Northern Ireland news

Plans for 22.5 hours of free pre-school education each week announced

Education minister Michelle McIlveen. Picture by Mal McCann
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Every child in Northern Ireland aged three to four should have access to a minimum of 22.5 hours of funded pre-school education each week, Education Minister Michelle McIlveen has said.

She said the move towards an expanded pre-school provision forms part of the ongoing work to develop an Executive Childcare Strategy.

Mrs McIlveen said: “I want to make sure that we have the best possible early years provision for every child, which will not only support their education, but also enable parents to work.

“My department is developing an Executive Childcare Strategy, which will include a package of measures to provide that vital support.

“Pre-school education is critically important for our children’s development.

“Ensuring equality through an expanded pre-school provision will undoubtedly improve outcomes for children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“I have therefore instructed my officials to develop a timetable and costed delivery plan to provide a minimum of 22.5 hours of funded pre-school provision for every child in Northern Ireland.”

Mrs McIlveen said initially this would involve a pilot programme to facilitate new full-time statutory nursery provision in certain areas.

“This is an important first step which will inform plans for the standardisation of all pre-school education sessions, including a phased lifting of the current moratorium on the creation of new full-time provision,” she added.

She minister said the affordability of childcare was a key concern for families, adding: “This will be considered as part of the development work on the strategy.

“I am mindful, however, of the immediate financial pressure being felt by parents.

“In addition to the ongoing work to encourage uptake of existing financial support available to families, I have written to the UK Chancellor asking him to uplift the rate of the tax-free childcare scheme from 20% to 30% to support families with their childcare costs.”

“This important work will require a co-ordinated approach across departments and stakeholders.

“By working together to transform early learning and childcare services we will put children’s development and wellbeing at the heart of the strategy while also supporting families and the economy.”

Currently in Northern Ireland, 40% of children get 22.5 hours pre-school provision each week, with the remaining 60% receiving at least 12.5 hours per week.

West Tyrone SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said the plans did not go far enough.

He said: “The SDLP has consistently advocated for 30 hours of flexible free childcare a week for parents of young children.

“Indeed, the DUP also promised as much in its Assembly election manifesto, so it’s disappointing to see a proposal that lacks ambition brought forward by Education Minister Michelle McIlveen.

“While I’m glad to see some progress being made on this issue, we are already playing catch-up with the rest of these islands on this issue and any childcare strategy must include 30 hours of free childcare at a minimum.”

Northern Ireland news