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Changes to pre-school admissions arrangements unveiled - O'Dowd

17 January, 2012 - by John O'Dowd

Changes to how the admissions arrangements for pre-school places will operate in future have been announced today by Education Minister John O’Dowd.

Among the changes announced, the Minister has decided to revoke the criterion that gives children born in July and August priority in the admissions process. He has also signalled his intention to review how social disadvantage is defined. The changes follow a review of the pre-school admissions arrangements announced by the Minister in June 2011.

Alongside the outcome of the review, the Minister has allocated an additional £1.25million to private and voluntary pre-school providers for this year. This equates to an additional payment of £150 per place.Explaining the rationale for the changes, the Minister said:

“My priority as Education Minister is to create an education service that ensures that all our young people receive a high quality education. That applies to pre-school education in the same way as to any other sector.

“In the current year, there are over 23,000 children in funded pre-school education with a budget of approximately £50million. This is a significant investment. The vast majority of pupils are allocated places in the provider they want, and they all receive a good quality pre-school education which prepares them for the next important phase of primary school and indeed for later life.”

The review contains 17 actions in total. The Minister has indicated that the report should be regarded as a framework for action and while some of the actions are straightforward, others are more complex and may require legislative change. They will require further investigation and detailed costings before decisions will be taken.

The Minister has decided, however, that he will examine how legislation should be amended to address the issue of underage children in statutory settings and to end the practice of schools offering reception provision, which is educationally undesirable. He also signalled his intention to ensure pre-school provision was subject to an area-based planning approach.

The Minister continued:

“The strategic planning of places is particularly challenging for pre-school as there can be significant variations in numbers in locations which apply only for one year. In progressing area-based planning, the Department and ESA will also undertake a strategic review of the number and location of pre-school places to inform future planning.

“The Review also highlights that some primary schools use attendance at a specified nursery or other pre-school setting as part of the admissions criteria. This is an admissions issue beyond the pre-school sector and I want to look at this in more detail before reaching a final decision on how this can best be addressed.

“I have also identified some actions which I intend to progress immediately.

“The Report confirms previous findings that the July/August birthdays admissions criterion can potentially disadvantage younger children in their pre-school year. I intend to revoke this criterion in the 1999 Regulations and also to remove it as a priority criterion for non-statutory providers.

“I will also move to review the definition of children from socially disadvantaged circumstances and to amend it as appropriate in the Regulations.

“Amendment of these key criteria will have a major impact on the pre-school admissions process. To ensure that the pre-school admissions process operates on a fair, consistent and equitable basis across all sectors and areas, the Department will work with key stakeholders to develop a pre-schools admissions code.”

The Minister concluded by outlining his rationale for allocating an additional £1.25million to the private and voluntary sector and said:

“The current cost of a place in a non-statutory setting is £1,565 compared with £1,827 for a part-time nursery unit or £1,949 for a nursery school. Full-time places of course are more costly. “I deliberated carefully before deciding to make this payment this year. My preference would be to consolidate it for future years and I do not want to pre-empt the Early Years Strategy.

“I am also very mindful of the difficult budgetary position which I am facing. Many of the actions that I have outlined today have cost implications and I concluded, therefore, that it would not be prudent to announce a consolidated uplift at this time. I will, however, revisit this issue this year.”

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