I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:
“acknowledges the importance of:
— early childhood care and education as a vital element of promoting positive outcomes for children; and
— affordable, accessible and high quality child care for parents of school-age children in enabling them to participate in training, education and paid employment;
acknowledges and supports the valuable role played by early childhood professionals;
— the support given through the learner fund to staff who need to upskill to new qualification levels and the payment of a higher capitation grant on the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme for higher qualified staff; and
— the introduction of the better start national early years quality support service – a national co-ordinated approach to supporting quality in child care services;
acknowledges the importance of continuing co-operation between the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister for Education and Skills in this key area and welcomes the steps taken by the Department of Education and Skills in developing the Síolta and Aistear quality and curriculum frameworks for children aged under six years, and more recently the announcement by the Minister for Education and Skills of a review of all levels of education and training in the sector which will support quality improvement; further welcomes:
— the Government’s commitment to supporting high quality, accessible and affordable child care for parents, represented by a total annual investment in the region of €260 million, benefiting over 100,000 children, in a range of child care programmes for children, including the preschool ECCE scheme as well as a range of supports for low income parents;
— the Government's continuing commitment to early childhood care and education, as demonstrated by protecting, in budget 2015, its annual investment of some €175 million in funding for the ECCE scheme, which benefits 68,000 children annually, and which is equivalent to an average annual benefit to parents in the region of €2,500; and
— the Government’s commitment to maximising the returns that can accrue from investing in child care by supporting children’s cognitive, social and emotional development, and generating long-term returns to children, families and society more broadly;
supports the Government’s policy of seeking accessible, affordable, high quality child care as a vital means of achieving a number of key priorities including improving educational outcomes for children, reducing poverty and increasing parents’ participation in the labour market and welcomes the support of the Minister for Social Protection in providing funding for the initial phase of the after-school child care scheme in 2013;
notes that the forthcoming early years strategy will set out policies and priorities across a wide range of areas for children under the age of six, including, but not limited to, early childhood care and education;
acknowledges that parents need access to affordable, high quality child care both at preschool level and for children during their school years, and welcomes the Government's decision to establish a high level inter-departmental group, which will report to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs by the summer, and which will set out a coherent whole-of-Government approach to future investment in child care by:
— clarifying the policy objectives to guide future investment;
— reviewing current provision in light of those objectives;
— analysing evidence and best practice in relation to how best to achieve those objectives;
— identifying and assessing options for future investment, conducting a cost-benefit analysis on each option; and
— making recommendations for future investment; and
supports the implementation of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures – the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014-2020 as a key means of making Ireland one of the best small countries in the world in which to grow up and to raise a family.”
I welcome the opportunity to discuss issues relating to child care and to propose the Government's amendment.
It is widely recognised that participation in high quality early childhood care and education services results in better outcomes for children. From the point of view of parents, access to affordable, high quality child care for younger and older school-going children is an essential support to allow them to participate in education, training and the workforce. It is clear that investing in high-quality affordable child care can contribute to addressing a range of Government priorities, including improving educational outcomes for children, reducing poverty, supporting children and young people to avoid risk taking behaviours and, of course, supporting parents.
I want to acknowledge the considerable contribution of child care providers and staff to the provision of quality services and the delivery of child care programmes. While not underestimating the work to be done, the continued support by Government for those programmes has been key to keeping services in operation and maintaining staff employment through a period of unprecedented economic difficulties. The Association of Childhood Professionals is holding a rally to promote support for investment in the sector next week. I have previously indicated that as money becomes available I would welcome such investment and I have no argument with the association on this issue. I have previously met representatives of the association and will do so again later in the week to hear at first hand their views.
We should put this debate about the supports for children and their parents in a clear context. We are committed as a Government to helping parents with child care costs and to making quality child care accessible to a greater number of parents. For this purpose, we are investing some €260 million this year in a number of child care support programmes. These programmes include the community child care subvention programme, which provides funding to community, not-for-profit, child care services to enable them to provide quality child care at reduced rates to disadvantaged and low income working parents. This programme brings significant benefits to a large number of parents and their children. More than 25,000 children each year are supported under the subvention programme.
The most significant programme in terms of State investment is, as other Deputies have mentioned, the early childhood care and education programme, which was introduced in January 2010 and provides for one free preschool year for all eligible children before commencing primary school. The programme represents an annual investment of approximately €173 million and parents availing of the provision have their annual child care costs reduced by €2,375 for each eligible child. Some 68,000 children avail of the free preschool provision each year and more than 4,300 child care services which deliver this service benefit from the guaranteed funding that the programme provides.
We also have a number of further initiatives under the training and employment child care programmes to support parents who are entering or seeking to return to the workforce and who are participating in training or educational courses for this purpose. These include the child care education and training support programme, which provides child care places to qualifying Solas or education and training board trainees or students for the duration of their courses. Many parents who are at home rely on this programme to allow them to do short courses to help them build their skills without having to worry about the well-being of their children.
The after-school child care programme was introduced under the training and employment child care initiative and provides after-school care for primary school children for certain categories of working parents for a one-off period of 52 weeks. This programme provides €40 per week for after-school care or €80 per week where a pick-up service is provided, and €105 per week for full day child care during the holiday period. We introduced the pick-up arrangement because parents found that sometimes it was not practical to get to a school. For example, a young mother who had been unemployed was delighted to get a job, but found it very difficult to get away from it for the time needed to pick up her children and drop them to the after-school service. The pick-up arrangement has solved her problem, allowing her to stay in her new job.
Community employment schemes often provide the first opportunity for parents to engage in the workforce. To help support these parents, a new community employment child care programme was introduced. This programme provides part-time care for children up to the age of 13 whose parents are participating in community employment programmes. The programme includes an after-school option, which enables qualifying parents of primary school children to obtain after-school care at a weekly cost of €15. A young father who takes part in a community employment scheme with a local community service finds the after-school service ideal, as the hours suit the scheme and he knows his children are in a safe and positive environment. My Department will continue to fund these programmes, with an emphasis on improving the quality of the service and as funding becomes available, I would hope that the capitation rates for all programmes could be increased to provide further support.
While my Department's programmes that invest €260 million annually are the primary means of supporting child care, we should not forget that the Government also provides all parents with a direct payment, child benefit, in respect of every child. This payment, administered by the Department of Social Protection, amounts to just over €1,600 annually per child and is intended to support parents with the costs of bringing up children. In fact, our child benefit payment is, relatively speaking, very high, unlike countries where funding is directed to the provision of services rather than to cash payments, and runs to almost €2 billion per annum.
The introduction of a second free preschool year could be of considerable benefit to many children. However, this provision would require considerable additional funding, broadly in line with the cost of the current one year provision of €173 million. We want to be sure that we direct any additional funding that becomes available to the greatest benefit for children. Whatever we do in this area, we need to focus on quality. All of the available evidence indicates that the quality of preschool provision is key to good outcomes for children.
Some of our funding is very specifically directed to encouraging child care providers to deliver a higher quality preschool provision. One aspect of this is influenced by international evidence which indicates that raising the qualification level of staff in early years settings results in higher quality provision and benefits the children in the settings. For this reason, the free preschool programme provides a higher rate of capitation to participating child care providers who employ staff with a higher level of child care qualifications. The higher rate of funding enables child care providers to offer employment opportunities to child care staff who have obtained professional child care qualifications. In the school year 2013-14, more than 1,400 child care services received the higher capitation rate.
In view of the evidence about the importance of qualifications to quality, we decided to introduce a minimum qualification for child care staff. From September 2015, these staff must have a minimum level five qualification on the national qualifications framework in early years care and education, or an equivalent qualification. In addition to the general requirement for a level five qualification, preschool leaders delivering the free preschool year, who are currently required to hold a level five qualification, will have to have a minimum level six qualification, or equivalent, by September 2015.
I am very conscious of the low pay of the sector and anxious to support child care staff to meet these new requirements. In 2013, we made nearly €1 million available to support existing staff working in the child care sector to meet the new requirements. To support child care staff further, we launched the learner fund last March. The fund, which is administered by Pobal with the help of local city and county child care committees, has a total allocation of €3 million for the years 2014 and 2015 and is being targeted to subsidise the cost for child care staff who are required to undertake accredited level five and level six courses. To support the child care sector in improving quality, the national early years quality support service - Better Start - is being introduced as part of the quality agenda. The Better Start programme is a national approach to quality improvement supports and incorporates the work of city and county child care committees, the national voluntary child care organisations and the work of a new element, the early years specialist service. The aim of Better Start is to provide a nationally coherent continuum of support to providers to help them improve quality. An innovative element of Better Start is to employ 30 graduates in early childhood care and education who will work directly with services to improve quality, including assisting services in the implementation of the Síolta framework and the Aistear curriculum. These specialists were recruited in October and, following a training programme, are now starting to work with services on the ground.
It is clear that accessibility and affordability of high quality child care can play a critical role in achieving a number of Government priorities, including improving educational outcomes for children, reducing poverty and increasing parents' participation in the labour market. I want to ensure that all the benefits of child care investments are fully realised. It is crucial that we develop a coherent whole-of-Government approach to investment in child care services. To do this, we need future public investment in child care that is evidence-based and strategically co-ordinated. With this in mind, I am establishing a cross-departmental group to examine the provision right across the zero to six age group and to consider the after-school needs of older school-going children. I will welcome submissions from interested parties to the cross-departmental group for their consideration.
This new group will include representatives of the Departments of Education and Skills; Social Protection; Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Public Expenditure and Reform; Finance; and the Department of the Taoiseach. It will be led and supported by my Department. I will be asking that the work of this group be carried out within a short timeframe and I expect that the group will report to me in the summer. It will have its first meeting before the end of this month.
Our annual spending on child care related programmes has been in the region of 0.2% of GDP in recent years. However, this does not include expenditure under other early intervention programmes or by other Departments on early years programmes and services and therefore does not represent the full extent of State expenditure. The OECD indicates that Ireland spends approximately 0.4% of GDP relative to an OECD average of 0.7%. I would of course very much like to increase spending on early child care and education programmes over time but we also face difficult budgetary realities and tough choices about spending across government.
Considering the actions called for in the Private Members' motion, I note they would require very significant funding over and above what we currently have available. For example, the proposal to increase the level of investment to the OECD average would cost in the region of €450 million annually. The introduction of a second preschool year would cost at least as much as the existing provision of €173 million and more if the capitation level was increased. Extension of the community child care subvention programme so that it is available in all private services could cost in the region of €150 million. We should bear in mind that the last Government in 2008 spent €480 million on the previous scheme, the early childhood supplement but dropped that scheme at the end of 2009, when the preschool year was announced. However, of the €480 million, only €170 million went back to support the preschool year; the rest went to the Exchequer. What is being proposed in tonight's motion would cost multiples of even current spending, let alone what we have been able to afford in recent years.
I am aware of the concerns being expressed about special needs children and in particular their access to the free preschool programme. A number of measures were introduced to ensure that the early childhood care and education programme is more accessible to these children. These include an exemption from the upper age limit for the programme where it would help a child, and an arrangement where a child can participate in the scheme over two years if that would suit the child better. For example, he or she could attend three days per week in the first year and two days per week in the second year or vice versa. I know the Health Service Executive, where possible, provides additional supports to children with special needs to enable them to avail of preschool services in mainstream preschool settings. My Department has been working with the Department of Health and the Department of Education and Skills to build better supports that facilitate children with special needs. The aim is to develop an agreed framework for the provision of resources to support special needs children in mainstream child care settings. However, an early indicative cost for this within the preschool year is some €40 million, and clearly a similar cost would arise if a second year was introduced.
The question of tax allowances for working parents who incur child care costs is an issue that has been raised from time to time and is referred to in the motion. This was considered prior to the introduction of the targeted child care supports which I have outlined. A number of issues emerged at that time which did not favour the introduction of tax relief for child care. Tax reliefs would favour the higher paid and those on the minimum wage or in part-time work would not be in a position to benefit to the same extent. There is also a view that introducing tax credits could lead to increased prices and therefore have limited impact in terms of savings to parents. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which has looked at funding in a range of member countries, has expressed the view that tax reliefs do not promote quality and do not result in lower prices, making them a very ineffective intervention.
I consider that direct investment in provision would be a fairer way of supporting parents who require child care support. I am aware that despite the substantial Government investment, the issue of child care costs remains a significant concern for many parents throughout the country. Increasing the State supports provided to help parents with these costs would require a considerable level of funding and these are matters that will be explored in detail over the coming period, including by the cross-departmental group.
Any action we take in this regard must be fully costed and there must be a benefit analysis, with the Government presented with well-costed options in order to achieve best outcomes for children and support, in the best way possible, parents struggling with the cost of child care. It is a well known fact that this is like a second mortgage for parents, which is why the Government is taking this so seriously and we have a cross-departmental group that will explore these issues, formulate and cost options and present them to the Government by the summer. We will be able to make well-informed decisions as we come into the budget cycle at the end of the summer.
The issue of rates was mentioned by a Deputy but rates have always been paid by child care services under all Governments, including the previous Government, which was in office for 14 years. That has not changed.
Most community services have been exempted, so they did not pay. For an Opposition party to object to something that was part of its own policy is a little disingenuous.
Child care providers and the staff employed in child care services throughout the country are key to the delivery of high-quality child care services. These employers and employees have made considerable adjustments in recent years to facilitate the implementation of the new child care support programmes. I am very much aware of the concerns of child care workers about the levels of remuneration in the sector, and I am happy to acknowledge the important contribution they make to children and families. However, as child care services are provided by private commercial and community child care providers, pay levels and conditions of employment are ultimately matters for the management of these services.
The early years strategy is one of a number of more detailed strategies under the children and young people's policy framework, and this strategy is currently being developed by my Department. I have said that I will conduct focused consultations with relevant parties across the early childhood care and education sector before concluding my deliberations on the strategy. I expect to be in a position to publish the strategy once my consultations have concluded in the coming months.
I have covered a wide range of issues affecting child care provision and the staff who do such sterling work in the sector. I would strongly welcome future investment, but we must build it on a coherent national policy that helps us build better services, supports higher-quality employment and, as always, ensures better outcomes for our children. I therefore commend the amendment.