireland country note. New Zealand Research in Early Childhood Education Journal. Special Issue: Early Childhood Policy, 17, 21 - 34.


Invited Country Note

Early Childhood Care and Education Policy: Ireland Country Note

Deirdre Horgan, Shirley Martin, Maura Cunneen and Marcella Towler
University College Cork, Ireland 



Historically early childhood care and education infrastructure and policy in Ireland has been underdeveloped compared to other OCED countries (OECD, 2004). According to the OECD (2012), access to childcare, staff training, high-quality provision and public expenditure are vitally important if all children are to benefit positively from ECCE provision. This Country Note addresses these issues briefly and discusses some key transitions in ECCE policy in Ireland.

Key words: Ireland; policy, state expenditure; early childhood care and education.



In Ireland, Government investment in early childhood care and education (ECCE) has traditionally been very low.  Even as recently as 2009, Ireland spent only 0.4% of GDP on ECCE which is well below the OECD average. This is despite the fact that, in 2010, Ireland had the highest number of births ever recorded and that the preschool population has increased, according to the 2011 Census, by nearly 18% since 2006 (Fitzgerald, 2013). When international comparisons are made of Ireland’s performance in relation to the availability, affordability and quality of ECCE, the results are not always favourable.  In the Starting Well Index (2012) which investigated ECCE in 45 countries worldwide, Ireland ranked 18th overall1.

Ideologically early childhood care and education was considered in Ireland to be a private family issue which did not necessitate state intervention (NESF, 2005; Coolahan, 1998).  Linked to this ideology was the limited availability and scope of paid parental leave entitlements focusing mainly on mothers and maternity leave (Hayes, 2010)2.  Fallon points out that, outside of the state primary school system, there had been “virtually no direct State involvement in establishing ECCE services in Ireland” (Fallon, 2005, p. 291)3.  Instead the State provided a fragmented system of funding to programmes, maintaining a clear distinction between childcare and early education ‘with childcare part of the equality and work agenda and early education part of the strategy for combating educational disadvantage’ (Hayes, 2010, p. 67).

The gap in state provision meant that the voluntary and private sector have made a major contribution to early childhood education and care in Ireland (Douglas, 1994; ECI, 2013).  However significant changes have occurred in the policy and practice landscape in recent years which are transforming the ECCE sector and this Country Note will discuss some of these and look at possible implications.  


Recent policy and practice changes

According to the OCED (2012) Irish ECCE policy has mainly focused on the support of families pursuing employment and training opportunities4.  An increase from the 1990s in the number of mothers entering paid employment was a key driver of the rapid changes which occurred in ECCE policy. Fahey and FitzGerald (1997) suggest that these economic drivers put increased pressure on the Government to provide more accessible and affordable ECCE services. This was accompanied by a growth in recognition and acceptance of the developmental benefits of quality education and care in the formative years, but particularly for those children affected by disadvantage (Heckman 2002; Schweinhart 2005; Archer and Weir 2005).

A significant number of policy developments relating to children and families occurred in the 1990’s in Ireland following the ratification by the Irish government of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child in 19925. Specifically in relation to ECCE, a number of groups were established which have examined and reported on childcare issues in Ireland6. The major issues identified in these reports have been childcare costs, inadequacy of existing services, the need for regulation and standards, poor pay and funding in the sector, the need for tax relief on expenditure and training of personnel.  The initial focus of government centred on building the ECCE infrastructure and increasing access to early childhood services in Ireland and this was in line with developments at an EU level7.

The National Childcare Strategy (1999)8 influenced the establishment of the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme (2000-2006) (EOCP)9.  This was one of the two main public spending measures on ECCE of the last decade along with the National Childcare Investment Programme (2006–2010) (NCIP) which together represented investment of over €900 million and stimulated the creation of over 40,000 childcare places (Department of Education and Science, 2009; Early Childhood Ireland, 2013).  While this resulted in a solid base and infrastructure for childcare services in Ireland, Fallon (2005) critiques the EOCP for treating children’s interests as “peripheral to the rationale of the programme” (p. 303) with the main focus  on increasing labour force participation and training opportunities for parents and equality of opportunity.

Access and affordability have been problematic issues in in ECCE Ireland.  The OECD (2011) estimates that parents in Ireland face childcare costs of between 20% and 41% of their income – which is among the highest in Europe.  In recent years attempts have been made to off-set the high cost of childcare for parents through increasing Child Benefit and through the universal Early Childhood Supplement which was introduced in 2006 as an annual direct payment of €1,000 to parents of children less than 6 years of age to contribute to the costs of childcare.  Hayes (2008) was critical of this policy stating that there was no evidence that it actually benefitted the childcare sector and the €400 million annual cost of the scheme could have been “allocated directly towards the support of quality provision in a sustainable ECCE sector” (p. 4). This supplement was eventually withdrawn with the introduction of the Free Pre-School Year in 2010 by the Office of Children and Youth Affairs which will be discussed in the next section.


The free pre-school year

The Early Childhood Care and Education scheme or Free Pre-School Year (FPY) was introduced by the Irish government in January 2010. This was in line with the recommendation by the NESF (2005) report on Early Childhood Care and Education which argued for Government funding of a universal pre-school service stating that “it can be readily justified as the longer-term societal benefits that would accrue on the basis of this investment are at a ratio of 1:7” (p. 104). Under this initiative, all children aged between 3 years 2 months and 4 years 7 months are entitled to a free preschool year of appropriate programme-based activities in the year prior to starting primary school on a 3 hour sessional basis over 38 weeks. Parents are free to choose the preschool setting they send their child to. 

Although participation is on a voluntary basis, in the preschool year 2012/13, approximately 68,000 children, or 95% of the eligible cohort, participated in the scheme (Fitzgerald, 2013) which compares very favourably with figures on ECCE access from a recent OECD report (2013)10.  Share et al., (2013) contend that the Free Pre-school Year is “more child-centred than previous attempts in that it, theoretically at least, provides access to ECCE for all children regardless of parents’ income or work status” (p. 32).  However, the sessional nature of the scheme means it is not supportive of parents' participation in paid work.  Neither does it make a significant impact on the level of childcare fee charges given that many working parents require full-time childcare.

Furthermore, a 3% reduction in capitation grants and an increase in the staff to child ratio from 1:10 to 1:11 announced in Budget 2012 (Department of Social Protection, 2012) have led to concerns about implications for the quality of the Free Pre-School Year service. This is against a backdrop of austerity measures taken by Government including cuts to the universal child benefits payment. The Free Preschool Year is estimated to cost the government €170 million a year while the Early Childhood Supplement cost €480 million annually (Gartland, 2010, cited in O’ Kane, 2013).  A second free preschool year had been called for by a number of organisations and advocacy groups such as Early Childhood Ireland and the Children's Rights Alliance and is also recommended by the Report of the Expert Advisory Group on the Early Years Strategy (DCYA, 2013) 11. While most European countries provide children with at least 2 years free publicly-funded ECCE before primary school (OECD, 2013) it is unlikely that this will happen in Ireland soon given the recent controversy over the quality of care in some ECCE centres attached to the FPY arising from the Breach of Trust documentary aired by the State broadcaster12.


Quality initiatives 

In addition to issues of access and affordability, the quality of early year’s provision and pedagogy in Ireland has been a concern. The first regulation of ECCE in Ireland was The Child Care (Pre-School Services) Regulations 1996 which focused on the structural aspects of settings including adult: child ratios, equipment, safety, first aid and number of children enrolled in a setting. However, there were no specific criteria for aspects of quality provision such as curriculum, training, qualifications and practice of staff, and children’s experiences. Changes in relation to quality in the policy landscape became most notable in the White Paper on Early Childhood Education (1999)13. The proposals in the White Paper laid the foundation for the development of two significant practice frameworks for the ECCE sector; Síolta: The National Quality Framework (CECDE, 2006) for Early Childhood Education and Aistear: The Early Childhood Curriculum Framework (NCCA, 2009). Síolta and Aistear are designed for those working with children from birth to six years. Both frameworks can be used to complement existing ECCE curricula and approaches including those used in primary schools. 

As part of the conditions for participation in the Free Pre-School Year, ECCE services are required to adhere to the principles of Síolta (Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 2010).  However, in practice practitioners are only required to discuss how the Síolta principles are included in their setting (Department of Education and Skills, 2011). ECCE settings do have the option of formally engaging with Síolta by participating in the Quality Assurance Programme (QAP) (Early Years Education Policy Unit, 2012). However, implementation of the Síolta principles and standards and the Aistear principles and themes is not compulsory (O’ Sullivan, 2013).

Quality improvements with respect to ECCE regulations are also emerging. The Child Care (Pre-School Services) Regulations 2006 emphasise more of the dynamic elements of quality in Regulation 5: Health, Welfare and Development of the Child. The Health Service Executive (HSE), which currently has responsibility for regulation and inspection in the ECCE sector, is planning to implement a registration system by 2014 whereby all ECCE services will be obliged to pre-register and show compliance with all statutory requirements. It also plans to introduce a model of inspection which considers the outcomes for children14. Efforts to improve the quality of service provision through the advancement of professionalism are however at a less advanced stage.



Prior to 1997, there were no specific qualification requirements for early childhood staff15.  Since the 1990’s there has been massive growth in the sector in Ireland and currently there are more than 22,000 practitioners employed in ECCE settings (Duignan, 2012). However, there are still no mandatory training requirements for ECCE staff with the exception of the Free Year of Preschool (FPY) scheme which has introduced minimum qualification standards for preschool leaders and a higher capitation rate to settings led by staff with a relevant bachelor’s degree (Moloney and Pope, 2013)16. This link between funding and quality is another marked change in policy, challenging providers to ensure that staff are trained (Share et al, 2013, p. 32).

Issues faced by early years’ professionals include poor pay and working conditions and Hayes (2010), citing McFarlane and Lewis (2004), argues that:

...the dichotomy in ECCE in Ireland allows care to be characterised within a child development framework whilst de-emphasising the educational nature of the work. This privileges education over care and can be seen in aspects of education, pay, conditions of service and influence (p. 69)

Despite the increase in policy initiatives in the area, the ECCE workforce in Ireland “is characterised by a marked absence of professional identity” (Moloney, 2010, p. 184). More demands are being placed on ECCE practitioners without a corresponding increase in recognition or remuneration. The Workforce Development Plan for the Early Childhood Care and Education Sector in Ireland (2010) states that “The development of the ECCE workforce has been identified as a key ‘pillar of quality” (p. 1). However, remuneration and employment conditions for those within the sector are not dealt with in the Plan.

In 2012 Early Childhood Ireland conducted a Salary Survey with over 400 participants working in the sector 17. The findings showed that for those with FETAC level 5/6 qualifications (the majority), the average rate of pay per hour is €11.46.  This report also highlighted a small cohort of practitioners being paid under the minimum wage. Similarly Moloney and Pope (2013), in a survey of Irish BA ECCE degree graduates, also found that ECCE teachers’ salaries were significantly lower than primary and secondary school teacher salaries in Ireland. The authors expressed concern that graduates of ECCE degrees are turning away from working in the ECCE sector. Therefore, though the Government has recognised the relationship between quality in early year’s settings and achieving improved practitioner qualifications, it appears that practitioners providing these services do not benefit from this recognition through financial remuneration. Graham (2007) argues that childcare has moved strongly towards becoming a recognised profession and that a critical aspect of this has been the establishment of the Association of Childcare Professionals. However, significant challenges remain for the professionalisation of the ECCE sector in Ireland and the transition to appropriate pay and recognition for qualified ECCE professionals is still at an embryonic stage. 



The Irish ECCE practice and policy landscape has seen major transitions and in particular there is increasing State involvement in the lives of children in Ireland before they begin formal education.  Until recently, however, the main policy focus has been on creating childcare places rather than supporting the quality of provision and pedagogy or addressing issues of affordability and financial sustainability (Horgan et al., 2013). The most significant development in the provision of ECCE in recent years has been the introduction of a universal Free Preschool Year in 2010.  A further sign of development in the sector was the publication of the report of the Expert Advisory group on the first National Early Years Strategy for children aged between 0-6 years (DCYA, 2013) demonstrating that ECCE is an area of growing political importance in Ireland.  This argues for 5 peaks to be scaled over the next 5 years to transform the landscape for young children as comprising increased investment in ECCE; extended paid parental leave; strengthened child and family support; good governance, accountability and quality in all services; and enhanced and extended quality ECCE services. Recent government rhetoric indicates that the Irish government aspires to follow the Nordic model of ECCE provision18.  However, the current reality of ECCE provision in Ireland is more reflective of the neo-liberal welfare approach.

The Irish government needs to address the scale of national investment in the early years. In this regard, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has questioned the level of public spending on universal services for children and families, and in particular early intervention services (Fitzgerald, 2013). Serious attention must be given to providing a more comprehensive system of support for working parents addressing their childcare needs as well as the provision of more enhanced early year’s interventions for 0 to 3 year olds and to those children most at risk.  The State equally needs to address the issue of quality and recognise and respond to the low status and salary issues which impact on the sector through investing in training and mentoring, and professionalising the Early Years workforce.

While there is expanding State involvement in ECCE, other elements of the Nordic model of ECCE such as generous subsidisation and funding, may well remain unattainable and aspirational for a long time to come in the harsh economic reality and budgetary constraints now in place in the country.



1. At individual levels, Ireland ranks 13th in the Availability Index; the position in the Affordability Index is 29th and in the Quality Index are placed 14th.

2. Currently mothers in Ireland can avail of 26 weeks of paid maternity leave, which is now treated as taxable income, and an additional unpaid leave of 16 weeks while parental leave is unpaid, and there is no statutory paternity leave.

3. All 5 year olds and over half of Irish 4 year olds are enrolled in primary school in Ireland.

4. As set out in the objectives of the National Development Plan (2003) and Towards 2016, on reconciling work and family life.

5. These policy changes have occurred against a backdrop of major changes in children’s rights in Ireland including the appointment of an Ombudsman for children and a full government minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

6. The National Forum for Early Childhood Education (1998), the Commission on the Family (1998) and the Expert Working Group on Childcare (2000).

7. With targets set for member states through the Barcelona Objectives (2002) “to provide childcare by 2010 to at least 90% of children between 3 years old and the mandatory school age and at least 33% of children under 3 years of age” (Foundation Findings, 2009).

8. Hayes (2008) asserts that this strategy with a brief of childcare for working parents laid the foundation for a fragmented policy response to childcare and failed to recognise the wider issue of childcare as a resource for all children, their families and society.

9. Managed by the Department of Justice Equality and Law reform, the aim of which was to provide quality childcare and increase the number of ECCE places. Key elements of the EOCP included the provision of capital assistance to community based not-for-profit childcare facilities and the provision of grant assistance towards the staffing costs for community facilities, which were identified as being in areas of significant disadvantage (Dáil Eireann Debate, 2012).

10. In a recently published OECD Report (2013) it is stated that 79% of 4 year olds are enrolled in ECCE programmes across OECD countries; in European member countries the figure for the participation of this age group is 83%.

11. The report recommends the extension of the entitlement to free pre-school provision, so that a free part-time place is available from every child’s 3rd birthday until such time as they enter primary school. Depending on the age at which a child begins school, many children should benefit from 2 years’ free pre-school provision.

12. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, whose department oversees the FPY, had indicated the possibility of expanding the scheme to a second year, however, a recent investigative documentary entitled Breach of Trust by the State broadcaster, RTE, highlighting poor quality in centres contracted under the FPY scheme appears to have changed the focus of Government to improving qualification levels of ECCE staff and ensuring better inspection of centres.

13. The objective of the document was ‘to facilitate the development of a high quality system of early childhood education’ (DES, 1999, p.43). The White Paper acknowledged that such a quality system would require progress on training, curriculum and the quality and quantity of inputs all of which influence the quality of provision but were not covered in the legislation at that time. The White Paper (1999) proposed the development of a National Quality Framework (NQF) in addition to the development of a QE mark in education.

14. A transfer of inspection from the HSE to the newly established Child and Family Support Agency in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is also expected (HSE and DES, 2012).

15. Beyond an acknowledgement by the Department of Health and Children (1996, p. 32 Article 7) that practitioners should have “appropriate experience in caring for children and/or an appropriate qualification”.

16.  Service providers are paid a higher capitation grant where pre-school leaders have a relevant bachelor degree and 3 years’ experience and where pre-school assistants hold an early education qualification at level 5 on the NFQ (DCYA, 2013).

17.  Of those who took part, 18% of practitioners had no qualifications, 66% had a FETAC [Further Education and Training Awards Council] Level 5/6 qualification, and 16% had a Level 7 qualification (Degree level).

18. “A system of safe, affordable and accessible child care … similar to what is found in the Scandinavian countries” (Minister Joan Burton, 2012).



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Dr Deirdre Horgan is a lecturer in Social Policy at the School of Applied Social Studies at UCC. She is currently co-Director of the BA (Early Years and Childhood Studies) a multi-disciplinary degree and co-ordinates the Children and Young People strand of the Masters in Social Policy. Her primary research interests include child care policy, children’s rights and citizenship, childhood and global diversity, early years care and education, child protection and family support.  She has been involved in a number of research projects related to child trafficking, the position of refugee and asylum seeking children in Ireland and is currently Principal Investigator on an Irish Government funded research project on children’s voice and participation.

Dr Shirley Martin is a lecturer in Social Policy at the School of Applied Social Studies at UCC. Her main research interest is in the well-being of children and the focus of my research relates to key areas in children’s lives such as early years care and education, educational disadvantage and partnership with parents in educational settings.  She is involved in researching the areas child trafficking and exploring different the types of diversity which children experience and is Primary Investigator on IRCHSS RDI project Young People as Social Actors: An examination of young people's perspectives on the impact of participation in OMCYA initiatives (2010-2012).

Dr Maura Cunneen is a Lecturer in the School of Education and is currently a Co-Director of the B.A. (Early Years and Childhood Studies) Degree Course in UCC.   Among her areas of interest are the historical and current developments of Early Years Education and Care in Ireland and worldwide, gender in the early years and comparative curricula. Until quite recently, the ECEC sector would not have been considered a priority in Ireland, so the provision of the Free Pre-School year is a very important development for all those interested and involved in the early years.   

Marcella Towler is a lecturer on the Early Years and Childhood Studies Degree at University College Cork Ireland. Marcella’s research interests span a wide spectrum in relation to early childhood both historic and contemporary. The impact of policy developments in the early childhood care and education sector are relevant to her teaching which particularly emphasises initiatives in relation to quality, curricula and professionalisation.



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