Early childhood education

What is early childhood education?

Early childhood education generally means education before the start of formal schooling or before the age children must generally attend school. It covers the period from birth to 6 years.

The law requires that children are at school (or receive an education) from the age of 6. In practice, almost all 5-year-olds and about half of 4-year-olds attend primary schools.

Early childhood education services include infant classes in primary schools and a range of childcare and preschool services. Pre-school childcare services are regulated by Child and Family Agency - the Child and Family Agency.

Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme

The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme provides free early care and education for children of pre-school age. In general, this is for 3 hours per day, 5 days a week over a certain number of weeks for children enrolled in participating playschools.

The ECCE scheme is administered by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth .

Department of Education's role in early education

The Department of Education's role in early childhood education focuses on interventions for children who are disadvantaged or have special needs. The Early Years Education Policy Unit of the Department of Education and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY) work on policy issues affecting early childhood care and education.

Infant classes in primary school

There is a special grant allocation to national schools to help buy equipment and materials for infant classes in primary schools.

Early Start

The Early Start Programme is for children who are at risk of not reaching their potential in school. It is a one-year scheme offered to pre-school children (aged 3 to 4) in some schools in disadvantaged areas.

Children under 4 with special needs

Local Health Offices and voluntary bodies provide services for young children with severe or profound disabilities.

Pre-school children do not have a specific right to education. However, they are entitled to certain health services which are related to education.

The Health Service Executive (HSE) provides psychological services and speech and language therapy services for pre-school children with disabilities who are assessed as needing these services. Assessments of children under the age of 5 are carried out under the assessment of need provisions of the Disability Act 2005.

The Visiting Teacher Service of the Department of Education provides a service to young children with visual and/or hearing impairment, from the age of 2 years.

There are a small number of special pre-school class units for children with autistic spectrum disorders. These units are attached to primary schools.

Supports to access ECCE

The Access and Inclusion Model (AIM) helps children with disabilities to benefit from quality early learning and care and to access the ECCE programme.

When you have identified a pre-school for your child, your service provider, in consultation with you, will consider what supports may be needed to ensure your child’s participation in pre-school.

Where it is considered that your child needs additional support, your pre-school service provider can apply, in partnership with you, for targeted supports under AIM.

The AIM website provides information for parents and Frequently Asked Questions on supports available. Your local City or County Childcare Committee will also be able to provide you with information and guidance on AIM.

Early childhood education policy

Ready to Learn

The Government's White Paper on Early Childhood Education 'Ready to Learn' focuses on children from birth to 6 years.

The core objective of early childhood education, it states, is to support the development and educational achievement of children through high quality early education, with particular focus on the disadvantaged and those with special needs.

'Ready to Learn' sets out a number of guiding principles:

  • Quality will underpin all aspects of early education provision.
  • Existing provision and regulatory framework will be built on where possible.
  • Implementation will be on a gradual, phased basis to allow participants in the system to prepare for changes.
  • Progress will be achieved through consultation, dialogue and partnership.

The White Paper proposes early support for families of children with special needs; such parents should have access to an early education expert, initially as an advisor to parents, then as a teacher.


Síolta: the National Framework for Quality in Early Childhood Education provides national standards for early childhood education. The Early Years Education Policy Unit of the Department of Education manages the implementation of Síolta.


The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has developed Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework (pdf) to support the learning and development of children from birth to 6 years of age under four themes:

  • Well-being
  • Identity and belonging
  • Communicating
  • Exploring and thinking
Page edited: 26 October 2023