Seanad debates

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Preschool Services

10:30 am

Photo of Rose Conway WalshRose Conway Walsh (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs for coming to the House. The reason I asked the Minister to come in today relates to Naíonra Bhaile Chruaich Teoranta, which is an Irish-speaking preschool in Ballycroy, County Mayo. The preschool was established in 2001 by a voluntary group of local parents. No preschool services were available at that time. Since then, it has become the heart of the community and has enjoyed great success serving families well throughout the years. Naíonra Bhaile Chruaich Teoranta works in partnership with local government to ensure the long-term use of the old national school. As it happens, it is my old national school so the Minister will forgive me for being extra passionate about this particular project. It was a derelict school and was then transformed into a vibrant and refurbished preschool and after-school service. It has ensured a lifeline for the parish and its people.

The Minister may be aware that Ballycroy covers a large geographical area of 210 sq. km. Hence, the preschool and after-school service offer a space for all of the children in the parish to connect and play together. We have two excellent national schools in the parish. One was recently built and the other was recently refurbished. Funding for the preschool falls under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. This inhibits the sustainability of services because the current funding model system is not equitable. The Department funds through a set capitation model. The current system benefits services located where the population is high and, as a consequence, the numbers using preschool facilities are high as well. Increases in the capitation grant are of course welcome, but this does not address the issues for rural services. It may serve to make the services with higher numbers better off but it does not serve areas like Ballycroy.

The rural action plan makes explicit reference to the importance of regenerating these areas and having vibrant services in these areas. However, early years services cannot access funding through the CLÁR or RAPID programmes. That is the key to it. Something needs to be done. The position needs to be reviewed so that the Department and CLÁR can jointly fund rural services such as the naíonra in Ballycroy. Such services should be able to make an application on the ground of their rural location.If that is not done, the future of Naíonra Bhaile Chruaich will be under threat. The problem is that its closure would mean there would be no preschool service in the parish. There has been significant investment in the national park and other facilities in Ballycroy, which is on the Wild Atlantic Way and so on.

I am afraid that this issue will be considered on the basis of a snapshot in time and the conclusion will be reached that there are not enough children to sustain the school or make it viable under the current funding model. What about next year, the year after and the year after that? What about people, such as members of my family, who wish to move back to the parish and raise their children there? There will be no preschool service for them. These children have the right to a preschool service. That right is upheld in other parts of the country and that needs to be the case in rural areas. That is why the funding model must be changed.

I have a submission that I will give to the Minister for her consideration and that of her Department in the context of finding ways to keep these facilities open. We have had to fight for our post offices, Garda stations and other facilities, but people in rural Ireland are tired of fighting. We want a little flexibility to address depopulation in rural areas and to do everything we can to bring people back into them so that we can have vibrant communities. Can the Minister imagine a parish without young or other children? The heart and soul of the parish would be missing. It would be like having a garden without flowers. We need facilities to ensure children continue to live in these areas.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
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Assisting families to access high quality and affordable early learning and care, ELC, and school-age childcare, SAC, is a priority for me as Minister. Government investment in childcare has increased by an unprecedented 117% over the past four budgets, with €575 million allocated in 2019. This investment has provided for record numbers of children benefitting from my Department's ELC and SAC programmes in 2018 and 2019. It has also provided for significant increases to the beneficiary payments to childcare providers, including a 7% increase to early childhood care and education, ECCE, providers in 2018, while targeted childcare supports provided under the community childcare subvention scheme and the training and employment childcare scheme were enhanced significantly in September 2017, some by up to 50%.

I want investment in this area to continue to increase significantly over the coming years. I am, therefore, delighted that First 5, the whole-of-Government strategy for babies, young children and their families, commits to doubling investment over the next ten years. The national childcare scheme will mark another significant milestone for early learning and care and school-age childcare and create an infrastructure through which the Government can further increase investment in services over this period.

Naíonra Bhaile Chruaich is a small service in a remote and sparsely populated region of Mayo, as ably described by the Senator. I understand that the service has been facing sustainability challenges due to declining registrations and is expecting a further decline in demand in 2019-20. The current programmes do not differentiate between the geographical locations of services to provide ELC and SAC services to as many children and families as possible in a fair and equitable manner. However, the First 5 strategy commits to undertake research on the ELC and SAC needs of parents who work atypical hours or live in rural communities, and develop recommendations for further action in this respect. That will be progressed in 2020.

In the meantime, I fully recognise the challenges that may be faced by community services, including those such as Naíonra Bhaile Chruaich, which are situated in rural or isolated locations. That is why my Department has developed a strong case management system operated by Pobal through which a dedicated team assists services facing challenges. This assistance may include expert guidance, a review of the financial position of the service and an assessment of its operating and business model. I understand that the service in question has sought assistance from Pobal case management. I urge staff to continue engaging with the Pobal case management team, which will be able to provide these supports in partnership with the Mayo county childcare committee.

In addition to the non-financial supports I outlined, my Department has made a number of financial supports available to community services facing specific challenges to their ongoing sustainability, including a once-off financial support for services in rural and isolated areas that suffer from falling or fluctuating demand. These once-off financial supports are intended to assist services in transitioning to a sustainable operating model and may be accessed through Pobal case management following a standardised financial assessment process.

Photo of Rose Conway WalshRose Conway Walsh (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for her reply. I take some heart from it. Of course, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating in terms of the naíonra remaining open or the situation there being reversed. We need congruence between rural development plans and childcare plans to address cases such as this. I will work with the Minister, the Department and the committee, which I wish to commend along with the voluntary committees of all childcare facilities. The parents on these committees, some of whom have children who no longer need preschool care, continue to work for the betterment of their communities. With some flexibility and understanding of the challenges services are experiencing, all these challenges can be worked through. I am looking for a solution and nothing else.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
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I am grateful for the Senator's willingness to co-operate in this regard. It is important that she raised the matter of this preschool centre. I am committed to ensuring the sustainability of early learning centres, particularly in rural and isolated areas. I described to the Senator our way of approaching such issues. I believe that, through research, we will find a better way to approach them.

I take her point about the need for a match between the rural action plan and what is happening in the childcare setting. I am impressed by her description of the naíonra having been established by a group of parents from the community and that the original national school was transformed and is used by the service. That demonstrates the great resilience and flexibility of the people there. I hope the representatives of the service encounter the same qualities when they meet my officials and Pobal.

Sitting suspended at 11.27 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.