Children wandering aimlessly around, looking bored, or watching too much TV. Unsafe or unsuitable indoor and outdoor play areas, and poor staff-to-child ratios. Torn or tattered books, broken toys and menus which offer foods high in salt or fatty content.

These are just some examples of problems identified in almost 500 HSE preschool inspection reports covering the last six months of 2008.

Details of the reports are being published by the Sunday Tribune as the government prepares to invest some €170m in the preschool system, much of which is serviced by private 'for profit' providers.

To date, the government says some 4,000 pre-school services – or around 85% of the total – have applied to enter the scheme, a figure which it says is 50% more than the expected number.

Under the plans for the Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme, the government says providers must meet new requirements regarding staff qualifications. Crucially, they must also implement an appropriate programme of educational activities, if they wish to be eligible for participation in the new scheme when it commences next January.

But the reports suggest that much work needs to be done to improve overall standards in our preschools.

Time and again they note examples where preschools have failed to put in place a proper care programme or curriculum for the children in their care.

In total, the reports cover inspections in 17 counties, including Dublin, Louth, Meath, Wexford, Sligo, Clare, Limerick and Donegal.

The responses of owners and operators to the criticisms they contain vary.

In most cases, when contact was successfully made with them by the Sunday Tribune, respondents said they had addressed all of the issues identified by the inspectors.

For example, Edel McDonagh, manager of Little Stars day care in Waterford, which only opened last year, said "everything the HSE recommended was met and we went beyond them" since its inspection.

Sinead Walsh at Aladdins Corner day care in Dublin said it had altered its menu completely, and that part of the problems in relation to supervision of children was due to the absence of one member of staff as they accompanied the inspection team during their visit.

Fiona McKenna of Kidz Akademy in Dundalk said she was not happy with aspects of the
report for her establishment.

"They were even giving out about me using Knorr soup… Food is cooked fresh every day," she said. "Safety flooring has been put down outside at the drain."

Castleknock Montessori Academy in Dublin has since closed down due to problems with planning permission, but its owner Eileen Connolly said she had addressed all of the issues raised in its report.

Denise Connors, co owner of Newport Kids Club in Co Tipperary, said it had also addressed any issues identified, and is waiting for a further inspection to confirm this. She added her belief that some of the matters referred to in the report were due to the fact that a member of staff had been delayed.

The children's charity Barnardos has expressed concern at the findings of the reports, and has warned that poor-quality preschool could actually damage children in terms of their emotional and social development.

Its director of advocacy, Norah Gibbons, said the ongoing rollout of Síolta, the national framework for early childhood education, while a hugely positive move, needs to be continued to be supported.

"These reports suggest to me that what they are absolutely missing is interaction between staff and the children they are caring for. If adults are not noticing children wandering around aimlessly, for example, then something is not right," she told the Sunday Tribune. "The government's plans have to be tied in with the provision of good-quality childcare, over time, and anyone getting this money has to understand this."

What The Inspectors Saw

Aladdins Corner Full Day Care, Mountjoy Square, Dublin

"A baby was given a bottle and fed himself unsupervised in a cot in the sleep room...

"The shopping list for the crèche included processed corned beef, sausages, oxtail soup, burgers, chicken nuggets and fish fingers... fatty processed foods and foods with a high salt content should be omitted or used sparingly."

Little Stars Full Day Care, Tramore, Co Waterford

"The whole child perspective is not being met within the daily life of the service...

"The emergency exit doors were locked at the time of the inspection with no key close by."

Kidz Akademy, Dundalk, Co Louth

"Inadequate supply of toys and equipment affects the programme of care available to the children in your service.

"Children were playing with an uncovered drain in the outdoor play area.

"The slide in the outdoor play area was placed directly onto concrete.

"The written menu available to the parents is not followed. The menu stated all meals were freshly made, yet on the day of the inspection large amounts of processed food were in the kitchen for the children."

Castleknock Montessori Academy, Dublin

"An adequate amount of books, toys and play materials were not available for your service. Some books were tattered and torn.

"There was pizza, mince, fish fingers, waffles and chips in the freezer... Food and drink served to the children needs to be nutritious and well balanced. High-salt, fatty and processed foods must be omitted or used sparingly."

Newport Kids Club, Newport, Co Tipperary; Preschool room

"There was no evidence of a programme of care being implemented. There were eight preschool children being supervised by one adult.

"Children in the preschool room were not engaged in activity or play.One child was rocking a chair on its legs while another child was wandering around aimlessly.

"The television was turned on. The provider stated that the television was on as one staff member was late for work...

"There were no books available in the book stand. When asked why, the provider stated that the children chew and tear them.

"It is noted that you stated in your (response to a previous inspection) that 'in line with age groups in our care, equipment and activities to develop sensory skills and appreciation of nature will be introduced...'

"This is at variance with our observations... and is a cause of serious concern."