Education is a right, not a privilege. But since the foundation of the state, some people in Irish society have appeared to have more rights than others, whether it was the ability to secure a place in universities, or the ability to send their very young children to pre-school. Many of those inequalities still exist, but at least some redress came to the youngest members of the educational fraternity with the implementation of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme, and the new Childcare Employment and Training Awards Scheme (CETS), which will support the childcare needs of people participating in VEC or FAS schemes.

ECCE, which came into being on January 1 of this year, has made the provision of pre-school education that much more democratic by effectively providing a free year of pre-school and Montessori education to every child in Ireland. It is available to everyone, regardless of employment status or income, and it is not means tested. But most importantly, it allows thousands of parents, who in the past may have felt that they cannot afford a year of pre-school, to give their children a year's worth of valuable experience that they would otherwise have missed out on.

While many people, particularly those over 30, have carved out perfectly normal lives for themselves without ever having to trouble the pre-school system, the reality is that early childhood education is now becoming the norm.

There are a number of advantages to pre-school education, both for parents and for children. For parents, especially working parents, it provides a safe and beneficial environment for a few hours a day, which can provide some respite from expensive nanny or crèche care.

But, more importantly, for the children themselves, it provides a fun and educational environment for learning and socialisation, and these are skills which will ease the transition into the formal educational process which begins in Junior Infants.

"All of their developmental needs will be taken care of, including their educational, social, emotional and physical development," explained Peggy Walker, director of information at the Irish Preschool Play Association (IPPA), whose 2,400 members include about 2,000 "service providers". "But the biggest issue is that they will learn to socialise together. They will learn to share, and they will learn to solve problems for themselves.

"Research shows that pre-school is a powerful tool in making kids agents in their own learning," she continued. "It's about making them into people who can think for themselves, in the company of adults who are trained to watch and to provide the kids with ways of finding these solutions."

Still, despite its advantages, until January there were huge swathes of society who were unable to send their children to pre-school. The reality is that until January pre-school generally cost parents in excess of €250 per month, and that did not include any extras which may have been incurred for out-of-hours childcare. But participating schools in the ECCE scheme now offer children three hours of free pre-school per day, for 38 weeks of the year – or for schools with a year-round system, it offers two hours and 15 minutes per day for 50 weeks.

There is a key point here – they have to be participating schools. ECCE is a voluntary scheme, and even if there is pre-school in a person's area, there are no guarantees that it will be part of it. Additionally, even if there is a participating pre-school, places will probably be limited, so it would be worth getting any applications in early.

But there really isn't much more to it than that. Administration of the scheme takes place between the service provider and the government. The parents don't need to know much about the scheme, except that it is doing them a major favour by providing three hours of pre-school free for 38 weeks (matching the calendar of the primary schools). The participating pre-school can't charge any extra for the three hours covered by the grant, so unless any extra hours or extra activities are agreed with the parents, then the pre-school experience will be free. And that's about as good as it's going to get in these cash-strapped times.