Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 19 October 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs
National Collaborative Forum for the Early Years Care and Education Sector: Early Childhood Ireland
Apologies have been received from Deputies Jim Daly and Josepha Madigan. Before we commence I remind witnesses and members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off completely or on airplane mode as they cause interference with the sound and broadcasting system.
The purpose of this meeting is a discussion with Early Childhood Ireland on the national collaborative forum for the early years care and education sector, the reality in terms of current early years education in Ireland and the policy and direction in which it would like to see this country going. I welcome Ms Teresa Heeney, CEO, Early Childhood Ireland and her colleagues, Mr. Dónall Geoghegan, director of policy and communications and Ms Paula Hilliard, ECI panel member.
Before we proceed, I wish to advise the witnesses 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 this committee. 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 or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also wish to advise that any submission or opening statements made today to the committee will be published on its website after this meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that members 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 now invite Ms Heeney to make her opening statement, following which members of the committee may ask questions.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to present here today on the very topical issue of early childhood care and education in Ireland. It is timely that we have an opportunity to meet the committee to discuss current issues in this regard.
We are happy to be here to discuss how best we can best contribute to the development of a robust and comprehensive early years strategy and to ensure a bright and sustainable future for early education and care in Ireland. Today, we would like to talk about the three major and interconnected challenges facing the early childhood education sector in Ireland, which are quality for children, sustainability for services and their staff and affordability for parents. We will focus our submission on the issues of quality, sustainability and affordability.
Well-qualified staff are essential for the delivery of a quality early education and care system. The difficulty faced by providers in retaining and recruiting well-qualified staff will not be resolved until the issues of low pay and poor conditions in the sector are dealt with. Low pay cannot be addressed without proper funding that also supports sustainable business models for child care provision. There can be no positive progression in any of these areas without recognition of their interconnectedness and significant targeted investment by Government.
Our input today is based on our contributions to the recently established national collaborative forum for the early years care and education sector. It is also informed by our analysis of budget 2017 and our new report , which was launched by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, on 29 September, with which I know some members are familiar. The previous Oireachtas joint committee made a very useful policy contribution in its in January this year. This committee is well placed to continue this particular dialogue.
There are three strategic priorities for this sector, including quality, sustainability and affordability. In regard to quality, in our recent budget submission we set out the immediate requirements to ensure we can build the quality of early education and care. We argued that improvements to the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme will contribute to quality as they will address the professionalisation of the sector.
We called for an increase in the level of capitation with a ring-fencing mechanism to ensure that both service sustainability and staff wages are addressed. We also called for the extension of the current ECCE programme contract by three weeks in 2017, reflecting an investment in non-contact time for early years professionals. In our submission we also recommended the creation of a new permanent learner fund to cater for the continuous professional development needs of the sector.
These investments in the infrastructure of the sector are essential to underpin quality. Budget 2017 partially addressed the second aspect of this quality agenda, that is, the extension of the programme contract by 1.4 weeks or seven days, through the provision of an additional €14.5 million, representing a significant recognition of non-contact time. We warmly welcome that initiative because it will allow us to build on the number of days in the coming years. We are disappointed, however, that the other suggestions relating to ECCE capitation and continuous professional development have not been advanced in budget 2017 and consider these as matters for urgent attention.
We were equally disappointed that there was no expansion of paid parental leave in this budget. There is growing research evidence on the beneficial outcomes for a child of being cared for by a parent for at least the first 12 months of life and we have strongly advocated that position. Prior to the introduction of two weeks paid paternity leave from September 2016, Ireland was one of only nine European countries that had no paid paternity leave. Since its introduction and together with the provision of 26 weeks paid maternity leave, Ireland now offers a total of only 28 weeks of paid leave compared to the average of 76 weeks for parents across Europe. We are also mindful, however, that there is a commitment in the programme for Government to extend this leave. The programme refers to the Government's intention to “significantly increase parental leave in the first year of a child’s life”. This was also recommended in the inter-departmental group report.
In addition to these initiatives, we believe that the Government needs to initiate a new plan for the early childhood education and care workforce to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of well trained and well qualified staff in the right places across the country. That plan must be linked to any plans to further extend capacity within the sector. The Government also needs to work with the sector to agree a set of recognised salary scalesfor early years educators and introduce subsidies so that those salary scales can be met.
We also strongly support the inclusion of child minding in the new single affordable child care scheme announced in the budget. There has been much controversy about that issue in recent days. We have long been concerned about the numbers of children being minded in the informal and unregistered child minding sector where the cost of care is sometimes lower but where there is no regulation, oversight or inspection of quality. We hope that the new scheme will lead to a much greater engagement by childminders and we are encouraged by the current work of Childminding Ireland and the Department to advance this. We would like to offer our support for these efforts over the coming months.
We also welcome the introduction of the Access and Inclusion Model, AIM, a model of supports designed to ensure that children with disabilities can access the ECCE programme. AIM is very new and a lot of monitoring needs to be done on its implementation within the sector. It only commenced in September 2016 and we are monitoring its implementation very carefully. We are anxious to see AIM extended throughout the early education and care sector to ensure that children with additional needs in all child care settings can avail of appropriate supports and not just those availing of the free preschool year. We are committed to working constructively with the Department, Better Start and the sector to that end.
I will now move on to discuss sustainability and viability for early childhood care providers and their staff. Some elements of the quality agenda also have a bearing on the sustainability of child care providers and their staff. It is critical, in addressing the short-term and long-term challenges to sustainability, that the Government bases subsidies on a realistic assessment of the cost of providing child care. The financial viability and sustainability of child care providers needs to be a key concern of policy makers and not just of the providers themselves. The Government must address the structural deficiencies in the current funding model, whereby low State subsidies lead to low margins and keep the sector from fulfilling its mission. The levels of subsidy underlying the design of the single affordable child care scheme, as well as the existing ECCE programme, must be based on a realistic assessment of the cost of providing child care with adequate margins. Our recent report, Doing the Sums: The Real Cost of Providing Childcare in Ireland, provides useful insights into the sustainability challenge for the sector right now. Among the key and worrying findings of that report are that the average child care service in Ireland, whether private or community run, urban or rural, operates on a break even basis. Even when a surplus is generated by a child care facility, it is often too little to meet the cost of reinvestment. In addition, there is a clear trend for providers towards an ECCE-only or free preschool year only model, alongside out-of-school care, in an effort to remain viable. This has led to a reduction in the provision of non-ECCE child care such as year-round full day care and care for children under the age of three. Indeed, I was at a meeting of the Tusla consultative forum last Thursday and that agency confirmed that its recent re-registration process showed a clear trend towards ECCE-only provision.
We know that our report and the analysis and recommendations that are built into our research are being studied carefully by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and will contribute to the design of the single affordable child care scheme. It is also likely to serve as a useful starting point for the Minister’s own study on the cost of child care, as committed to in the programme for Government. The report of a recent review of the status of community early years services in Cork and Dublin called Breaking Point will further contribute to the discourse. We look forward to working closely with the Department to ensure that we can add value to the Government’s own efforts to address the sustainability challenge.
In order to advance this agenda, the Government also needs to develop a capacity plan for the sector. This must be based on evidence of need and set out the numbers and locations for provision, as well as measures to address the most effective and efficient setting size mix, subject to geographic and other factors. We are also aware that the Department intends to launch a new report on school age child care in the coming weeks. That report must outline a new model of out-of-school care that is regulated, subsidised and avoids displacement. The Departments of Children and Youth Affairs and Education and Skills need to be cognisant of the important role out-of-school care plays as well as the danger of displacement to the viability and sustainability of many child care services in the planning and development of any new out-of-school care model. We have made a number of submissions to this process and have included a briefing note setting out our position in the appendix provided to committee members.
We must also eliminate disincentives so that providers can offer a full suite of child care services. The Government needs to carefully construct its supports for early care and education so that it does not inadvertently create disincentives and barriers to services providing a full suite of child care for children up to the age of six and out-of-school children. We would also like to, once again, recommend to the Government that it makes all early education and care provision exempt from commercial rates because of their educational nature. The current inducement to providers to move to an ECCE only model needs to be addressed immediately, where all community and private child care providers offering ECCE-only services are exempt from commercial rates.
I would like to spend a little time talking about affordability. In budget 2017, the Government made provision for the introduction of the new single affordable child care scheme from September 2017, including both targeted and universal elements. We strongly agree with the approach that underlies the budget announcements which includes a new child care subsidy for children under three that is universally applied, as well as the development of a new consolidated and enhanced targeted scheme so that families on low incomes can avail of greater supports on a graduated basis, thus directly addressing the needs of children at risk of poverty. We also agree with the approach whereby the State pays the provider or registered childminder directly to subsidise the real cost of child care, in keeping with the international research I referred to earlier. However, the initial €19 million investment in 2017 must be increased consistently year on year. We envisage that the universal scheme should achieve a minimum subsidy equivalent to approximately €60 per week for full-time care by 2021.
We also believe the targeted element can be further developed to ensure its efficacy in the coming period.
It is critical that we get the single affordable child care scheme right from the start. The new scheme must be planned and developed to ensure it provides a comprehensive and coherent system of supports for all children availing of child care, including the free preschool year and out-of-school care, as well as providing a flexible and robust platform for all future investment. The design of the scheme must be informed by the knowledge and expertise that the sector has to offer. Preparations for the scheme must include a comprehensive consultation and engagement process to ensure that the voices of providers and parents are heard. We believe the new early years forum is one step forward in that consultation.
The scheme must recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach will not suffice and that one level of capitation will not work everywhere. For example, where the needs in particular communities must be addressed or where there are geographic factors at play, it may cost more to deliver a service. The universal level of capitation needs to be supplemented, where required, as part of the overall scheme. Moreover, the new scheme needs to be based on year-round supports and incorporate non-contact time and continuous professional development for all staff. It must allow parents and providers to interface with a single, accessible and coherent system of supports.
We look forward to working with the committee, the Department and the Minister to develop this infrastructure. I am happy to take questions from the committee.
Thank you, Ms Heeney. That was an important and comprehensive contribution. It has certainly clarified for me the position of Early Childhood Ireland and where we should go next. Does anyone have questions for Ms Heeney?
I am sorry for missing the start of the presentation. I have one question in connection with some of the criticism directed at the new scheme. It relates in particular to those who stay at home. Ms Heeney may have covered this point, so I apologise if it has been covered already. The problem is those who stay at home to take care of their children should be recognised financially in some way by the Government. That is what people are saying.
I imagine several people here watched the television programme - I get confused between "Claire Byrne Live" and "Prime Time". Anyway, no one on the programme was happy with the new scheme. I imagine no one would leave the house at that time of night to go on a television programme unless they had something to complain about. Yesterday in the Seanad it struck me that everyone on all sides of the House seemed pretty happy with the scheme. Those in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil as well as many of the Independents seemed, for the most part, happy with the new scheme. What are the views of the Early Childhood Ireland representatives on the points made by those who stay at home and on the criticism directed at the scheme generally?
Before you answer that, Ms Heeney, I will invite another question. We will take two or three questions at a time and then you can answer them. I call on committee members to ask specific questions. Deputy O'Sullivan is next.
I compliment the Early Childhood Ireland representatives on the work they do. They have been working constructively in this area for a long time and their contribution to the debate is really important.
By and large, we all welcome the scheme. I maintain it needs more money but its introduction is welcome. I suggest it needs more money because the focus is on making it cheaper for parents and families, and that is fair enough.
Some of us were at a presentation in the audio-visual room yesterday from Department officials. They gave us a great deal of information on how the scheme would actually work for individual families with different levels of income. The presentation provided details in respect of people with lower levels of income who already have supports under the current scheme and how they will benefit from the new scheme. The presentation was informative but it made the assumption - I imagine the assumption is reflected in the figures - that parents would benefit entirely from the extra money. However, one thing was left out and that was the question of low pay in the sector. The fact that the work is not year-round and that there is no continuous professional development written into the costings presents a problem. I am keen to hear from Early Childhood Ireland around that area.
We all know of the highly qualified and highly motivated people in the sector who want to continue a career in early childhood and who are passionate about the importance of the early years for children. However, they are living on the minimum wage in some cases and low wages in general. This is because anything else is not affordable for the providers. In many cases the providers are the owners of the operations. In the case of small operations they are probably trying to run the whole thing and survive at the same time. Affordability for the sector is crucial. How does Early Childhood Ireland envisage what needs to be done to give the role the status of someone teaching in a primary school, for example? In primary school the children are a little older. Although teachers might complain about pay levels there is recognition of the fact that they have to live for the whole year and not only term time. My question is really around that.
I have a second question around the monitoring of the access and inclusion model programme. It is important to monitor the programme and give the relevant information to parents, because many parents who have children with special needs are not yet aware that the new scheme is available to them.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
I will deal with one or two of the points made and then pass over to my colleagues. I will manage the allocation and tell them what they are going to talk about. There was a question about the criticism of the scheme.
There has been such historical under-investment in the sector that it is impossible to imagine that anything could have been introduced in the budget which could have met all of the needs. However, what is to be welcomed is the policy shift and how it represents new strategic infrastructure. That is to be welcomed because this sector has been tormented by a piecemeal approach over the years, where €5 million was allocated here, €2 million was given there and then €3 million was given elsewhere. In other words, there was no tied-up thinking and no thought to the unintended consequences of policy initiatives in the past, perhaps. From that point of view if there is a tacit welcome, it is because of the infrastructural and strategic nature of the scheme. Mr. Geoghegan will take the question about parents.
Mr. Dónall Geoghegan:
I suppose we are familiar with the media narrative around this. Sometimes it tends towards a mammies war between those who stay at home and those who are working outside the home. Perhaps that does not really capture the true dilemmas facing most parents. Most parents mix and match it. In some cases they send their children to a formal child care setting some of the time. At other times care will involve the grandmother or grandfather. Sometimes care is provided by a local childminder and sometimes it involves neighbours etc. That is the reality for most parents.
Many parents do not have much choice, especially those on lower incomes. They find it rather difficult to access quality child care in child care settings and childminders. We see the new scheme as playing a role. It is the start of something rather than an end point. It is the start of helping parents to be able to better afford quality child care in child care settings and registered childminders, thus taking some of the burden from parents of having to fill in themselves or ask others to fill in. In some cases, parents do not like asking their own parents to help out. It will bring about greater choice and balance for parents. There are many other issues that could bring us down the rabbit hole of trying to pit parents against each other, something perhaps not altogether useful to the advancement of the child's best interests.
Ms Paula Hilliard:
I am an owner-operator of a small service so a lot of the questions posed are real and alive for me at the moment.
In respect of wages, I have a small number of staff to whom I pay the minimum wage. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to pay anything more than the minimum wage. My staff give a lot of extra time that they are not paid for and I mean a lot of non-contact time. As an owner-operator running a small business I often forego a salary because I am not in a position to pay myself. I am a mother of two children and must provide for a family so that incorporates me taking an outside job. I provide a sessional service so I do not work for the summer and, therefore, I take on a summer job in order to keep things afloat. I also tutor part-time so I have evening and weekend work throughout the year. That is the only way I can keep my family afloat because I make nothing and when I do it is often re-invested into my small business.
One of the things that make life difficult for me is rent. Recently I became ECCE-only because I cannot afford to pay commercial rates. My service is located in a small town. I might mind three or four children and their parents pay €5 an hour. The sums do not add up enough for me to pay commercial rates. The situation has pushed me into providing an ECCE-only service, which disappoints me as a Montessori teacher. I must focus on the ECCE year or the year before a child goes to school, which goes against the grain because the Montessori method focuses on children aged three to six and, therefore, I should incorporate the wider age range and have children learn from each other.
In terms of continual personal development, we are constantly upgrading and working. We must meet requirements all of the time like first aid, manual handling and fire safety. We are the only service in my county at the moment that has been placed on the link programme. That is another area that we are considering and training in. I have also just begun a masters programme. The link programme is great but the funding for the rest of the training has come out of the small pot of money generated by my service. We love our work and are passionate about it but we are not surviving and that makes life difficult for us.
I hope I have answered the questions.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
I shall add some factual information. We have about 4,600 services in Ireland and the number is increasing. A number of services close every year but there are still about 4,600 services, which amounts to more than all of the primary and secondary schools put together. All of the services require inspection and mentoring and all of the State infrastructure needs to happen in 4,600 services. This is part of the reason that Early Childhood Ireland believes that a capacity planning exercise is essential. We need to know how many services are needed and where they are needed in exactly the same way as the Department of Education and Skills knows where it needs schools to be located, how many and the number of pupils attending. We take the view that the same must happen in the early childhood sector.
Of those 4,600 services about 1,100 services are provided by one person. We must be mindful of that fact and analyse whether that is a good model or the best model. It is inevitable that we have a one person model because the current level of capitation is simply not enough to employ two members of staff. In 2014, 14% of the staff who worked in the sector signed on the dole for the eight weeks of summer because no capitation was provided, which is another cost to the State. The situation does not do anything for the recruitment and retention of well qualified staff, which is the essential reason quality and sustainability are so interconnected.
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le Early Childhood Ireland as a bheith anseo. I could ask any amount of questions about the early years sector. I am also interested in the appendix. The out-of-school care discussion should be the next topic for discussion as it is an important one but I shall stick to what is particularly topical at the minute.
I am interested in hearing the views of the witnesses on parental leave. There has been considerable discussion about the options open to parents who stay at home. The value of parents staying at home with their children for the first year is well recognised. As well as extending the number of weeks, certainly anecdotally at least, my experience is that many parents feel that the rates are unsustainable. Many parents feel that even if there were more weeks the rates are such that the situation is unsustainable and it is impossible for them to stay at home with their children. The point made about rates is important.
I am interested in the access and inclusion model mentioned by Deputy O'Sullivan. Is the targeted scheme for children aged 6 months to 15 years robust enough and suitable for the older children in the scheme? I have expressed the view that what has been done for child care professionals is inadequate. The initiative of having 1.4 weeks to seven days will not cut it and is not good enough. I am also disappointed at the lack of continual personal development, CPD.
Most Deputies and Senators broadly welcome the new scheme but we would like further investment. I have two concerns about the capacity of the scheme and the first is capitation. This aspect was touched upon by the witnesses. The findings in the report are alarming because it states that if six babies attend on a full-time basis for 52 weeks then the baby room will operate at a loss. How does the delegation think the capitation system can be reformed?
There is a link between capitation and qualifications. The learner fund has not been expanded. Not only does it make it difficult for facilities to operate it also keeps workers, who are primarily female, in relatively low-paid employment. It also does not offer an opportunity to develop.
I am concerned that there is not a great deal of space available, particularly in urban centres. On the one hand, the Department seems to have said that it does not anticipate a huge increase in demand but on the other hand, it has said that it expects increased labour market participation, which is a contradiction. This matter is already in the public consciousness and I imagine that there will be an increase in capacity. I am concerned that some providers will increase their rates, which will swallow up an element of the additional subsidy, particularly in big urban centres where demand is high.
Yesterday, members attended a briefing on the scheme provided by the Department, which was welcome. I asked whether caps were ever considered for rates to ensure that it did not excessively swallow up the additional subsidy. I am curious to know whether Early Childhood Ireland has explored such an initiative. Ms Heeney spoke about the need for a capacity plan to be provided before the sector expands further. Does the ECI consider a cap to be a good a idea, particularly at this early stage before capacity expands?
I thank the three witnesses for coming here this morning. I thank Ms Hilliard for outlining what her work entails. I have worked in the sector and managed a crèche for three years so I know where she is coming from. Deputy Ó Laoghaire correctly pointed out that the baby room works at a loss. Believe it or not, the toddler room works at a small loss as well and one does not make money until ratios change. That is how it works.
I can understand why the model is going for ECCE and after-school care. That is where the money is, because the ratios are 1:10 or 1:11 and that is where my line of questioning is coming from. I look forward to the witnesses' responses.
I have a concern about the sustainability of the entire sector. Ms Heeney says there are 4,600 services throughout the country. In respect of the breakdown in terms of community versus private, the private sector has rents whereas in the past, the Government gave the community sector a subsidy to get started or community providers do not have to pay for a building. They are now all getting the same payment or allowance because everyone is coming under the one bracket. I am worried about both community and private providers. I do not know how they are going to make a penny. It is wrong that a professional must take a part-time job during the summer. We must respect and support people in the profession. I have a concern about community versus private. We do not want to pit mammies against mammies and we do not want to pit professional against professional either, be they public or private.
I thought the learner fund would have been expanded. Ms Hilliard is studying for a master's degree. More people in the sector want to undertake them, as well as FETAC levels 6 and 7. I was hoping that this fund would come in so that whenever a crèche said "my girls are ready. We want to progress. How can we support them? Can we go to GMIT in Galway or wherever?", that fund would have been made available universally so that the managers of crèches could have applied for it. I was concerned about that.
One Parliamentary Question I have tabled since the budget last week asked about the number of registered child minders who are registered on the Tusla system. I received my response this morning and the answer is 119. There are 4,600 services and another 113 Tusla-registered child minders who will be able to avail of the funding. We then have the gap involving approximately 70,000 children who are minded by unregistered child minders or whatever. I would like to hear the witnesses' thoughts on that because they did say they were prepared to work with them and bring them in under their wing. Is there a policy shift in respect of where they see this going? There are more children are being minded by unrecognised minders who will not avail of the service than there are of those who will.
The Minister made a comment on radio last Saturday about crèches being open longer and later. I would love to hear the witnesses' point of view on this. I have been a mother and provider and I know that routine is the most important thing you can give a child. What are the witnesses' opinions on the idea of crèches being open longer and later - from getting staff to do it onwards? It was batted around the large urban areas that this would be a model we could investigate.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
I will try to address some of the issues and maybe ask some of my colleagues to come in on some of them. There is no doubt that many services operate riskily. There is not enough margin to reinvest in their service and we hear constantly from our members about issues like entering into agreements with the Revenue Commissioners. In respect of delayed payments through the programmes implementation platform, PIP, system, the committee is lucky it does not have to interact with the PIP system because it drives demented those members, such as Ms Hilliard, who do have to deal with it. It is basically the infrastructure with which they must interact to log the details. It is a huge system. Too frequently, there are delays in payments or a provider expecting a payment of €5,000 might get €2,500 and does not know why. Those things have a significant impact where people do not have the money to pay their staff because there are no margins. They are down at the credit union trying to get bridging loans to pay staff. I think Ms Hilliard will probably be able to speak more to that. The idea of it being marginal is very real. Any blip in the system has a huge impact. A member was in touch with us last week. Her payment was delayed and the Revenue Commissioners put an attachment order on to the payment. This meant that they did not want to pay the provider because there was an attachment order on the payment. They are very real-life issues for these people who, let us not forget, are delivering a service on behalf of the Government. They are doing something under a contract with the Government.
There is no added incentive for all of the people working in this sector to continue to upskill and increase their qualifications. Early Childhood Ireland carried out a survey of qualifications in the sector last year. We now think the average hourly rate of pay is in the region of €10 to €11 per hour but it goes up to €12 if someone is a graduate. For anybody with a calculator, €12 per hour, 15 hours per week, 38 weeks of the year might get you a salary of about €7,500 per annum. Nobody with a degree will want that job. There is no hope of car loan, mortgage or any of those things. They are the essential issues we must think about because it is so important that we retain the best quality staff working in these services, as Deputy Jan O'Sullivan pointed out in respect of trying to become comparable with primary schools.
The question about capacity is important. We have to take an informed view about what this affordable child care scheme will do to capacity. The data are available. I believe the Department of Education and Skills has all of the data that are required to be able to develop a capacity plan for the sector. We could probably also do an assessment of where we think the ratios of parents' choice will shift. At present, about 40% of parents use relative care, if you want to call it that. About 30% of parents use a more formal childminding arrangement and about 30% used centre-based services. The challenge in the first instance is to make the single affordable child care scheme available to parents who use centre-based services and formal childminding arrangements. Relative care is a bit more tricky from a constitutional point of view, probably in terms of what is seen to be a private arrangement. In respect of planning for capacity, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has taken a point of view informed by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission that it is a private sector and a private market and that it cannot interfere in what is seen to be a private market. I use that word in a legalistic way. We have long taken the view that we could get another barrister who would give us another point of view because I think the Government must take a point of view on provision and ensuring all the services operate in a way that does not displace others, is sustainable and available to parents and does not promote anything approaching prices going up. As an aside, I would say that the cost of providing child care must go up quite substantially because the current costs are being delivered on the back of very poor wages. The cost of provision must go up pretty dramatically. Obviously, this cannot be passed on to parents. Ms Hilliard might want to say something about fees, demand and whether fees might go up because of the scheme.
Ms Paula Hilliard:
People welcome the affordability for parents. All of us are there because of a love and a passion. Nobody wants to put an extra burden on parents, but, as providers, we are stuck in the middle. We are talking about quality for children, but we have to talk about quality for staff as well. It is not possible to separate them. What position are we left in? I do not think any provider wants to, but it is a possibility that they might have to increase their rates.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
A monitoring mechanism is already in place for the fees that are being charged. All operators that deliver the free preschool year - it is virtually every operator in the country - must submit a fees policy to their local authority child-care committee. Therefore, it is very easy to develop a monitoring mechanism to take a point of view about fees because it is already gathered and available. I have no doubt that some monitoring will be put in place. Speaking on behalf of providers if something were to be introduced, somewhere along this whole plan the cost of providing child care has to be increased because it cannot continue with the current level of subsidy that is delivering the story that Ms Hilliard is describing.
Mr. Dónall Geoghegan:
Deputy Ó Laoghaire referred to maternity and paternity rates. In our submission for the budget we stuck to the subject of increasing the number of weeks of parental leave up to the year that Ms Heeney mentioned early on as being very important for a child's development as shown by a considerable amount of research. We did not get into the rates to be paid; we have some materials but we decided not to put those in it. It is just on the basis of trying to increase the number of weeks. Obviously, the rates paid for maternity leave and subsequently for paternity and parental leave are very important for that as well so we agree with that.
The Deputy asked about the potential for capping fees as a possible solution. We have got advice from some economists on this. If we were to do so now, we would lock in unsustainability for the sector. In other words, if everything that Ms Heeney mentioned in terms of the cost of child care were to be locked in and we capped fees right now, the sector would continue as it is with low pay, low margins and low prospects.
Deputy Rabbitte is absolutely right in saying that we need to think of the sector as a whole and not seek to divide it into its various parts here and there - school age, baby room, etc. If mechanisms are put in for one element, for example one age group or one particular provision be it community or private, it has effects throughout the entire sector. We need to consider it as a whole sector and not divide it. Importantly, the Department of Education and Skills has some responsibility in the area of ECCE, the free preschool year. That Department cares about children from the age of three, but it has no responsibility below that. We believe that is divisive and it could become increasingly divisive over coming years. We need to look at the sector as a whole - all the age groups, urban-rural etc.
The Deputy asked about the availability of parents in the evenings and that type of thing. We need to talk about such issues. The underlying principle that should inform any decisions about availability and accessibility at various times, including in the evening or whenever, must be the best interests of the child. It is about the child's best welfare. Let us talk through those kinds of issues and come to conclusion on them.
I thank the witnesses for coming in. Ireland has the highest birth rate in Europe and has done for decades. However, conversely we have the worst possible child-care arrangements. We broadly welcome this engagement and I said so in the Seanad yesterday. It is a kick-start.
Money has been allocated for the recruitment of the social care staff. Where will those staff come from? Will they be under the auspices of the HSE or under the auspices of the private care providers? I understand there are about 50 community child-care centres. Just last week the F2 centre in my area in Rialto was threatened with closure. Will this help them survive in the community child centre? It is community based. The rent for the building is provided for. There is certainly a big uproar from the parents in the area and the staff in the centre.
How does Ms Hilliard feel this scheme will help her practically? Are there any positive implications for her right now?
I would be wary of the over-regulation of care by grandparents or other relatives. It is more within the community. I dread becoming a grandparent because I really do not want to look after children. I have done my time. Many grandparents would feel the pressure to do it. This may well help them to say, "No" and send the children elsewhere.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. As most of the points have been made, I will not be repetitive; there is nothing more annoying than that.
The point has been made that there have been many initiatives over the years. We have had subvention, this scheme, the ECCE and a number of years ago we had an additional payment over and above child benefit. For a number of years parents received that payment quarterly. That was probably geared more towards stay-at-home parents. The problem has been the ad hocapproach. There has been no implementation of an early years strategy. If there was, at least we would be running to a strategy. It is very topical at the moment. I welcome that the mindset appears to be changing. In reality this is probably because it has been so topical over the past two years. Is this just patching over something? Will it be something else next year and the following year because we are not running to a strategy? I ask the witnesses to give their opinion on the fact that we have no early years strategy. Would having one be of greater benefit? This scheme might not necessarily have come about in the way it has. It might be done in conjunction with the education system with community and private providers working together.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
There have been a couple of mentions of AIM, the access and inclusion model. I will assume that not everybody knows about AIM. It is a complex model for the inclusion of children with additional needs in early years settings. It has three elements that are universal and are targeted at all services. Ms Hilliard referred to the LINC training, which is leadership for inclusion. That training course has begun and 900 people are training in that at the moment.
Other elements of the universal aspects of the model include the development of diversity and equality guidelines, and there is training currently under way for that as well.
The elements that require much greater monitoring are the targeted elements. These address the needs of specific children. That includes access to equipment, access to mentors and it also includes access to additional capitation to employ somebody, either to reduce one's ratio or to employ an additional member with a grant. That is all in the mix. We are watching with interest what comes out of that and are talking to members who are engaged in that process. An application for funding needs to be made by an early years operator with a parent, which is a positive shift because it is not diagnosis led. It is a strengths-based approach where an operator and a parent can say, for example, that Johnny is able to do A, B and C but he cannot do D, E and F and will need help for that. Those applications are currently in train. We know from some of our members that they have received the additional, higher capitation, which is good.
To answer Senator Devine's question, the member of staff will become an employee of the service of the operator, which is also a shift. Up until now, the member of staff may have been an employee of a company contracted by the HSE. These will be employees of the service. Our members welcome that because it means that they can be included as a member of the staff team.
The Access and Inclusion Model, AIM, needs to be monitored very closely. It was quite a departure in terms of policy. There has been funding allocated to it, which is good because so many policies are launched without any funding attached to them. This one has funding. It is to be welcomed but we need to wait and see what the outcomes for children will be.
As to whether this scheme will help the community child care services, which is something that causes community services, particularly in disadvantaged areas, a lot of difficulty is the issue of bad debts. Parents have had to pay €70 or €80 per child per week for child care if they have been on one of the previous schemes. Those parents cannot afford that. They do not have the money to pay it. That becomes a bad debt that the service must bear. It is a significant problem, and drives many services into an entirely unsustainable position. This scheme changes that. If the capitation level is sufficient, then one hopes that the State will not become a bad debtor for the service. What happened previously, for example, in the Fatima centre, should not happened. The same parents would be eligible for the scheme but the Government would be paying it and the parent should not. I did not see the presentation the committee member saw, but, as we have read and as we have constructed, that should be one of the consequences and benefits of it.
Before I let Ms Hilliard answer, I will finish on the issue about the early years strategy. We need an early years strategy and we need to have a plan about where this is all going. In response to Deputy Function, the notion that it could all peter out next year depresses me. I would hate to see that happen. Having an early years strategy would support a plan going forward.
Ms Paula Hilliard:
It is a twofold issue. With the payment for parents, as an ECCE scheme service, it will not affect me. It will not make any changes for me. What will affect me is the non-contact time, and that is very welcome. More would be preferable but it is a step in the right direction. That will benefit me.
As regards the strategy, this is the first year that I, as a service provider, have felt helpless and at breaking point, not knowing where to turn and what to do. A strategy would help me because it would give me hope. It would give me focus. It would let me see the future, which I cannot see right now.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
To conclude, many voices, not only those who work in this sector, have been calling for the development of a strategy to support the early childhood education sector. The European Union gives us country specific recommendations year on year. The employers' bodies, year on year, call for investment, as do organisations, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the National Women's Council and the Children's Rights Alliance. The voices calling for investment in this sector echo each other all of the time. The door, in terms of policy-making, is wide open. One need not even push it. The development of a strategy which all of the stakeholders could sign up to would show us the pathway as we proceed.
If the Deputies and Senators want to ask anything else, they are more than welcome to.
I have a question. I am a little like Deputy Anne Rabbitte in that I have two sisters who were child care providers. I am talking about 30 years ago and the horse has already bolted in my case. It is fascinating to hear this and I only wish 30 years ago there was something like this where there was a measuring and monitoring of child care services. I will address my question, which is probably not relevant, to Ms Hilliard. Although my children are grown up, one of them, who is a teacher, would say that what is happening here with children coming from care providers such as Ms Hilliard is an incredibly positive development for the child who is more ready now for school than he or she would have been if he or she had not gone to a care provider. I recall children screaming and crying at the school door.
Is there some sort of structure in place? For example, one of the primary school teachers would have said that some children come in who do not know how to grip the pencil properly or some places may not be teaching phonetics. Some places will have a refusal policy, in other words where a child does not have to engage in an activity if he or she does not want to. Then there is the difference between playing and teaching. My daughter would have said one can see in a class where there is a difference between the child who has been taught and the child who has not but who has been allowed to play. Is there a uniform structure?
Ms Paula Hilliard:
We have Aistear, the national curriculum framework, and we all work under that. It is like an umbrella that embraces the many different curriculums. We are working from an emergent interest of the child. We are following the lead of the child. It is unfair and unacceptable for me to promise any parent or teacher that by September I will have every child ready to write, or even to recognise, his or her name because every child develops at his or her own rate. We, as providers, need to embrace that, acknowledge that and support the child in that development.
Many of us have good positive relationships with our local primary schools and the feedback we get is that for going into school, they would like the children to be independent, to be able to put their own coats on, to be able to follow some simple instructions, to be able to get their lunches out of their bags, and manage those daily routines, for instance, be able to go to the bathroom by themselves. Those, for me, are the priority as the child goes to school because if a child cannot do those things, he or she will not be able to sit at a table for any length of time. We need to satisfy the needs of the child, as he or she works through our services. When the service is satisfying that need, whether that is to paint all day or play in the sand, the child learns many other skills and learns how to concentrate as he or she does it.
With that development, the child will eventually be able to come to the table and sit, but why would we ask a four year old to sit at a table for any length of time? It would not be realistic or fair.
I have a brief one. I am interested in this issue. A discussion on out-of-school care needs to be started. The submission refers to those who deliver the service. What model do the witnesses anticipate will take over out-of-school care in the coming years? My anecdotal experience of schools with DEIS status is that people with a youth work background provide some of the out-of-school care.
I will ask two or three quick-fire questions. How many crèches closed due to funding issues in the past year? How many are at the pin of their collars? Judgments and payments were mentioned. Some crèches are in trouble with Revenue. What is the percentage? How long does the sector hold on to staff if the pay is so poor that they must leave? What is the staff turnover figure? What percentage of those working in the industry are doing so at degree level?
Ms Teresa Heeney:
The out-of-school system is complex. I am looking forward to the report of the interdepartmental group. The programme for Government committed to exploring the use of school premises to deliver on the policy issue of the need for affordable and easily accessible out-of-school care. Some members of our panel made a presentation to the interdepartmental group during the summer. We expect the report to be published in a couple of weeks' time.
Many factors arise. It is a five year old and a 14 year old, so it is not easy to get it right. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs engaged in a consultation process with children about what they would want from an out-of-school setting. I am interested in hearing what they said and seeing how impactful on the report's recommendations their feedback has been. Were I to guess, the older children get, the more they want to go home. If they cannot go home, they probably want to go to friends' houses. If they cannot go there, they will tolerate going to their grandparents' houses. It will be something else after that. This is their voice and if we want to give children some agency in decision making, that is what we expect to see. However, what children want is not always what they get and it may not always meet parents' needs.
We must ensure that we offer leadership at policy level in terms of what is good for children. What is not good for them is an extension of their school day in a classroom that is not fit to accommodate them from 7 a.m. or 7:30 a.m. if their parents commute. Ms Hilliard and I commuted into town this morning. It took her two hours. This is the reality for people. We must be clear about what we are discussing and what we envisage when we talk about the use of school premises. We mean that children aged five, ten or 14 years will be in that room from 7 a.m. or 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. We must bring leadership to this issue and make decisions on whether this is in the best interests of our children. If they set out on their school journeys at five years of age after having had a fantastic experience in preschool playing, as Ms Hilliard described, should that suddenly transform into being in a school from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. until they are 12 years of age? That is probably not what we want for our children.
The training needs of the people working with these children are complex and the sector is not regulated. There is no inspection of after-school services. A preschool inspector can walk into a service in the afternoon. The door on the right-hand side will lead to the out-of school room and the door on the left-hand side will lead to the preschool room. The inspector will go through one but not the other. The children in one room are five years of age and the children in the other are six and a half. The inspector will not go into the latter room because there is no regulation. We must address the regulation of after-school services.
This all forms part of the infrastructure that Deputy Funchion alluded to when discussing a full early years strategy. There is much to do. The committee will not be able to stop discussing these issues for some time.
Does Mr. Geoghegan wish to answer the factual questions?
Mr. Dónall Geoghegan:
Yes. Deputy Rabbitte asked about the troubles experienced by many settings in terms of the arrangements that they make with Revenue, their staff turnover rates, etc. We do not have much in the way of hard facts on this. Our report, entitled "Doing the Sums: The Real Cost of Providing Childcare", showed that settings were doing their sums all of the time. Ms Heeney mentioned the tendency to drop the comprehensive model of overall day care in favour of ECCE-only or ECCE plus after-school care. This is a major factor. Instead of closing completely, there is a tendency for settings to concentrate on those services from which they at least get a regular income.
I do not have direct answers for Deputy Rabbitte regarding the types of arrangement that settings reach with Revenue and so on. However, we get calls everyday from our members who tell us strongly that they are experiencing major difficulties in keeping and recruiting staff. Recently, someone told us by phone of how, after a key staff member left, she saw no prospect of finding a replacement in her small, rural area. Something like this can cause significant difficulties. It is not always about the national picture, overall numbers and so on. It can be about what happens in a particular locale. Ms Heeney referred to having a capacity plan throughout the sector for the entire country and an examination of where we need to build child care in the coming years.
I will comment on the Vice Chairman's question about what happens and the link between this sector and schools when children start going to school. As a society, we undervalue the importance of play for children. A phrase that is often used is "Play is children's work". It is also their study. They learn through play. They learn to socialise, lead, follow, work as part of a team, fall out and make up again. We adults need these skills throughout our lives. Children also learn how to make sense of the world and interact with it, by which I mean objects and things as well as with people. This lies beneath everything that has been happening in the Aistear curriculum development over the past number of years.
We do not want to "schoolify" this sector. It has much to offer the future of schooling in terms of valuing play.
Ms Teresa Heeney:
I will discuss the issue of data and evidence in the sector. Since a full-blown and fully staffed Department that takes a policy lead in this sector is only emerging, we are at a loss for data.
This lack of data affected answering questions such as those relating to staff turnover or what percentage of services were closed. It is welcome to see, for example, that Tusla will launch a new dynamic system for inspection reports. These are currently available online but are not searchable. The new dynamic system will include information about the registration of services because we are now in the world of registration and not notification. All of these systems will help us because data will become available. Whatever we do, we have to look to the evidence and, if the methodology is rigorous, believe what it tells us. Having all of these systems speaking to each other will be useful.
There are many parties and partners in this sector, including the Department of Education and Skills and its inspectorate, Tusla and its inspectorate, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Pobal and many other agencies. It is vital they work together to plan the strategy to go forward.
On behalf of the joint committee, I thank Ms Heeney and her colleague, Mr. Geoghegan, for their obvious commitment to changing Ireland for our children. I feel a lot better for our children knowing there are people like Ms Hilliard who will care for them. It was a pleasure listening to the witnesses. It was also frightening listening to what the reality is like for children in Ireland. I believe this will be another step towards making matters much better.