Seanad debates

Thursday, 14 May 2009

3:00 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the need for the Minister for Health and Children to outline to the House the details of the way the Government scheme to provide a child care place for three year old children will function, the payment methods, the number of available places and the level of uptake in the scheme he expects from child care providers. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He has been here all day but this is an important issue and many questions arise from it.

I welcome the introduction of a pre-school year while recognising the negative impact the loss of the early child supplement income will have on all families, particularly the most vulnerable. I am concerned about some of the practical implementations of this pre-school year considering that in the weeks following the announcement of the scheme, many pre-school providers raised questions and expressed genuine concerns about the scheme. Such concerns included the lack of information on the implementation of the new scheme, the duration of the capitation grant and the payment of top-ups. In particular, service providers questioned the adequacy of the capitation grant in meeting the cost of providing the service and the difficulties some providers will experience in that regard. I am aware there is concern about that in many of the pre-schools and child care services in Lucan and Clondalkin.

I want to read into the record an e-mail I got from somebody who is involved in child care. She states:

I am the owner and manager of a pre-school for the past 7 years. I operate 2 sessions per day, Monday to Thursday, for 10 months of the year (43 weeks). While I welcome the new venture by the government to provide free pre-school education, I am appalled by the manner in which the scheme is being railroaded in without prior consultation with pre-school providers and without due consideration to the quality services we have spent years building only to be undermined and dictated to in this manner.

That is an indication of the concern of people already providing the service. The e-mail further states:

The capitation grant, as suggested, will be provided based on a 38 week service. The majority of pre-school services operate from September to the end of June (43 weeks) and incorporate 4 weeks holidays into their fee in order to pay staff wages. The grant is set at €2,450 and pre-school providers are not permitted to redress the shortfall from [people who attend their services].

Obviously that does not allow for any holiday periods. This woman states she estimates her income will be down €11,000 per annum due to providing a five day service as opposed to a four day one and due to the scheme not allowing for a 43 week provision of service.

These are the two specific issues which my constituent has raised. Will the Minister outline what consultation he intends to undertake with the sector? What will he do about the issue of staff holidays and the longer period of service? The scheme also demands that the provider must have eight children to avail of the scheme. What happens if the provider thought she could fill the places but cannot do so and is down one or two places? How many providers will avail of the scheme? How many places are available now and how many does the Minister envisage will be available as the scheme is implemented? Is the Minister willing to review the details of the scheme to address some of the concerns of child care service providers?

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Fitzgerald for raising this important issue. As the Senator is aware, I have responsibility for the implementation of the new scheme to provide a free pre-school year of early childhood care and education, ECCE, which will be introduced from January next. The introduction of the scheme is, I believe, one of the most significant developments in early childhood care and education that has taken place in Ireland to date. Building on the progress made over the past decade, in terms of investing in child care and in developing educational frameworks for young children, we are now taking the first major step in providing universal pre-school education for all children.

Children will be eligible for the free pre-school year where they are aged between three years and three months and four years and six months on 1 September of each year. Exceptions will be made where a child has special needs or to accommodate children due to the enrolment policy of a local primary school. These decisions follow consultations we have held with the NCNA, the IPPA and other stakeholders. Research underpins the importance of delivering pre-school provision in a consistent format based within an appropriate educational framework. For this reason, the pre-school year scheme has been designed to provide 570 hours for each participating child, which will be delivered on a weekly basis over the course of each year.

Where children attend a sessional play-school, they will receive three hours per day each week over 38 weeks. To take account of the fact that young children are cared for in a variety of settings, a child attending a full-time or part-time service will receive two hours and 15 minutes per day each week for 50 weeks. An annual capitation fee of over €2,400 will be paid to participating services. This is equivalent to €64.50 per week where a service is participating for 38 weeks and €48.50 per week where it participates for 50 weeks. Services will be paid in advance at the start of each term. As a free pre-school year, participating services must agree to provide the service in return for the capitation grant.

Services may charge parents for additional services provided these are clearly optional. These would include additional hours over and above the free pre-school year requirement and additional services in the form of various one-off or ongoing activities or services such as outings, birthday parties, specific teaching resources, such as dance or music, or food. However, all additional services offered must be clearly optional and subject to parents' agreement. It is also essential that appropriate programme based activities are provided to children not participating in an optional activity.

It is hoped that at least 70,000 children will participate in the scheme from the early stages of its introduction, which would represent 90% of all children eligible within the 15 month age range allowed for, and almost all children when the pattern of enrolments in the year prior to starting primary school settles into place. A sufficient number of pre-school places is expected to be available based on the existing capacity in the sector and it will be open to all pre-school services, of which there are almost 5,000, to participate. The fact that payments will be made to services at the start of each term, rather than on a weekly or monthly basis during the year, will be a very significant benefit to services, particularly in the current economic context which has resulted in high vacancy rates in many services.

While some high cost services have argued that the rate of capitation should be higher, the large majority of services have expressed their support for the scheme in strong terms. The level of capitation allowed for is significantly higher than that proposed under the NESF's proposed free pre-school year scheme and is far higher than that allowed for under the equivalent scheme operating in Northern Ireland, which amounts to £30 per week, despite having similar conditions. For most services, the scheme will see an increase in their income and this will allow them to meet the higher standards required for participation relative to the existing requirements under the child care regulations. The higher standards concerning qualification of staff and the educational programme guided by Síolta will ensure that a quality service is provided to all children in their pre-school year and not just those whose parents can afford to pay higher fees.

I am aware that a member of Senator Fitzgerald's party has called for the scheme not to be free, but to allow commercially based pre-schools and Montessori schools to continue to charge fees from qualified parents, in addition to collecting the capitation fee, in the form of a "top-up". This would greatly reduce the benefit of the scheme for those families and would also make the scheme inaccessible for families who are under financial pressure, inevitably leading to disadvantaged children being left out. As research demonstrates that the greatest benefit from pre-school education is found among children who are from disadvantaged backgrounds, this would be doubly unfair and is an outcome I could not stand over.

I am delighted the Government has made the far-sighted decision to introduce this new scheme. It will give equal opportunities to all children, particularly the most marginalised who would not otherwise be able to attend pre-school, and help parents who, up to now, had to meet the cost of pre-school provision. It will also benefit services which will gain certainty and sustainability in what are, for most, very trying times. I believe the long-term benefits will be enormously significant to all of our children and to society as a whole. It will involve time and effort to ensure the greatest possible levels of participation in the scheme and to reach the highest standards of early years care and education provision. However, I am confident that the scheme provides the framework to achieve this ambition.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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I referred to the e-mail from a woman who runs a child care service. She says:

I have worked really hard over the last nine years to build a successful service where parents can be proud to send their children. It is not just a three hour childminding service and it does not end when the children leave.

She goes on to outline the types of services she provides. What is the Minister's response to somebody such as her? The scheme is almost usurping the quality and range of service she has built up and provided over many years. It will probably undermine the quality of the service and will not allow it to develop to provide what parents want.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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This is a national, universal, free pre-school year. It is designed to benefit all children. While there are examples where difficulties can be found, we will try to accommodate all the providers in the scheme when it is finalised. We are in consultation with the representative associations of child care facilities. They have underlined some of the issues the Senator raised, including that providers such as the one mentioned by the Senator operate on a four day week. We are examining whether we can accommodate providing the 15 hours over a four day period so services such as the one mentioned can survive.

Prior to this announcement there was widespread acknowledgement that the early child care supplement was under pressure and could be withdrawn. Service providers told me they were struggling with capacity because people were migrating from private providers to community providers. They were seeking some lifeline and this is the lifeline we have provided. Clearly, we have work to do to bring on board as many providers as possible. However, according to my figures, over 80% of providers are delighted with this scheme as it gives them the opportunity to survive these difficult times. It also marks the beginning of a historic development whereby children will present themselves in primary schools as motivated and well socialised, particularly children who are marginalised. Well-off parents send their children to pre-school anyway. It is the great cohort of children from disadvantaged communities who will be able to access pre-school services for the first time.