Thursday, 24 March 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
5. To ask the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth when his Department's own in-depth analysis of 13 childcare services in very disadvantaged areas was conducted; the findings of same; when he will make this research public; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15484/22]
Will the Minister confirm when the Department's in-depth analysis of 13 childcare services in very disadvantaged areas was conducted? What were the findings and when will the Minister make the research public?
In 2018, the Crowe consultancy group was commissioned by my Department to undertake a sustainability review of a small cohort of early learning and care and school-age childcare services operating in disadvantaged areas. Through this review, Crowe also engaged with parents using these services. A key objective of the review was to examine the potential impact of the national childcare scheme, NCS, which was under development at the time. It was never intended to publish a report of this sustainability review as it contains commercially-sensitive data relating to the services that participated.
All recommendations emerging from the steering group overseeing the sustainability review were adopted and implemented in full by my Department. This includes an increase in standard NCS-subsidised hours from 15 hours to 20 hours per week, which was introduced in September 2019 and an increase in enhanced NCS subsidised hours from 40 to 45 hours per week, which was also introduced in September 2019. The recommendations also included a continuation of and enhancement to sustainability funding to ELC and SAC services, which remains in place.
Since I became Minister, and following my engagements with childcare providers across the country, further consideration has been given to the early learning and care and school-age childcare services needs of children from disadvantaged areas, once the NCS, including NCS sponsorship arrangements, were introduced. In this context, arising from a review of the NCS that I specifically asked to consider disadvantaged services, a review of the work study test and recommendations set out in Partnership for the Public Good, a number of changes to NCS were announced in budget 2022. Significantly, these included the discontinuation of the practice of deducting hours in preschool or school from NCS subsidy hours. This measure will benefit an estimated 5,000 children in disadvantaged areas.
Other recommendations in Partnership for the Public Good will further support services operating in disadvantaged areas. We discussed earlier that Core funding, which will be introduced in September, has been designed to meet objectives with this in mind.
In the Department's 12-month review of the NCS, there is a paragraph that mentions this in-depth review that nobody in the sector has seen or even knew about. Did that review find that seven of the 13 services would move into financial deficit with the introduction of the NCS? Did it find that funding from these schemes constituted a major share of the services' revenues? Will the Minister confirm if many of the parents receiving community childcare subvention programme, a very high proportion of whom are unemployed, now receive fewer hours of subsidised childcare under the NCS? Did the Department know this and still go ahead with these changes, knowing children would be adversely affected?
The Association of Childhood Professionals published a report in November 2019 indicating that 50% of school-age children on the community childcare subvention programme would be entitled to NCS and 30% of early childhood education and care children on the community childcare subvention programme would be entitled to fewer hours and funding. We recognise and welcome that in budget 2022 the Department extended the universal NCS subvention to all children up to 15 and stopped the practice, as mentioned by the Minister, of counting hours spent in school and the ELC and education scheme with respect to a family's entitlement. This does not go far enough, however, to adequately address disadvantage. Will the Minister confirm such disadvantage will be addressed in budget 2023?
From very early in taking up my role, I recognised that the NCS as a national scheme is extremely beneficial. We have very clear evidence that on a national basis it is providing real benefits to large numbers of parents and encouraging large numbers of those parents back to work. However, we recognised that specific services felt a negative impact and I engaged with the Deputy's colleagues about that. I also met representatives from a significant number of services and listened to them and that is why we brought forward these changes in the budget to broaden the NCS and, in particular, to remove the wrap-around hours. I also worked with Tusla and other bodies to make the sponsorship process easier.
We have been very clear in the Partnership for the Public Good report, and there is a clear indication that, a form of Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, approach to childcare is needed.
My Department as well as working on core funding is also working on designing that DEIS-type approach. We hope to begin the process of rolling it out in the next budgetary cycle.
Prior the launch of the national childcare scheme, NCS, those working in the sector warned the previous Minister and the Department of the effect it would have on services in disadvantaged areas. It seems the report did justify their concerns. I would be concerned about children. Just because parents are unemployed and at home does not mean children do not need childcare. It may be the only hot meal they get in the day. They need supports from services like this, especially when they are in disadvantaged areas. It is extremely important. The Minister is confirming that this will be addressed in budget 2023.
I very much recognise the needs of children from disadvantaged areas. That is why we have made changes to the scheme. We have made it clear that sponsorship should be interpreted broadly, particularly by Tusla. That has led to a significant increase in the number of children getting full hours through the sponsorship process. We also removed the wraparound hours, which will benefit 5,000 children. It is my hope that in next year's budget we will be able to begin to advance the DEIS measures. The Government has committed to the implementation of the public good document and the DEIS model is a key element of that. Obviously it is part of the budgetary cycle and something my Department has to go in and advocate for. We are not going to be able to introduce it fully in one budgetary cycle. I very much believe that a DEIS model, as is advised by that report, is crucial to supporting services in areas of vulnerability and that is a key priority for me.
I have a general message in respect of the priority questions. I have been very strict in the past and have to continue to be so in adhering to the rules in respect of prior notice if a Deputy is taking over someone's question. There must be a written notice or contact with my office. I have been in a position where I have refused other people who have come in. I thought Deputy Tully's name was on the list and I made a mistake. That is fine. For everyone for the future, if there is a change in the speaker they must notify the Ceann Comhairle's office.