Dáil debates

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions

Preschool Services

2:30 pm

Photo of Luke FlanaganLuke Flanagan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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71. To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she is determined to bring in a second preschool year; if so, the date on which it will happen; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [54043/13]

Photo of Luke FlanaganLuke Flanagan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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My question is to ask about the promised second preschool year and whether the Minister is going to go ahead with it. The Minister’s reference to the troika now being gone is interesting. Earlier this year I understood that an announcement was due on the initiative, and the reason it did not happen is that the scandal broke on television and the Minister pulled back on it, but now the reason is that the troika is gone. The troika seem to get blamed for everything. Is the Minister going to proceed with a second preschool year? That excuse does not help.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I have always said that I believe a second year is the right direction in which to go as far as preschool services are concerned and that we ought to offer a second year. That is the vision I have been working towards. I have never been able to say precisely when it would come about but it was always very clear that a number of issues needed to be addressed prior to the introduction of a second year. They centre in particular on the quality of the services - staff availability and training, the availability of a high-quality service, and funding. I mentioned the troika by way of referencing the fact that things are improving in terms of the economy, but we do have a long way to go. As part of any improvement in the years to come I want child care to feature strongly among the public services we provide.

That is the context in which I am making my point. Obviously, 68,000 children are availing of the free preschool year. The feedback from it is extremely good. The transition to primary school has gone very well for the first cohort of children whom we have examined who have had the benefit of preschool education. We are working towards our objective.

I highlight continuously the benefits of early intervention. A second free preschool year would represent approximately €3,000 worth of free child care to parents and it would generate 4,000 to 5,000 new jobs. It is obviously on the agenda and I will work towards it. As the budgetary position allows for it, I would like to see this developing. This year, we have taken the additional steps in regard to training. The additional funding is not currently available due to financial constraints on the Government but all the evidence tells us that we get very good outcomes when we allow for the quality preschool provisions in question. I certainly will be working towards this objective. I hope that we will move towards a second year. I set up the early years advisory group to examine the needs of those under six and five because we have not been particularly good at doing so in this country. We will have our early years strategy published early in the new year.

2:40 pm

Photo of Luke FlanaganLuke Flanagan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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The Minister said herself that all the evidence shows good outcomes. Apparently, the Government cannot afford to do something now that will save us money and make money down the line. I cannot understand how the Government can continue with policies like that. It happens in so many areas that a decision is made not to do something now that the evidence clearly shows would save money in the longer term. Many people use the preschool period to develop their lives in other ways. With the help of grandparents, etc., parents can avail of what is nearly a full day's service. Not having the second year curtails parents.

When the scheme was first introduced, it was much trumpeted that one year was to be made available. I found that a little bizarre in respect of the playschool that my children attended. The way the system worked previously was such that both my children got two preschool years. This is interesting. Supposedly progress was made resulting in just one year, and further progress means that no one can tell us when the second year will be made available.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I do not quite know what the Deputy is referring to when he mentions two free preschool years because this was the first time there was a free preschool year. It was made available at a cost of €175 million. I do not know the Deputy's individual circumstances but I acknowledge there have been some extremely good community preschools that have offered services, but I am sure they were being subsidised. There is €280 million to subsidise community child care services, and the services are available for those who are doing training also.

The Deputy will recognise the quality of provision. There is no question but that wonderful services have been developed down through the years by many dedicated professionals on the front line, but it is very clear that the work needs to be done to ensure that, in order to make available a second free school year, staff will have qualifications at FETAC level V, and level VI if they are supervising. We must put in the supports that are needed, and we are doing so now. This is a very important stepping stone towards the second year. I will continue to work towards the provision of the second year. I have had discussions with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, because, clearly, there is co-ordination needed to take into account the kind of experience children are having in junior and senior infants in national school.

Photo of Luke FlanaganLuke Flanagan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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Not proceeding now is not saving the Government any money. Advocating the idea that we do not have the resources to ramp up whatever training needs to be provided results in a waste of money in other areas. There are children in my area who, because of circumstances at home, must go to school a little earlier than they would otherwise go. They are causing a problem because they are obviously not as well developed as other children in their class whose parents can afford to pay for an extra year, for example. This is a major disadvantage and represents a bad start.

It is like getting two seeds, putting one in good soil, the other in bad soil and then complaining that they did not grow well. We see the stark results in my home town where €100,000 is spent every year to try to do the impossible in Castlerea Prison, but there is no money available to help people at the beginning. We see it starkly and it is frustrating that we do not see a solution to it.

2:45 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I agree with the Deputy on the need for early intervention. It did not have the focus it needed for many years and I am trying to change this. I welcome the Deputy's comments because he is absolutely right. The evidence is overwhelming that if we invest in the early years, we will save money on prisons, detention centres and so forth. We must help children with difficulties at the earliest possible stage in their lives. That is precisely the reason I established the early years strategy group. For the first time, we have a national early years policy. The strategy group published a report entitled, Right from the Start. I agree in principle with the Deputy that we must focus much more attention on early intervention measures and I am doing what I can in that regard. Early intervention is needed in many areas, including health. A strong focus on children under six years is absolutely essential. I am playing my part in improving training in early years education and child care, as well as developing policies which take account of all of the issues involved, including maternity care, breast feeding rates, supports for mothers, parenting courses and the family support agency, all targeted at early intervention. I welcome the Deputy's support and prioritisation of the issue. Early intervention must become bywords for the future.