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)
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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.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
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I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for raising an important question, as it gives me an opportunity to put on the record some of the ways in which we have been preparing for the implementation of the new child care regulations. I assure the Deputy that, although I was at an extraordinary event where we launched a report, Children Seen and Heard: 1916 to 2016, at Áras an Uachtaráin, I would never be too busy to be present to respond to his important questions and concerns. I will offer a couple of reflections that go wider in terms of the regulations that are coming into place while addressing the specific question on qualifications, which is important in the context of the regulations' implementation.

I will address the Deputy's question also.

As the Deputy knows, new child care regulations were published in May of this year and will come into effect on a phased basis from 30 June 2016. The 30 county and city child care committees around the country have been providing significant support to providers to deliver and develop their services and to ensure compliance with the regulations. In addition, the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, has hosted multiple roadshows around the country to communicate with providers on how the new regulations will affect them. It is critical that Tusla is doing that. There has been a large attendance at the roadshows and feedback has been positive. The Child and Family Agency is working on the preparation of the quality and regulatory framework which will be used to inform early-years inspectors and providers on compliance with the regulations. As the Deputy indicated, we welcome the regulations. It is important that we have regulations to ensure quality for children. This is proactive work that is being done by Tusla to help the sector to be ready.

A core part of the quality agenda pertains to increasing the qualification standards of those working in preschool child care. This is at the core of the Deputy’s concern. The new regulations require that all staff members working directly with children in preschool services must hold at least a major award in early childhood care and education at level 5 on the national qualifications framework, or a qualification deemed to be equivalent. This requirement will come into effect for newly registering services on 30 June 2016, and for existing services on 31 December 2016. I understand that an estimated 91% of child care workers already meet this requirement, and that the majority of the remainder are currently enrolled in courses that will provide appropriate qualifications.

In order to support staff in meeting the new qualification requirements, my Department established the Learner Fund, which has already allocated €3.5 million to over 3,000 staff for the purpose of upskilling. Funding of €1.5 million was allocated for Learner Fund 4 in budget 2016. This will be allocated to 1,000 early-years practitioners to undertake and complete the level 6 qualification. A large number of further and higher education institutions provide courses that are producing graduates at level 5 through to level 8 every year, and my Department is working with the Department of Education and Skills to monitor supply in the coming years.

My expectation is that, in general, there will be sufficient capacity in the early-years education sector to cater for the September 2016 intake of children for the Early Childhood Care and Education, ECCE, scheme, the expansion of which was announced in budget 2016. This expansion means that children will be eligible to start free preschool when they reach the age of three, and continue to avail of free preschool until they start primary school. As a result, the number of children benefitting from the ECCE programme will rise from around 67,000 to around 127,000 in a given programme year.

4:55 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State for her response. The figure of 91% is new to me. It certainly represents a substantial number. The Minister of State and I touched on the issue of additional funding provided by the Learner Fund. When people have additional qualifications, it has an implication for pay. We are very keen to emphasise that the increase in professionalisation in the sector, in light of our desire to ensure qualified professionals remain in the sector, will be reflected in pay.

This probably should have been dealt with earlier. That is not the fault of the Minister of State but there is a need to deal with it now. There was an option to be proactive and but it was not taken. There are facilities that are currently applying for additional funding, not only for training but also for the payment of staff. It is unclear to them whether they will receive it. They may but it is difficult to make a decision at this point. Is there any intention, through a revised Estimate or other means, to confirm for the facilities applying for additional funding that this funding will be forthcoming so they will be in a position to maintain their current level of service provision?

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
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I have a couple of points to make on the Deputy's additional question and one or two points on his original contribution. There are two aspects, the first of which concerns the support my Department provides to the practitioners and professionals in the early-years and child care setting, specifically in regard to the Learner Fund. As the Deputy is aware, Learner Fund 3 was to provide support and grants to individuals so they could bring their qualifications up to level 5. As I stated, 91% have achieved this. The fund will be open until July of this year. If there are any practitioners who need upskilling to level 5, the optional is still available. The Learner Fund for level 6 is in train. That was part of the 2016 allocation.

The Deputy indicated that 60% of the workforce should be degree-led by 2025. My ambition is higher than that. Perhaps I should say “60% sooner than 2025” but I am working with the officials in my Department to examine the feasibility of this. We must determine the kinds of resources we need to provide to practitioners to ensure we meet the target sooner than 2025. I have begun conversations on considering the Estimates for 2017.

The second aspect of the Deputy’s question concerned the cost of preschool services and whether the funding is sufficient, especially as we extend the second year. The Department is commissioning an independent review of the cost of child care, which will begin, I hope, in early September. The information we will obtain will influence the additional resources that I am sure I need to seek to support the extraordinary people in the sector.

Sitting suspended at 4.20 p.m. and resumed at 4.30 p.m.