Dáil debates

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Early Childhood Care and Education

4:15 pm

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter and compliment him on the videos he has produced in the past number of weeks. They are simple and snappy. I also thank him for his comments on the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and his Department and the work he has put in for the past number of months to support all our parties that have made this happen. There has been a step change in the past number of days. The programme for Government commits to:

Establish [a dedicated] agency, Childcare Ireland, to assist in the expansion of high-quality [early learning and] childcare, ... best practice and innovation, and professional development in community and private settings. It will also be tasked with developing career paths for [early learning and] childcare staff.

The new agency will also be responsible for the expansion of the early years curriculum, Síolta.

As a precursor to establishing childcare Ireland, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is carrying out a comprehensive review of the operating model for early learning and childcare in Ireland. This follows on from the commitment in First 5, the whole-of-government strategy for babies, young children and their families 2019-28, to undertake this review with a view to developing more consolidated and streamlined planning, funding, administration and quality support for this sector.

This sector has grown substantially in the past decade. The current operating model emerged over a decade ago, prior to the significant development of policies, schemes and investment that has taken place in recent years. It operates across multi-level structures and organisations. The objective of this review is to ensure that the operating model is fit for purpose to implement early learning and childcare policy relating to quality, affordability and access, to the scale and standards required in an evolving and expanding sector with the citizens of Ireland, at its heart, as core beneficiaries.

The key criteria informing the review are that the operating model operates in a manner that delivers maximum public benefit, best value for money and most effective use of resources; operates in a way that ensures that robust governance, accountability and quality assurance structures and processes are in place to manage the budget, which currently amounts to approximately €640 million annually; operates in a transparent manner and is in compliance with all relevant legal, regulatory and governance requirements; meets the needs of early learning and childcare providers and staff; establishes the provision of high-quality service for children and families; aligns with the strategic direction set out in First 5; and is equipped to support the major early learning and childcare reform initiatives that are committed to in the strategy.

An independent external contractor is undertaking this analysis and considering options for reform. The review is overseen by a group, chaired by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, comprising officials from relevant Departments and two external experts. The analysis of the operating model has involved significant stakeholder engagement to date and is due to conclude shortly. The review has identified both the strengths and weaknesses associated with the current operating model. It has also identified international practice principles in early learning and childcare, the principles and characteristics of a best practice operating model and a suite of options for reform. It will also signal the implementation challenges associated with each option for reform.

Depending on the outcome of the review, any change will involve significant planning, stakeholder engagement and a wide range of consultations. It will also be important to ensure any change management process avoids any interim break or gap in the services and supports provided to early learning and childcare providers and to children and their families. It is envisaged that the analysis carried out for this review will provide a robust evidence base to inform a decision concerning the establishment of childcare Ireland and the range of functions it may provide. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will bring a report to the Government on the matter in this quarter.


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