Thursday, 14 October 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Early Childhood Care and Education
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this matter. I am pleased to have been associated with the establishment of a Fine Gael policy lab, which is essentially policy research that deals with first-hand experience. In the case of childcare, we spoke to more than 2,500 providers, parents and staff in the system. The conclusion was resounding. The message was that the underdevelopment of early childhood policies in Ireland is hampering the progress and well-being of our society. It is stifling opportunity in childhood, putting parents under huge stress, leaving providers struggling to fill the yawning gaps and damaging the capacity to attract and retain well-qualified staff who will commit to this vital sector in the long term. We need a step change in the approach to the early childhood sector.
I will be the first to congratulate the Minister on the significant achievements in the budget. More than €1,000 is to be provided in respect of those aged four to 15 on the universal subsidy and up to €2,500 is to be provided in respect of those on the enhanced subsidy who have children between the age of two and three quarters and 15. A new stream of more than €1,000 for each child will be available to fund quality improvement. This is a really important first step. However, there is much more to be done and structural reform is urgently needed. I look to the early childhood development agency as being key to delivering that structural shift in the way we look at it. There are big gaps and we need a new mandate for the county childcare committees to start to assess where those gaps are and systematically fill them.
I have been fortunate enough to have represented the enterprise sector. We have 4,000 exporting enterprises. They have specialised bodies for training, management, marketing, innovation and capability building. A range of six agencies serve those 4,000 companies. When it comes to the 4,500 providers of early childhood support, no agency offers support to their capacity to build and fill those gaps. That has to change. I see this agency as a significant move in starting to create opportunities to innovate, build capability, have demonstration projects and build campuses within our communities where people can access a range of services. The pilot for the delivery of therapeutic services to early school settings, which is now in a range of 75 early school settings, should be the model for the future.
We can do that and we need to build on that model but we need to do so much more in this area. We need a new careers structure. We need apprenticeships in this field, which have not been developed to allow on-the-job learning. We need an even start. Many people say it should be like the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools scheme, known as DEIS, but I think it needs to be much more targeted than DEIS, which has now reached 900 schools. That is nearly a quarter of all schools. We need to focus on the acute areas of disadvantage and stop children coming to primary school already so far behind that they will not be able to compete in the modern environment. We need to make many systematic and structural changes in this sector. I have great confidence that the Government will adopt this approach. As a backbencher, I want to work with the Government to make sure this is the best we can make it. We have set out a draft functions structure of how that agency could work.