Tuesday, 1 July 2014
Early Child Care Education
67. To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will provide a rationale for including only a portion of early years staff as eligible for FETAC level 6 training subsidies through the learner fund as a means of enhancing quality standards; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28010/14]
In reply to an earlier question today the Minister cited the need for improvements across the board to enhance quality standards in early childhood care and education. However, the fund announced by his Department is restrictive in nature and leads to an inconsistency in standards in terms of who can apply for funding. Can the Minister explain the rationale behind the decision to launch such a restrictive fund?
International evidence indicates that raising the qualification levels of staff working with children is key to improving the quality of services. As part of the ongoing progression of the early years quality agenda, it was announced last year that by September 2015 all early years services staff working directly with children in the zero to six years age category would have to have a minimum level 5 qualification on the national qualifications framework in early years care and education, or an equivalent qualification. This requirement will apply to new services from September. Preschool leaders, delivering the free preschool provision to children between the ages of three years and two months to four years and seven months under the early childhood care and education programme, who are currently required to hold a level 5 qualification will have to have a minimum level 6 qualification, or equivalent, by September 2015.
In March this year the launch of a learner fund to assist existing staff working in the child care sector to meet the new requirements was announced. The first and most important objective of the funding is to ensure that all existing staff are in a position to meet the mandatory qualification requirements for their current roles; otherwise it will not be possible for them to continue in these roles after September 2015. This requires that all staff working directly with children in the child care sector hold a minimum level 5 qualification and staff in the role of preschool leader under the early childhood care and education programme hold a level 6 qualification.
The learner fund, which is administered by Pobal with the help of local city and county child care committees, has a total allocation of €3 million for the years 2014 and 2015. This fund has been clearly linked to the introduction of the mandatory qualifications and while other training priorities can be examined at a future date, the priority for now is to use the available funding for staff to achieve the mandatory qualifications if they are to continue in their current roles.
If the Minister does not mind, I will refer to a section of the report from the advisory group on the early childhood strategy. The report was commissioned by the Department. It states the training and professional development of staff is a key indicator of quality in all types of services for young children. High-quality services require professional competence at all levels, including those working directly with children, their managers and supervisors, inspectors and those in advisory and leadership roles as well as those who carry out training. Ensuring high professional standards at all levels of service delivery requires that individuals not only have appropriate initial training but also have access to continual professional development throughout their careers.
The fund is highly restrictive in nature. It will lead to further inconsistencies in standards in the early childhood sector. The Minister has confirmed funding for 2014 and 2015. Will he examine expanding the fund to include all levels of qualifications to ensure people working in the sector can avail of the fund and progress and develop qualifications much further than levels 5 and six? They should be progressing to level 7 or 8 to ensure we have a real quality professional workforce dealing with early childhood.
I agree with Deputy Troy that the object of the exercise must be to ensure a level of quality. The Deputy speaks of consistency, and there needs to be an element of balance. He is aware a panel of more than 50 training providers has been approved to deliver the training programmes following the completion of the expression of interest process. More than 2, 200 staff have already applied. A difficulty has arisen because some people, who have been working with children for many years, wish to be exempt from the requirements of the new qualifications. As the purpose of upskilling is to boost quality in the best interests of children, it is only possible to do this in a very limited way.
While we have a very high degree of quality, capacity and capability, which is what our children deserve, nevertheless some people, who have been working in the system for many years, for some reason or other are not eager to attain or are not in a position to meet the quality standards. That is why there must be a transition period. I am sure Deputy Troy has received representations in this regard, as I have. We need to ensure an element of balance.
I agree that we need to ensure an element of balance, but I do not think anybody would appreciate if their children in a national school or a secondary school were being taught by somebody who did not have appropriate qualifications. I do not think for one minute we would accept that. The sector has expanded drastically over the previous decade and we are catching up in certain respects. We need to work with the people who are working in this area to ensure they get the required qualifications so that we have a high quality workforce dealing with children in the early childhood years. Report after report confirms that the earliest years in a child's life are the most formative years.
The first and most important objective for me as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is to ensure that there is a level of competency on a mandatory basis in order that all existing staff are in a position to meet an appropriate level of qualification.