Dáil debates

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Topical Issue Debate

Early Childhood Care and Education

4:45 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

I wish to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to discuss concerns regarding insufficient capacity within the early education sector in the context of forthcoming changes in regulations. I am grateful for her attendance, as she has had a busy day at the children in 2016 event, which looked fantastic.

I am asking my question because there is a concern in the sector and among facilities, be they privately run child care facilities or family resource centres, that there may be some difficulty in their capacity to operate at current levels of service provision when the Child Care Act 1991 (Early Years Services) Regulations 2016 enter into effect. I refer specifically to regulation No. 9(4), under which all employees must have at a minimum a Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, level 5 award in early childhood care and education by December 2016. My understanding is that this applies specifically to staff counted for ratios. The only exceptions are where an employee has signed a declaration on or before 30 June to the effect that he or she will retire from employment before September 2021 or where the employee has received a letter from the Minister. This means that all staff within child care settings who are counted for ratios must have an early years QQI level 5 award, whereas until January 2017 only two staff need to have level 5 awards while any additional staff counted for ratios need no early years qualifications.

These regulations were widely welcomed. Táimid báúil leis an iarracht anseo agus tá polasaithe Shinn Féin láidir ina leith seo. Is dócha go mbeadh an earnáil níos proifisiúnta. Sinn Féin supports the increased professionalisation of the sector, the regulations and their aspirations. We also support more affordable and better quality child care as an investment in the future. We support the aim of a 60% degree-led early childhood care and education, ECCE, workforce by 2025, as recommended by the EU. We believe that training must be given at the Government's expense and during paid time for workers. We seek the immediate roll-out of Síolta and Aistear through county child care committees. In order to support quality in the sector with an incremental move towards its becoming graduate degree led, the Government should expand the learner fund to levels 7 and 8 qualifications, which I understand would cost approximately €16 million.

The regulations' objective is important and one that we support, but many facilities that, although they have high staff levels, do not have enough people at each level of qualification under the regulations, must hire additional qualified staff at substantial cost. They must weigh up whether to take on the additional staff or accept fewer children. The latter has a cost implication, although not as high as that of employing additional staff. Fewer early years places for children aged between one and three years is an outcome that none of us wants, as it would have a significant impact on children and families, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, and would exclude vulnerable children.

The Government has acknowledged that this is an issue and facilities are applying for additional funding, but it is unclear as to whether they will receive anything. The Minister may claim that it comes down to budgets, but the timeframe is tight for the facilities. The regulations do not enter into force until January, but the school year starts in September, which means that many providers must make the decision now if they are to be prepared. We are not advocating that the regulations' implementation be delayed any further, but additional resources are required and it is essential that any decision on whatever Supplementary or Revised Estimates are needed be taken now.


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