Tuesday, 11 December 2018
I, too, welcome the Minister of State. I acknowledge the co-operation of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, on this issue and know that she is tied up at the Cabinet meeting this morning. Her officials have been in touch with me and very co-operative.
Baineann an cheist seo leis an rátá bunphá atá múinteoirí i gComhar Naíonraí na Gaeltachta ag baint amach faoi láthair. Tá na múinteoirí réamhscoile sin an-mhíshásta. Chuir siad in iúl dom agus do na Teachtaí Dála ó Thír Chonaill go bhfuil orthu obair bhreise a bhaineann le riarachán nó le páipéarachas a dhéanamh. Tuigim go bhfuil thart ar trí uair sa bhreis sa tseachtain ag baint leis an obair sin. Tá sé deacair ar na múinteoirí an obair sin a bhaint amach le cois na cúraimí eile atá orthu, agus ag cur san áireamh an ráta íseal pá atá ag na múinteoirí seo. Tá na múinteoirí ag iarraidh go mbeidh ardú pá i gceist ionas go mbeidh ráta pá fiúntach acu.
The issue is the level of remuneration available to preschool teachers in the Donegal Gaeltacht in Comhar Naíonraí na Gaeltachta, Donegal branch. These teachers have additional responsibilities. A classroom teacher in a primary school has equivalent responsibilities. The facilities and services provided by these preschool teachers are excellent, essential and of crucial importance to many families living in Gaeltacht areas. There was always a distinction made - in my view, wrongly - in the pay levels of preschool teachers outside and inside the Gaeltacht. There should be parity of esteem for preschool teachers both inside and outside the Gaeltacht and no difference in pay. In fact, preschool teachers in Gaeltacht areas have additional responsibilities in trying to encourage children to speak Irish and so on and so forth. The amount required is small and not a substantial financial ask. I am not sure whether the Minister of State will have the answer, but this issue must be dealt with.
I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Irish Language, An Coiste Gaeilge. In February we met representatives of preschool teachers when committee members visited the Donegal Gaeltacht. Following the meeting, we took on board the recommendations which had been made by the preschool teachers and made a submission to the Houses of the Oireachtas in which we recommended that the matter be dealt with. To date, as we approach the end of 2018, it has still not been dealt with. The issues are equality of pay and the availability of in-service training. The vast majority, if not all, of the preschool teachers are women who provide an excellent service locally. An added benefit is that many of the families who can send their children to preschool are able to continue working. This is an issue in a rural area, but it needs to be dealt with. It is wrong that a preschool teacher in Castlebar or Athlone is on one rate of pay, while another in Gweedore, Gortahork or elsewhere in County Donegal or Connemara is on a lower rate, although he or she is doing exactly the same work and has additional responsibilities because of the use of the Irish language.
Obviously, Údarás na Gaeltachta has a role to play and an agreement with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, from which the financial resources to ensure parity in pay rates would have to come.
I thank the Senator for tabling this Commencement matter. I am delighted that he has had a conversation with officials from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, has asked me to take this matter.
The matter concerns the remuneration of early learning and care practitioners in preschool settings. The Minister has been unequivocal in her support for better pay and conditions for staff in the sector. It is her belief early learning and care practitioners play a crucial role for families and children and that they deserve to be recognised and valued. In return, the evidence shows that a valued workforce deliver higher quality services to children. However, the Department is not the employer of early learning and care staff and does not pay the salaries of staff working in early learning and care settings. Therefore, the Minister cannot set wage levels.In this regard, the preschool context is different from the situation in primary and post-primary schools. Given this context, the Minister has been clear that there are limits to the actions that her Department can take. However, the Minister has supported a range of measures to improve pay and conditions using the tools available to her. In particular, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has seen a 117% increase in investment in the sector over the past four budgets, rising from a budget of circa €260 million in 2015 to €575 million in 2019. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has used some of this budget to introduce additional capitation to services, for example, a 7% rise this September in the ECCE capitation rate. Programme support payments to recognise the administrative roles that services play have also been introduced totalling €18 million per annum for the past two years, with €21.4 million available in 2019. The Department has also continued to provide a higher rate of capitation payment for graduate-led preschool rooms to encourage the attraction and retention of graduate staff. This year, the Minister also introduced a pilot measure to fund services whose staff take part in continuing professional development, CPD. It is the Minister's hope and intention that these additional investment measures should be reflected in the pay and conditions of staff in preschool services.
The Minister has also repeatedly called for the sector to pursue a sectoral employment order, which offers a possible mechanism to establish appropriate wage levels. As the Senator will be aware, the Minister cannot initiate a sectoral employment order, nor can officials in her Department, but she is keen to co-operate with such a process if and when it is undertaken. Many early learning and care settings are open throughout the summer months and this is reflected in the remuneration to their staff. Some services choose to offer the ECCE programme only and as a result do not open during the summer months. The arrangement they make with staff in respect of remuneration during this time is a matter for the individual employer. However, the introduction of the affordable childcare scheme in autumn 2019 will for the first time allow an individual child to benefit from both the ECCE programme and a targeted funding scheme. The wrap-around character of the affordable childcare scheme will make it easier for early learning and care and school age childcare services to operate year-round, including during the summer months, if they should choose to do so.
On the question of in-service training with primary school teachers, I refer the Senator to First 5, the whole-of-Government strategy for babies, young children and their families, launched on 19 November. It is important to acknowledge that early learning and care is a profession of and in itself, and not all training accessed by primary school teachers will be relevant to the preschool context or vice versa. However, there are important areas of shared responsibility and interest, including supporting children's transitions between preschool and primary school. First 5 includes a specific commitment to develop links between CPD opportunities for the early learning and care workforce and the national structure for CPD of primary school teachers. First 5 also commits to consideration of opportunities for joint delivery of CPD programmes, where appropriate.
I am missing a page somewhere.
I thank the Minister of State. I know it is not under the direct remit of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to deal with this, but what is happening is that preschool teachers, because the rates of pay are so low in Gaeltacht areas, are leaving to work as special needs assistants for the Department of Education and Skills. If this continues, we will have no preschool availability in Gaeltacht areas. The issue needs to be dealt with. I am encouraged by the Minister's commitment to consider a sectoral employment order or at least that she would be keen to co-operate in this matter. I will follow up on this.
I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, if possible, to speak to officials in the Department to find out if they are willing to bring the key stakeholders together to try to find a resolution to this issue, and perhaps that the Minister could play the key or chairing role in facilitating such a solution. That would be the best way of dealing with this matter. It takes a leader to deal with it and the Minister is in a position to provide leadership by bringing the key stakeholders together, thrashing out the issue and dealing with it once and for all. That would be very welcome and I ask the Minister of State to raise this with the Minister, Deputy Zappone. I will certainly write to the Minister on it as well.
I will convey all the Senator's comments on to the Minister. I agree with him in many ways. I know how difficult it is for staff to be kept in preschool. I have a niece who runs a Montessori school and she has often talked about the difficulty caused by staff moving on, which is related to the level of pay. I agree with the Senator on that. I will bring his concerns to the Minister, but I know from speaking to her on other occasions that she is committed to ensuring there is equal opportunity for people, whether in preschool settings or in primary schools. I will ensure she hears the Senator's comments loud and clear.