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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
National reforms in early childhood education and care


14.Ongoing reforms and policy developments

14.1National reforms in early childhood education and care

Last update: 16 June 2022

National Reforms in Early Childhood Education and Care

The Department of Education and Skills (DES) operates a split system of governance with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA). DCYA is responsible, in the main, for pre-primary education and DES has responsibility for primary education. While the legal starting age for primary school is 6, children as young as 4 can enrol in primary schools.

The DES has a key role in supporting quality within the sector and works closely with the DCYA. Ireland introduced a free pre-school year scheme in January 2010, administered by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs open and accessible to all children aged between 3 years and 2 months and 4 years and 7 months on the first of September of the year that they start. It provides 38 weeks of free childcare.

With effect from September 2016, this has been extended to cover the entire period for all children from age 3 to their starting primary school. All children within the relevant age range can avail of two years of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Programme from September 2018 with a 7% increase in capitation rates. The increase in capitation is targeted at increasing the quality of care and education provided through ECCE, and in particular supporting the recruitment and retention of high quality staff. In total, €6.86m in capital is being made available for 2018 provision for Early Years and School Age children.

Childcare programmes are delivered under the remit of 30 nationwide City and County Childcare Committees (CCC). CCCs act as local agents of DCYA and are the first port of call for parents and childcare providers. Each has a local focus and knowledge making them well positioned to assist and support parents on all things relating to early education and childcare in their locality.
CCCs provide support and guidance to parents and service providers on national programmes and service quality as well as eligibility and rules of the childcare programmes.

A special initiative for children with disabilities was also introduced. Further substantial improvements were announced in the 2017 Budget, detailed below.

Working with agencies funded by the DCYA, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) produced an Aistear-in-Action toolkit which is a resource for use in early years settings showing how the Aistear themes of Wellbeing, Identity and Belonging, Exploring and Thinking and Communication translate into practice.  The DES has also directed the implementation of Síolta, the National Quality Framework, by working with these agencies to ensure support for ECCE, and by Aistear, a curriculum framework for early childhood education published by the NCCA.

The final report on the implementation of this phase of Síolta was published in December 2013. 

The Síolta Quality Assurance Programme (QAP) is a set of clearly defined steps including self-assessment, action planning, quality development and evidence collection, portfolio building and validation. A mentor supports the early years’ service through the Síolta QAP while another person validates the ratings of quality. The NCCA has also published an Aistear Síolta practice guide to better support children’s learning and development. Better Start is a support service which provides training and advice to centres in implementing the frameworks.

A Workforce Development Plan for the sector was published in 2010. The Plan focused on requiring further and higher education providers to review their provision and implement a plan to improve quality and relevance in the light of the occupational profiles for the sector.  The occupational profiles for staff range from Basic Practitioner at Level 4 of the Irish National Framework of Qualifications to Expert Practitioner at Levels 8 and 9 of the framework(Honours Bachelor Degree and Post Graduate Diploma). A Learner Fund supports the provision of training for staff.


In April 2019, the Professional Award Criteria and Guidelines for the initial professional education degree programmes for the Early Learning and Care (ELC) sector in Ireland were launched.

The purpose of these criteria and guidelines is to support the development by higher education and institutions of professional awards for early childhood educators at level 7 and level 8 on the national framework of qualifications. The aim is to ensure consistency of approach and quality in provision of education, ensuring graduates are fully prepared to take on the complex challenges of practice in this field.

The Criteria and Guidelines may be used in the development or review of programmes by individual institutions, by awarding bodies, by accreditation bodies or by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA). They will inform the development of undergraduate programmes and will complement the current developemnt of professional awards in the further education and and training sector. For the first time the ELC workforce will have the access to a suite of professional awards from entry level qualifications at level 5 to honours degree level, that recognise the value of professionals at all these levels working in the ELC settings across the country. A qualifications advisory board will be established to review the new degree programmes.

The introduction of the Free Preschool Year (ECCE) scheme and its extension to a second year has introduced increased professional expectations of the ELC workforce. The numbers employed in the sector are now approaching 30,000. Agreement of titles for ELC professionals will take place as part of the forthcoming workforce development planning process.


In January 2018, the Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton and Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone published a report on the quality of educational provision in early years settings.

The report draws from the findings of 867 inspections conducted nationally on providers delivering the state funded ECCE Free Preschool Programme. These inspections were undertaken to specifically evaluate the quality of children’s learning and development within these settings.

The report confirms that there has been a strong welcome for early years education-focused inspection. These inspections have strengthened the Government’s commitment to provide every child with enriching, enjoyable early childhood experiences and have validated the professionalism and commitment of the early year’s workforce.

These inspections also provide robust, authentic information to parents and policymakers about what has been achieved and what still needs to be addressed in the delivery of high quality early education.

Key insights:

  • Almost all Early Years services provide warm, welcoming and safe environments for children and have very good relationships with parents and families;

  • Many services provide a rich range of learning experiences and are providing children with enjoyable, play-based opportunities that promote the development of important learning dispositions and skills such as curiosity, persistence, independence and empathy.

Challenges were also identified including the need for providers to work closely in partnership with parents to support and extend children’s learning, and the potential for improving how providers use existing resources such as Aistear and Síolta.

The DES and the DCYA will consider all of the report’s recommendations and work with providers on achieving any improvements identified. Follow-through inspections will be carried out to further assess the quality of early years education provision and practice and to assess progress on areas identified as needing improvement.


In January 2017 a new bursary scheme was announced, payable to staff working in the childcare sector who acquired a recognised childcare qualification at degree level or above at their own expense in the period 2013 -16. At present, 88% of all staff have at least a Level 5 qualification. The aim of the bursary scheme is to encourage further upskilling within the sector.

In February 2017, 18 additional staff were appointed to work as experts to support ECCE centres to cater for children with disabilities, increasing the core support team to 68.

An Action Plan on School Age Childcare was published on 6 March 2017. This provides for:

  • The establishment of a Working Group to develop quality standards for school age child care;

  • Development of a robust quality assurance system, both for childminders and other childcare providers, allied with development of an appropriate qualification for the sector;

  • Development of a workforce plan and continuing professional development infrastructure, supported by the Learner Fund;

  • €3m capital provision in 2017 to expand services/places and increase quality options in the sector;

  • Development of an online resource for parents to provide information on available services;

  • The engagement of the DES with educational interests to encourage greater use of school buildings for after school care, and develop guidelines for school use out of hours.

The following measures were announced in the 2017 Budget:

  • Provide a universal childcare subsidy (averaging €80 per month for those attending 40 hours per week with registered child care providers) aimed at children aged 6 – 36 months. Catering for under 3s is the most expensive aspect of childcare for parents. About 25,000 children are expected to benefit from this.

  • Provide a targeted childcare subsidy at a tapering hourly rate for situations where the net family income is less than €47,500. The maximum subsidy will be paid in cases where family net income is below €22,700. The subsidy will cover childcare costs with registered childcare providers for children up to 15 years of age.Net family income is income after tax, pension and social insurance costs have been subtracted. The income threshold will increase where there is more than 1 child receiving childcare. The subsidy for a child receiving 40 hours per week childcare in a family where net income is below €22500 could be of the order of €8000 p.a. An estimated 54,000 children are expected to benefit from this, of whom 31,500 were already receiving some level of support previously.

  • Continuation of the existing free pre-school scheme for children from age 3 to start of primary schooling.

  • Initiation of a public consultation process on proposals, so that provision can be adjusted in light of the responses received and the funds available. Additional capital funding has been provided to support an increased number of childcare places.