Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 11 June 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children
Affordable High-Quality Child Care: Discussion
Today, the committee is holding its second session to consider the issue of affordable and high-quality child care. The committee has identified this issue as a priority in its work programme. Deputy McLellan is our rapporteur on the issue and she has engaged in significant work on our behalf. The child care sector faces a number of challenges. These include the increasing costs faced by families for child care; conditions, accreditation and training for child care workers; and increasing regulation and funding issues. As part of our hearings, and including Deputy McLellan's report, the committee will prepare a report to be published in the autumn. I welcome Ms Michelle Akerlind, Cork Early Childhood Centre; Ms Paula Grogan Ryan, Tipperary Early Childhood Ireland; Ms Evelyn Reilly, Maynooth-Kilcock Early Childhood Ireland; Ms Paula Donoghue, Clever Clogs Montessori and Daycare, Ballyconnell, County Cavan; and Ms June Tinsley, assistant director and head of advocacy at Barnardos. They are all welcome to the meeting and I thank them for attending.
I apologise for being late in beginning but we had a great deal of private business to deal with. I advise the witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to 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. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I welcome everyone again and I thank them for their presence and for the work they are doing. I am conscious that we have two other meetings and, therefore, I ask witnesses to confine their remarks to five minutes. I ask Ms Akerlind to make her opening remarks.
Ms Michele Akerlind:
My name is Michele Akerlind and I am the co-founder of Cheeky Cherubs in Cork. We have three centres: one in Bishopstown, one in Ballincollig, and a workplace crèche in Cork City Council. When my business partner, Sarah, and I opened the doors of Cheeky Cherubs in 2005, we made a conscious decision to employ only qualified staff. Ten years on, we have a highly motivated and dedicated team, with 18 out of our 30 practitioners having either a level 7 or a level 8 degree and the remainder having level 6. We have our level 4 Síolta accreditation quality mark, and all members of our team are trained in the methodologies of HighScope, Reggio Emilia, the Tuscan approach and Aistear.
As a private provider, I wear two hats at all times and all decisions are made with both hats on. My first hat is as an owner and provider of high-quality care to children and families and liaison officer to all the bodies. I interface with Tusla, the preschool inspectorate, environment health officers, Pobal, Better Start and the Department of Education and Skills. My second hat is as an employer who must have the funds for payroll, dealing and negotiating with financial institutions, the constant tweaking of business plans and the massive stress that comes with that. I am also a HR manager. I do not know any other educational body that is a provider and an employer. We also have inspections from NERA, the Revenue Commissioners and other employment and business authorities.
By not funding this sector properly, we have provided that every individual takes his or her own path. Some will take the quality route, but others will not, or cannot, due to critical financial constraints. A vast discrepancy needs to be addressed to streamline quality. Only quality counts for children, but quality costs employers like me. We use our integrity and are very proud of the quality experience that children receive in our care. The perception in the public domain is that we are earning an absolute fortune. I get that and I understand why there is that perception. We, as a private provider, are also an SME. We are ten years in business with a waiting list as long as my arm. We also have ten years' academic research behind us; we are the success story. Why should we not have a healthy bank balance? Sarah, myself and our partners jumped off a cliff together. We work for ourselves to make a difference in a sector that we are passionate about and to earn a good living. We should have been rewarded for those risks, but if I had opened a café ten years ago, my bank balance would be a hell of a lot better.
The capital allowances have helped keep our heads above water, but they ran out in 2014, and this year will be a game changer for us, personally, financially and professionally. The advice of our financial advisers is to cut costs, not to hire such qualified staff, to reduce wages, and to cut back on non-contact time, continuing professional development and many other resources. That is what advisers say when a company is struggling, not when it is thriving, and there have been many weeks that Sarah and I have not taken home a wage. I am one of the only people here who is not getting paid for my time. No one picked up my hotel tab last night and no one is paying my mileage and expenses. I am sure no one would swap jobs with me based on terms and conditions and recognition and rewards.
Ireland is well known for its highly skilled teaching profession. They are well up there with their European counterparts and many have come into this House. Why are we nearly at the bottom of the European table when it comes to early years investment? Why do the UK and our European neighbours get it and we do not? Why are we putting our children at such a disadvantage when it comes to competing for jobs in the European market in years to come?
Cheeky Cherubs has played its part but we have been let down. We have huge mortgages and have not received any support or investment to date. We are solely a private enterprise yet it appears perfectly acceptable to knock on our doors and have layers of inspection. I have no issue with an inspection. I have an issue with the excess layers of inspections. Excess layers of inspection will not enhance or drive quality. Instead it will create a distrust and a lack of respect for the sector. We have no early years qualified inspector because the current inspectors are public health nurses. I do not think the nursing profession would take kindly to an early years professional and educator inspecting them.
We pay a rates bill on time every year which has a direct impact on our team not receiving decent pay rises and recognition for their work. This year our rates bill is just over €13,000. I have been informed that I cannot be exempt from paying it as I am not an educational institution which are the deciding authority's words and not mine.
I am tired of listening to comparisons between us and our European counterparts. The curriculum in place in our centres is just as good as the curriculum in places like the Nordic countries and the UK, which have come up the ranks. Their Governments see the value in what they do and invest in them but the Irish Government will not invest in me. It is embarrassing when one says one works in the early years sector. There are no pats on the back for the difference we make to the lives of young children. Often there is a snigger or eye-rolling for working as a glorified babysitter. How much do members pay their babysitters? I suspect it is more than a level 7 or 8 early years practitioner earns. Some people take the view that we only care for children so where is the value in that. We expect to be valued as a profession but we are not at present.
Our staff rates vary from €9.50 to €15 per hour, which includes a director's salary. Many of our practitioners cannot secure car loans or mortgages. I am always deeply frustrated and saddened when I complete the paperwork for members of my team. It is not unusual for a staff member to work 40 hours week yet to need a second job in order to make ends meet.
Children are not born on their third birthday and investment needs to happen much earlier in a child's life. The ECCE scheme benefits children and their families but not Cheeky Cherubs. Unfortunately, there is no funding for the provider. The scheme fails to support working families who work 48 weeks in the year and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. I shall outline interesting statistics on UCC graduates who qualified last year. As much as 42% of graduates went into primary teaching, 23% went into the early years sector and 35% did not pursue work in either sector.
Last week I spoke to a lecturer in UCC who posed the following questions in a lecture theatre. She asked for a show of hands by people who would go directly into the early years sector and 27% of those present said they were. She then asked how many people would go into the early years sector if they were recognised like the primary sector and had the same status and pay. The result was 83%. Those findings speak volumes.
Tax credits will not work and will not ensure quality. Instead, investment needs to be provided to services that have proved themselves by investing time and money in their team and the children in their care which are services like ours. Additional needs for children are not met and this puts the team and centres under huge pressure. The Government must step in and provide support to children with additional needs. Early intervention works but it costs.
There needs to be planning for sustainability and included in these plans a focus, not just on the child, but on the practitioner. Cheeky Cherubs has proven that by hiring qualified and motivated individuals and supporting them in the workplace with non-contact time, continuous professional development, enhanced annual leave and permanent contracts one can then do the real work of supporting the welfare and education of young children. If the Government can find moneys for inquiries and tribunals then it can find money for the early years sector.
The good news is that Cheeky Cherubs has an Irish model that is comprised of ten years' academic and hands-on research. We have the tools and the training to drive quality and to motivate a team. We have the whole package. Like any other SME that pays its bills and taxes, the State will need to invest in us or our expertise will be lost.
I thank Ms Akerlind. I am familiar with the work that the organisation does in Bishopstown. I wish to thank all of the team for their work and care they provide to young people.
I invite Ms Paula Grogan Ryan from Tipperary to speak and she is part of Early Childhood Ireland delegation. She is very welcome.
Ms Paula Grogan Ryan:
I would like to start by saying that it is a privilege to work with young children. Children are the very basis of our society. They are the people who will shape our future and look after us in our old age. Therefore, they deserve the best quality service. I have worked in this area for over 20 years. Five years ago I realised that the sector was becoming more professional so I up sticks and left my family in order to return to college. I gained my degree in May 2012 and opened my preschool in a rural village in Tipperary in September 2012. I rent a room from a primary school and employ two ladies. Christine is qualified in child care level 6 and Deirdre has a qualification of child care FETAC level 5 and is studying for level 6.
We are one of the seven services in the country that was mentored to roll out the Aistear in Action project. It forms our curriculum framework. The way it benefits the children speak for themselves. Children run into school, their eyes glow with excitement as they wait to meet their friends, and they are excited at the thought of deciding what work to do. They spend their day working, playing, learning and socialising. Aistear is a brilliant curriculum and works well. This year we have also formally engaged with the quality framework called Síolta.
To conduct both initiatives, Christine, Deirdre and I have had to invest hours of work, attend monthly meetings, attend cluster meetings and have onsite visits. The amount of paperwork involved has been staggering. We have not been paid for any of this work but we did it because we believe that every child that passes through our service deserves that level of quality. We believe it is their right.
Even with all the dedication and work that my staff put in, with their motivation and interest in the business, at the end of June they will have to go to social services for an income for the summer. My staff are two qualified ladies who give unstintingly of their time. However, I must tell them that regrettably I am unable to pay them for 14 weeks a year. As a result, they have to approach social services and sign on. As a private provider and self-employed person, I do not have the privilege of signing on and, therefore, I receive no money for 14 weeks a year. I have been in business for three years. At the end of this academic year I will not have any wages in June after I have paid my rent, taxes, employer's PRSI, my wages and also put money back into the business to keep it at the necessary standard. All of that means I will not have any wages at the end of June. While I agree wholeheartedly that we need Aistear and Síolta, and that high qualifications are essential, I am left wondering if qualified professionals should be asked to be at a loss financially.
I am here today because I believe that children are entitled to a quality and professional care and education. I also believe that professionals who provide the service need to be acknowledged and rewarded financially.
Ms Evelyn Reilly:
I thank the committee for inviting me to attend today and for an opportunity to make a presentation.
My name is Evelyn Reilly. I am the owner-manager of Kidz@Play playschool located in Maynooth and Kilcock, County Kildare. It is a great honour for me to tell the committee that I shall celebrate 30 years of providing preschool education in the Maynooth area.
In terms of my own academic qualifications, 30 years ago I sought out whatever was available because I believed in qualifications. Over the period of 30 years I have successfully achieved an honours degree in early childhood education and care. I also secured the first presidential scholarship for a masters by research in the Institute of Technology, Carlow. My topic was the impact of the ECCE and I recently submitted my paper. My staff team is comprised of four personnel who have gained honours degrees and also staff who have attained level 6 qualifications.
In this presentation, I will draw on all that experience, my own, as well as the experience of running a preschool for 30 years. I will share with members the reality of and some challenges associated with working in the early childhood education setting. I must start with the positive because after 30 years, I must state it is the most dynamic, rewarding, challenging, busy, ever-changing and, not forgetting, fun career in which to be. I could not mention many other jobs in which I could stand in onesies on UTV Ireland on national pyjama day to talk about the €300,000 raised for Irish Autism Action or in which, having been dressed in a tiara by a child, I mistakenly could go to the bank while wearing it. When we are asked why do we work in a sector that is so underpaid and undervalued, the answer is the children. It is the children who embrace us and share with us their vision and view on the world. They are the ones who hook us in through their play and are the ones who keep us going and make us so passionate about what we do, their care and education.
The early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme has afforded opportunities for all of Ireland’s children. It is a chance to make a difference in the lives of children by providing quality early childhood care and education and I acknowledge that the essence of the scheme is a good and positive thing. However, there are many issues regarding the ECCE scheme which are endangering its effectiveness and functioning and which, unless corrected, will make it unworkable and I will set out some of them. The capitation is not enough to do what we must do. The Government set that capitation rate and although I have been in this sector for a long time, we were never consulted on how much it took to run it. It is not fit for purpose; it is not paying me to do what I must do and I am not the only one. The sustainability of my service and other services across the country and County Kildare, in which I am embedded, are dependent on an increase in capitation. For those members who are not aware, my service receives the higher capitation rate because we are degree-led. We get €2,774 per child for 38 weeks. Even if one omitted the closure of the service for the summer months, as an employer I still must pay for 42 weeks for my staff team to have their legal holiday entitlements. The current model of the scheme covers 15 contact hours per week. I have heard other submissions today and note the non-contact hours involve documenting, planning, reflecting, meeting parents and staff meetings, all of which are essential to quality services and yet this critical work is not being supported through the 15-hour-per-week model. This current capitation must be stretched to do that. There are other issues pertaining to the capitation that are not workable. Members may not be aware of this but the scheme is not compulsory and if a child does not turn up for more than 20 days, the service must return capitation. I was obliged to do this in respect of a child who took ill on holidays abroad and who was hospitalised. I did not tell my staff team that week that they or the rent would not get paid because that child's 20 days were up. There are other issues relating to the scheme that are not workable. One anomaly is that national schools are not obliged to return capitation in respect of a missing child.
As for the children, they are benefiting from the scheme. Research to date suggests this, as does my own research after 30 years. However, the scheme is letting down some children. Since the introduction of the scheme, increased numbers of children with additional needs are attending preschools. While it is right and just that they should be in the communities in which they live, there is no support. I cannot employ a special needs assistant, SNA, that the Government will fund. As that is not available to me, for example, if a child is lucky to have a diagnosis, he or she may come with an SNA for two days a week but what about the other days? We do not have that. My point is this breaches their rights. While they have an entitlement to the scheme, they have no right to participate. Although Ireland has signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, their right to participation is not being considered in that regard. Early intervention is key but investment is required and I must be able to access an SNA. While this affects lots of children, for reasons of confidentiality I obviously will not discuss names. However, in the case of one child in particular, an SNA is not being funded but yet, a taxi has been provided to the child in question to attend a unit 20-something miles away, which simply does not add up. Another anomaly is that although schools have issues with SNAs, they can access an SNA, whereas we cannot.
As for disadvantaged children, the very essence of the scheme had its origin in the need to support disadvantaged children and its universality means that all children access it. However, the Early Start programme, which is an intervention programme in designated disadvantaged areas, deems it necessary to give double the capitation to those children in preschools in the Early Start programmes that are in the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, areas. I suggest that it is not areas that are disadvantaged; it is children and there are hundreds of disadvantaged children in my preschool and in others nationwide. I would like to be able to access additional funding for these children because the work we do with those children is different, as is the support for those families.
Ms Evelyn Reilly:
Yes. My concluding point is to recognise and reward the professionals. I told members the staff profile and have permission to provide the joint committee with just two names. Emma came to me as a student in transition year and obviously was influenced in her career. She went on to obtain her honours degree successfully and she leads curriculum development in the Aistear in Action programme in my preschool. She must work in a bar and sign on for the summer. Sarah has been with me for ten years, has an academic qualification and was refused - not even considered for - a mortgage when she got married last year. I will finish with a quotation from an American activist on the rights of children, Marian Wright Edelman, who said: "The question is not whether we can afford to invest in every child; it is whether we can afford not to." I thank the joint committee.
Ms Paula Donohoe:
My name is Paula Donohoe. I am a private provider from Ballyconnell, County Cavan. I am very at home in the setting where I am working with 20 children on a daily basis. This, I must say, is completely taking me out of my comfort zone but because I am passionate in my beliefs that we need to improve conditions for the children attending our services, the parents who avail of our services and the staff who work those services, I am appearing before the committee this morning. As I am rather nervous, please excuse the shakiness.
My background is that I have a degree in Montessori. I worked for 16 years in a Department of Education and Skills special school in Cootehill, County Cavan, where I was a teacher, before making the decision to open up a Montessori and day-care facility in Ballyconnell, which I did in 2008. I am a relative newcomer to the area of child care but I have the best part of 30 years behind me working with children. I first thank the joint committee for giving me this opportunity to have our voices included in this very important discussion with regard to child care and its future. My hopes for today are that I can, as best as possible, represent the issues as they arise for us the providers, with particular reference to the private providers on a daily basis. I wish to both highlight our issues and accompany them with what we believe may be viable solutions to issues we identify. I wish to provide a practical and proactive response to this invitation. I will discuss the issues as they arise under a number of headings. We looked at sustainability, the ECCE scheme, special needs, Aistear and Síolta, grants and community child care subvention scheme, CCSS, funding, Garda vetting, registration, rates, PRSI, VAT and childminders.
As I am sure all members are aware, there is a huge sustainability issue in the area of child care facilities, with many of my colleagues struggling to keep their doors open, let alone actually take a wage for themselves. We have seen far too many closures over the past number of years due to insufficient investment in this sector. The sustainability issues arise from ever-rising costs we are facing such as insurance, which increased by 30% this year alone, running costs and ever-increasing wage costs, coupled with being obliged to take a decrease in our ECCE payment since its introduction in 2010. This has left a lot of crèches and day-care facilities at breaking point. As we try to ensure that all our services are run to the highest of standards with a huge emphasis on driving forward quality in the sector, we also are faced with ever-growing costs and what we consider to be a lack of investment in the area, which leaves us facing major problems. The average cost of child care in the County Cavan region is €150 per child per week for full day care.
We are well aware that this is a huge bill for parents and that they cannot pay any more. What we are saying is that our Government, like its counterparts in most European states, needs to invest in child care and thus invest in the future of the most important asset our nation possesses. Research has repeatedly shown that investment in the early years benefits all in the future. I do not think any Minister, Deputy or Senator can disagree with that but the important issue is whether we are willing to make the necessary investment.
I propose to discuss some measures which we feel will really help not only improve quality in the sector, but also alleviate some of the very concerning issues we are facing in the context of sustainability. We recognise that the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme is a hugely important investment in our sector which has greatly enhanced the lives of many children and their parents since its introduction in 2010. That said, we also feel this investment does not go near far enough towards facilitating the desired level of quality in our sector. At present, we receive €62.50 per week per child at the lower level and for those on the higher capitation - the latter only represent a very small percentage of preschools as a whole - the amount is €73, which breaks down as €4.16 hour or €4.86 per hour at the higher level. This is paid for a three-hour period only. However, we in the preschool sector are aware that in order for quality to be present in the three-hour contact time with the children, many hours of non-contact time, including preparation time, setting-up time, team meetings and parents consultations, must take place. The capitation is only paid for three hours per day and for 38 weeks per year. It does not even cover arrival and dismissal times, which generally take between ten and 15 minutes before and after class finishes. It in no way allows for any planning time or time required to compile records or learning journals. It covers a bare minimum and nothing more at a time when there is huge pressure on to increase quality.
To help us in our endeavours to meet the higher standards, which, I must add, the sector has, in the main, been requesting for many, many years, we ask that the Government increase its investment in this particular programme so that we can reach those standards. At present, the sector, both private and community services, is paying for all non-contact time, preparation time, etc., the community sector by means of fund-raising and the private sector by unpaid hours done by management and staff. This cannot continue. The Government cannot continue to advertise a free preschool year when, in fact, it is offering the minimum and the sector is providing the rest. I speak for myself when I say that I currently do all my planning and record keeping at home in my own time. All my learning journals, which are kept for every child in the preschool programme, are completed in the evening. I am very positive that I am not alone in this practice. Three hours a day does not allow for any team meetings, planning or otherwise. If we were to complete all this work while the children were in situ, there would be very little time left for us to deal with them. This work is done but for the most part it is completed in the private time of the room leaders.
Our proposals are that the Government should increase the capitation grant for ECCE at both higher and lower levels; increase the number of hours per day, from three to three and a half or four, so that the grant would be paid out for allowing realistically for time of arrival and dismissal and much needed non-contact time in order to facilitate team planning and record keeping; and increase the number of weeks per year over which the grant is paid out by at least another three to allow for preparation of materials, yearly planning, etc. We are, therefore, asking that the capitation to be paid out over a 41-week period. This would assist us owner-managers to pay staff their statutory entitlement of holiday pay, which, at present, we feel the ECCE scheme does not cover.
The issue of special needs is particularly close to my own heart. It is a subject about which I am very passionate. I do not wish in any way to take away from my fellow providers, who also feel this is an area into which we must make huge investment in order to try to address the specific need of the many children with special needs who are enrolling in preschools. At present, children with additional needs enrol for their free preschool year under the ECCE scheme in the same way as other children. We, as providers, welcome their inclusion. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs allows children with specific diagnosed needs to spread their free preschool over a two-year period, attending possibly two days per week in the first year and three days per week the following year, and pays the grant on a pro ratabasis. This is the only specific help a child or a service receives in recognition of the diagnosed additional need. Special needs assistant, SNA, hours are not allocated in respect of the child and we do not receive any specific training regarding special needs. SNA allocations-----
Ms Paula Donohoe:
That is fine. We are asking for SNA allocations, that every child who has an additional need be entitled to a second free preschool year, that proper specific training with regard to special needs should, in our opinion, be mandatory for all of those working with children with special needs and that an expert in the area of special needs should be appointed in each county to work specifically with the child care sector. We have many other proposals in respect of rates and VAT which we believe would assist, directly and indirectly, in dealing with the sustainability issues relating to the child care sector. I thank the committee for its time.
I thank Ms Donohoe. I hope that we will be able to deal with those other proposals during the course of the question and answer session. I now call on Ms June Tinsley, assistant director and head of advocacy and supporter engagement with Barnardos, to make her contribution. Ms Tinsley is very welcome.
Ms June Tinsley:
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend. As members may know, Barnardos has been a long-time campaigner for greater investment in quality early years services. We run 42 projects across the country, working in areas of disadvantage, and in our early years services, every day we see children who are absolutely thriving as a result of the quality of interactions, relationships and activities they undertake. We believe that helping a child to build his or her social, emotional and educational repertoire from an early age is a great leveller. Quality early years services provide the foundations which enable children to escape a life of poverty and disadvantage and permit them reach their full potential. We know there is a huge bank of evidence to verify the benefits of high-quality early care and education for all children from age two onwards. These benefits are greatest for children who come from areas of disadvantage. Children from the age of two onwards do better in high-quality care and education services than they do if they remain at home on a full-time basis. Early care and education, when it is of high quality, produces widespread benefits for the child, their family and wider society. It raises educational outcomes, enhances employability, reduces child poverty, improves health and prevents social problems. We know this as a result of the many longitudinal studies that have been undertaken. We also know, from an economic perspective, the cost-benefit analyses that have been conducted all show a huge rate of return.
On after-school care and activities, research has shown that participation in after-school programmes helps children’s social and emotional development, eases their transition between primary and secondary school and lowers the risk of early school leaving. Currently, the after-school care sector in Ireland is very disjointed and unregulated and care is often unaffordable. There is need for a co-ordinated national strategy for this sector in order to enhance quality, accessibility and affordability.
With regard to the policy context, we know that Ireland has the highest fees for child care due to continued under-investment on the part of the State. Ireland only invests 0.4% of GDP annually in this area in comparison to the OECD average of 0.7%. We also know that services vary in quality and availability and that staff are underpaid. In addition, childminders, who are the preferred choice of care for many parents, are largely unregulated. We are aware that the Department spends €260 million annually on many targeted schemes, as well as the free preschool year, and that it has recently beefed up the inspection regimes and imposed minimum qualifications.
Barnardos welcomes the 2015 country-specific recommendations of the EU Commission urging the State to act to address child care as a way of reducing child poverty and removing a major barrier preventing parents from taking up employment or training. The recession has impacted on families with young children the most, leaving one in eight children in consistent poverty. As Ireland emerges from recession and the public finances improve, it is imperative to seize this opportunity and ensure that wise investment choices are made. Barnardos urges the committee to make brave recommendations that will guarantee a link between public funding and quality services, enhance availability and support those most in need. On foot of the wealth of evidence that exists, we believe it is clear that investment in subsidised quality early care and education and after-school systems can deliver on all of these.
Barnardos would be vehemently opposed to the introduction of tax credits as a solution to make child care and after-school care more affordable. In our view, such a move would be extremely costly and do nothing for improving the quality of the service. From the perspective of parents, the amount of credit obtained would still fall far short of the fees being charged and would do nothing for those low-income parents who are outside the tax net or seeking to move off welfare. It also will not stop fees being increased for support services with highly-trained staff.
Opting for policy that favours tax credits instead of investing in public services ignores the international evidence of ways to effectively tackle child poverty and address wider structural inequality.
As we focus on budget 2016, the next general election and the centenary of the 1916 Rising, we owe it to today’s children to create a better future for them and their children. It is unacceptable that by the age of five, children from the poorest fifth of homes are nearly a year behind children from middle-income households in developmental outcomes. There must be clear, decisive action to tackle this entrenched inequality. The Minister for Finance announced in the spring economic statement that up to €1.5 billion will be available for budget 2016. Barnardos believes it is a mistake to split this money 50:50 between tax cuts and investment. Instead, the majority must be earmarked for investment in public services including the development of a subsidised, quality early years and after-school care system. Such a system would take a number of years to be introduced so Barnardos believes that some initial core steps should be taken immediately to commence this journey. These initial steps would include reforming parental leave so that paid leave is available to parents to enable them to stay with their child for the first year of his or her life; extending the community child care subvention scheme by making subsidised places available in privately run early years services; introducing a new 100% subsidy for families with identified high levels of need, with access on the basis of referral from Tusla; and retaining the free pre-school year, improving it and moving towards the introduction of a second year. For those families who prefer home settings, funding schemes should be set up for registered child minders so that they can meet quality standards. Finally, in terms of after-school care provision, it is important that any public funding invested in this sector is met with a guarantee of quality.
I thank the Chairman and thank the ladies who came here this morning to share their experiences with us. There was no indication that they were nervous in delivering their presentations. It is quite clear from what we have heard today that there is a serious issue regarding the sustainability of the child care sector going forward. People are remaining involved in the area because of their passion, commitment and dedication and their love of their profession. They place enormous value on playing a key role in an important developmental stage of a child's life. That was very evident at recent rallies organised by the Association of Childhood Professionals, which were organised at times that would not discommode service users. Those involved put their service users before themselves. Their commitment has been undervalued and under-recognised and that is something that must be addressed. I thank the witnesses for sharing their experiences with us today.
Some of the witnesses may be aware that I have already produced a fully costed strategy ---
As I was saying, I have already produced a fully costed strategy for the development of the child care sector. A lot of what has been said at today's meeting is covered in my policy document, particularly with regard to the early childhood education scheme. My document acknowledges that the capitation rate for that scheme is too low and calls for the cut implemented two years ago to be reversed. We must acknowledge that on contact time and holiday pay, the State is only paying providers for 38 weeks of the year while requiring them to pay their staff for 42 weeks. That is unsustainable and must be addressed. After-school care has been discussed widely in the media this week. The sector is totally unregulated and I would have worries and concerns about investing in an unregulated sector. The sector must be regulated before any investment in it by the State.
On the issue of quality and inconsistencies across the board, I have grave reservations about the Department's role in this area. The Department brought forward a registration process which was given legal effect 15 months ago in January 2014 but that has yet to be implemented. The new regulations under which services are supposed to operate have yet to be publicised so providers are not aware of their obligations. In terms of quality, that is where we need to start.
I welcome the fact that the issue of special educational needs was raised by the witnesses today. Just before the witnesses arrived today the committee heard of correspondence from the Minister explaining that yet another interdepartmental group would be established to look into the issue, comprising the Departments of Health, Education and Skills and Children and Youth Affairs. That group is expected to report in September of this year. While that is welcome, I will be forgiven for being somewhat cynical about it because we have spent the last four years highlighting what needs to be done. We are all aware of what needs to be done: a new, targeted special educational needs fund must be rolled out on a national basis to remove any of the inconsistencies that currently exist. Access to services should not be about where a child is from. Geographic location should not determine whether a child with special educational needs can avail of a free pre-school year. A recent report showed that 21% of service providers refused admission to children with special educational needs, which is an absolute scandal. I hope the aforementioned interdepartmental group bears fruit but I am somewhat sceptical, given that we are still waiting for the national inclusion plan which was supposed to be published two years ago. The time for plans and interdepartmental groups is finished. We want to see real and tangible action now.
One of the issues of concern raised today was the number of agencies that service providers must deal with, including Tusla, the Department of Education and Skills, pre-school inspectors, Pobal, Better Start and so forth. I have been arguing for several years for the development of one comprehensive inspectorate to inspect all aspects of the service, including environmental, educational and developmental. That is all that is needed. That would reduce costs and would be far better in terms of quality assurance going forward. It always amazes me that the Government has identified the need for educational inspectors to inspect the service because of the educational component. At the same time, however, if service providers apply for a rates exemption, they are told that they are not an educational facility. The Government cannot have it both ways. My party put forward amendments to rates legislation which went through the Houses recently to exempt pre-school services from commercial rates because they are, in effect, an educational facility. Indeed, they are a very important educational facility providing educational services at a key stage in a child's life.
I would also like to see the extension of the community child care subvention scheme. The manner in which that is being dealt with at present is segregating children from better-off and less-well-off areas. That must be addressed.
There must be an incremental increase in investment in this area. There must also be an increase in the provision of maternity and paternity leave. There must be an increase in capitation to acknowledge and recognise the qualifications of those working in the service as well as non-contact time and holiday time. Then, and only then, when all of the deficiencies within the service have been identified and addressed does the party that introduced the first free pre-school year believe that we should introduce a second free year.
Finally, I wish to address the issue of tax credits. I have been advocating the introduction of tax credits and many pre-school service providers have contacted me directly and congratulated me for doing so. In that context, I sometimes wonder where the advocacy groups get their information from. They have looked to Australia and argued that the introduction of tax credits drove up the cost of child care but a costs study by the Australian Government contradicts that argument. The study shows that there was a significant drop in the percentage of disposable income spent on child care following the introduction of tax credits.
For me, the best way to get children out of poverty is by supporting their parents back into the workforce.
I will conclude now, and I appreciate the Chairman's leniency. There are umpteen reports, especially with regard to one-parent and low income families, showing that the reason those who want to work cannot go to work is that the cost of child care is preventing them from doing so. Sometimes it even pushes them out of the workforce. I believe we must support those families. The best place for a child's development is at home first, and to have economic security we must allow and support those parents back into the workforce.
I welcome the witnesses and thank them for their insightful presentations, which were not only excellent but also provided some clear recommendations and solutions which will be very useful to us as we move forward. I am sure the members of the committee will agree that without the input of witnesses and meeting people who are at the coal face our report would be worthless. It is important that we know what they are thinking.
Yesterday, some of us attended the launch of "Picture Your Rights", a report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child from Children Living in Ireland, compiled by children of all ages and supported by the Children's Rights Alliance and UNICEF Ireland. The report stated that 1,148,687 children are living in this State and account for 25% of the population. That emphasises the need to invest in children.
I also thank the witnesses for the work they are doing. I am sure they are not thanked often enough, but parents are extremely thankful for the work they do. As part of my work as special rapporteur I have conducted a number of outreach meetings around the country and met many providers from both the private and community sectors. We have also met with parents and workers. A common theme emerged from those meetings and it also came through in the presentations today, that what is needed is affordable, accessible, quality child care and a substantial investment in child care. We would all agree on that. The other main issues that arose are wages, terms and conditions and whether qualified professionals should be asked to be at a loss financially. They should not. There are also the issues of not being able to get mortgages and car loans, only being able to work 38 weeks of the year and having to sign on the dole. That is absolutely unacceptable for qualified professionals.
I wish to tease out a number of questions. Many other issues have been covered and will be covered by other members of the committee today, but a few have arisen on which people might have different views. One is the concern of some regarding an emphasis by the Government on a degree-led workforce in child care. Some people expressed the view that quality of care is often only gained with practical experience. If a pay scale is introduced that only reflects academic skills, is this not unfair to those who have been working in the sector for years who have fewer academic credentials? Perhaps the witnesses would give their views on that.
Another question arose with regard to the community employment, CE, schemes. How can participants in the CE scheme be used fairly and in a way that does not replace regular employees? Concern has been raised about the inconsistency of employment numbers of CE participants from centre to centre. How do we strike a balance without displacement? Also, is there an over-reliance on CE workers?
With regard to capitation, must all or part of the moneys be returned and paid back if missing the 20 days? I am not clear about that. Must it be returned for the entire year or is it just in part?
The subvention issue arose frequently. Should everybody be able to avail of the subvention, both private and community, bearing in mind that in many areas people do not have access to community service providers? I am anxious to hear the views of the witnesses on that. On the issue of grant applications, how should this be improved and made more accessible to providers? There is an issue with regard to private owners not being able to access grants. Does that put them at a disadvantage? Does it put the children who are attending their crèches at a disadvantage also?
I had a few questions about special needs but we have been informed that the Minister is examining this with the Department of Education and Skills and will report back by September. There is a recognition that the current system is not fit for purpose. I would welcome getting that report this morning, but we will have to wait and see what emerges from it. Do the witnesses agree that two full years of preschool provision should be a right, regardless of how the time is split up? There have been issues with regard to children with special needs perhaps attending two days and three days, but sometimes children are not identified or assessed as having special needs until towards the end of a year and might not be suitable for mainstream school. Unless the parents can afford to send the children to preschool in the gap year, the children must stay at home. Should a child with special needs have a right to get two preschool years, regardless of how many days they wish to attend? In addition, it was pointed out to us that if attendance is split up into two days and three days, when the child goes to mainstream school they must attend for five full days immediately. What are the witnesses' views on that?
I will not take much longer.
A point was raised about the inconsistency of inspections. It was also brought to our attention that the inspectors arrive unannounced and then expect a staff member to be free. When they arrive to inspect, should a fully qualified preschool staff member be with them so they can fill in while the preschool frees up one of its staff members? Should they come as a team so there is somebody who can fill in and the preschool does not have to worry about it?
I will not mention the rates but two of the witnesses mentioned tax credits. Three of them did not mention them, so do they have a view on the matter?
Finally, money should follow the child regardless of location, and disadvantaged children live in many different communities and constituencies. I presume all of the witnesses would agree with that.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. It was very interesting. Listening to them I realised, particularly in the case of the providers, how many of them are on the brink. I can feel the joy and passion for the work they are doing, but I can also see the stresses. I have seen that replicated in meeting many different providers. Part of me wonders if it is because the sector is so dominated by females and whether that is a contributory factor to the reality of why we are discussing this issue and the value we put on the sector. That is something we must take on board as policy makers.
I will go straight to the issues because we are all under pressure for time. Regarding the inspections, it would be interesting for committee members to understand the reality of the different types of inspections. There is a real issue here for the State in that there are so many different bodies going to the facilities to inspect. We must look at the costs for the State versus how it actually improves the quality outcome, and everybody in the room agrees that we want the quality outcome. I have a huge issue with the fact that I see advertisements for public health nurses, who have no expertise in an area, at assistant director level. I have no problem with the costs for the inspectors. Let us give them a high cost, but let them go in and inspect settings where one is not being paid for that non-contact time, because if one takes somebody out of the room the ratios are broken.
There are some serious issues for the State to examine in the interdepartmental group the Minister is considering. I appreciate that we have a focus on the providers, because they are giving us the reality, but there is a question for the State as to why we have Tusla, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Education and Skills, Pobal and all these other bodies trying to assert their role in a sector that is already overstretched. We say we want quality, and some providers are making choices, as Ms Donohoe said, about cutting back hours and, therefore, cutting back on quality. Outcomes will then be affected. I am concerned about the capacity for the sector and its sustainability. We must look at that.
The issue of additional needs was brought up. I think it was Ms Reilly who said one of the only things that is happening is that we can do two days a week one year and three days a week next year. As a former employer, I am trying to work out how one employs staff for two days a week this year and three next year, because it is one child, but there are ratios. How is that a sustainable model, where one is only being paid for that time? I cannot compute how that can be done and it is very serious to hear of staff, who are so qualified, earning more money in other sectors, whether in bars or chippers. It shows where we are putting our value as a society.
The other issue I want to raise, regarding staffing, is laying off a very qualified person for 14 weeks. The question I have relates to the number of weeks per year, because we jump at this idea of the second year. Should we be looking first to extend the first year? Is this something that parents want? Is it something that children want? Is it something that is good? There are critical choices to be made. Does the sector have the capacity to do that and how do we grow that and ensure that quality? In anything the State does, we should be contributing to quality rather than overstretching the service.
My final point relates to the investment issue. The great thing about the free preschool year was that we changed the discussion. The discussion was, at last, about the outcomes for the child, and we moved the discussion away from whether the parents are working or not and what they choose to do. We were actually saying that it is good for a child to get early education, in the same way that it is good for a child to go to primary school and to secondary school. That is my difficulty with trying to link it in any other way. On the tax credit issue, the early child care supplement was tried in 2006 and it was withdrawn because prices went up immediately. It did not actually improve outcomes for children. I do not need to go to Australia for research. We saw it here in Ireland. It is clear that the answer is investment.
I welcome the remarks in Barnardos' submission about the first year of a child's life and the need to work on paternity and maternity leave and put emphasis on that. That is something I have also heard from providers. Nobody is asking that we go under the age of one. In our discussions, we need to remember that critical first year of a child's life, and the State must do everything it can to support it.
I am conscious that we have time constraints and four other speakers have indicated, so I will hand back to our panel, who may each give a quick response. We will then return to the four members who have not spoken.
Ms June Tinsley:
I thank the members for their comments. On the tax credits issue, I wholeheartedly agree with Deputy Troy from Barnardos' perspective. There is an emphasis on supporting parents getting back to work and tackling child poverty, but in an era where we are trying to get value for money, tax credits are the most expensive option, so I do not believe that is the right route to take. We must also bear in mind that the amount a parent gets in an annual tax credit might work out at approximately €2,000 per annum and if the parent is paying child care fees of €700 to €1000 a month, it is nowhere near what is actually required. It also does not do anything around childminders. Chances are that those who are trying to make that transition from welfare to work are taking up a job that is outside the tax net, so they will not benefit from any tax credits. As Senator van Turnhout said, the move from the early child care supplement to the free preschool year was a game-changer. The emphasis was put on the child and the outcomes for the child. This is an opportunity to continue that discussion by putting the emphasis on the services, knowing that it will improve the child, the sector, the family and, ultimately, wider society, as it will help tackle child poverty. On the question of whether we have the capacity for a second free preschool year, I would personally like to see the quality of the present preschool year enhanced, because at the moment it is varied. I do not think we can jump straight to that point, but I would like to see us get there. We do not have the capacity at present without significant investment. The providers here today have eloquently highlighted the challenges with the services being run, so we cannot jump there just yet, but we should be moving in that direction.
Ms Paula Donohoe:
The free preschool year should not be elongated, because it would not benefit the children or the staff. It is similar to primary schools: everybody needs a break. A second free preschool year will require, along with the quality, major capital investment. We definitely need the SNA hours, to be used wisely and with training. Regarding the community childcare subvention scheme, without a doubt, the funding is for the child, not the service. Why we are letting the funding be directed into a service rather than going with the child is beyond me.
A grant was announced recently by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, which ranged from €500,000 to €500. We in the private sector could only apply for €500. There was massive discrimination. It was hidden behind the idea of disadvantaged children, but we also know that the children in community services are not only disadvantaged. There are many children who are not designated as disadvantaged. We felt very left out and discriminated against and we would like all grants, as they were announced, to be given to all, so that there is a fairness to all children in all services.
Ms Evelyn Reilly:
I would like to answer some questions. We need a degree-led, professional workforce. We are professional. It does not mean that every single person must have a degree, but a degree-led graduate workforce is the way forward to acknowledge where we are and to give value for the children.
With regard to unannounced inspections, having had inspections since the very beginning there are not many jobs where a staff member is making Play-Doh and is quizzed on child protection policy while they are working with the children. That is what happens when one is trying to be mindful of ratios and so on. There are elements of all the inspections that should be announced, especially around paperwork. I agree with unannounced inspections for quality control, but a great deal of paperwork inspection could be announced, so that the business has the paperwork ready and somebody ready to do it. That is something for the committee to think about.
In terms of children with additional needs, for those members who may not be aware, at the outset of the scheme children with additional needs were afforded two full years. That should be completely reinstated. The idea of splitting one year of full preschool weeks over two years is unacceptable. A parent said to me that her child's rights were not met. She went on to school never having done five days. That requires supports. We as providers must be able to access SNAs if we feel we need them and the Department must pay for them.
Ms Paula Grogan Ryan:
I will reiterate much of what my colleagues have said. I agree with Ms Donohoe regarding the grant application. I started three years ago and have had no funding whatsoever. It is all private funding, which adds to the cost, which is coming out of any money I have. This year we were allowed €500 when community services have received more. Inspections involve taking a staff member off the floor.
We have a very good HSE inspector. She is quite willing to sit and wait until the children have left to do the paperwork, which is great, so one is then going into non-contact hours again. We are now working after school has finished and we are not getting paid for that either, so either way it does not work.
I wish to speak about the two years for children with special needs. I have a little boy in my service at the moment whose mother is fighting for an assistant and I am also fighting for one. The principal in the primary school is also fighting for an assistant for him. We have failed on all counts even though we all know he needs it. We did apply to extend his year, so he had two days last year and he has three days this year. His mother has had to pay the balance for the rest of the five days. She has brought him five days but she has had to pay the balance for both years. I do not think that is right.
Ms Michele Akerlind:
I have three quick points. I agree with my colleague Ms Reilly about having a degree-led workforce, but there needs to be access to the degree on a part-time basis from all colleges and universities, and there also needs to be some financial support.
ECCE needs to be provided 48 weeks a year for full-day care for working parents. I am a huge advocate of encouraging men into such a female-dominated workforce. However, the reality is that we will not get men in the workforce unless wages are increased.
I welcome our guests and thank them for the excellent, informed presentations they put before us. I welcome in particular Ms Paula Grogan Ryan, from my county, Tipperary.
I can identify with many if not all of the issues raised in the various submissions. I am a member of the board of the Elm Park child care centre in Clonmel. It is a purpose-built community child care facility with 65 places that was built about ten years ago. We provide services from the baby room through to toddlers, waddlers and up to preschool age. The staff are professional, and as we have heard in the presentations this morning, they have improved their skills at their own expense and in their own time. Despite a lot of support from the county child care committee and Pobal, we, like the services we have heard about, operate on a shoestring budget. We are under pressure on a daily basis to make ends meet. It goes back to an acceptance that early childhood education is vital for young children and that there is a huge payback for the children themselves, their families, and wider society. In monetary terms, for every €1 that is put in the return is €10. Ms Tinsley from Barnardos put it very well in her submission. She said early childhood care raises educational outcomes, enhances employability, reduces child poverty, improves health and prevents social problems. We have all said that and we all accept it, but we need to go further and properly fund the service to create the outcomes we have spoken about. We are nowhere near doing that at the moment. We are funding on the basis of 0.2% of GDP when the European average is approximately 0.7%. It is obvious that we need to increase the funding provided to child care services.
Everybody has raised special needs. It is a subject that gives rise to considerable difficulties. There are no special needs assistants and in many cases children are not even assessed. Such children can lack social skills and motor skills. Ms Reilly made the important point that initially a two-year service was provided to children with special needs and that should be reintroduced immediately. As a minimal starting point, we should seek a reversal of the cuts that took place in 2011, which were implemented on 1 January 2012.
In terms of staff training, it is important to consider non-contact time, including preparation and training, which is all being done by the service at the expense of staff and the employer in their own time. That is something that must be addressed, because it will not bring qualified professional people into the service and people will not remain if they are not properly trained and paid. In very many cases, child care professionals are being paid at hourly rates very close to the minimum wage, which is really not sustainable for the service.
A host of other issues were raised. In fact, there are so many challenges that it is difficult to identify priorities. Is there a single item that would significantly enhance the service both for the children and for the service in general?
I must point out to members that mobile phones and iPads are interfering with the broadcasting of proceedings. To be fair to members, witnesses and those watching at home, could everyone please turn off their mobile phones or iPads or put them in aeroplane mode?
The child care professionals who are present this morning are expert witnesses and they have made very good submissions. I will not play to the gallery. Ms Grogan Ryan was not able to go through her very comprehensive submission. I wish it could all be put on record. I have been involved in education for 31 years. I agree with Senator van Turnhout. One of the reasons pay is so poor is that it is a female-led profession. Men would not work for the money involved.
High-quality teaching, learning and care is of the utmost importance in getting the necessary outcomes. We must put children at the top of the pyramid and all the rest of us must serve them. The witnesses know as well as I do that we have come through an economic disaster in this country, but we are now at a stage at which the economy is improving. We must work with the child care sector to ensure we have the best outcomes and services for the children without those involved being exploited. Pay in the sector is appalling. I know many owners of preschools, care workers and professional staff who cannot get mortgages. I also know primary school teachers who cannot get mortgages in Dublin. That is by the way.
The witnesses are fighting a winning battle. Money was flung at buildings in the past and there was no thinking behind it, but now we have the Aistear programme, which is fantastic. We are seeing children who have participated in it. In recent years teachers have told me that children are coming to school much better prepared.
Experts might complain about what I say, but as a primary teacher and principal I know that one could nearly write the CV of a child within three weeks of their starting junior infants, and I am sure the child care professionals present can see that as well. The necessary input is vital at an early stage of a child’s life. Parenting has not been mentioned, but it is so important. Child care professionals are in a unique position to help parents guide their children, as I am sure they see the deficits in parenting. Child care professionals are on the front line and have a way of getting to the parents.
I am going to stop talking. I wish to be fair to Ms Grogan Ryan. Deputy Seamus Healy asked for a wish list. I was going to ask about this. We have not got a magic pool of €500 million or €1 billion to invest, even though we know we need to invest. Therefore, we need to proceed slowly and think about how to proceed. What are the most important requirements, in order of priority? I will do my best for the witnesses.
I thank the witnesses for their very comprehensive presentations. Having been in the private sector for many years, I am well aware of the issues associated with running any business. Ms Michele Akerlind referred to rates of €13,000 per annum. That works out at €250 per week, which is quite a lot of money. With regard to the cost of providing services, I am not looking for exact figures but the percentages of the funding coming in. No one has actually given a breakdown on the use of the money by percentage. Providing it would be a useful exercise. The €13,000 in rates is going back to a State organisation. Of the money coming in, what percentage is really going back to the State in the form of rates, PRSI or PAYE? In real terms, the net cost to the State is far lower than what we are being told. It would be useful for us to have an overall breakdown. It is important for long-term planning.
The issue of rates is significant. Insurance is also an issue that is arising. It needs to be examined also. We cannot bring about change overnight so there has to be a planned process. Deputy Healy asked the witnesses to state their main priority. What are the three areas in which the witnesses believe an immediate improvement could be made without the State incurring a huge cost? That is an issue we need to examine immediately. We also need to plan carefully in respect of where money is being invested and ensure we can develop the service while at the same time paying staff adequately. Producing a breakdown by percentage would be a useful exercise that we could work on.
Deputy Troy made some good comments. I apologise for being late. I am concerned about all the issues that have been raised. The last thing I did before coming here today was to drop off my child for the last two weeks of his free preschool year. There will be many tears shed at his graduation next week. We are extremely grateful to the teachers involved. They do an absolutely fantastic job for my son. I have two other children who have gone through the process.
The issue of children with special needs has been significant in County Meath lately. The Department of Health, which is apparently in charge of this in Meath, has acted disgracefully. First there was the abolition, and then, a few weeks ago, there was a 25% cut. I do not know whether the cut has been reversed yet. The document we received today on addressing the requirements of special needs children really shows a Government that has been completely mixed up from 2011 until now and is acting utterly disgracefully in regard to children with special needs. It states openly that no Department wanted to take the lead on this issue. I find that absolutely extraordinary after the Government established a Department with responsibility for children. Nobody wanted to take charge of this issue. Come September, there will be a report. Of course, we all know why there will be a report in September. When will we get action on this?
In my second child’s ECCE class, there was a child with Down's syndrome and there was a special needs assistant. We live very close to the border of Louth. I did not know the SNA service, even in the case of partial provision, was totally different in the next county and in some other counties around the country. We really have to take action on this and roll something out across the country as soon as possible that will benefit children with special needs and the rest of the children in their class. This messing has gone on too long, as is clear from the document we have received today. I am appalled and shocked by it.
I apologise for being late. I was at another meeting this morning but I am thoroughly aware of all the delegates' submissions. I do not wish to ask questions but I want to state that, in the past few weeks when preparing for the proposals we will be making to the public on the next five years, I have done a lot of research on child care. As Senator Byrne stated, this arises from the issue that was so eloquently put by Mags Coogan and her team to the HSE in Meath in recent years. The ECCE scheme is absolutely wonderful in principle - Fianna Fáil is to be commended on it - but it is an awful pity it did not assign SNAs when it was established and when there was an obvious need for them. Equally, it is an awful pity that we have not had the money to do so in a consistent fashion nationwide. I commend the HSE in Meath for having the gumption to allocate money for it. We all know it is not enough money, but at least the authorities are trying to address the situation. We will work with them co-operatively to try to ensure there is more money. There is a real need for SNAs to be assigned to children in this sector. It is the only sector associated with our educational programme for those between zero and 20-something in which we do not support children with special needs. It is glaringly obvious that this needs to be done. I believe there will be provision in the Estimates this year, which is very welcome.
Let me make two other points. We nearly want all staff in the sector to have PhDs coming out of their ears, yet we want to pay them as if they were flipping burgers in McDonald's. That is wrong and needs to be addressed. The capitation funding that has been offered has been cut in recent years but, as Deputy Mitchell O'Connor stated, we are now in a position to start trying to unravel some of the financial emergency measures that were taken because the last Government put us off a cliff. This is definitely one area that needs to be addressed. The capitation improvements need to be examined, and sooner rather than later.
We need to resource staff to meet the improved standards and attain the qualifications we require of them in the health care and education sectors. It is not just a matter of capitation. The educational resources pertaining to the qualifications that we would like employees in the sector to have need to be in place. Ms Akerlind is correct that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We need to work with the universities to ensure they work in tandem regarding the resources and hours being worked in the sector to ensure we all go along this journey together and achieve what we want - namely, excellence in the delivery of education for preschool children. However, we have to ensure we resource the sector to enable it to meet the standards it wants to meet and that we want for all children.
I hope the SNA issue will be sorted out by the Government this year. I genuinely hope that, as money becomes available over the coming years, we will return to circumstances in which we pay staff to reflect the quality and standard of the care and educational resources they are providing to children. I am not quite sure I care whether there are men in the industry, because the service being offered is superb. I want to ensure the staff are being paid to reflect the quality of the service they are giving.
I apologise for not having been here earlier. I have just a couple of points to make. I met the child care service providers in my area and inquired specifically as to what they require in the upcoming budget. I feel very strongly that children from disadvantaged families and backgrounds should receive an opportunity to get a second free preschool year. There have been cuts in this regard in various areas. The second year gives disadvantaged children in particular a better standing on the education ladder.
If the witnesses had a realistic wish list for the budget, what would they look for?
Ms Michele Akerlind:
I will reply generally to some of the questions. Senator Burke asked about the percentage of our income that is devoted to wages. Eighty two per cent of our income is wages from the get-go, and that is not enough for our staff. The balance covers every other aspect of the business. That just gives the members an idea. That is not unusual in regard to private practice.
As for my wish list of changes, the top priority would be support for professional practice in all aspects of training. One cannot expect to have a quality service unless the people working in it have received quality training. That involves funding centres with degree-led staff. We need funding to pay staff wages. That works in Australia and I do not see why it cannot work here. Quality-driven centres should be rewarded for quality when it comes to grants. If my facility does not have contraventions, I will not receive a grant, but a facility which does have contraventions will be given a few bob to fix the playground or whatever else. That is not right.
Ms Paula Grogan Ryan:
As far as I am aware, when the ECCE grant was cut, the ratio of children to staff was increased. Whoever made that decision does not work in child care, was not concerned with quality and not thinking of the children. If I had a wish list, the issue of financial reward would be on it. My staff are already giving of their time, doing hours for which they are not being paid. At least if I am paying them, I can say, "You will have to stay a little later to do this." The staff are already doing this, but they deserve a financial reward for doing so.
On inspections, I do not think there is any other group in the country that has been subject to six inspections. If a member of staff has to stay late for an inspection, he or she should at least be paid for doing so. We do not need this number of inspections; one should be enough. What is happening, however, is that the Department of Education and Skills is actually introducing a new inspector role. I am amazed people in our sector have not stood up and said, "Enough." As I listened to the departmental representative speak at the Early Childhood Ireland convention about this new inspector, I could only wonder why nobody was shouting, "Stop." As I said, only one inspection is needed.
It goes without saying we need to look after special needs children. That is a no brainer. We must look after them at preschool, not just primary school.
On that point, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs wrote to the committee this morning to notify us that his Department was leading an initiative with the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Health to agree a model to address the requirements of children with special needs in mainstream preschools. The communication states: "It is well recognised that co-ordination and provision of appropriate supports for preschool children with special needs is not satisfactory across the country and while some efforts have been made to resolve the matter, no model has been agreed". The Minister has asked the committee to report in September with proposals and full costings for consideration as part of the Estimates process. This discussion will feed into that process.
Ms Evelyn Reilly:
I hope my wish list will address some of the questions members have raised. Ideally, capitation for the ECCE scheme would be provided on a year-round basis. More realistically, it should at least be provided for 42 weeks. In addition, the capitation grant should be restored to its original level, even though that level is not adequate, and should include extra provision for non-contact time.
Another item I would include on my wish list is one that is key for children with additional needs, namely, that I should be able to access a special needs assistant without a formal diagnosis. I have a child who came to me last August and only this week received his assessment of need. His mother and my staff team have effectively functioned as his SNA. Assessments of need are not being made in a timely fashion and when they are received, the resources are not available to implement them. There should be recognition of my professional competence such that I am able to say a child needs an SNA and the provision of that SNA must be funded.
My third wish relates to children who are disadvantaged. We are dealing with disadvantaged children in all of our services up and down the country; they are not confined to specific areas. I live in the affluent university town of Maynooth but the children attending our service are from a mixture of backgrounds and some of their families need support. My staff team is offering assistance to parents every day at the door, but we need time and support to do this. In a context in which national schools receive support to help children who are disadvantaged, including through the Early Start programme, why should our sector not receive the same support?
Ms Paula Donohoe:
I thank Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor for her comments on our submission. Having put a lot of hard work into it, I hope it will have some contribution to make to the committee's report.
My wish list would include, first, investment in the ECCE programme, as I said in my proposals. Second, without a doubt, is investment in meeting additional needs. My third wish relates to Aistear and Síolta, two immensely important framework documents being brought forward. I implore the Department to ensure these initiatives are rolled out in a similar fashion to the way in which the new primary school guidelines were implemented, with mandatory whole-staff training. That would help to drive forward quality. My fourth wish is that preschool facilities be removed immediately from the rates net. They are recognised as educational facilities across the board, with the singular exception of the Valuation Office. The Equal Status Acts specifically recognise private preschool providers as educational facilities, but this is not reflected by the Valuation Office. It is time for the issue to be addressed if we are to have a realistic prospect of offering a sustainable service.
Ms June Tinsley:
I will conclude by posing the question as to why we, as a society, are willing to accept a situation where one in eight children is living in consistent poverty. We are coming out the other end of the recession, but we seem to be willing to accept that there are inherent stumbling blocks which prevent children from reaching their potential. At the same time, however, we know the answer to tackling the problem of child poverty can come in the form of investing in early years provision, which helps to create a level playing field for children. My request to the Government as we approach the budget and a general election is to take decisive action to tackle the fact that one in eight children is living in consistent poverty. That is totally unacceptable. My three wishes are to restore the capitation grant for the free preschool year, extend the community subvention scheme and introduce paid parental leave to facilitate parents to stay at home for the first year of their baby's life.
I thank all of the delegates for their attendance and excellent presentations. I do not know why they were nervous as they have proved to be superb. We appreciate the time they took to prepare their presentations and their input will feed into our report. I thank them for the work they are doing in their own unique and valued way.
I propose that we suspend until noon when we will have a discussion with the chairman designate of the Dublin Dental University Hospital.