Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 7 May 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children
Child Care: Discussion
I would like to remind members to ensure that their mobile telephones are switched off as they cause serious problems for broadcasting, editorial and sound staff.
In the opening session this morning the joint committee will hear from key stakeholders on the issue of child care. The committee identified the need for quality and affordable child care as a priority issue in our work programme. The child care sector faces a number of challenges including significant costs faced by families for child care, conditions and accreditation for training for child care workers and increased regulation and funding issues for the sector. The committee appointed Deputy Sandra McLellan as rapporteur to work with her colleagues in preparing a report on this issue. I would also like to acknowledge Deputy Robert Troy and Senator Jillian van Turnhout's contribution to our discussion of this issue.
I welcome our witnesses to the meeting: Ms Teresa Heeney, chief executive officer of Early Childhood Ireland; Ms Orla O'Connor, director of the National Women's Council of Ireland; Ms Maria Corbett, deputy chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance; and Ms Ciairín de Buis, director of Start Strong. The committee has asked each witness to focus on a different aspect of the child care debate. Ms Heeney is going to open with a short overview of the national situation to set the scene and identify the current state of play with regard to child care and early education in Ireland. Ms O'Connor will address the costs of child care and the impact on female participation in the workforce. Ms Corbett will mainly focus on the issue of child care and disability, looking at how we need to cater for child care for those with special needs and Ms de Buis will close the session by considering the future of child care in Ireland, what we mean by quality and affordable child care and what measures need to be considered to achieve this.
Before we commence, I wish to remind witnesses of the position on privilege. I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not 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 parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I call on Ms Teresa Heeney to make her opening statement.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
Early Childhood Ireland welcomes the invitation to be here today and congratulates the committee on its decision to prepare a report on child care at this critical time.
It is fitting that it is this committee and not the committee for stabilising the economy, the committee to get women back to the workforce, or the committee to address poverty and deprivation that is considering the issue. This committee focuses on the needs and rights of our children and the type of childhood we want for them. That, first and foremost, must be the focus of any plan or vision for early childhood education in Ireland.
The committee's report must be about ensuring quality. To do that, it must ensure that significant public investment is added into this sector and goes directly into services rather than any form of tax credits. My colleague Ciairín is going to talk about that later and give examples of how tax credits do not work in this context. A child-focused plan will listen to the incontrovertible evidence that children do better if they spend at least their first year with their parent. We must invest in the extension of leave arrangements to ensure that children can be with a parent for at least the first year of their lives.
A child-focused plan would ensure that all children attending settings have access to the supports they need to make the most of that time. That includes children in our most disadvantaged areas who need and deserve more than services which are obliged to hire community employment staff due to the lack of funding. It includes children with additional needs who have virtually no access to special needs assistants in their preschool and therefore often cannot access their entitlement as the service cannot accommodate them. It includes children under the age of three whose parents currently receive virtually no support when it comes to paying for the cost of their child care. It includes children in child minding settings, the vast bulk of which are unregulated and therefore totally uninspected, as well as children in after-school settings which are also unregulated and therefore uninspected. It also includes the parents of all of these children, who rightfully expect that they should not have to pay the full cost of child care themselves, amounting to an average 34% of their income, double that of their European counterparts.
The committee's report must also call for a viable system for all operators of early childhood education. We have an example of the current free preschool year or ECCE contract, which is not fit for purpose for operators in many ways. The current capitation level does not cover costs and does not allow a sufficient margin for any additional bills or costs. There is no doubt that many early childhood settings are trading recklessly. Consider the setting in Waterford required to build a sleep room for compliance. The operator has been paying the builder €400 every month for the past three years and will be paying this for another five years. That service made a net loss of €3,000 last year. The current capitation levels allow for no planning or development of a service due to its unpredictability. We know owner-managers of most services often take no salary and have no access to income at all over the summer, while staff in many services are required to go on the dole over the summer.
We have advocated for years about commercial rates being charged on early childhood education settings and the cost of that to them. Just last evening we received a call from a member who owns a small service in Limerick where a revaluation has recently been completed. Her commercial rates bill will go from €4,200 in 2014 to €9,500 in 2015. Another woman I spoke with last Friday in Sligo is about to be sued by her council as she has not paid rates in six years. Her rates bill is €30,000. The money is not in anybody's account to pay those kinds of bills. The bottom line is that the free preschool year contract must be renegotiated and made fit for purpose before a second year can be contemplated. I would welcome more questions on this and would certainly like to see reference to it in the committee's report.
The committee's report must also call for planning to ensure sustainability. The Department of Education and Skills has a planning document clearly setting out the requirements for schools for the next 15 years, which is available on its website. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs must develop the same document and construct a plan for its achievement with all stakeholders. Currently, the lack of a clear plan is leading to duplication and poor sustainability. Settings are expected to take on the risk of developing and building their facilities but the current policy of unplanned expansion is resulting in an oversupply, which Pobal estimates stands at 31,000 available places currently in Ireland.
Expansion must be planned and monitored to ensure existing settings can predict their viability year on year.
The sector is a sizeable employer, employing approximately 25,000 women who, on average, earn approximately €10 per hour. Let me give the committee two examples. Let us consider a young woman who has a level 7 degree and assume that the setting in which she works receives for her the higher capitation rate for the free preschool year. That is her role for 15 hours a week. In the afternoon the only other role the setting can offer her is that of cleaner which she has taken on because her morning salary is insufficient. Let us consider another young woman with whom we spoke two weeks ago who has a level 8 honours degree in early childhood education. She is working in a setting in the morning and her part-time job is in a chipper which wants her to work more hours on a higher salary than the setting is prepared to offer her. A wage for a person like her, working 15 hours a week at €10 an hour for 38 weeks of the year, amounts to €5,700 per annum. These staff are unlikely to be offered a car loan, much less a mortgage. Therefore, we see the sector being bled dry of their expertise and experience. We need 52 week contracts with professional salaries that provide for CPD planning and preparation time for all those involved for it to be viable as a quality sector.
I thank the committee for listening and welcome any question that may arise.
Ms Orla O'Connor:
On behalf of the National Women's Council of Ireland, I thank the joint committee for giving me the opportunity to make this presentation. I welcome the work being done by the committee and the attention it is giving to this issue. We look forward to the production of its report.
The National Women's Council of Ireland is the leading national women’s membership organisation, with over 180 member groups from a diversity of backgrounds, sectors and locations. For a long time, child care has been a core issue for the council. It is a gender equality issue. The cost of child care continues to act as a significant barrier to women’s equality in Ireland. Having a child is both important and rewarding for most parents, but it is also an expensive time, bringing with it many dilemmas, for mothers in particular. Mothers and our members consistently highlight the crippling cost of child care and the pressure this places on them and their families. The cost of child care impacts on a wide range of decisions women make such as when to return to work, whether to work part or full-time, the type of job they should take up after unemployment, when and at what age their child will enter school and who will care for their children. These are critical decisions parents should be enabled to make without the pressure of having to ask, "What can we afford?"
Public spending on child care and early education as a percentage of GDP is the lowest in the OECD. The average is approximately 0.7%. We should be working towards a target of 1% of GDP. In countries such as Iceland, Denmark and Sweden spending is as high as 1.4% of GDP. In Ireland we spend between 0.2% and 0.4%, which indicates the huge gap here. Consequently, child care costs in Ireland are the most expensive in comparison with those elsewhere in the European Union. Mothers who have contacted the National Women's Council of Ireland report prices of between €800 and €1,100 for a full-time place, depending on where they live. This means that a person needs to earn a minimum of €11,000 per annum just to cover child care costs. The most recent research from the Vincentian Partnership has looked at these costs, particularly for lone parents, and believes a lone parent with two children needs to earn approximately €40,000 a year to cover child care costs. That is the situation parents, particularly mothers, face. In comparison, parents in Denmark pay a maximum of approximately €400 per month for a full-time child care place for a child over one year and this amount is then scaled down or reduced depending on the parent's income.
It is clear to us and I believe to the committee that the current provision in Ireland is not working to facilitate parents to combine work and family life. It limits the choices for women. The statistics are stark in terms of employment rates for women, particularly as they relate to women without children. Employment rates plummet significantly when there are more than two children in a family. The same impact is not seen in the employment of men in whose case the number of children makes no difference. This clearly is a gender equality issue.
The NWCI has been advocating improvements. We proposed a new child care model in 2004 to an Oireachtas committee but it is disappointing that in the intervening 11 years, there has been little progress on this issue and we are here again today advocating the same model. Our model proposes a publicly subsidised, high quality and universal model of child care combined with a system of paid leave which supports mothers and fathers to combine work and family life. Back in 2004 and still today, our proposal was and is about a child centred mode but it is also a model that includes clear gender equality objectives. This is the type of model we see in Scandinavian and Nordic countries and it has worked in the best interests of children and families.
I now wish to highlight some of the details of what the NCWI calls for. The introduction of the free preschool year was the first positive step to bringing Ireland on a par with other European countries. We recommend the introduction of a second preschool year, followed by an incremental implementation of a subsidised model of provision, linked to quality and based on a parent's ability to pay to a maximum capped level. This should also include out of school hours care. We have put forward suggestions in terms of how this can be incrementally achieved over a ten-year period. When we talk about quality child care here, it is important to realise that quality cannot be judged or assessed without taking into account the pay and conditions of child care workers. These must be central to this model. Child care is predominantly provided by women workers who are paid just above the minimum wage and yet we rightly require a high level of skills and expertise. Investment in a Nordic-type model would reap dividends, not just in terms of supporting children’s well-being and development, which is critical, but in terms of our long-term economic and social policies.
Another important detail concerns parental leave and the reconciliation of work and family life. International evidence shows that in the interests of children, the provision of leave for parents, particularly in the first year of a child’s life, is critical. The extension of maternity leave and benefit to 26 weeks was a positive step and was something we campaigned for and welcomed when introduced. It is important that maternity benefit and leave remain intact for mothers and we do not want to see this element shared. This is the view expressed to us by women and mothers. This benefit and leave is important for them and is important also in terms of recommendations from the WHO on breast feeding.
There is no statutory leave in Ireland for fathers at present and this is an important issue for the NWCI. We have been advocating leave for fathers for a long time because currently fathers are forced to use annual leave when their child is born. The absence of paternity leave also sends a strong message as to which parent should be the primary carer, thereby reinforcing gender stereotypes and gender inequality. There is an opportunity this year, whether through the budget or the forthcoming Family Leave Bill to provide statutory paid parental leave. We advocate that two weeks paternity leave should be provided as a separate leave entitlement for fathers when their child is born. We also suggest there should be an additional six months paid parental leave, through a social protection payment. I stress that this leave should be paid, because the current system of unpaid parental leave is of little use to parents.
Once again, we have a significant opportunity as Ireland moves out of recession to invest in a sustainable child care model that will benefit children, mothers, fathers and families. It is important that Deputies and Senators show leadership and advocate investment in this sustainable model. There is a danger that we will move into a short-term solution as we move towards a general election. While that is understandable, it is critical in terms of the interests of children, mothers and families that we consider a sustainable, long-term solution. This makes common sense, because we can afford this model.
The countries that invest are the most successful in economic and social terms. If we want to follow that path of success, we will have to change our model.
Ms Maria Corbett:
I thank the joint committee for inviting me to participate in this discussion. I concur with the comments made by previous speakers. The Children's Rights Alliance unites more than 100 member organisations which are working together to make Ireland one of the best places in the world in which to be a child. We seek to make changes to the lives of children by ensuring their rights are respected and protected in our laws, policies and services. I will provide the committee with a children's rights lens through which to consider the issues arising. I will focus my remarks on the issue of children with special needs and the importance of quality and affordability.
Every year the Children's Rights Alliance produces a report card to grade the Government's progress on its commitments to children, including the commitments in the programme for Government. Members will have received copies of an extract from the report card dealing with early childhood care and education. There has been huge progress in recognising the importance of this area, but the experience of the child and parents cannot be overestimated in terms of the impact on families and children. This year the Government is examining ways of embedding its national policy on children and young people, Better Outcomes, Brighter Future. I will relate that policy to the issues we are discussing.
A number of articles in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are relevant to the issues of affordability and quality. Ireland ratified the convention in 1992, thereby pledging to the international community that we would uphold these rights. Article 18 of the convention obliges states to give appropriate assistance to parents in the performance of their child rearing responsibilities and ensure the development of institutions, facilities and services for the care of children. States are also obliged to take appropriate measures to ensure the children of working parents have the right to benefit from child care services and facilities. The free preschool year, subsidised child care and child benefit are the key mechanisms through which Ireland meets its obligation under the article, but it needs to do much more in this regard.
Article 28 provides that all children have the right to an education. The UN committee has interpreted this right as beginning at birth. One of the more positive developments in recent years is the recognition that child care is not simply a matter of putting children somewhere while their parents work. It is important for the educational development of the child. The right to education is closely linked with the child's right under Article 6 of the convention to development.
Article 27 obliges states to recognise the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for his or her physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. The issue of child poverty has to be addressed head-on in Ireland. The statistics indicate that the number of children affected by poverty has climbed throughout the recession, with the figure jumping from 6.3% in 2008 to 11.7% in 2013. These are damning statistics. Affordable child care is part of the solution to the problem of child poverty. The European Commission has stated Ireland needs to do more to reduce the barriers faced by parents in finding employment and avoiding the risk of poverty.
The State’s schemes for subsidising child care do not provide parents with an automatic entitlement to subsidies. Access to the community child care subvention programme, for example, depends on where one is living and the time of year in which one is seeking a place. Compared to elsewhere in Europe and other developed countries, this is a significant gap in public services.
On the issue of children with special needs, my colleague, Ms Heeney, is representing Early Childhood Ireland which undertook a survey of practitioners that found that 11% of early years services had to refuse a child with additional needs because they were unable to meet his or her needs. It is disheartening to hear parents tried to include their child in a child care setting but were unable to do so. Every year approximately 200 children with special needs avail of a mechanism whereby their attendance in a free preschool year is split over two years to allow them to start later. This is a positive measure, but we need to understand why services are unable to meet the needs of children with disabilities. I urge the committee to investigate ways of upskilling services in their totality to cater for children with special needs by improving child-staff ratios, training and upskilling. This is critical for any integrated service catering for a childhood disability, whether social, developmental or educational.
Uptake of the free preschool year is 95%, which is fantastic. However, we must identify the remaining 5%. Do they include children with disabilities and special needs? Are some of them Traveller or Roma children whose parents are hesitant about accessing public services? We need to focus on those 5% if we are to ensure the service is available to all children. The key component of any rights based approach is providing access for all children under Article 2 of the convention which deals with non-discrimination. Decisions should be made in the best interests of the child.
Within the early years settings, whether it be a crèche or a childminder, we do not have a national picture of the quality of the services provided. How can we improve services if we do not understand the problems arising? We need to continue the work begun as part of the early years quality agenda, but we should also carry out quality audits across the board to understand children's experiences. Early childhood education and care are only beneficial to children if the quality is high. Previous speakers have noted that childminders fall outside the national regulations. We are concerned about that gap from the perspective of quality and child protection.
Ms Ciairín de Buis:
On behalf of Start Strong, I thank the joint committee for inviting me to address it and its decision to examine ways of ensuring high quality and affordable early years care for children. There was an extensive discussion in the media recently about a crisis in child care.
That media commentary has often focused on the crisis of affordability. We have heard this morning about how Irish parents pay some of the highest costs in the world. I think it is important to emphasise that it is not that we have the highest costs in the world, it is that parents pay the highest costs in the world. Overall, we pay more than twice the EU average, and between three and four times the EU average if we happen to be lone parents. But the cost of child care is not the only child care crisis. There is also a crisis of quality, and any of us who watched that RTE "Prime Time" investigation will remember how important quality is and how very clear it was that there is not high quality, necessarily, across all services. That programme brought the quality crisis to public attention, but since then that quality crisis has been pushed back from the headlines, yet those issues have not gone away. We are not suggesting, by any means, that all services are like those that featured in that "Prime Time" programme. Some services are undoubtedly high quality, but, overall, we believe that the quality is variable and parents have no assurance that the service to which they are entrusting their child is one of high quality. As Ms Corbett mentioned, at a national level, we do not know enough about the quality of our services. We do not conduct an audit or a survey of quality, and we only require services to meet the most basic of standards and, yet, we have services that are also of high quality.
At the root of both the affordability crisis and the quality crisis is a third child care crisis - low investment and low public investment. Public spending on Ireland’s preschool services, including all spending by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, as well as some additional spending by the Department of Education and Skills, amounts to less than €270 million per year. That is less than 0.2% of GDP. Some of the figures range higher than that but they actually include the infant classes in schools. If one looks at early years services, it is less than 0.2% of GDP, which is a fraction of the OECD average of 0.8% and far below the 1% recommendation of UNICEF. Many countries already exceed that 1% investment level. They include, of course, all the Nordic countries, but they also include the likes of New Zealand, France, and the UK.
As I said, some services in Ireland do offer high quality care, but they do so almost in spite of a lack of funding and support. They do so in a situation where staff usually earn just above the minimum wage and have poor working conditions. We have already heard this morning about staff being laid off during the summer months and many managers who just do not draw a salary or, for those who do, draw a residual salary. It is whatever is left over after everything else has been accounted for.
That some children benefit from high-quality early care and education is a reflection on the dedication and the commitment of those services, but for those services to continue to provide high-quality care and education, we need a new model, one that is sustainable and that focuses on children and quality as well as affordability, because we all know that where it is of high quality, early care and education brings benefits all round - to children, to parents, and to our economy. Where it is of low quality, many of those benefits disappear and children can suffer long-term harm. This harm that can be suffered through poor quality has been recognised in a growing body of research, most particularly by the OECD.
Coming back to Ireland, the recent report from the European Commission, namely, its 2015 report published just a couple of months ago in February 2015, highlighted concerns about the quality of child care in Ireland and pointed to that lack of an overall monitoring system, of a varying compliance with minimum standards and regulations, and the qualifications levels of staff. A lot of that comes back to the fact that our model of child care provision or of early years provision within Ireland is very much based on a market model. We have low public investment and quality and affordability are largely left to the market. We commissioned research from Professors Penn and Lloyd in 2014 which we published in November 2014. It showed that variable quality and inequitable access are typical of countries, such as ourselves, where we rely on a market model within our child care system. We need a new model of early years. We need a model that builds on our legacy of private, community provision and of childminding, but it significantly enhances public investment and public involvement to ensure quality and affordability.
Child care should be regarded as a public service. It is not suited to market provision, no more than our school education system is. When we talk about staff being laid off for the summer months, of managers drawing no salary, of high turnover within services, we would not accept that within our schools education system and, yet, we seem to think that is acceptable within our early years system, and it is our early years system that is the very foundation of our learning and education. I think we need to recognise and say much more clearly that that is no longer acceptable, because it is children who do not benefit or who, at worse, are harmed by that.
Recent public debate has often focused on the notion of child care tax credits and, as our colleagues here this morning have said, they do not work. They will not do anything to improve quality. They cannot incentivise high quality; they cannot be made conditional on quality. In systems funded through tax credits, the quality of services depends on the impact of an inspection system, but the regulations that our early years inspectorate uses are based on minimum standards and are focused on health and safety, rather than children’s learning and development. Both the "Prime Time" investigation and the Irish evidence and research that is available demonstrate that our inspection system is failing to ensure high quality provision. Tax credits also have limited and sometimes no impact on affordability and can, at times, drive prices upward, so they achieve the opposite of what they set out to achieve. That is the experience of other countries that have shifted from supply-side funding to tax-based funding. It happened in both the Netherlands and Australia when they moved to child care tax credits in the early 2000s. Both subsequently saw the rise in child care costs outstripping inflation and negating the financial benefit of the tax credits to parents. More details around that are included in our longer submission, which has been circulated to the committee.
Given that I have just said what does not work, I want to turn now to what does work. The alternative is public investment in services, subsidising the cost of places for parents and linking that public investment to quality - public investment that will allow us to achieve the double dividend of high quality and affordability. That is the approach that was recommended by the OECD, after they reviewed what happen in 20 different countries within early care and education.
Our current child care funding schemes already take that form of direct investment in services and they subsidise the cost to parents, both through the free preschool year, which is available universally, and then through the more limited schemes, such as the child care subvention scheme. Those schemes, however, are limited, particularly the subvention scheme. They are limited in their availability, who they subsidise places for, and the quality conditions attached to them, but they provide a framework that can be built on. We need to ensure, at the very least, that all children who should be entitled to a place through the subvention scheme can access a place through the subvention scheme. We need, then, to make sure that it is not based on geography, that it is not down to luck, as to whether one's parents live in an area in which there is a community child care setting. It also means that it needs to be widened across to all services, so those both privately and community can provide the child care subvention schemes. It also needs to be widened to regulated childminders who meet quality standards, but that, of course, means we need to regulate childminders. Start Strong, along with others, has long campaigned for childminders to be brought within the regulatory framework, for the benefit of children, and also for childminders. Incidentally, Childminding Ireland, which represents childminders, is very much in favour of regulation of childminders.
We also need to move towards a second free preschool year. We need to address the funding model but we also need a very clear commitment that we will introduce a second free preschool year, and within a relatively short time framework. We need to then link any public money that is invested in early years to the quality of those early years services in the provision and those quality conditions need to increase incrementally over time. We need to look at capping fees that parents have to pay, to ensure that the costs of improving quality are not just passed on to parents, so that children can benefit from them as well.
I touched briefly on the issue of childminders. We commissioned Goodbody to research this and it estimates there are approximately 50,000 young children being cared for by professional childminders. Those children do not benefit from a regulatory framework. We need to ensure they do. We need something as basic as ensuring Garda vetting is in place for those childminders, and to examine the risks for children, anxiety for many parents, and the lack of recognition and support for the childminders.
We have set out proposals for how that can be achieved that cover the regulation and developing supports to help childminders achieve quality standards and to open up public funding schemes to those childminders, provided quality standards are met. Children and parents should be assured that services they access, whether centre-based or childminders, are of high quality.
Child care is only part of the answer. We also need to consider paid parental leave for the first year because that is in children's interests. We need to ensure there is paid parental leave in addition to the existing maternity leave provision in order that both parents can share those early months of a child's life. We also need to ensure both parents can be at home at the very least for the first two weeks of a child's life and that either parent can be at home over the next year.
The interdepartmental group will shortly report to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on options for future investment in child care. We have made a submission with several detailed recommendations. I will not go through their detail but our proposals boil down to this: children’s interests must come first in designing child care policy. Child care has several effects. There are issues such as labour market support and ensuring our recovering economy continues to recover, but children need to be at the centre of that, and in designing any policy, we need to ensure it focuses on children. The quality of child care is critical, therefore, as is ensuring affordable services. We need to increase our public investment significantly in early years' services, linking that public investment to higher quality. Children would benefit from higher-quality services and their parents from more affordable child care. It is possible to improve the quality and affordability of child care at the same time. It is important to do both at the same time. If we focus exclusively on one, the other will miss out. We need to make those subsidies conditional on raising quality standards. We need to remember that child care is part of the larger early care and education system and ensure paid parental leave is part of that jigsaw, as well as flexible working conditions in order that children can thrive in those early years.
I thank the four ladies who have made presentations today. We have to remember that the most important stakeholder in this sector is the child. No one disputes that high value, quality preschool education is of great importance.
I thank the various organisations that fed into our party’s proposal to bring forward a fully costed strategy and a timeline for its implementation. When we considered increased maternity leave, we considered increased capitation based on qualification and even restoring the capitation cut in the past couple of years; expanding the community child care scheme in order that children from less well-off families would not be negatively affected by where they live; and introducing a special educational needs fund, about which one of the speakers spoke. If only 200 applied for the free preschool year split over two years, how many children with special educational needs are not availing of it at all?
There are thousands of children with special educational needs, not just 200. Access to the preschool year is based on the location of the service provider, depending on the goodwill of the HSE. That is why we want a national fund. When all the outstanding quality issues are dealt with, we should work towards introducing a second preschool year.
A recent study on a child’s outcome in preschool, commissioned as part of the national early years access initiative, found that socially generated disparities between children observed at the beginning of the free preschool year tend to remain unchanged or even to widen after the free preschool year. Why is that? Only 3% of a child’s life, up to the end of the free preschool year, is spent in that year. Our party proposed a multi-dimensional policy that supports not only children but also families because a child’s learning and development unfolds and responds to the environment in which he or she lives. That environment offers great opportunities but also poses huge risks. We all know that intervention at the earliest possible time in a child’s life is critical. That is why we talk about improving families’ economic security.
Last night I spoke to a lady who used to work in family mediation in the Department of Social Protection. Her work led her to study psychology and now she works in child and adolescent mental health. We were talking in the context of the upcoming referendum about the most disadvantaged children. They are not the children with only one parent. Lone parents have financial security. Children in low-income families are most disadvantaged. Involuntary unemployment leads to the greatest social problems, to depression and poverty. That is not the best place to leave children. One of the most damning figures is that in recent years our childhood poverty figures have doubled. That is an awful indictment of our society. That is why we need to support children in the family unit, rather than exclusively investing all supports in one component of our child care setting, service providers. According to a recent Ipsos-MRBI poll published in The Irish Times, 42% of children are cared for by their grandparents, 20% by childminders and only 20% by service providers. I do not think all additional funding that becomes available over the next few years should be invested in one particular sector. We should not be directing, controlling or forcing parents to go to a service provider to avail of affordable child care. We should not tell parents who choose to go to a childminder or to leave their child with a grandparent that unless they go to a service provider, we will not give them any support, regardless of their means, rather than help them back to employment, which would put them in a position to provide economic security for their family.
People who opt to use childminders should be supported. Childminders should be regulated and vetted. That is why we as a party, when the vetting legislation was going through the Dáil, put forward proposals which, unfortunately, were not adopted. People say tax credits will do nothing for quality but the biggest problem with quality is the new registration process.
However, the legislation that passed through the Houses 15 months ago is yet to be implemented. New regulations were to be announced-----
-----following the RTE exposé, but that is yet to happen. We should support families so as to ensure economic security. I would welcome our witnesses' opinions in this regard. Why should all of the money be invested in one component of the sector instead of ensuring greater supports across all components?
I welcome our witnesses and thank them for their presentations, which will be important for us. This is the first of three hearings focusing on child care. As elected representatives, it is vital that we engage, listen to opinions and consider all of the ideas presented to us.
The purpose of this important report is to devise credible suggestions and solutions for an agreed pathway towards tackling the major challenges facing families and the child care sector. Some positive steps have been taken, for example, the free preschool year, but many elected representatives have highlighted a number of challenges. We are coming from a good starting point.
As part of my work as special rapporteur on child care, I have taken part in a number of consultation meetings and public meetings across the country. Several of the issues raised by the witnesses are those that have been raised with us. We want this report to enjoy an all-party consensus and to make strong recommendations.
I will highlight a number of matters. The witnesses should feel free to agree or disagree with my points. Regarding a vision for early childhood education, child care must be seen as about more than just caring for and minding children. It is a critical part of a child's development and education. The use of terminology is important if we are to value and recognise the important and diverse work that child care services provide.
Regarding the consolidation of child care services, the importance of having an efficient, affordable, accessible and quality child care sector is dependent on having a co-ordinated and consolidated approach to it. Underfunding, red tape, bureaucracy and responsibility shared between multiple Departments and agencies are seen as barriers to progress. A more consolidated sector under the remit of one Department with strong oversight and governance is vital.
The child care sector needs to be better valued and recognised by the State if we are to professionalise and improve the quality therein. There is an overreliance on community employment, CE, schemes. Funding pressures and a lack of accreditation and proper pay and working conditions for staff are seen as barriers to improving quality in the sector.
Regarding targeted funding initiatives, we must increase funding into community and State-led schemes, extend maternity and paternity cover and guarantee the quality of the first free preschool year before extending a second. Child care tax credits for families are not necessarily the solution, but investment in quality child care is the solution. The Government needs to conduct an assessment of the cost of running a professional and quality, State-led child care service and then use this as the benchmark for decision making rather than the other way around.
Regarding child care, job creation and in-work poverty, the lack of affordable and accessible child care is a barrier to many citizens, mainly women, from entering the labour force. It is also a key driver of in-work poverty and low pay. If we are to have decent work and a living wage for all, we must invest in child care. This is critical in terms of making work pay and reducing unemployment.
Social inclusion is vital in developing child care policy. Members of our new communities, Travellers and the parents of children with physical and-or intellectual disabilities need added supports. The lack of special needs assistants, SNAs, in early child care services is a form of discrimination against children with complex needs and disabilities. Equality must underpin child care services.
I will ask a few short questions. What are the witnesses' opinions on the subvention scheme?
Should it be made available to privately run crèche services? Would there be a capacity to supply services for a second free preschool year, given the resources and manpower - womanpower - that are available? Would it be better to increase the 38 weeks to 52 weeks or 48 weeks for the purposes of job security for those working in the sector and continuity of care for children? Should children with special needs be guaranteed two free preschool years to ensure that they are given sufficient care? Where a child is diagnosed during a preschool year and is not ready for a mainstream school, he or she often needs to stay at home if the child's parents cannot afford to send him or her to school during the year when he or she is not ready. What is the solution? Who should provide the special medical and physio therapy equipment required by children with special needs?
I will make a declaration of interest, in that I am chair of Early Childhood Ireland. It is a governance role, but I wanted to say that in case someone did not know.
I welcome everyone who presented to the committee. I was heartened to hear each of them highlighting the first year and the importance of parents and of the State providing them time to spend with their children. Senator White has joined us. She sponsored a Bill - it has passed Committee Stage in the Seanad - to ensure maternity and paternity leave. Take Sweden as an example.
It speaks to what Mr. O'Connor mentioned. Sweden ensures time for the mother. The last time I looked, three months had to be used by either parent, with it for the parents to decide how to divide those months between maternity and paternity leave. This affects employers because they must view women and men of a similar age in the same way.
There are many repercussions besides the principal one, which is the one we are all present to discuss, namely, benefiting the child. As such, I was heartened to hear the witnesses' certainty in this regard.
There is a gender issue. Do we accept that someone who is qualified will be better off working in a chipper than looking after our children?
These are the figures that the witnesses presented to us. The people in question have degrees. We are encouraging people to become more qualified and we discuss the word "quality", yet we do not seem to recognise either. I do not know whether professionals having to go on the dole in the summer would be accepted in any other professional career. Why do we tolerate and accept this?
The word "quality" has been thrown around the room. Could one of the witnesses paint for me a picture of what quality looks like? I have in mind ratios and degrees. From the perspective of children and parents, however, what do we mean by "quality"? I do not know. We throw the word around. I just want to be sure.
Rates pose an issue, and when the Valuations Act 2015 was before the Seanad, we received a great deal of support from everyone when we tried to address it. The State is setting all of the parameters for the free preschool year, for example, capitation, space, ratios and the fact that parents cannot be charged. I am supportive of these, but there can be differences between the rates charged by various towns that are only a few miles apart. We debate the private, public and community provision of child care and listen to the providers of the free preschool year, but that is the wrong place to make the differentiation. They are providing a contract and the Government should be seeking value for money. We should explore the rates issue.
Regarding special needs assistants, SNAs, and children with special educational needs, it was stated that 11% had to be turned away. Those parents are probably already struggling.
It is important, not only for that child but for all children, that he or she is part of that setting. It is telling - this, again, is something about which we should perhaps be shouting more - that while the Department of Education and Skills provides more than 6,500 special needs assistants in primary schools, it provides none in the early childhood education sector, despite all that we know about the need to interact much earlier with children. While there are one or two State agencies that make provision in this area, the contribution of the Department of Education and Skills is zero, which says a lot.
On costs, the State has questions to answer about the number of Departments and agencies involved in the provision of child care and interested in the issue. In this regard I saw a map which had been provided by Mr. Thomas Walsh of NUIM and was confused. I had thought I understood the sector. On inspections, a person choosing to operate a child care service needs to know the basis on which the service is to be inspected, how it will be inspected and by whom it will be inspected. Many Departments are involved in inspections. Perhaps they might involve themselves more in ensuring quality in the delivery of services.
My final point is about how we do this and where we invest. It is very telling that the take-up of the free preschool year is 95%. This means that parents do value it. As rightly stated, there is an issue about childminding and I would include au pairs in that mix. I know that it is a smaller grouping, but the fact is we are allowing this sector to go unregulated. I have met the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to discuss this issue. As nobody wants to take responsibility for the issue of au pairs, it falls between two stools. We have people in Ireland who are minding children, but who are unregulated. For me, that is wrong.
On the free preschool year, previously we had the early child care supplement, which was a cash transfer. In fairness to the Minister for Finance at the time, the late Brian Lenihan, and the then Minister of State, former Deputy Barry Andrews, they withdrew the supplement and introduced the free preschool year because it was determined investment was the answer. I certainly back the calls for investment.
I thank the delegates for their detailed contributions and the work they are doing. It is unfortunate that in the period 2000 to 2010, when huge funds were available, there was very little development in this area. A lot more should have been done during that ten year period. What was able to be done in the past three to four years was limited because of the lack of funding. It was stated 0.8% of GDP should be invested in child care, which equates to more than €1 billion. In the context of the current debate on spending, we need to look at from where this funding will come and how we plan to spend it. In planning for expenditure on the expansion of services, are the delegates suggesting this be done over a two or five year period?
On the current debate on the need for a second preschool year, do the delegates believe we should focus first on additional investment in the first preschool year, thus ensuring a better quality service and better support for those providing the service? Also, what is their view on providers being paid for only 30 plus weeks when there are 52 weeks in the year, which means that there is no adequate provision for service providers during a large part of the year?
On the self-employed and the 12 months parental leave issue, there are a huge number of people in this country who are self-employed. In some cases, a husband and a wife are self-employed. How does one deal with the issue of trying to provide support for them? There are many people who are working and do not have access to services, particularly people living in the greater Dublin area. How does one provide assistance for those who want to continue in their business rather than take leave lest their business declines? How can we support them in sustaining their workforce and business, while at the same time providing them with the support they require in terms of child care should they take leave from work? These are issues we also need to address.
Ms Ciairín de Buis:
On Deputy Robert Troy's question about the reason we are focusing on one element, I do not think anybody here was focusing on any one element. We all spoke about the need to invest in early years education, which includes centre based provision, childminders, paid parental leave and work flexibility. It is a range of aspects rather than any one specific element. Again, the perspective from which Start Strong is coming is what is beneficial to children and what is most in their interests. Our key focus is on the child's early years, from birth to age 6 years, and what is of most benefit during that time. All of Start Strong's recommendations are focused on children and range across the settings in which children are to be found and where they benefit from early care and education.
The aforementioned links with the point made by Deputy Sandra McLellan in that the terminology is crucially important. Within Start Strong we tend to use the phrase "children's early care and education" because our focus is on the early years and early education. The term "child care" is convenient shorthand. In terms of the terminology used, it is what people are familiar with, but what we are talking about is children's early care and education, the foundations of their learning which carry through into their adulthood and throughout their lives.
There were some specific questions about qualifications, departmental roles and so on. I agree that one Department needs to have responsibility in this area. Currently, responsibility is fractured, which leads to a fragmented approach in policy and solutions and a lack of clarity as to who is responsible for which area and so on. It is important that the next Government, regardless of make-up, assign responsibility for early years education to one Department. I also suggest, at the very least, that there is a need to have a Minister of State with responsibility for early years education.
On the specifics of inspections, the Department of Education and Skills recently announced that there would be education focused inspections. While it is welcome that there is finally to be an education focus in inspections, it is, to say the least, unfortunate that it is another layer of inspections. We need to reform and merge the current inspection system to ensure it is focused on children and their early care and education, including bringing it within one home.
On the issue of qualifications and the reliance on community employment schemes and so on, there will shortly be a requirement for minimum qualifications for all of those working in this area. However, they are minimal. We need to look at increasing them and moving towards a graduate-led workforce, which would bring with it many issues in terms of funding, structures and how schemes work.
On children with additional needs, access to services, the low number of children who have the option of splitting across two years, SNAs and so on, as stated, the take-up rate of the preschool year is 95%. Ms Corbett referred to the missing 5% of children. I suspect a significant proportion of them are children with additional needs whose needs are not being met. There is a tendency to look towards the SNA model, but I am not sure that that is what would work for children. There is a greater issue around ensuring those working in the sector can provide the supports needed and that there are additional resources in place across services, whether they are centre based or provided by childminders, in order that they can provide the services needed.
For some children, that may mean the splitting of the free preschool year, while for others it would not. We also must remember that the free preschool year covers a short time and there are additional needs outside that as well. We need to ensure that those resources are put in place and can be accessed. Much of this relates to training and ensuring that services can access the additional supports if and when they are required.
There is the question of what a high-quality service looks like. The greatest proxy in looking at a high-quality service is the qualification of those working with children. That really does not answer the question of what such a service looks like. From a child's perspective, he or she should know the adult with whom he or she is working. The adult would have been there last week, is there this week and will be there next week. These children should not have to build a new relationship with somebody new because of the churn of staff. That is no reflection on staff. If I was paid the minimum wage or just above it and knew I would be laid off in the summer months, I would be looking for something more. We have heard about the women who would be paid more in chippers and other areas. I am aware of one woman who was qualified and left an early years centre to work in a bookmaker's office. What does it say about us as a society that we would pay such a woman more to work in a bookmaker's office than to work with our youngest children? There are issues in this respect. In a quality service, the learning is child-led and play-based. We are not talking about having school a little earlier and this is very much about young children and how they learn. Play is the work of young children.
Senator Colm Burke raised the family leave issue. We look at this from a child's perspective and what is good for children. We have all argued that it is good for children to be at home for the first year. There is a need to examine how we structure that family leave to ensure that all parents, and not just those in employment, can avail of a paid parental leave period. There must be some portion allocated on a "use it or lose it" basis so that both parents will spend time with the child in the first year at home. Fathers, in particular, would be enticed to spend some of that time at home. As my colleague, Ms O'Connor, mentioned, it is also crucial that the existing maternity leave provision stays as it is. There are World Health Organization recommendations in this regard to ensure that a mother can breast-feed for the first six months if they choose to do so. In the early months, mothers are under enough pressure without having to see if they need to split leave with another parent. It is important that all parents, regardless of being employed or self-employed, can have the first year. The process should not just stop with the first year, with parents getting back to the treadmill, and there should be flexible work leave policies in place so that parents are not faced with deciding what they can afford but rather what is good for them and their children. Cost should not be a primary consideration, although it must be a factor. It is a hard enough role to be parents to young children without having the additional stress of deciding what is affordable.
We have one of the lowest rates of breast feeding in Europe and it is very poorly funded. Last year, only approximately €100,000 was spent nationally in promoting breast feeding in Ireland. The 26-week period on its own will not do it for our children who are breast-fed.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
Like Ms de Buis, I take this opportunity to touch on some issues. I do not want to repeat her comments but I am afraid I may well do so. In describing what a quality service looks like, I refer the committee to the Competence Requirements in Early Childhood Education and Care, or CoRe, report, which was a major European report that examined what a quality service might be and its characteristics.
It refers to a competent system of early childhood education. One characteristic is having qualified staff, with such personnel having time for planning and discussion with parents. The service would be characterised by low ratios and would begin after the child turns one. All the characteristics described by Ms de Buis - having a curriculum that is child-led, play-based and not "schoolified" - are very important. We did not speak in any depth earlier about the issue of competent inspection, monitoring and planning.
Ms de Buis mentioned the number of agencies that inspect early childhood settings now, and the level of bureaucracy that operators and staff in early childhood settings must undertake is phenomenal. There are at least five Government agencies going in and out the door of early childhood settings at any given time. Those agencies have not been tasked to find and create an aligned set of documentation that meets all the requirements. That is unacceptable. I am aware that the committee will welcome Mr. Gordon Jeyes later this morning, and Tusla is in charge of the preschool inspection regime. It is an issue on which we would love to hear his thoughts. We want to know what efforts are being made to align the current inspection system.
With respect to additional needs, we mentioned how an agency is not prepared to take responsibility and never is that more true than with children who have additional needs in early childhood settings. It does not seem to be the responsibility of the HSE, Tusla, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or the Department of Education and Skills. As yet, nobody has been prepared to stand up, say it is their responsibility and do something about the issue. I tend to agree with Ms de Buis that there is significant evidence that special needs assistants may not be the answer. We refer the committee to the National Council for Special Education, which has developed a new framework that would essentially make available a fund, within a framework, that would be available to a school based on a number of general demographic trends. An amount of money could be allocated to a setting and it would be possible to use that fund to allocate additional staff time if required or equipment. It is certainly worth looking at that.
We recognise there is a big jump in going from €270 million now to the €1 billion that it will cost. Last year, when we spoke to the media about the need to invest €1 billion in early childhood education, one journalist told me I was in cloud cuckoo-land. If that is true, all the Government policies are equally in cloud cuckoo-land, as one may talk the talk but walking the walk will mean that approximately €1 billion will have to be spent if we want to achieve a high-quality system and one which can predict quality at any given time. That is what parents looking for peace of mind want, no matter where a child is being looked after.
Deputy McLellan asked about planning and extension of the existing preschool year. The existing contract for the first free preschool year is not fit for purpose. It does not provide sufficient capitation to be able to afford decent salaries for staff, so we must address the problems with the current year before we begin looking at expansion to a second year. It is a critical point to be emphasised today. Early Childhood Ireland represents 3,500 operators of settings around the country and we recommend to our members that they do not sign any new contract for an extension until they are satisfied they can operate their setting - whether it is private or not for profit - in a way that can maintain high-quality professional staff in the setting.
That is really important. There is a lot of talk about a second year, but nobody knows what will be required to deliver on it. While there are vacancies in many services, in many areas of the country there are no vacancies. Therefore, to say that we are now going to provide a universal free preschool year in every setting for every child makes no sense, because the places are not there. A concerted plan needs to be developed to say how many places will be needed in every county and town in the country for the next ten years and how they will be provided. They have to be built with public investment and delivered by private and not-for-profit organisations. That is the existing mixed model and we have to build on that. Ireland is not unusual but, as each of my colleagues said, we need a system of public investment under which the Government's and the public's money is monitored and inspected and we assure ourselves that there is a good return on investment because we monitor and ensure the quality of it.
Ms Orla O'Connor:
I will answer some of the questions. My first point links to Deputy Troy's and Senator van Turnhout's remarks. When developing our policy and infrastructure we need to look at where we want to go rather than looking at the current situation in which parents are being forced to make decisions in the context of really poor leave, extremely expensive child care and a lack of flexibility and consistency in the existing services. This is part of the reason we say there needs to be a type of Nordic model. What many mothers are saying to us is that they often end up in occasional child care situations - that they can only afford so many days a week in a creche and then they have to depend on family members and on using some of their annual leave. It is important that we do not try to put in place measures that maintain that system. We need to look at what we want to achieve.
When the free preschool year was introduced, there was no promotion of it, yet there was a take up of over 95%. I recognise the issues that have been raised with regard to quality, but parents saw that the preschool year was universal, free and accessible and they regarded it as offering good quality for their children. That is the important point and it links back to some of the issues raised by Deputy Troy on how other options can be supported. It is important that when we hopefully move to a more progressive model, our other policies link up. I am not saying that our investment in child care needs will address all of the issues the Deputy raised, which are really important issues for economic security and low-income families. However, those are issues for our social protection system. It is about precarious work and low pay. I do not think the child care infrastructure can address all of those issues, nor do I think we should be trying to devise features within child care in an effort to compensate for some of the issues regarding low pay and precarious work in the economy.
I refer to the important issue of maternity leave, as raised by Senator van Turnhout, and the comparisons with the Nordic model, under which there is shorter maternity leave. Research and evidence on this model in Ireland is not widespread, but I refer to one substantial piece of work carried out by the Equality Authority and the Crisis Pregnancy Agency which showed for the first time the pressure that is often put on women to return to work early. The study was carried out in recession times. It is an issue of concern to the National Women's Council of Ireland that if maternity leave is shortened that this tends to happen. In the Nordic countries leave is much more ingrained and the sharing of care between men and women is more ingrained. We need to consider those issues.
Certainly, women are saying to us that they want those six months.
Another important issue that Senator Burke raised was the question of where the funding comes from. This needs substantial investment. We believe it is about making those choices, but we need to remember that these are really serious choices. Let us consider some of the things discussed in the spring statement and that are under discussion now that we are coming into an election period. If we erode our tax base then we cannot afford this type of child care model. We need a progressive model of taxation that prioritises public services and public investment. We cannot erode it. This is clearly one of the lessons coming out of the recession and austerity. There needs to be a progressive model of taxation to allow this to happen. Otherwise, it cannot happen. We cannot have it both ways.
Ms Maria Corbett:
I echo the request to ensure that there is a package of family leave to enable a child to remain at home for the first year. I echo what Ms O'Connor has said about how the recent budget has weakened the rate of maternity benefit and brought it into the tax net. We are before the committee today making the case that we need to protect the payments, extend them and bring in paid paternity leave to create a family leave package that will cover the first year.
Reference was made to the question about a second free preschool year. We are supportive of its introduction. We are cognisant, however, that we need to get the quality right before we roll it out. I am a little concerned now that it has dropped off the political agenda and the timeline has been pushed out. Although we are saying we want it but only when the quality is right, that should not mean we do nothing for the next couple of years. It means we should start planning now to get the quality right and secure some timelines to make a plan for how we bring in the second year. Otherwise, I fear it will simply drop away. I am concerned that the commitment is being pushed further out.
This ties in with the fact that we still have no national early years strategy. It has been promised, but it is late. Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the national framework that the early years strategy was meant to come under, has been published. The problem is that when we are discussing the budget, funding and the choices we need to make, we do not have a national coherent strategy guiding us. As we can see from all the inputs, it is very much an interdepartmental issue and it crosses into many areas. I am concerned that without a national strategy, a clear budget or a clear vision, this issue may progress but only in a piecemeal fashion and in a manner in which we are simply responding to crises. The "Prime Time" programme made for disturbing watching. It led to a response, but we need to maintain the momentum to ensure that the elements promised as a result actually come to fruition. It goes back to the point I started with. We have done a great deal of talking on this issue, but the question is whether things have changed for the child and parents. We need to question that.
I have looked at the report card we use to track this area year-on-year. This year I really struggled with it. Reference was made to how we have a new inspectorate and a focus on education. I thought this was a mistake, and I had to go back to try to understand how we had added a new layer in without bringing it into the existing inspectorate. Furthermore, while I welcome the focus on education, it is a difficult area to navigate. I say that as an outsider looking in, but it must be even more difficult for providers who have to work with it and meet those regulations.
Reference was made to children with special needs and disabilities. This area really needs a joined-up approach. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act remains largely un-commenced. We need to recognise the importance of early intervention, prevention, social integration and supporting parents in the early years in cases in which a child has been born with, has developed or is developing a special need or disability. That is the fundamental time to intervene and support the children and families in question.
All children in Ireland have a right to access the free preschool year. It is unacceptable that children with special needs are being denied access to the scheme or denied the right on the basis that the providers maintain they would like to include the children but are simply insufficiently supported. We have to address that. It is a serious position that our publicly supported services are unable to meet the needs of those children.
I echo the point about special educational needs assistants. While they do fantastic work and I have great respect for the work they do, I do not believe that term should be the answer to this issue. There is no clarity as to the qualifications a person needs to be an SNA. Obviously the National Council for Special Education has progressed recently in respect of clarifying its role in schools. Anyway, we need not necessarily go down that route. We can look at what is needed in the early years settings. Earlier, we discussed a fund to ensure that a service could provide the extra supports, as opposed to adding one extra assistant for each child. I believe we could move away from that model and try to think about it in a more integrated way.
Finally, let us consider the question of quality. The inputs made already have been very helpful. In the discussion about the day-to-day experience for a child in the early years settings, one factor we have not mentioned is the length of time they are in the centre. If a child is in a centre for too long, the benefits start to drop away, if that makes sense. We need to support families to enable them to engage in education and work but they need to be able to do so within a reasonable timeframe and such that they can get their children from the child care centres in good time, because if the day is too long for the child, the benefits start to roll back somewhat.
My last point relates to quality. We have talked about inspectorates, health and safety and the role of education. I am keen for a focus on food within the services, especially in areas of high deprivation in Ireland where food poverty is a real issue. We have heard from one of the early years centres. The relevant people took the view that food was a major issue in those families. We need to look at how we can extend the school meals programme and consider how we can bring that in to early years settings in communities where people are struggling with food poverty.
If we want to improve quality in early years settings we need to focus on the staff. We need increased qualifications and professionalisation but we also need to consider it in terms of what is happening from day to day. What about the curriculum? Aistear and Síolta are the national quality frameworks around the curriculum for early years. We need to ensure they are fully rolled out and supported. As I understand it, they are considered to be patchy within the sector as a whole.
I am sorry I was not here for all the earlier presentations. I have been a public representative since 2004 and I am a mother of two children, so child care has always been an important issue for me. For many years, in the so-called good times, not much was done in this country in child care. We are lucky that we have a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and many positive things have changed. Anyway, a great deal needs to be done. Many issues have been discussed at the committee today. I am not going to go over them again but I agree that it is a complex area and we have a great deal more to do.
The cost of child care is a major issue for many parents. I meet the County Sligo Childcare Committee regularly. The committee does wonderful work. Many of the providers are providing an excellent service for the children of this country; there is no question about it. However, I believe there are many issues. The people who work in this area are very well qualified but very underpaid.
I would be very supportive that this is something we need to deal with soon. I have three things I want to say. I know Senator van Turnhout mentioned au pairs. I want to make it clear that I have friends who have au pairs. The people I know who use au pairs are people who work unsociable hours not nine-to-five jobs. There is a very reputable agency in this country, and I would not like for it to come from this committee that people who have au pairs do not have vetted au pairs. They are vetted through an agency.
People have different views on Montessori. I used Montessori with my children and I believe it is a very successful way of educating children so I would like to hear the views on it. I wish to ask Ms O'Connor about maternity benefit and leave. There is an issue around public versus private sector. Personally, I believe it is easier to get leave and to take extra parental leave in the public service than it is in the private sector. I do not know how we could deal with it but it is an issue out there.
I wish to comment on what Ms Corbett said. If I heard her right she said there was a sea-change in recent years. In the Children's Rights Alliance report, this Government inherited a B on this specific area of child care and it has gone down to a D plus in the last survey, which is a damning indictment on what has happened under it. The witness is critical of certain aspects of what we did also and we had a lower rating. All Governments will get praise and criticisms from the Children's Rights Alliance and that is accepted, but I think there has been a massive change for the negative in this area and it has shown up in all the surveys.
I am a father. Mine and Ann's third child is going through the free year and he is about to finish up. We have had a very good impression of the year for various reasons. We have been through two different providers, both very good. We have had nothing but a positive experience with it. The children have got a fantastic education out of it. I speak politically when I say I am very proud it was Brian Lenihan who brought that in. He was Minister for Finance but he had the background as Minister for Children beforehand. As mentioned, there are difficulties with it. We have put the second free year onto the agenda and it is in our policy to suggest it be brought in during year three of the next Government. That may give time to address some of the issues raised.
I wish to raise the issue of special education needs. I live on the Louth-Meath border. As the crow flies I am only 100 m from the Louth border but the two facilities we have used are both in County Meath. There is a special needs assistants service in County Meath provided by the HSE, and I could not tell you what is available down the road in County Louth. We have had the Department of Health and Children, we have the Department of Education in this area and we have Pobal, but it came as complete shock to me that the HSE was providing these special needs assistants. Our child was in a class with a Down syndrome child and as a parent - while I cannot comment on the child himself, he is not my child - it was a hugely positive experience for the whole class to be in that setting and for integrated education to take place at that level. It seemed to work well from the staff point of view apart from all the ordinary pressures of being involved in such a service. This model has been criticised by our expert colleagues here, but it is certainly something that the parents in Meath value enormously, and they would like to have more of it. The problem is that the funding in County Meath - I do not know about other counties - is provided on a year-to-year basis. This year they were told that the funding was being completely eliminated. We had to put up a massive fight to get the money back. The HSE told parents that it would give the money but that it would now have to take away a home-care package for a dying child. That is what the parents were told, so imagine the stress; it is outrageous. That is now par for the course with the HSE in recent months because Mr. John Duggan and the Soliris------
I am adhering to what you said about equality of time. HSE has made that point to parents: that someone else is going to suffer because their children are gaining, and not even gaining what other children have had before there has been a huge cut. I want more recognition of the fact that grandparents are currently providing a massive amount of care. It seems that this is nearly always due to affordability, especially if young and preschool children are involved sometimes with the involvement of very elderly grandparents. If one knocks at doors in any housing estate, particularly in south County Meath during the day, one will meet many grandparents who do a huge amount of work, mainly for cost reasons. I pay tribute to them. Some are very elderly and have said to me that they are finding it very difficult physically. Some do not find it difficult and love doing it. In my own case, with my wife working different days each week, it is a much more flexible arrangement and my mother seems to love it, or at least that is what she tells us. We need grandparents because of the flexibility to provide care at night time as well as during the day. This committee needs to recognise the contribution they make. Many are not paid and while the tax structure is there to help, it can actually catch them out if they do not completely comply with the strict rules when doing the child-minding in their own home. I am just flagging the issues that have come up in my experience. Thank you Chairman.
Thank you Cathaoirleach. After my experience of child care over the past seven or eight years, I would like to formally say that today it is more chaotic than it ever was. It is very sad to see that stakeholders, parents and children are getting a worse service than they ever have. Parents are under pressure and costs are prohibitive. It is a diabolical situation and part of it is the lack of a dedicated political driver with a passion for the whole child care area -----
The tragedy is that we spend three or four times more on third level education than we do on child care, when it is far too late. Before a child is born and from the minute a child comes into this world the money needs to go into developing the whole intellectual and emotional development of the child from day one. All the research shows that after two years it is too late. The children blossom early in the first two years and everything needs to focus on that. It needs to be totally under the State system, like the national and second level school system where there are teacher qualification standards. Our national aspiration should be to integrate these early child care standards into the State-run education system with highly educated teachers.
The current lack of vetting will be a scandal in the future. Garda vetting is very limited. This is through no fault of the Garda, but the money must be invested in vetting. There will be a scandal in years to come over people who were not suitable to be minding children and who were not vetted properly. It is chaotic and is worse than it ever was. Senator Henry is wrong. Fianna Fáil invested substantially in capital infrastructure and in child care. We were the first party to do so.
My final point is that Ms O'Connor has misunderstood. I was developing a policy paper on female entrepreneurs, which had about 11 recommendations. Ms O'Connor misread my recommendation. I was talking about female entrepreneurs. The State needs to have as many women setting up businesses as men. If they did, we would have 500 more jobs a month. I am saying there is no way that someone could stay at home if they were an entrepreneur. That was the context of my recommendation. I am afraid Ms O'Connor misunderstood at the time. If one is an entrepreneur, one's husband might not work, for example. There are all those aspects to it.
I am the rapporteur for female entrepreneurs on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. We had tremendous women coming in and giving us advice. One serious issue is the availability of a 24-hour service for women who have to travel internationally. There is huge demand. Members might think they are badly off when they have to travel to their constituencies, but if they had to travel to Brazil, South America or South Africa and had no partner to mind the children, it would be very difficult. There is a big need for 24-hour child care.
I am sorry for going on. I feel very passionate about it. It is a bloody mess. It lacks a political driver who has a passion about it. With all due respect to Dr. Reilly-----
Ms Orla O'Connor:
I wanted to discuss the issue of maternity benefit because Senator Henry raised that issue about the public sector. She is correct. I would not say it is easier, but there are more progressive policies. What is important around maternity benefit and leave is to look at the countries with strong leave policies. They have thriving SME sectors and a high proportion of female entrepreneurs. We can manage this. It is possible and these countries do much better than we are doing in Ireland.
I also want to return to Senator Byrne's comments on grandparents. This is a very important issue because grandparents are so involved in child care in Ireland. Is putting in place policies that enhance the best approach to this issue? A recent study, which I think was carried out by TILDA, around the involvement of grandparents discusses the mental health of grandparents and depression among grandparents in terms of providing child care. The issue emerging in this study, with which we are familiar, because we often talk about grandmothers in this context and there is a gender issue, is choice. Of course, grandparents want to spend time with their grandchildren, but it is about choice and not necessarily being factored into the provision of child care. That is critical.
I was actually going to agree with Senator White in that we do need to include early years in our view of education.
Ms Ciairín de Buis:
There is an army of grandparents who are holding up early years services and early care and education. That is wonderful if it is what those grandparents want to do, but I suspect many of them are providing that service to their children and grandchildren because of affordability issues. Grandparents should not be seen as part of a service. They are the grandparents of the child and that should be their relationship with their grandchild. A great deal of stress and mental health issues would be greatly alleviated for those grandparents if this were acknowledged.
On maternity leave and Senator White's reference to her own Bill, our recommendation, along with the National Women's Council of Ireland and others, is to ensure that the existing maternity provision remains for all women because it improves outcomes for children. It really does not matter whether a child's mother is self-employed, employed in a small or large multinational business or in the public service. What matters is the development of that relationship with their parents and particularly their mother in those early days.
We need to start taking seriously the issues raised regarding spending priorities, the second pre-school year and so on. Much of this comes back to the lack of vision at a national policy level. I do not want to get into the party politics argy-bargy, but in general, over many years, there has been a lack of vision and of priority in expenditure and we need to address that. We should have a national early years strategy that sets out the timeframe and the increase in expenditure. We are not eejits here. We know this cannot happen overnight, but it must be done incrementally over time. Part of that is a commitment to moving towards the second free pre-school year. That second free pre-school year can itself be an incentive to improve quality if we focus that public expenditure, link it and make it conditional on quality. That is what we need to move towards.
Regarding the issues raised about SNAs, of course there are excellent SNAs in place and at time they can be the right answer. At other times, it is not the right answer and can lead to a situation where a child cannot fully participate in a mainstream service if the only additional support there is a special needs assistant because it needs to be much broader than that to ensure a child can fully participate in early education.
In terms of Garda vetting, Senator White was right. This is a scandal in the making. We have 50,000 young children in the care of childminders who are not obliged to have the most basic of Garda vetting. There have been numerous opportunities to change this in recent legislation and across parties amendments have been put forward to address that and none of them have been taken on board. That needs to be addressed immediately. There is, again, an opportunity to do that with the Children First legislation that is currently on Committee Stage. I will cut myself off at that point in the interest of brevity.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
I would like to re-emphasise some key points. In preparing its report, the committee needs in the first instance to set out what we believe early childhood education is for and whom it is for. If we decide it is about providing excellent opportunities to children to have excellent experiences in the first six years of their lives, that tells us about the fact that children do better when at home for their first year, for example. I would like the members to imagine whether it is acceptable for children to arrive in early childhood settings at 6.45 a.m. in their pyjamas. This happened this morning in many settings. Six-month-old children arrived this morning to the care setting in their pyjamas and will be there all day before they are picked up at 6 p.m. If that is not what we want for children - I do not believe anybody believes it is what we want for our youngest children - it tells us we need to invest in one year, at least, of parental leave. What is the system for and whom is it for?
If we think the system needs to be predictable and provide, on a blanket basis, high-quality experiences for all the children, it means we must listen to what the evidence tells us about having highly qualified staff who are remunerated well and motivated to stay in the sector. These factors all add up when one thinks about whom the system is for and if one places children at the centre.
If we want to ensure experiences are predictable and always of high quality, it means we need to monitor the services properly, inspect them regularly and ensure training and professional development are available at all times for the staff.
I would like to finish by reverting to Senator Byrne. I would want there to be no sense that we have in any way criticised the SNA programme in County Meath.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
I am very familiar with the Meath Fight for the Future campaign. One of its leaders, Mag Coogan, who owns the ABC Club crèche or playschool in Dunboyne, is a member of Early Childhood Ireland and has won awards for fantastic learning stories in which she describes the impact on preschool children of having among them a child with additional needs. All we are saying is that one solution may not always be the right one. SNAs may not always comprise the right solution. We may need to think about a more complex way of viewing that.
The other element of predictability is that it cannot be acceptable to have a geographical lottery that defines the quality of the experiences of our children. If families happen to live in an area where there is a community service with a subvention scheme, they have access to a more affordable, but still not cheap, child care service. That is not acceptable and not good enough; there should be no geographical lottery. I ask the committee to consider what we need to invest to ensure predictable blanket high-quality experiences for children in the first six years of their lives.
Ms Maria Corbett:
Let me clarify my opening remarks. I noted that there has been a big shift in early childhood care and education. I was thinking according to a long timeline. I was thinking about the fact that when Ireland started to get involved, public support associated with child care was seen through the lens of getting women into the labour force. That lens has shifted and I hope it is now more child-centred in its focus. That was part of my thinking. I acknowledge there have been some very positive initiatives, such as the free preschool year. The report card since the issuing of the programme for Government shows that initiatives start off well because they are exciting and there is a new commitment, and positive statements are made. However, our experience, reflected across the report card, is that when it comes to implementation, it becomes hard for us to see the progress year on year. The commitment when structures and programmes are set up initially is greater than that associated with the actual delivery. This is the nub of the problem in many other sectors also. I echo the comment that we need a clear national strategy, a vision, a budget and the political will to stay focused on this issue. The challenges are very significant if we are to get it right. This is an area in which we really need a seismic shift if we are to get things right for children.
The National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 has yet to be commenced. That was really important legislation that allows for soft information vetting to be included as part of the good work the bureau is doing. This is a real child protection concern.
I thank all the members of the committee and the witnesses, in particular, for taking the time to speak. As one of only two women in the Dáil under the age of 35, I believe it is worth noting that there is no maternity leave at all for national politicians or those at local level. While there has been progressive legislation on gender quotas for the forthcoming general election, there is still a distance to go. If those who are making policy do not have the luxury of benefitting from that policy, it speaks volumes. As the parent of a teenager, I believe that although early care and education are the focus of today, we also need to have a conversation on the long-term needs of children in families with women who work outside the home.
This has been a really interesting and stimulating debate. I thank the witnesses sincerely for their really well researched, thoughtful and thought-provoking presentations. I thank all the members for their contributions. We have heard a very strong overview of the key issues, particularly regarding early care and education. We need to start using language such as "early care and education" rather than "child care". Language is critical in this debate and we all need to be mindful of that.