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 Joanne, Olivia and Kate Hegarty, from Ballynoe, at one of the coffee mornings at the Down Syndrome Centre Cork on Forge Hill; Joanne is organising a petition against proposed changes to preschool rules for special needs children.	Picture: David Keane
Joanne, Olivia and Kate Hegarty, from Ballynoe, at one of the coffee mornings at the Down Syndrome Centre Cork on Forge Hill; Joanne is organising a petition against proposed changes to preschool rules for special needs children. Picture: David Keane
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Parents’ fury at preschool change

THE Government has paused controversial plans to end exemptions that allowed children with special needs to stay in preschool for longer if needed.

The decision not to proceed with the changes comes after thousands of angry parents signed a petition started by a Cork mum.

Almost 19,000 parents had signed the petition started by Joanne Hegarty, from Ballynoe, calling on the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, to reverse the changes made to an exemption in the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme.

Ms Zappone yesterday confirmed that the proposals had been put “on ice” for now.

The over age exemption allowed children with disabilities to attend an ECCE scheme for longer before attending primary school, giving them more time to prepare for the change. The removal of this exemption had caused serious concern for the parents of children with disabilities of all levels, according to Ms Hegarty, whose daughter Olivia has Down syndrome.

“Kids will have to go to school early whether their parents want them to or not. The Government talks about inclusivity but this isn’t it,” Ms Hegarty told the Evening Echo. “It’s not just children with Down syndrome that this will affect. This will affect children with other disabilities, as well as sick children. Parents know their children better than anyone in the Department of Children [and Youth Affairs] and they know when they are ready for school.”

The ECCE scheme currently provides two years of free preschool to all children, up to the summer before they start primary school. Previously children with additional needs were able to defer their place, if their parent felt they were not ready to start primary school.

However, from September 2018, the plan was to end this exemption until Ms Zappone confirmed that a decision on the matter had now been put on hold.

According to Ms Hegarty, parents can now choose to pay €144 to continue with the ECCE scheme but this fee does not cover the costs of a special needs assistant which many children with disabilities require.

“Removing this exemption will also affect primary schools as it will push children who are not ready yet for school,” Ms Hegarty added.