The compulsory school age in Ireland is 6 and all forms of pre-primary education are optional. However, children from the age of 4 can be enrolled in infant classes in primary schools. Nearly 40% of 4-year-olds and virtually all 5-year-olds attend primary school, where early education is provided in infant classes.
In addition to the provision for children in the infant classes in primary schools, the Department of Education and Skills funds some specific pre-primary services. These include:
- The Early Start Programme, a pre-primary initiative in designated areas of urban disadvantage, for children who are most at risk of not succeeding in education. The total number of spaces provided by the existing 40 Early Start centres is 1,650. List of Early Start Units.
- The Rutland Street Project, a programme in a Dublin inner city community. Although not part of Early Start, it was used to pilot many of the approaches later incorporated in the Early Start project.
With the exception of the above, early childhood education and care services in Ireland are delivered outside the formal education system, by a diverse range of private, community and voluntary interests and are described variously as crèches, nurseries, pre-schools, naíonraí (Irish language pre-schools), playgroups and daycare services. Government investment in such provision is primarily implemented by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
The free Pre-School Year scheme was introduced in January 2010 and is being administered by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Under the scheme, all children aged between 3 years 2 months and 4 years 7 months in September of the relevant year are entitled to a free pre-school year of appropriate programme-based activities in the year prior to starting primary school. While participation is voluntary, 67,000 or 94% of eligible children are enrolled in pre-school services for the 2011/12 school year. Further information about the free Pre-School Year scheme is available from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs website.