Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 6 March 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children
Early Years Strategy: Discussion
We are now in public session. We will discuss the early years strategy with the Early Years Expert Advisory Group and the Centre for Effective Services. I welcome Mary McLoughlin, Eilis Hennessy, Toby Wolfe, Nuala Doherty and Stella Owens. I will detail your individual expertise and portfolios when I invite each of you to speak.
I apologise for the lack of members present. We have just had a long and detailed session on the Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise, and members had other commitments.
This meeting has been called as a consequence of the launch by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs of Right from the Start, the report of the expert advisory group established to make recommendations for Ireland's first ever early years strategy, which the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is preparing today. As part of this meeting we will receive an update on that and will consider the latest recommendations and examinations of the challenges and issues we face in implementing the strategy. We will also discuss the benefits of early years interventions. Members will also have the opportunity to raise issues relating to the strategy.
We have received apologies from Deputies Robert Troy, Catherine Byrne, Ciara Conway, Regina Doherty and Senator Jillian van Turnhout. I welcome our guests and witnesses.
Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or any official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I call on Mary McLoughlin, principal officer at the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, to make her opening remarks.
Ms Mary McLoughlin:
I have circulated my statement to committee members. I am aware the committee is tied for time. I would like to put the work of the expert advisory group into context. Our Department is developing and is likely to publish soon a national policy framework for children and young people which replaces the first national children's strategy. The early years strategy is a sub-strategy in that framework. The detail is in my statement.
Ms Eilis Hennessy:
The expert advisory group, on whose behalf I speak today, comprised a group of experts from a wide range of disciplines and professions, who came together to offer advice to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, on the early years strategy. Toby Wolfe from Start Strong was a member of the group and he and I are available to answer questions.
The early years strategy, which was the focus of advice provided by the expert group, will fit within the overall children and young people's policy framework being developed by the Government. Rather than devise a strategy for young children based in specific service silos, for example, early care and education, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs announced at the outset that the early years strategy would take a holistic approach to the development of services for children under the age of six. This means that within this strategy there will be commitments to the development of services that relate to children’s health, their education and support for their parents and families.
We commend the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, for adopting this approach because young children do not live and develop in silos, so policies and services need to focus on their holistic needs and on integrating services to meet those needs.
Over the course of 18 months the expert advisory group met regularly and with expert input from the Centre for Effective Services came up with a series of 54 recommendations on what should be included within the early years strategy. Every one of these recommendations is grounded within scientific evidence about children's developmental needs and how best to fulfil them. These recommendations, together with the scientific evidence from the Centre for Effective Services, are in the Right from the Start report that has been circulated to committee members.
Time does not permit me to go into each of those recommendations today so I will focus instead on five key points that we believe policymakers need to address over the next five years. In the report we refer to them as five peaks, because we see them as challenges, but as challenges that can be surmounted in the best interests of children. Focusing on these peaks is not to minimise the importance of any of our other recommendations and I hope that members will have an opportunity to read the report in its entirety.
I will give a brief outline of each of those peaks. The first peak is increasing investment in early care and education services, with investment rising incrementally each year from the current 0.4% to achieve the international benchmark of 1% of GDP within ten years. Within the next five years we believe the strategy should ensure investment reaches the OECD average of 0.7% of GDP. The increased investment is necessary to achieve higher quality more accessible and more affordable services, particularly through the training and professional development of those working at all levels of the early care and education system.
Our second peak is the provision of a significantly longer period of paid leave for parents, introduced by each year and incrementally extending paid parental leave at the end of the current period of paid maternity leave. The aim should be within five years to achieve one year's paid parental leave after the birth of each child, and two weeks' paid paternity leave around the birth of a child. This has several important advantages for children and families. A child's first year is a critical time for establishing attachment relationships between children and their parents and for the development of caring roles. These attachment relationships which children develop with their care-givers are very significant for their long-term mental, emotional and social well-being. A year's paid leave would also support breast-feeding beyond six months should the mother choose to extend her time at home beyond the six months of maternity leave. In addition, both paternity leave and paid parental leave would introduce the option for fathers to play a significant role in the care of infants during the important first weeks and months.
Our third peak is strengthening child and family support. In order to do this we believe that what is needed is a dedicated service, led by specialist child and family public health nurses to provide integrated support for parents and children spanning the antenatal period through to the early years. We welcome the establishment of the new Child and Family Agency and we believe that there should be dedicated child and family public health nurses working within the agency but also these nurses should be integrated and co-located with primary care teams, working with GPs, as envisioned in the 2012 task force report. This service should allow for more intensive support for first-time parents who are clearly in need of additional support and for children and families with more complex needs. It must ensure that all children receive the five core visits at home by public health nurses.
Our fourth peak relates to ensuring that all services for children have strong governance, are accountable and provide high quality services. In the past, too many children have been let down by the absence of clear and consistent governance, poor communication and low accountability. The establishment of a Cabinet-level Department of Children and Youth Affairs, is an opportunity to drive significantly higher standards for all our children. We hope that at the end of the strategy's time period of ten years, no child should be in a low-quality early care and education service and that no public money should be allocated to services that fail to achieve quality standards.
We believe that one of the best ways to transform the lives of young children is to enhance and extend quality early childhood care and education services. While Ireland has made significant advances in providing child care and preschool services in recent years it is unfortunately clear that the quality is not consistently high. We welcome the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, that she will allocate €4.5 million to support implementation of her eight-point preschool quality agenda which includes the recruitment of additional staff for the preschool inspectorate, a mentoring service for preschool services and the provision of training support for staff already in the sector. All of these initiatives are very welcome developments, but the expert advisory group concluded that ensuring high quality remains the foremost policy challenge in early care and education today. As I mentioned earlier, spending on these services in Ireland is significantly below the OECD average, so much more attention and investment is needed.
Once we have achieved a higher standard of care, the fifth peak that we strongly recommend is the extension of the entitlement to free preschool provision so that a free part-time place is available from every child's third birthday until such time as they enter primary school. Depending on the age at which a child begins school, many children should then benefit from about two years' free preschool provision before entering the junior infant primary school class.
We believe that the proposed early years strategy could significantly transform the lives of children in Ireland. However, to achieve this transformation will require leadership and collaboration across Departments, organisations and services. The expert advisory group of which I was the chairperson, has played its part by giving careful consideration to what we believe should be contained within the strategy and by presenting those recommendations to the Minister in the form of our report. Now we need politicians and policymakers such as the committee members to take up the challenge. In the first instance, we urge the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to include in her early years strategy all the recommendations we have set out in our report. In addition, we believe that if the strategy is to be effective, its implementation will require a high level cross-departmental committee charged with its implementation and with monitoring its progress. We will need politicians to press for such an implementation committee. We believe that the committee should be led by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, but should also include all the other Departments whose policies affect the lives of young children. We hope this will include representatives from this committee, and from the Departments of Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, Education and Skills, Health, Social Protection, Justice and Equality, and Environment, Community and Local Government.
In order to ensure that right from the start all our children have the best possible chance, it will be crucial to have a major statement of political purpose, along with a radical re-orientation of structures, organisations, resources and policy priorities.
I thank Ms Hennessy for her presentation. I thank the members of the expert advisory group for their work. I welcome Ms Nuala Doherty, director of the Centre for Effective Services and Dr. Stella Owens, the project specialist in the centre. I invite Ms Doherty to make her presentation.
Ms Nuala Doherty:
I thank the Chairman and the committee for the invitation to address the committee meeting today. Our job in the Centre for Effective Services is to bring good quality evidence to policymakers in the area of services to children, families and communities. We translate the learning from research into messages that are usable for policymakers and practitioners.
There is a synergy between our work and that of the previous speaker. We will focus in our presentation on new emerging evidence with regard to prevention and early intervention and how this can be applied to an early years policy.
Members will be familiar with the concept of prevention and early intervention to address problems when they arise. There is compelling international evidence, contained in enough reports to fill the room from floor to ceiling, for the importance of reorienting services away from later to earlier intervention in order to achieve better outcomes for children.
This morning, however, I propose to focus on the significant body of Irish research and evidence we have collected in the past decade to support prevention and early intervention. Investment in this area has come primarily from Atlantic Philanthropies, but also from successive governments. Some €127 million has been invested over the past ten years or so in 52 programmes, and the lessons from that are now emerging. Our job was to synthesise those lessons and make them usable for the committee and other interested parties. As members can see, we have structured our findings into seven areas and given 12 recommendations. We will test members' memory later. We are saying that if we want to ensure better outcomes for children and families, intervening in these seven areas will make a difference. Our first three points relate to who we need to focus on, namely, parents, very young children from birth to three years, and the professionals who work with children. The second bundle concerns the areas we need to focus on, which are transitions for children and children's learning. The third category relates to how we need to work.
I will begin with the role of parents, an issue that was also highlighted by the previous speaker. We now know that the relationship between parent and child is the most important factor in terms of child outcomes, more important than issues such as income or family structure. Indeed, one of the key lessons is that if we work in supporting parents, we will achieve better outcomes for children. The research under the prevention and early intervention programme showed significant decreases in stress and depression among parents, significant increases in their confidence in their parenting skills and significant improvements in children's behaviour. The lesson is that with the right support, it is possible to achieve these types of improvement in outcomes. In that context, we are calling, as did the previous speaker, for a national approach to parenting and a national parenting action plan to co-ordinate the range of good work that is being done in supporting parents.
The second issue we highlighted relates to focusing on children from pre-birth to three years of age. We now know that this period is the most significant period in a child's development, when brain development is at its strongest. A safe nurturing environment and secure relationships during this period can deliver very good long-term outcomes. Reference was made to the importance of nutrition. We now have evidence, derived in this country, that breastfeeding is directly linked to a reduced likelihood of obesity at age three, something which has become a major public health concern. Findings from the programmes have shown that support in the form of home visits, for example, led to improvements in nutrition, a lower rate of hospital stays and better uptake of immunisation programmes.
The third issue we have identified, support for health professionals, also links very well with what the previous speaker said. We know that professionals working with children play a hugely important role in their well-being and development. They must, of course, be adequately trained, but that is not enough. We want them not only to have the necessary skills but also the suitability and aptitudes to do the job. The evidence is pointing to the need for a much more active type of training for professionals, with more skills-based learning, coaching and mentoring in addition to formal learning.
The fourth area we highlight relates to the key transitions in a child's development. Children go from home to preschool to primary school to post-primary school and on to the world of further education and work. While most children make those transitions without difficulty, children who are vulnerable can fall through the cracks at these times. The projects show that if we focus on the transitions, such as preparing children to transition from home to school and from primary to secondary level, we can achieve significantly better outcomes for them. School mentoring, for instance, can be of great help in supporting children through what can be the difficult transition from primary to secondary school.
In terms of supporting children's learning, which is the fifth issue we deal with, we know that the social and economic costs of poor school attainment are very high. There are many reasons children do not do well in school. There is a significant emphasis on literacy and numeracy in the programmes and many have achieved significant improvements in that regard. There is also, however, a focus on love of learning. One of the findings was that promoting a love of learning, in addition to focusing on literacy and numeracy, will make a difference. There is a linkage here with supporting parents in order to enable them to help their children at home.
The final two issues we have identified focus on how all this work should be done. It will come as no surprise to members that the programmes showed that parachuting initiatives and projects into communities does not work. Instead, there must be consultation with communities - finding out what they want, understanding what life is like for them and determining how the programmes can best meet their needs. The final point we make, under the same heading of how the work should be done, relates to the issue of inter-agency work, which is again very well matched with the point made by the previous speaker. Inter-agency co-operation is like the glue that makes the whole thing hang together. What we want to see, essentially, is the various bodies and agencies in the areas of education, health and justice working together. The local mechanism for doing that at county level is the children's services committee. That is already Government policy and we are recommending that it be given nationwide coverage this year.
In conclusion, there is substantial empirical evidence that intervening early in children's lives - a prevention and early intervention approach - offers substantial benefits not only in preventing a great deal of suffering for children and their families and the associated negative social consequences but also in so far as it is cost-effective.
I welcome the witnesses. My colleague, Deputy Robert Troy, who is the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on children, conveys his apologies for being unable to attend. As spokesperson on health, I will do my best to step into the breach.
As a father of three young children, all of whom are in national school, I am well aware of the pressures and strains on many parents. One need only stand at the junction of any busy estate on any weekday morning to see the frantic routine involved in bundling children into cars to get them to school or child care before their parents go on to work. In many cases, families require dual incomes in order to sustain mortgages. The witnesses referred to regulation of all paid non-relative childminders. Is there any room in the future for Mrs. Murphy at the top of the road to mind one's child now and again or even on a full-time basis? When the existing regulations were introduced some years ago, my peers and I found that the first thing to happen was that child care became cripplingly expensive. We all are in favour of high-quality services and early intervention, but for the average family, regulation equals increased costs, either through taxation or front-line charges. Of that there is no doubt. The reality, of course, is that many childminders are still paid in cash and under the counter. That is what happens in the real world. In stripping that out, who is going to pick up the slack? If we amend the Child Care Act as the delegates are recommending, very few of the Mrs. Murphys will be able to comply with the regulations. Who then will look after all those children?
Regarding the reference to funding of 1% of GDP, international comparators from the OECD and so on, what we really need to know is how much any proposed changes will cost families. That is the critical issue. Parents are already burdened with significant financial pressures, as we know from empirical evidence and simply from living in communities.
When we opted for a child-care system, it was reasonable. However, for people living in Dublin, it was extremely expensive and there were those who found it impossible to use. That is my personal point of view and not necessarily that of my party, but universality is all very well if one has access to the profits from oil wells and gold mines. We live in a state which has limited financial capacity. In the context of universality of entitlement, it has been my experience that those at the bottom suffer most. Let us be clear about it - there is a need to devote more resources to those who need them most. If we give a universal entitlement without ensuring the full complement of resources is available, effectively we will give children who already have an advantage an even greater one. On the other side of the coin, those who are already under pressure in realising their full potential will have even less chance of doing so.
The report refers to the investment required in respect of universal entitlement. We will need a number of stepping stones to get to that point. If these stepping stones are not put in place, those who most need our help will suffer. Reference was made to early intervention. Some of the children in question cannot wait another week, not to mention a number of years. We need to intervene at a very early stage, particularly in the case of children who are vulnerable. Our guests should not misunderstand me - that to which they refer is the point we all want to reach. What can we do in the meantime to address the problems of children who are vulnerable and require assistance?
Will the Chairman indicate the amount of time I have left?
It is welcome that we have a Minister and a Department with responsibility for children and youth affairs. However, the services available from agencies throughout the country remain disparate in nature. For example, some are provided by the Departments of Justice and Equality and Health, while others are provided by local authorities. Is there a need to streamline the system even further in order that there might be greater accountability and transparency, particularly in research and the development of policy? As stated, I am merely outlining my experiences on this issue and I do not have in-depth knowledge of it. We are all aware, however, of children who are dropped to someone's house to be minded and whose parents pay cash for the privilege. Their parents collect them at the end of the day. I may be wrong, but this generally seems to work. Most of the problems in this area have arisen in organised child-minding services. Will our guests comment on that issue?
Are public health nurses responsible for carrying out inspections? Most members will agree that public health nurses already have enough to do. I accept, however, that they are eminently qualified to perform many duties. Is there a need to look elsewhere for people to carry out inspections? There is already a dearth of public health nurses throughout the country and those we have are under huge pressure. They are not able to cover the areas for which they are responsible because there are not enough of them available to do so. Should we look to others to carry out inspections of child-care facilities?
Like most Deputies, I knock on doors for a living. In that context, one can quickly establish whether a household is under pressure. Referendums have been held on this matter, particularly in the context of when the State should intervene. There were tragic cases of gardaí intervening too soon in cases that had been brought to their attention and before they had carried out sufficient background research. I refer to instances where children were taken into care for short periods and where this had a very negative impact on the families involved. Are there sufficient front-line staff to interact with parents and children? Alarm bells should immediately sound in the case of children who regularly play truant from school. This probably indicates that there is a problem within the relevant household. There is no framework in place for the gathering of the necessary information from the school involved or the school inspectorate and feeding it into the system. If this were to happen, perhaps we could identify the households which might be in trouble. Reference is made to putting systems in place and there were very tragic cases where matters ended up in court. In such instances it should have been patently obvious to an individual professional who had access either to the parents, in social settings, or the children, in school settings, that there was a problem. However, it was not possible for those within the system to correlate all of the available evidence and determine whether there was a problem.
I accept that my comments may not be directly related to the report. However, I am strongly of the view that there is a need for early intervention in the case of children who need it.
I welcome our guests. The Chairman has probably explained that the opportunity to hold this meeting came so late that many members cannot be present to engage with them. Other matters presented in respect of the tragic cases involving perinatal deaths at Portlaoise which created the need to reorder our business. I have no doubt that this impacted on the attendance of members at this meeting. Their absence should not be taken in any way as indicating a lack of interest in the subject under discussion.
In the context of Ms McLoughlin's presentation and for the Department's information, earlier in this meeting which began at 9.30 a.m. I welcomed the approval of the heads of the Bill on aftercare for children who have been in care. I accept that this is not particularly relevant to the matter under discussion. However, it is nice to be able to compliment a Minister and his Department on progressing matters in a very specific area. That said, the two matters may be related. In that context, we are discussing early years preparation. Far fewer people might be obliged to use care services if the level of investment in such preparation was greater. The framework is due to be submitted to the Government in the coming weeks with a view to publication sometime thereafter. What will be the position thereafter? Approval must issue and, as Ms McLoughlin pointed out, the early years strategy is a constituent strategy in the national policy framework and cannot be finalised until the framework has been agreed to by the Government. Will she indicate what the envisaged timeline is in this regard?
I thank Dr. Hennessy for her presentation and all the work done by the expert advisory group. I welcome Mr. Wolfe from Start Strong who made a presentation at the same meeting as the Donegal County Childcare Committee a couple of weeks ago. I recently made a contribution in the Dáil, in respect of which colleagues addressed several queries to me. For the purposes of clarification, will our guests from the expert advisory group comment on the issue of the second peak - the provision of a significantly longer period of paid leave for parents and the aim to achieve one year's paid parental leave following the birth of each child and the introduction of two weeks' paid paternity leave? Some of the smart Deputies who ticked both boxes, that is, those of paterand parent, were wondering if they would qualify for both.
Paid parental leave is an entitlement of one or other of the two parents, not both. I would like to get clarification on that. It may seem a silly point but it is not, and not everybody is on board across this argument, even in the singular, never mind in the dual. I was taken aback by some of the reaction to my making this very point.
The two weeks' paternity leave around the birth of a child can be timed in that it does not have to be contemporaneous with the birth date of the child and can be taken at a later stage. Could the delegates comment on that? It was stated that this would introduce the option for fathers to play a significant role in the care of infants during the important first weeks and months. Could Dr. Hennessy elaborate on that? We are talking about two weeks' paternity leave and the likelihood is that we are looking at one year's paid parental leave, which is most likely to be, but is not always, the mother's choice. Can it be shared? Dr. Hennessy might elaborate on that. Am I almost addressing the fifth peak outlined in the submission?
Am I on my own peak? That is a good place. The fifth peak is the recommendation of the extension of the entitlement to free preschool provision. This was the subject of a debate that was attended by both the Donegal County Childcare Committee, with regard to the Indecon report, and Start Strong, with regard to universal provision. I want to get a sense from the expert advisory group on this. The Minister is wrestling with this in terms of access to resourcing. In the absence of the monetary capacity to roll out a second year of free preschool, does the expert advisory group accept the finding of the Indecon report commissioned by Donegal County Childcare Committee that it should be provided for a second year? One-year universal provision is provided across the board as it stands, but it was proposed that the further roll-out be targeted at parents and communities struggling on the margins with economic challenges if we do not have the wherewithal to roll out a second year of universal provision, which would be my natural inclination. If that were not achievable, would the expert advisory group be prepared to support such a targeted provision, and how would it see it being rolled out?
In regard to Ms Nuala Doherty's presentation, the national parenting action plan is very important. All the information is there to warrant that. Could she give us more information on where the plan is and how she expects it can be progressed in the period ahead?
I apologise for being late but I heard some of the presentations in my office. I am probably old-fashioned in that I believe the longer one spends at home with one's children the better chance one has of connecting with them, but sadly, that it is not possible for many young people, particularly when they have mortgages and have found themselves in negative equity. I would agree with the point made by Deputy Kelleher in that I have passed many a housing estate where children are being bundled into the cars at 7.30 a.m. to be dropped off either at the homes of friends or family or at crèches. I have only one question regarding shared parental leave. I honestly believe it is the way to go. There should be an opportunity for a father to take longer extended leave to be able to look after his child, if possible. Sometimes the mother can be better off financially in her position in work and it might make more sense for the father to share that leave.
The owners of many private crèches and playschools find it difficult to manage. They are trying to earn an income from the business and they have large overheads and staff costs. I have found many of them that I visited to be very competent and their staff are very well trained. They sometimes get an unfriendly knocking from some of us about making a business out of the service, but it is an essential service for many parents who go out to work.
I want to concentrate on young mothers who live in less-well-off communities who drop their children into some type of crèche locally, particularly family resource centres, after-school projects and other such places. I am worried about the connection between those young mothers and their children. Young mothers drop their children to school in the morning and probably do not see them until late afternoon, as some children go from school to an after-school project and it does not end until 6 p.m. It is a long time for mothers to be away from their children. I am not talking about mothers who go out to work but young mothers who are not working. I am concerned about those young mothers in terms of the time they have from when they drop their children to a crèche or playschool in their early years and pick them up from an after-school project. Many young mothers in the area I represent go home having dropped their child to school and then do their everyday chores, which mothers would have done in the past when they were at home with their children. The children are out of the home from early morning until late in the evening when they come out of after-school projects. As a result of that, there does not seem to be a mother-child connection. That connection is being lost.
We need to examine how parenting is done. Information is provided on parenting skills. A parenting programme was provided in the local school in my parish in the past. It was targeted at young mothers and it covered the feeding, bathing, minding and caring of children. It was a wonderful programme. It did not cost the parents who attended it a penny. It was provided on a voluntary basis by older mothers who had time to go to the schools. We need to examine this area again. In terms of the many young women who do not have educational skills and do not want to return to education, there is a gap that needs to be filled. We do not want to start baby-minding places because that is not what this is about. If parents want to put their children into crèches and playschools, they should be a follow-on for young mothers in the community to take up courses. However, many of them do not do so.
Have the delegates an opinion on the cost of crèches, particularly private crèches? Some people have told me that the cost of putting their children into a private crèche is nearly the cost of their mortgage repayment, and they find it very difficult to meet those costs.
I thank the delegates for their presentations. I apologise for not being here but I have read the presentations. I thank the delegates for the work they are doing in this important area.
I want to raise an issue concerning a programme in which the delegates may not be directly involved. In 1996 we introduced the Breaking the Cycle scheme whereby we increased the number of teachers per number of students and we brought the ratio down from 1:28 to 1:15. Have there been any reports on the benefits of that and, if so, what have they been? Has the programme made as big a difference as we thought it would?
The second issue relates to support in poorer areas, where, despite the changes that have occurred in the pupil-teacher ratio, we still have a big problem with literacy and numeracy skills. I recently spoke to the principal of a secondary school who encounters a high rate of literacy and numeracy problems among first-year students. What progress has been made in that respect in poorer areas? In the context of establishing schemes involving both parents and children, in one area in my constituency, €1.5 million is being invested in a well-drafted joint programme.
Is this the best way of dealing with it and is there enough research to support this type of system? In many poorer areas, thus far there has not been a huge impact over the past 15 years in getting people from primary to secondary school and on to third-level education. The percentage going on to third-level education in such areas still has not changed dramatically. Similarly, huge progress has not been made regarding people from such areas getting into the workforce in any way. Do the witnesses think enough is being done at the very early stages with parents in particular? Should the focus on this issue be changed? The programme in my home area to which I referred pertains to a very early stage before the children start school. Do the witnesses think much more must be done in this area?
Ms Mary McLoughlin:
Deputy Kelleher raised the issue of childminders and I am sure the expert advisory group's representatives will wish to comment. However, the Minister has made the point a number of times that it is a challenge. Ten years ago, arrangements were put in place whereby a tax relief and training were available for those who were childminders and who registered or were notified. This did not attract many childminders. As the Minister has stated a number of times, there is a cultural issue in this regard. There is a need to ensure quality when people are childminding in order that parents can have confidence that the person to whom they are going is a suitable person to mind children. However, as to how one regulates that within what traditionally has been a highly informal sector is a challenge for the Department. While we must address it, I do not believe we have come to the solution as yet.
Both Deputies Kelleher and Catherine Byrne raised the issue of cost to families. To be fair, there is no great difference between the cost to families of community and private child care. The issue is that the cost to parents is high, and this came up at the discussion about the Indecon report. The costs of child care in Ireland are actually very low because we pay our staff very low wages. The issue is that in countries in which child care is cheaper, that is due to the level of Government subvention. Consequently, it is only fair to the sector to make the point that it is not that its costs are particularly high.
On the issue of universal versus targeted child care, obviously, in times of scarce resources, one is more likely to target services towards people who are particularly in need of them. However, there is much evidence that children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit more from universal services. Consequently, the challenge for us as policy makers pertains to what is the best thing to do if a block of funding is available. At present, we have one year of part-time universal service and then we have targeted schemes. If only small amounts of money are available, obviously one would probably increase the targeted schemes. However, it is known that in the longer term the benefit is from universal services, despite the fact that this means that some people who perhaps do not need the financial support will receive it. According to the research, I think the overall outcome probably is that it is better for children.
Ms Mary McLoughlin:
It is on universal services to children and is quite widely available. Ms Hennessy might pick up on that point.
As for the inspections, they are conducted by public health nurses at present, but they are separate in that they do not carry out other public health nurse work. However, the last time the Department appeared before this committee, the Minister stated that the intention was to expand this. Public health nurses have huge strengths with regard to their understanding of the development of small children, but with other people, particularly with newer qualifications, one could have a variety of action. However, it is not that public health nurses are trying to do what would be traditional public health nurse work. A number of members raised the inter-agency issue, and while the agency is part of the response thereto, I acknowledge there still is a long way to go. The National Education Welfare Board is now part of the new Child and Family Agency, and hopefully these links will build up.
On parenting, the Minister has already stated that she will prepare a parenting and family support policy because it has come from a number of areas. One issue she has raised a number of times is that the State spends a great deal of money on parenting. Many people run parenting programmes supported by the State, some of which are evidence-based and some of which perhaps are less so. Consequently, there is an important issue with regard to making sure the parenting programmes supported by the State are the right ones for the parents.
Ms Mary McLoughlin:
At present it is quite patchy, which was one factor that led to the establishment of the agency. It was not just about the more vulnerable families but also was about putting together all those resources, whether they were originally from the Health Service Executive or the Family Support Agency, and examining the policy for commissioning and providing family support and trying to do this consistently nationwide.
In response to Senator Burke's question on the issue of early intervention, as the person with responsibility for early years, I of course would reply that there is never enough money put into the early years. However, in respect of literacy, numeracy and children going on to third level, the early years are key. Some of this is about helping parents to understand that it is not necessarily about books, but the first piece is about talking to children. To revert to the point made by Deputy Catherine Byrne, children whose parents talk to them are more likely to read. Therefore, one must start with the simple things. For those who do not read or do not have a tradition of reading, reading children a book can be quite challenging, and people can be quite afraid of it. Simply talking to children or to babies from the very outset is of key importance and is a much simpler message to give to people. Part of the development of the strategy concerns what those messages are and how they can be disseminated without either patronising or frightening the parents, because many people are very nervous about what they ought to do. Every parent wants to do the right thing and we must find ways to help them to do that, albeit not necessarily highly complicated ways.
Dr. Eilis Hennessy:
I will ask Mr. Toby Wolfe to answer some of the questions about the regulation of childminders and will pick up on some of the other points made by various members. Deputy Kelleher asked about the evidence. Some of the main evidence comes from studies by Professors Kathy Sylva and Edward Melhuish, who were part of the evaluation team that examined some of the early child care provision in the United Kingdom. These studies were carried out at multiple sites right across the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, and it was found that while high quality is absolutely essential for children to benefit, children also did better in the services that were mixed - in other words, those that had children from a variety of backgrounds. Consequently, there is quite specific evidence to support this, and that is the reason the expert advisory group recommended it.
I will clarify what Deputies Ó Caoláin and Catherine Byrne asked about in respect of parental, maternity and paternity leave. Maternity leave is leave that we intend to be taken solely by the mother. At present, such leave is paid for six months, and it is known from evidence that the majority of women go back to work at that point. We believe it is important to extend this, and our suggestion is that the extension should be made available to either the mother or the father. We are calling this parental leave. However, we do not mean it is available to both parents at the same time if they wish; we mean that the parents choose. We think that the six-month point is probably a good time to allow parents to consider it themselves. By using the term "paternity leave" we are referring specifically to leave that can only be taken by the father, and that is two weeks. I completely agree it would be nice not to put too tight a timeframe on it because, depending on the circumstances of the parents, two weeks may be very valuable at different periods. I completely agree on that point.
Mr. Toby Wolfe:
I certainly will comment on the childminding question and might pick up on some of the other questions that were raised as well, if that is all right. On the specific issue of childminding regulation, I should state clearly at the outset that the expert group's recommendation concerned the regulation of non-relative childminders. It clearly was not making any comment on grandparents and so on, who probably are the most common form of childminding in this country. The context for the expert group's recommendations on the regulation of childminding was that at present, if one is doing voluntary work in any of a wide range of voluntary organisations, one must be Garda vetted. This is accepted as being essential for child protection reasons.
That is not a requirement to be a childminder. I understand the Deputy's comments on the stress that families are under and their need to find solutions. Childminding is regulated in some other countries. Scotland is a good example. It is similar in size to Ireland and is not that dissimilar culturally. Scotland has a fully regulated childminding system, including 6,000 childminders who are regulated and inspected. From speaking to people involved in the Scottish system, I understand that it works. Families like the security of knowing that childminders they turn to are the equivalent of Garda-vetted and have high-quality supports. They like to know that they can trust childminders. Childminders themselves like the extra status they get from being recognised as professionals, rather than babysitters. In addition, it benefits children through additional high-quality supports. We know the system works, which was the backdrop to the expert group's recommendation.
I will briefly deal with a couple of the other questions to add to what Ms Hennessy has said. I agree with what Ms McLoughlin said about the costs to families and the stresses they are under. The reason the cost of early care in education is so high for families in Ireland is simply that the State does not invest in those services to the same degree as in other countries. The expert group's report is clear that if we are talking, for example, about measures to raise the quality of early care in education, parents should not foot the bill for higher quality or tightening regulations. Additional public investment is required, so the Government needs to step in.
A question was asked about how the State could afford a universal approach in a time of tight budgets. Ms Hennessy answered that as regards the evidence. To add to what she said, one of the great benefits of a universal approach is that it reaches all children and one can guarantee that every child benefits. With targeted solutions - particularly in the context that most disadvantaged children in Ireland do not live in disadvantaged areas - solutions for those who are disadvantaged often do not hit everybody who ought to benefit from them.
Concerns about universal provision are understandable in a time of tight finances, but it is worth drawing an analogy with schools. We do not say that the State should stop providing primary school on a universal basis because we are in a time of financial difficulty. We say instead that school is something absolutely fundamental and should be available to every child. Additional resources may be needed, such as through the DEIS scheme in areas of disadvantage, but it is a fundamental universal provision. The expert group is saying that the same applies to high-quality preschool provision.
One is entitled to go to school and the State is obliged to provide schooling, but the State is not obliged to provide a 15:1 pupil-teacher ratio. It does do so, however, in problematic areas of disadvantage. That is the question we are trying to clarify.
Mr. Toby Wolfe:
One of the core principles in the expert group's report was what we call progressive universalism. That means that one provides services universally, but additional supports are provided for families with additional needs on that universal base. The DEIS model is exactly that. One is saying that primary school is a universal service for all children, but in disadvantaged areas one provides additional supports on that universal base. The expert group said that that principle should be applied across the board in terms of health, education and early care in education.
What is the priority in times of tight finances? Is a second free preschool year a priority, or should it be something else? The expert group's clear recommendation is that, while it called for an extension of preschool provision, quality must be raised first. That is the clear priority. The expert group said that quality is the foremost policy challenge facing early care in education in Ireland today. It is an issue that links to the question of good use of public spending because of the research evidence that says that children only benefit from early care in education if it is of high quality. If it is of low quality children do not benefit. The State is putting €170 million annually into the free preschool year as it stands. That is only benefiting children in those high-quality services. Where it is of low quality, it is not benefiting them. The money is only well spent if the services are of high quality. That is why the expert group has a clear position that quality comes first.
Ms Nuala Doherty:
I will also respond to some of the Deputies' questions. Deputy Kelleher mentioned things being disparate and not joined up, as well as the truancy issue. He wondered whether organisations and agencies were aligned. One of the recommendations from our work is that the local county structure that has been established - the children's services committees - is a mechanism for joining up the various local agencies in a county for planning and co-ordinating services for children. At the moment there are 16 of those in 16 different counties. Our recommendation is that they will be brought out nationwide, which is the Government's policy. Health, education and justice agencies and local authorities are getting together to figure out what is required by way of children's services in a county. They also consider how information can be shared to get more streamlined services.
Parenting programmes are being examined by many children's services committees to see if they meet the needs of a county. They are ensuring that there is good coverage for both universal and targeted services so there is enough for young parents and parents of teenagers. In addition, they seek to avoid duplication, which is one of the core purposes of a structure such as the children's services committees.
My colleague, Dr. Stella Owens, will pick up on the national parenting action plan. Deputy Byrne mentioned the family resource centres and young mothers. How to engage young mothers while their children are being minded is a real challenge. Some of the programmes in the prevention and early intervention initiative had some really good ideas about how to undertake such engagement. Working with parents and their children is seen to be particularly effective in achieving change for children. They had some creative and ingenious ways of engaging with parents. The use of peers can be effective, as opposed to the very professional approach, which can be off-putting.
Deputy Byrne spoke about the Breaking the Cycle scheme. The sequel to that was the school completion and DEIS programmes, which have been fairly well evaluated. They have recognised and shown improvements in literacy and numeracy in the DEIS schools as a result of the decreased numbers and additional supports in schools. In addition, there have been increases in school retention, which have been copperfastened by the recent figures. We compare very favourably with other European countries with regard to the number of children who finish school. There is always room for improvement, but increases have occurred, particularly in DEIS schools.
Dr. Stella Owens:
I want to talk specifically about the National Parenting Action Plan, which Deputy Ó Caoláin mentioned. We now have unequivocal evidence, nationally and internationally, that supporting parents produces good outcomes for children. That might seem slight, but we have not had that evidence previously and we were always focused on providing services to children. It is great to see that in the forthcoming national policy framework, supporting parents will be one of the key enablers. It is a key commitment from the whole-of-Government approach to supporting parents.
We also have a great evidence base from a range of programmes and approaches. It is not just based on programmes but also approaches to parenting which have been replicated and evaluated nationally. There are also programmes and approaches which have been around for a great deal of time including the community mothers programme, which is an inexpensive programme focusing on new young mothers. We also have a programme which has been delivered through the HSE since the early 1990s. An important point about parenting programmes is that while they can be expensive, the costs of not having them in terms of poorer outcomes for young people and adults are borne by a range of agencies at a later time. It is important that we encourage partnership approaches through children's services committees to ensure that statutory and community voluntary agencies work together to fund and co-ordinate services to support parents.
Dr. Eilis Hennessy was discussing a focus on public health nurses to provide early support and intervention for parents. It is also about sharing that support among other practitioners in disciplines, including early childhood professionals, speech and language therapists and child-care professionals, to ensure the provision of a community wraparound service for parents to support them ante-natally and post-natally, right through the early years to the age of six. The thinking behind the national parenting action plan is to gather together those who have responsibility in policy making and decision making around parenting with those providing services on the ground to action what we have been talking about. If we have evidence, how do we action it in such a way as to have good co-ordination from early years intervention right through? Parents should get a menu of options on approaches. Oftentimes, there has been an importing of a particular programme approach that has been given to or done unto parents in the community. It is not the right approach. This will provide parents in the community, whether disadvantaged or otherwise, with a choice of how they want to be supported in bringing up their children.
Ms Mary McLoughlin:
On the timeframe for the early years policy, it is not that we are starting after the framework. It is a question of weeks rather than months. A great deal of work has been done and this gives us a huge start. There has been a great deal of discussion and consultation but the final approval by Government must have an impact on the final shape of the strategy. Once the framework has been published, it will be a question of weeks rather than months.
I wish to tease out the point that Mr. Toby Wolfe made on the option of quality. It is not so much a hypothetical but a reality we face. We have a universal access to one year preschool. I support the case for rolling out a second year universally. I hold the same position on child benefit. It is not a difficult position for me to come to. If a situation is presenting and a Minister has been partially successful in relation to additional moneys, is it the case that rather than adopt a piecemeal or partial roll out of second-year access, it would be preferred to see the additional moneys invested in improving the quality of the existing one-year provision across the board? Can the witnesses confirm if that is the case? It seems like a hypothetical, but it is probably not.
I apologise for not being here at the start of the contribution. I take the opportunity to compliment the witnesses on the work they have done. There are many positives in the report.
There was reference earlier to the potential for a comprehensive early years strategy - backed up with a national commitment - to shape a stronger and healthier society, strengthen families and break cycles of poverty and disadvantage while removing barriers of inequality. I do not see any tangible recommendations to address the inaccessibility of child care for low-income working parents. Do the witnesses feel that is an omission or something that will be dealt with in the early years strategy itself?
The report refers regularly to progressive universalism. That would be utopia. If we were to get to 0.7% of GDP, it would amount to extra spending of €1 billion in this area. In the absence of that utopia, should we focus on a targeted approach - leading to universalism - to help families caught in cycles of deprivation and poverty now? What do the witnesses advise doing in the interim to get to the universalism of which they speak?
Maternity benefit is something in which I am interested. The witnesses may be aware that a colleague in the Seanad produced legislation, which the Government accepted, to provide for a transfer by a mother of some of her maternity benefit to a father. It is a measure which will not cost anything and could be implemented now. Do the witnesses support that? I imagine they do. I will not ask them to comment on the budgetary change to maternity benefit last week. It would not be fair as it is a political matter.
The report refers to access and inclusion, about which I have a concern. My concern relates to special education, on which there is insufficient emphasis or focus. Special education is dealt with currently across a number of Departments, which leads to fragmentation and a disjointed approach. Would it be better to advocate the full implementation of the special education legislation to ensure we have a fair, equitable system for children with special educational needs?
What level of public consultation will take place before the final strategy is adopted? Can the witnesses give any indication of how much the recommendations will cost? To be realistic about proposals, we must have them costed. Will the strategy include a clear, unambiguous timeframe and objectives so we know what is to be achieved each year? That would allow us to check off whether objectives have been met.
Ms Mary McLoughlin:
I was asked about the costs of child care. The expert advisory group was asked to make recommendations about how things should work better. The Minister did not expect the group to make recommendations about the cost, which is a Government issue. However, the cost to parents is one of the major issues in the early years strategy which we discussed on foot of the Indecon report.
There has already been extensive public consultation on the framework generally, of which approximately 20% related to the early years strategy. There was a great deal of take-up of that. Following the publication of the report of the expert advisory group in December, we held a sectoral but broad consultation. We brought in many people and the members of the group facilitated a series of workshops.
We got feedback from them. I do not think the Minister intends to engage in further public consultation. There may be some discussion, particularly with the group, but there has been extensive public consultation and at this point, it is a question of moving ahead. The cost of measures will have to be considered. That is part of the work we have been doing and there will be timeframes. Reference was made to an implementation plan, for which there are very clear outcomes.
A lot of work is ongoing in the area of special education. In terms of early years education, there is some very good practice around the country; therefore, some children are well supported. It must be said and it is not often recognised that the majority of children with special needs are participating in the free preschool year. It is not the case that a huge block of children are not participating. Our concern is that for some of them, the quality they are experiencing is not what we would like it to be. A lot of work is ongoing between us, the Department of Health, the HSE and, to some extent, the Department of Education and Science to make sure children can access supports to make the service work effectively in order that parents do not have to go to many different places. From the early years education perspective, we would like to see not so much a bio-diagnosis but support provided if children need it in order that one does not need to go through a process of diagnosis or assessment. That is what we are trying to work towards with the Department of Health. There have been some improvements in some parts of the country, but I certainly recognise that we have a long way to go. We are in the fourth year after the introduction of the free preschool year. A lot of things are developing that are not being done as well as they should be. There have been many improvements for children with additional needs and we will continue to work with the Department of Health.
Dr. Eilis Hennessey:
I refer to Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin's question about whether the group places more emphasis on improving quality than on having a second free preschool year. We were absolutely clear on that point; we emphasised the need for quality throughout. As attending a service that is not of high quality is of no benefit to children, we are absolutely clear that services must be of high quality before we extend the service in any way.
I take Deputy Robert Troy's point that all measures need to be costed. We emphasise this throughout and I hope that when the strategy is published, it will look at costings because it is very important for us to know what the investment in early years education is because it might allow us to see what savings have been made through making it. I do not think bringing Ireland to the point where it is at the OECD level of investment in early years services necessarily represents Utopia. Having an average level of spending is probably something we should be aiming towards and something I would like to see.
On access to early years services, one of our recommendations is that we need full information on the free preschool year. We need to make absolutely sure that the free preschool year service is being accessed by all children from all sectors. Once we have that information, we will be able to see whether particular groups are being missed, although as Ms McLoughlin said, there probably will not be many because we know the uptake is very high. We must also move beyond this because we must look at what is happening within the service to ensure children from all backgrounds and of all levels of ability and disability are fully integrated into the activities of the service. It is not only about getting into the service; it is also about being included in everyday activities within the service.
Under the current legislation, there is scope for a preschool provider to refuse access to somebody in the ECCE scheme on the basis that it does not have the resources or qualifications to deal with him or her. How will we find out the number of children with special educational needs who have been refused access to the scheme? This is very important. We can quantify the number of children who are splitting it over two years, but how are we going to quantify the number who have been refused access? There is scope to refuse access. Anecdotally, I know of such cases.
Mr. Toby Wolfe:
I agree with Dr. Hennessey that there was a very clear call from the expert group to prioritise the issue of quality. In that context, the expert group talked about the "Prime Time" programme entitled, A Breach of Trust, and the lessons to be learned from it. A clear lesson is that we do not want to see a repeat. That means that public funding should not be used to support lower quality services.
In respect of affordability and access, the expert group had a few recommendations to make. Recommendation No. 17 calls for income-related subsidies for early care and education services to reduce the cost barrier for families, particularly those on low incomes or experiencing poverty. It went on to state reform of the existing subsidy schemes - the community childcare subvention scheme and CETS - should ensure subsidised places were equally accessible in all areas of the country. That was a specific recommendation made by the group. Obviously, the recommendation that free preschool provision be extended would also lead to an increase in access and affordability.
On the question about the percentage of GDP invested being utopian, I echo Dr. Hennessey's remarks. The expert group stated that public investment in early years education was money well spent. We cannot afford not to do it. The expert group also stated we could increase it incrementally; therefore, 1% of GDP was not a recommended figure for budget 2015. The recommendation was that we increase expenditure over a ten year timeframe.
There was a question on maternity leave and suggestions around making the existing provision of maternity leave transferable at no cost. As the expert group did not comment on that proposal, it is hard to know what it would have stated. However, its position was that the period of leave should be extended. It approached this from the perspective of the child in saying every child should be able to remain at home with a parent until he or she was 12 months old. While allowing the existing entitlements to maternity leave to be shared might facilitate gender equality in caring roles, it would not enable children to remain at home for longer; therefore, it would not quite match the expert group's recommendation.
On special education, Dr. Hennessey was right to agree that it was a cause for concern if any child was missing out on the free preschool year. That is why the expert group asked for the access figures to be looked at very closely. It also had a number of specific recommendations to make to make services more inclusive for children with disabilities. Recommendation No. 18 called for a national policy on access to preschool special needs assistants to ensure consistency and the availability of assistants. It called for improved access to a wide range of services, including speech and language therapy, with services being brought closer to children and a national roll-out of training programmes on inclusive practice and the diversity and equality guidelines. These are the subject of recommendations Nos. 19 and 20. There is a series of recommendations around ensuring services meet the needs of children with disabilities, which clearly was a priority for the expert group.
Ms Nuala Doherty:
In regard to Deputy Troy's question, one of the most helpful recommendations from our work is that the focus needs to be between birth and three years of age. By the time children get to preschool, support for special needs should already be in place. A more integrated infant health and well-being programme, with early identification of children with special needs, is one of the best ways of addressing later difficulties.
I thank the witnesses for attending the committee to share their knowledge and expertise. This is the beginning of another journey. I thank members who have been here since 9.30 a.m. We have had a very busy and productive day.