Early Childhood/Pre-school

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 (DCYA).

The Department of Education and Skills has a key role in supporting quality within the sector and works closely with the DCYA. Working with agencies funded by the DCYA, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) produced an Aistear-in-Action toolkit which is a resource for use in early years settings showing how the Aistear themes of Wellbeing, Identity and Belonging, Exploring and Thinking and Communication translate into practice.  The Department has also directed the implementation of Síolta, the National Quality Framework, by working with these agencies. The final report on the implementation of this phase of Síolta was published in December 2013. 

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, the age of eligibility is set to be reduced to 2 years and 8 months and all children within the relevant age range can avail of two years of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Programme. The following link contains frequently asked questions about changes to the ECCE programme from September 2018:


Further information about the free Pre-School Year scheme is available from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs website.

The National Síolta Aistear Initiative (NSAI) was established in 2016 to support the coordinated rollout of Síolta, The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education (Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education [CECDE], 2006) and Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment [NCCA], 2009). It is funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) and is being developed in collaboration with the Department of Education and Skills (DES) and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). The National Síolta Aistear Initiative is overseen by a steering committee, chaired by DES, with members from DCYA, DES and the NCCA. There are two national coordinators in place to manage the work of the initiative - a Síolta Coordinator based in the Early Years Education Policy Unit and an Aistear Coordinator based in NCCA. There is a strong emphasis on the integration of both strands of the initiative.

A number of Síolta Aistear Mentors provide a range of training and mentoring supports to Early Years Settings which support them in implementing Síolta and Aistear in their settings.

In the initial phase of implementation of the national initiative a number of newsletters were published and disseminated to the Early Years sector to increase understanding of Síolta and Aistear and to provide information to the sector on the NSAI.

Early Years Education Policy Consultation (14th December 2017)