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Joe McHugh TD

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Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Development Joe McHugh TD

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McHugh welcomes review of rules for disabled children on free pre-school places

DONEGAL TD Joe McHugh says parents of children with disabilities are to be consulted on plans to change current rules of the free pre-school programme.

It follows discussions with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone and concerns raised by parents here in Donegal.

All children aged 3 from September next year will be entitled to two years free-school places.

However Minister McHugh explained: “Following advice from experts in the disability and education sector it had been decided that an ‘overage exemption’ was no longer needed, and that all children should start pre-school at the same age. However having spoken to families here in Donegal, this does not suit every child.

“The exemption which was in place had allowed parents of some children with disabilities to place those children in the pre-school programme at a later stage when it suited their specific needs.

“In some cases I discussed with parents here in Donegal they felt more comfortable letting their children attend when they are a wee bit older and the original proposals no longer allowed for that to happen and allow the child access to the full two years pre-school education.

“I completely understand why the original proposals were put forward, giving equal status and rights to all children. But I also understand parents who were unhappy with this. Parents know their children best, what their needs are and where they are in terms of their own development.

“I want to thank Minister Zappone sincerely for agreeing to review the proposals. She has also been contacted by parents around the country expressing similar concerns and is keen that their views are heard in this process.”

Minister Zappone said parent concerns deserve careful consideration – and while the consultation takes place the proposals for children with disabilities which were due to start in September 2018 will be paused.

Minister Zappone added:  “Everyone is entitled to be heard as we continue our path to truly accessible affordable quality childcare – that is the very core of my approach.

“It is an approach which has delivered extra supports for 64,000 children, the establishment of the innovative Access and Inclusion Model for children with disabilities and the delivery of two full years of free pre-school education for all 3-year olds from next September.

“Each of these steps have been welcomed. Our childcare policies are focused on bringing best international practice to Ireland and that was the motivation behind planned changes to the free pre-school or ECCE programme.

“The changes were based on expert advice from the disability, education and other sectors that the ‘overage exemption’ in the free pre-school programme was no longer needed – and did not serve the best interests of these children. They pointed to the fact that all children benefit from starting school with their peers, including those children with a disability, and progressing to secondary school with their peers. They reflected Ireland’s law that all children should be in school by the age of six.

“However I have become increasingly aware that parents, who must be central to decisions concerning their children, are concerned about the changes planned from September 2018.

“In order to ensure those concerns are responded to, I am now pausing the changes and will shortly announce a consultation whereby all voices, including those of parents of children with disabilities, can be heard. I do not want to predict the outcome of that consultation – but I will say that its results will be central to guiding our path forward.

“Our other childcare changes continue to benefit more and more families and in the coming week I will take the next step by publishing a bill which will form the legislative backbone of our radical new approach to transform one of the world’s most expensive childcare systems into the best.”

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