Early Childhood Education and Care
Significant progress has been made towards the establishment of high quality Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) provision in Ireland in recent years. Unlike other European countries, Ireland does not have a long tradition of young children attending pre-school services. Early years’ education is provided by trained teachers in infant classes in primary schools.
Policy responsibility for ELC is shared between the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY) and the Department of Education (DE). The DCEDIY is responsible, in the main, for pre-primary education and care while the DE has responsibility for primary education.
The main policy framework guiding the development of the sector is First 5: A Whole of Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families, 2019-2028. It is a comprehensive ten-year plan to help make sure all children have positive early experiences and includes a goal for affordable high quality ELC.
The compulsory school age in Ireland is 6 and all forms of pre-primary education are optional. However, children from the age of 4 can be enrolled in primary schools. Most ELC services in Ireland are delivered outside the school system, by a diverse range of private, community and voluntary interests and are described variously as crèches, nurseries, pre-schools, naíonraí (Irish language pre-schools), playgroups and day-care services. Policy and investment in such provision is primarily the responsibility of the DCEDIY.
The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme was first introduced in 2010. The ECCE programme is a universal two-year pre-school programme available to all children within the eligible age range. It provides children with their first formal experience of early learning prior to commencing primary school. The programme is provided for three hours per day, five days per week over 38 weeks per year and the programme year runs from September to June each year. There is one point of entry at the beginning of the programme year.
The programme is available to all children who have turned 2 years and 8 months of age before August 31st as long they won’t turn 5 years and 6 months of age on or before June 30th of the programme year.
In 2021/22, 107,711 children benefitted from the ECCE programme with 95% of the eligible cohort availing of at least one year of the ECCE programme. It is estimated that more than 800,000 individual children have benefitted from the programme since its inception.
Outside the ECCE programme, participation in ELC is subsidised primarily through the National Childcare Scheme, which was introduced in 2019. Subsidies, which have been extended a number of times since 2019, comprise both universal subsidies and income-related subsidies.
- Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, is the statutory regulator for the Early Learning and Care (ELC) sector and for School-Age Childcare (SAC). It is responsible for the registration of ELC and SAC services and for inspecting services. Tusla’s role is set out in the Child Care Act 1991 and the Early Years Services Regulations 2016. Tusla has also published a Quality and Regulatory Framework to guide ELC services in relation to compliance with the Regulations.
- The DE Inspectorate, which has an oversight role regarding the quality of education provision for children and young people aged from 0 to 18 years, undertakes education-focused inspections of ELC settings. Since 2016, Early Years Education Inspections (EYEIs) have been conducted in services delivering the ECCE programme. However, in line with a commitment in First 5, the DE is commencing a programme of inspections across the full birth to six age range in ELC settings during the 2022/23 academic year.
- Pobal, a non-profit organisation, manages the funding schemes for ELC and SAC services on behalf of the DCEDIY. This includes funding, administration, compliance inspections and auditing functions.
- Better Start National Early Years Quality Development Service provides on-site mentoring and coaching services and provides a range of programmes and supports to enhance quality and access for ELC.
The DCEDIY funds a network of thirty City and County Childcare Committees which act as a point of contact for services and parents, and which provide a range of guidance, training and support on aspects of quality. There are also seven National Voluntary Childcare Organisations, which are part funded by DCEDIY and which provide supports to the sector including training programmes, resource publications and background checks for staff.
DCEDIY is the responsible body in relation to qualification requirements for early years educators, set out both in Regulations and in contractual requirements for funding schemes. DCEDIY oversees the list of qualifications approved for regulatory purposes and the process of recognition of qualifications. DCEDIY works in collaboration with DE and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (DFHERIS) to assure the quality of qualifications for early years educators. A Qualifications Advisory Board was established jointly by DE and DCEDIY in 2020 to advise on adherence of higher education degree programmes to Professional Award Criteria and Guidelines published in 2019.
A National Action Plan for Childminding 2021-2028 was published by DCEDIY in 2021, setting out a phased approach to bringing home-based providers of ELC and school-age childcare within the scope of regulations and supports.
In the national policy framework for children and young people 2014-2020, Better Outcomes Brighter Futures, the Government committed to continue to increase investment in high-quality early years care and education for all children, prioritising families on low incomes.
There is no legal guarantee to a place in ELC. Parents themselves choose an ELC provider.
The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme is a universal, free, two-year pre-school programme available to all children within the eligible age range.
ELC is not a part of the school system and, outside the ECCE programme, attendance is not free of charge. The Irish government does, however, provide subsidies to reduce the upfront costs for parents through the National Childcare Scheme (NCS). There are two types of subsidies available under the Scheme:
- A Universal Subsidy is available to all families with children under 15 years attending ELC or school-age childcare services. This subsidy is not means tested and provides 50c per hour towards the cost of a registered childcare place for a maximum of 45 hours per week for all children up to the age of 15 years. From January 2023 the universal subsidy will rise to €1.40 per hour.
- The Income Assessed Subsidy is available to families with children aged between 24 weeks and 15 years. This subsidy is means-tested and is calculated based on family circumstances. Rates vary depending on the level of family income, the child’s age and educational stage, and the number of children in the family.
Access for children with disabilities
In 2016, a cross-Government initiative, the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM), was successfully launched to ensure that children with disabilities can access and meaningfully participate in the ECCE programme in mainstream pre-school settings. AIM is a child-centred model involving both universal and targeted supports and designed to be responsive to the needs of each individual child in the context of their pre-school setting. It empowers service providers to deliver an inclusive pre-school experience, ensuring that every eligible child can fully participate in the ECCE programme and reap the benefits of quality ELC.
Organisation of centre-based ELC
There are no admission requirements for a child to be admitted to an ELC service. Parents are free to choose the facility. There is no legal entitlement to a place.
To take part in the ECCE universal free pre-school programme, to start the programme year in September a child must have turned 2 years and 8 months of age before August 31st and must not turn 5 years and 6 months of age on or before June 30th of the programme year. Children are eligible to two years of participation in the ECCE programme.
Adult/child and Space Ratios
The table below sets out the minimum legal adult-child ratios and space requirements for ELC for children of different ages and in different types of ELC setting.
Age of children
Maximum no. of children per adult
Minimum floor area per child
1.818 sq. metres, maximum of 22 per room
1.818 sq. metres, maximum of 22 per room
1.818 sq. metres, maximum of 22 per room
Full/part-time day care*
3.5 sq. metres
2.8 sq. metres
2.35 sq. metres
2.3 sq. metres
4 (only 2 or less under 15 months)
1.818 sq. metres, maximum of 24 per room
5 (including his/her own). No more than 2 children under 15 months
Overnight pre-school service
Annual, weekly and daily organisation
ELC and SAC services are provided by private enterprises, either privately owned or operated by community organisations. ELC and school-age childcare service providers are responsible for establishing their own policies and procedure, including their own operating hours.
Minimum qualification requirements for ELC staff:
Under the Child Care Act 1991 (Early Years Services) Regulations 2016, all staff working directly with children in a pre-school service must hold at least a Level 5 major award in early childhood care and education on the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ), or a qualification that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has deemed to be equivalent.