There was a nervousness in the air last Friday morning. Would the rain hold off for 20 minutes to allow the little buddies have their big moment? It was graduation day for my four-year-old daughter Molly and we had been practising for weeks.

ABBA would have been proud of this gang as they adapted the lyrics of Mamma Mia to: “Junior Infants, here we come. My, my, how can we resist you? Oh Montessori, do you wanna know? My, my, just how much we’ll miss you!”

Their innocent and adorable enthusiasm evoked lots of laughs and even though, there was no sun, I needed my sunglasses to conceal my happy tears.

In the two years that Molly has been in ECCE, she has learned so much, far more beyond numbers and letters. The Montessori model has given her a multitude of skills and confidence. It has evoked a sense of curiosity, questioning the world around her; practical life skills like getting dressed, neatly storing her lunchbox, manners and taking turns. She says she is nervous about being a ‘primary girl’ and yet, her teacher assures us that this is good; it shows her understanding that something new is happening and she is leaving the environment in which she has been happy and comfortable.

Feeling lucky

We were lucky that she got a place in our local independent Montessori which has been serving the community for 30 years. The knowledge of her principal, the kindness of her teachers and the sense of warmth and inclusivity that they created beyond that big blue door has meant that her first step on the journey of education has been wholly positive.

ECCE stands for Early Childhood Care and Education programme. While many of us were sent off to playschool for a few hours when we were young, the universal and free two-year preschool programme was formally established in 2010. My daughter’s experience and that of thousands more children across the country every year prove it is a successful model.

However, it is not without its challenges. Last year from April to July, 50 preschools closed. In the same period, 12 new preschools registered with Tusla. Essentially, for every preschool that opened, four others closed, and many of them were in rural Ireland. Behind those numbers are panicked parents wondering where their little one will be educated? If primary schools were closing at that rate, there would be uproar.

So what’s going on? In 2022, a new funding model for early childhood education was introduced. It’s called Core Funding and within that, the Government committed to increasing its spending on childcare, doubling its 2018 expenditure from €485 million to €970 million by 2028. While this increased investment was very welcome, the model is better suited to bigger childcare facilities – in most cases, these are corporate chains as opposed to independent preschools.

Proportionally, childcare facilities benefit more financially from this funding when they operate full-time services. This is because the ECCE government funding provided for each child is barely enough to cover costs. When parents are paying for additional childminding hours beyond ECCE, this is where it becomes a productive financial model. Therefore, the more children attending for full-time hours, the better the business model.

By comparison, the model is not sustainable nor financially viable for many small rural operations where numbers are limited. Furthermore, Core Funding requires a huge amount of administrative work with lots of red tape which again many small operators cannot keep up with.

This in turn affects families everywhere. The Government is promoting schemes like Our Rural Future to encourage more people to live and work in rural Ireland. But what about families that have to travel half an hour each way to get to a childcare facility?

We have a plethora of newly elected representatives, and a bit of joined up thinking on educating our young people would go a long way.