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Free nursery hours: Delay to start of new system

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THE introduction of a new system for providing free nursery hours to families has been delayed, the Education Minister has confirmed.

Senator Tracey Vallois Picture: ROB CURRIE. (26906340)

Instead, the existing provision of 20 free hours per week during term time for preschoolers will remain in place for the next academic year.

Interim arrangements for the Nursery Education Fund, which provides the free hours, are due to be considered by ministers within months.

However, Education Minister Tracey Vallois reiterated that none of the proposals this year or next would lead to a reduction in free hours.

A policy development board has been reviewing the government’s early years policies – those affecting all children from conception to five years – for over a year. Its work has included, but not been limited to, considering alternatives to the current NEF.

Senator Vallois, who chairs the board, previously said she hoped that a new system to replace the NEF – and bridge existing gaps in the system – would be in place in time for the academic year beginning in September 2020.

However, she has now confirmed that deadline will not be met and the plan is for changes to be made for the academic year starting in September 2021.

In the meantime, a series of interim plans designed to improve other areas of early years provision are due to be announced within months. A final report from the board is expected later this year.

Senator Vallois said the interim plans would be taken to the Council of Ministers in the ‘first quarter’ of this year for consideration as the recommendations ‘likely cross several ministers so need alignment for correct implementation’.

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She added that ‘interim’ meant some quick actions could be taken while further work was carried out: ‘With regards to NEF, the new scheme would be 2021 because the early years board isn’t just looking at NEF,’ she said. ‘And just to make it absolutely clear, we are not reducing what is already there in terms of the 20-hour offer.’

According to documents published online, the Early Years Policy Development Board has held four official meetings since its inception in October 2018.

Senator Vallois said: ‘We have looked at many things across the board from conception to five years. We are due to hear feedback from 4insight on their engagement with stakeholders and we also have an economic piece of work currently being undertaken with private nurseries to ensure what is brought forward for 2021 is not disproportionate and is well considered.’

She added: ‘Depending on capacity to deliver and feedback from stakeholders we hope to follow up with a final report at the end of quarter two, but it could filter into quarter three.’

Lucy Stephenson

By Lucy Stephenson
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