Dáil debates

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Early Childhood Care and Education

4:15 pm

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

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.

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | 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.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister of State and am encouraged to hear about all that work. One thing I did not hear mentioned, and this should be the starting point, is the need to start with the well-being of children. We need to embed in any such agency what the well-being of children is and how it will be measured and monitored in order that all this activity generates an outcome, especially for children who start at a disadvantage.

Second, I refer to on the assets of the State, such as our schools. There must be an obligation on those who have substantial State assets to facilitate parents and providers to fill a gap that is urgently needed and is integral for successful education participation. That is difficult in the present system. There are many barriers to it and they need to be swept aside. We need to embed in this agency scope for innovation and leadership; not a rigid top-down model, which has featured in many of these sorts of reviews from experts. We need something that is flexible, but, of course, compliant and accountable. It has to be flexible to provide for development of innovation and leadership.

Finally, it has to be embedded in our communities. There has to be local capacity. That is why it is important that the role of county childcare committees should be expanded. We should expect that the five-year development plan would include an assessment of the gaps in provision for childcare. We consider all sorts of objectives in our development plan, but we do not consider one where we already have a county childcare committee. We should build that sort of responsibility at local level into this. Overall, I commend the Minister on his work. I look forward to engaging with him on that development as it unfolds.

4:25 pm

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Well-being has to be at the core of anything we do with the childcare model. We have the well-being of our children at the centre, along with the well-being of the staff, and the well-being of the families. It has to be embedded in the community. The Deputy mentioned disadvantaged areas. It is not embedded within our county development plan in rural Ireland. The city and county childcare committees researched whether they are too close to each other. We should have community childcare facilities in every parish and community right across the State. We should be sweating the assets off the State. The Deputy referred to the schools and community halls. I agree we should support whatever is needed within that community through the childcare model.

The innovative people of whom the Deputy spoke live in our communities. They have skill sets within those communities, whether they are accountants or solicitors. They can make up that task force to ensure that we develop and expand the range of services required within those communities. When that is put that at the centre, that will put life back into communities. In my area in rural Ireland and the Deputy's area in inner-city Dublin, communities will be kept alive and beating, with investment in their centres. When we do that, we will have development in schools, but also development in local clubs.

That is where the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderick O’Gorman, and his task force will go with the plan. It is not for me to say until it is completed. However, the vision is that we would involve all. The Deputy is correct about the role of the city and county childcare committees and I have made the same point for years. Currently they are in receipt of approximately €11 million a year. We should not overwhelm childcare providers with this enormous volume of paperwork. It should be the role of the city and county childcare committees to have the policies, procedures and paperwork to support our childcare providers, whether they are private or community. It should be streamlined, no different than when someone orders oil. It should ordered through a central point to get best value for money and to support everybody.