Priority Questions

Early Childhood Care Education

Robert Troy

Question:

120. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs his views on the adequacy of the capitation grant for providers of the free preschool year; and his further views on whether the current capitation grant to preschools is adequate for these providers to pay their care staff a professional wage. [8004/15]

We all aspire to have a graduate-led workforce in the provision of early childhood care and education. What are the Minister's views about the adequacy of the capitation grant for providers of the free preschool year? Is the current grant to preschools adequate and does it allow providers to pay their staff a professional wage?

The Government provides €260 million - in excess of quarter of a billion euro - annually to a number of child care support programmes that assist parents with the cost of child care. This figure includes €175 million provided annually to support the universal free preschool provision under the early childhood care and education programme. These programmes are, of course, in addition to the support provided to all parents in the form of child benefit.

The funding provided through the child care support programmes has had a significant impact on child care provision and enabled many child care providers to continue to deliver child care services at a time of economic difficulty. The funding has also ensured that employment levels across the sector have been maintained. The retention of the current level of investment in child care is a considerable achievement, given the pressure on the public finances over the last number of years.

I recognise the difficulties being faced by child care providers and I am aware of the concerns of child care professionals in respect of levels of remuneration in the child care sector. I met recently with their representatives to discuss a range of issues relating to child care provision and I am giving careful consideration to their views on future developments in the sector. Remuneration for child care workers is a matter for agreement between employers and employees. Staff remuneration does account for the greater proportion of the overall cost of providing child care services and I acknowledge that increased capitation and subvention payments through the child care support programmes would assist child care services in addressing these cost issues. I have indicated that if resources become available to my Department, I will consider the scope for increasing the level of these capitation payments.

However, I want to look at the question of appropriate supports for child care in a wider context. It is crucial that we develop a coherent whole-of-Government approach to investment in child care services. To ensure that all the benefits of our full range of child care investments are fully realised, future public investment in child care must be evidence-based and strategically co-ordinated.

I have established an interdepartmental group to look at provision across the birth to six years age group, as well as to consider the after-school needs of older school-going children, and I have asked the group to report to me by the summer.

I could not agree more that it is important that we have a whole-of-Government approach to this area. Despite the statement of the Minister's predecessor a number of years ago that the Government was at that time looking at this issue, it has taken in excess of four years for this much heralded interdepartmental group, which is expected to provide all the answers to all our ills, to be established. At the launch yesterday of a report by the Children's Rights Alliance, Professor Nóirín Hayes said that the interdepartmental group report is a further kick to touch because the Government does not know what it is going to do in terms of provision and support for this sector.

In September 2012, the Government reduced the capitation payments for persons with a higher qualification from €75 to €73 per child and from €64.50 to €62.50 for a person without that qualification. This is having a serious effect on service providers, who along with this reduction in capitation payments have had to bear increased commercial rates charges and an increase in employers' PRSI contributions. They cannot sustain services going forward.

A question please, Deputy.

In committee a number of weeks ago I asked that the Minister, to help ease the pressures on service providers, would, at a minimum, restore the capitation payments to their original levels.

I do not wish to be overly-confrontational but Deputy Troy has some neck talking about this Government having taken four years to do this work given the net effect of Fianna Fáil in government for 14 years was a reduction from €480 million to €175 million in child supports. This Government has successfully maintained this level of support despite the now well-known fiscal fiasco left behind by the Fianna Fáil-led Government. I have already made my position clear. As resources become available, I want to restore the cut to the capitation payments. None the less, I have to work within the budgetary constraints in which I find myself as Minister.

This report is not a kick to touch. It is a report that will provide us with the range of options on what will deliver for children and families rather than the Fianna Fáil way of "fire a few more bob at it and hopefully they will all go away".

Fianna Fáil in government increased child benefit, provided 65,000 new preschool places and established the county child care committees to support a quality service in each county. It also established Síolta and Aistear, internationally recognised curricula, and put in place a framework for delivery of those curricula. There were many good things done in this sector which developed at a rapid pace during the early 2000s.

To be fair, nothing new has happened in the past four years. When this Government took office, it established the new Cabinet post of Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, whose responsibility it was to ensure a cross-departmental approach to this sector. It is disappointing that it has taken four years for the establishment of an interdepartmental working group. Does the Minister agree that, given the main contract of these service providers is with the State, it has an obligation to ensure they are sufficiently resourced to pay their staff? Those employed by the service providers in caring for our young children are providing an invaluable service and they need to be recognised. Currently, they do not feel recognised by the Government.

If they did, there would not have been in excess of 3,000 of them on Kildare Street this day last week.

Deputy Troy pointed out that the child care providers have to pay rates. They always had to pay rates. Nothing has changed in that regard except that not-for-profit child care providers have been afforded some relief by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. He pointed out some of the measures that were put in place as other things were taken away, which I pointed out.

Then the party ran away and left no money in the coffers to sustain them. It is all very well to allude to services being put in place that were put in place with money the party knew it would not have, did not have and could not sustain, and then try to blame others who come after who try to fix the economy for all the ills in the service.

This group is a very important one. I believe it will deliver a menu of options for Government that will be well costed, well analysed and will be able to show in a very real way how we can get the best outcomes for children and support their families, rather than just a gut reaction of putting more money here and more money there and finding subsequently the law of unintended consequences has arisen all over the place and we do not get the results we want.

In terms of the child benefit issue raised by Deputy Troy, child benefit did increase in the previous budget.

Preschool Services

Sandra McLellan

Question:

121. Deputy Sandra McLellan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps he will take to ensure that all children will be eligible to participate in the free preschool year, in time for September 2015. [8000/15]

I wish to ask the Minister the steps he will take to ensure children will be eligible to participate in the free preschool year in September 2015, including those with disabilities.

The early childhood care and education programme is a free and universal programme to which all children, including children with special needs, have access. The objective of the programme is to make early learning in a formal setting available to eligible children before they commence primary school. Participating child care services are, therefore, expected to provide age-appropriate activities to children within a particular age cohort.

Children born between 2 February 2011 and 30 June 2012 will qualify for the programme in September 2015 and children born between 2 February 2012 and 30 June 2013 will qualify in September 2016. All children have an opportunity to avail of the programme. However, some parents whose children were born in the months of July and August, who wish to start them in primary school when they reach four years of age, have to make a choice between enrolling their child in primary school or availing of the free preschool year. There are no exemptions for children who are below the eligibility age range.

The issue of access to the free preschool year for children with special needs was taken into account when the free preschool year was launched, and measures were introduced to make the programme more accessible for those children. The measures include an exemption from the upper age limit and permission to have the preschool year split over two years on a pro rata basis, where it would be in the child's best interest. Parents could decide to send a child two days a week in year one and three days a week in year two.

Most children with special needs avail of the free preschool year in mainstream child care services. The Health Service Executive, HSE, does, where possible, assist children with special needs who may require additional support to enable them to avail of preschool services in mainstream settings. However, these supports are not provided in a nationally consistent way. My Department has been working with the Department of Health and the Department of Education and Skills to build better supports to facilitate children who have special needs. The aim is to develop an agreed framework for the provision of resources to support children with special needs in mainstream child care settings.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I have established a high level interdepartmental group to examine the issue of future investment in early childhood care and education, and child care for school-going children. As part of its work, the group will consider how best to make appropriate provision for children with special needs who are accessing mainstream child care services. I have asked the group to report to me by the summer.

The Government has been dragging its heels over making the preschool year universally accessible. Supports for children with care needs while attending the free preschool year are still very much an issue. It is not acceptable that the Government has still failed after all this time to put in place something similar to the SNA provision system run by the National Council for Special Education.

I welcome the Minister's good intentions outlined in his reply to my question. However, the main issue at hand is the fact that there simply are not the proper facilities, equipment or even a high enough level of training in most crèches to deal with the needs of children with varying disabilities during a preschool year.

While Dublin may be in a better position in some instances to provide services to families, rural areas are seriously under-resourced in the area of special needs. What steps are being taken as of now to ensure children with special needs will not be discriminated against or treated differently?

Having read out the answer I do not believe the Government is dragging its heels. It has made this service universally available to children in the eligible age category. It makes particular allowance for those with special needs through the mechanisms I have outlined, by allowing them to split the year over two years and by not having an upper age limit for children with special needs, because sometimes their education can benefit a little bit later.

Most children with special needs participate in the ECCE programme. This is based on the fact that a total of 94% of eligible children participate in the year, so it is clearly very popular. This leaves approximately 4,800 children in the age cohort not participating and not all of these children have disabilities. This is not a homogenous group and we do not have the definitive numbers for the subgroups. Some children go straight into junior infants rather than participating in ECCE, approximately 1,700 children participate in the Early Start programme run by the Department of Education and Skills in disadvantaged schools, some children with autism spectrum disorders participate in special autism preschools, some children with very complex disabilities attend special preschools, and each year approximately 900 children are home schooled.

I thank the Minister. Will the Minister give an outline of what exactly the interdepartmental group on the preschool year is being asked to do? What are its short and medium-term ambitions to resolve the issue of inadequate provision for children with special needs before term commences in September? Will he assure parents that all children will be provided for and will receive the same care and educational treatment as children without special needs come September? I have raised with the Minister previously the issue of children with autism. There are serious delays in diagnosis with a multidisciplinary team, and children are often waiting eight months for a diagnosis. Many parents find it extremely difficult or next to impossible to get their children into preschool. Has the Minister discussed this with the Minister for Health and is he looking into it?

The interdepartmental group seeks to clarify the goals for public investment, including ensuring that services are of a high standard. It will review current investment in light of these goals to ensure any gaps and duplication are addressed and programmes are a good fit to achieve policy goals. The issue of workforce sustainability is also important in this regard. The group will analyse evidence and best practice here and abroad in order that it can identify the best way to deliver investment to realise these goals. It will identify and assess options for future investment, specifying the costs and benefits of each option. It will make recommendations for future investment.

The wait for a diagnosis of autism, or a diagnosis in other areas of special needs, is something that is being addressed through the HSE and its plan, and through the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to ensure services are available based on the needs of the child rather than on a diagnosis. Through this needs service, a diagnosis may very well arise which will allow the service to be honed more particularly to the child's needs.

Child Care Services Funding

Seamus Healy

Question:

122. Deputy Seamus Healy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will provide a clear timeframe according to which he will move Ireland from the current investment in child care provision of 0.2% of gross domestic product to 0.7% of gross domestic product; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7975/15]

It is widely accepted that early childhood education is underfunded and under-resourced and is being subsidised by communities, staff, employers and parents. Will the Minister set out a timeline whereby he will move from the current investment of 0.2% of GDP to the accepted level of 0.7% of GDP?

The Department supports the provision of early childhood care and education by providing in the region of €260 million annually to provide for three child care support programmes that make child care services more affordable and ensure that more than 100,000 children have access to quality child care. This high level of support has been maintained despite the difficult budgetary situation that prevailed in recent years.

I point out to the Deputy that while the annual spend by my Department on child care related programmes has been in the region of 0.2% of GDP in recent years, there is expenditure by other Departments relating to child care provision as well. The largest element of this is the expenditure by the Department of Education and Skills on junior and senior infants in primary schools and on the Early Start programme in disadvantaged schools. When the full expenditure on preschool provision is taken into account, Ireland spends approximately 0.4% of GDP on child care provision. It is still not up to the international average and, like Deputy Healy, I am certainly keen to see it reach the international average.

It is clear that accessibility, affordability and high-quality child care can play a critical role in achieving several Government priorities, including the improvement of educational outcomes for children, reducing poverty and increasing parents' participation in the labour market. I would like to be in a position to increase our investment in child care related programmes to be in line with the OECD average, as resources allow. This will take time as the benefits of growth generate the required resources. I am determined that all such spending, whether existing or additional, will be based on good evidence and co-ordinated strategically in order that we achieve the best possible benefits for children. To this end I have established the interdepartmental group to examine the provision throughout the zero to six years age group and consider the after-school needs of older school-going children.

Quality early childhood education is paramount for the healthy development of children. It is also important from the point of view of addressing educational and future employment outcomes for children as well as the prevention of poverty and all the various social difficulties that may arise.

There are 4,300 centres in the country employing approximately 24,000 staff. The majority of these staff are on incomes close to or at the minimum wage. Of the 4,300 facilities, one third are community facilities. The Minister referred to evidence in his reply. As a member of the board of a community child care facility, I can inform him that there is a serious struggle every day to make ends meet. The service is being subsidised by staff, employers and parents.

A question please, Deputy.

Will the Minister restore the capitation grant that was reduced in budget 2011, at least on an interim basis?

I thank the Deputy for his comments. I believe we are all on the same page on this issue. All the international and national evidence we have indicates clearly that investment in this area yields the greatest financial return. More important, it adds a value that is incalculable to children and society in general. The Deputy is quite right. It has a major influence on educational outcomes and, therefore, on job opportunities later in life. Clearly, what follows from this is a child's ability in later life to get out of poverty. From all aspects this is a winner for children, families and society at large. Moreover, given its nature in terms of the socialising of young children, it helps them to learn how to get on with other children and network. This is important later in life as well.

We can all agree on this and the Minister is in agreement, but what we really need is action. In 2011 we were promised graduate-led child care, a second free preschool year and a Scandinavian-type child care system. None of that has materialised. There are numerous difficulties in the service for staff. These are qualified staff providing a well laid out and accepted curriculum but at low levels of payment and salary.

It is an issue that must be addressed urgently. Of course, the whole question of child care also has a knock-on effect on parents and their ability to access further education or second chance education, or even to enter the employment market, where employment is available.

The second free preschool year is accommodated and planned in the document produced by Government, "Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures", to be delivered on fully by 2020. It is not in the programme for Government. That does not mean we are not committed to it but it is a question of the timeframe around which it can be delivered. The second preschool year would cost €175 million, at a minimum, and probably closer to €200 million if we were to fix all the bits we would like to see corrected in the existing year. I believe the general consensus from the sector is that it would like to be assured that the quality and mechanics of the existing year are addressed first before we move to a second preschool year, and I think that sensible.

Having said all that, the whole point of the interdepartmental group is that it will have analysed what it is we are doing, clarified what our goals are - although we know what they are - and seen how what we are doing at the moment delivers on those goals, as well as looking at the future investment opportunities that will deliver better outcomes for children and families. For me to prejudge that would be incorrect and disrespectful of the work the group has to do. It is very important work that is going to touch all the families in this country.

Early Childhood Care Education

Robert Troy

Question:

123. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the level of consultation between his Department and the Department of Education and Skills, and-or the Department of Health, on necessary supports for children with a disability who are in mainstream early childhood services; and if he will provide an update on plans to publish a national strategy to support these children. [8005/15]

I want to ask the Minister what level of consultation his Department has had with the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Health on necessary supports for children with a disability who are entering mainstream early childhood services. Will he provide an update on the plans to publish a national strategy to support these children so we can ensure we are dealing with this on a consistent basis from Mizen Head to Malin Head?

The early childhood care and education programme is a free and universal programme to which all children, including those children with special needs, have access. The objective of the programme is to make early learning in a formal setting available to all eligible children before they commence primary school.

The issue of access to the free preschool year for children with special needs was taken into account when the free preschool year was launched, and measures were introduced to make the programme more accessible for these children. These measures include an exemption from the upper age limit and permission to have the preschool year split over two years on a pro rata basis, where it would be in the child's best interest.

Most children with special needs avail of the free preschool year in mainstream child care services. The Health Service Executive does, where possible, assist children with special needs who may require additional support to enable them to avail of preschool services in mainstream settings. However, as I have said before, I am aware that this support is not consistent nationally.

My Department meets regularly with the Department of Health to discuss issues of common concern, including supports for children with disabilities in mainstream preschools. In particular, the two Departments and the Department of Education and Skills have been working on how best to build better supports that facilitate children who have special needs. The aim is to develop an agreed framework for the provision of resources to support children with special needs in mainstream child care settings.

Early years settings should, of course, be supported to provide an inclusive environment, and I would like to be in a position to provide further supports. Some of the measures I have taken include the establishment of Better Start, a national approach to improving quality which provides advice and support to early years settings on quality improvement. I also introduced a learner fund to support staff in the sector to upskill. While modules on working with children with special needs, or on equality-diversity, are elective modules in early childhood care and education courses at levels 5 and 6 on the national framework of qualifications, I have encouraged the take-up of these modules by offering learner subsidies where a training provider runs these elective modules as part of the major award.

While we might think we have a universal programme, that is not true because the necessary supports are not in place to ensure the implementation of universality. Under the legislation as it currently stands, a service provider can refuse admission to a young boy or girl with special educational needs based on the fact that it does not have the necessary supports to take him or her into the service. Under the legislation, there is no entitlement beyond an assessment. Those aged under five years are entitled to an assessment, but are not entitled to the necessary supports.

There is no national strategy. I am disappointed to hear the Minister say in his reply that he aims to develop a framework. We need a framework in place now. The disjointed approach across the regions is abysmal. I note Deputy McEntee is in the Chamber. Later today we will meet the Meath fight for the future campaign in the audiovisual room. The HSE used to provide money and funding to preschool services so they could hire special needs assistants for those who needed them, but that now happens at the discretion of the HSE. While Meath may continue to provide the funding into the future, that is not necessarily the case throughout the country.

The Minister acknowledges that the approach is disjointed and that there is inconsistency. Can he give a firm commitment on when he will take responsibility for the provision of special needs assistants? Can he outline when there will be a national strategy and inclusion plan to ensure that all children, regardless of their needs, will be able to avail of early childhood care and education?

I have information that I am given to understand indicates that the HSE is not withdrawing any funding in this area. Maybe further funding is required, and that might be an issue. As we know, an extra €650 million has been made available to the Department of Health to disperse. We would not expect to see any further cuts in this area.

The Deputy asked when we will have the full strategy. As I said, we have established the high level interdepartmental group to examine the issue of future investment in child care and childhood education. As part of its work, the group will consider how best to make appropriate provision for children with special needs who are accessing mainstream child care services. As I have pointed out, I have asked for this report to be with me by the summer. We meet with the Department of Health regularly on this issue and others relating to children, and will continue to do so. As I have said and fully acknowledged, there is no uniform approach across the country on this and I am sure it will be one of the major issues on which the interdepartmental group will report.

We are all aware that the earlier the intervention, the greater the return. It is critically important that we put together a policy, national strategy and inclusion plan now. It is disappointing that four years on this issue is being referred to an interdepartmental group because it is extremely important. We are all aware of the inconsistent approach over the years.

Are we even aware of the numbers of children under five years of age who require additional resources because of their special educational needs? I would hazard a guess that we are not, because last year the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, said in a reply that only 260 children were availing of the split free preschool year. In a Pobal survey in 2013, it was suggested that 3,899 children had varying levels of disabilities. Do we know exactly how many children are being prevented from availing of the free preschool year because the necessary supports are not in place?

The funding comes from a myriad of areas, including the HSE which provides 33.3% and Enable Ireland which provides 25.7%. Institutions like the Brothers of Charity or the Western Care Association in Mayo provide other resources.

It is disjointed and unco-ordinated, which is unbelievable. We are not giving this issue the priority or focus which these children deserve because they are born with a special educational need.

I utterly reject the contention that we are not giving this the focus it deserves. This is the first Government to have a senior Cabinet Minister responsible for and focused on the needs of children. That is something which successive Governments did not do beforehand. As I pointed out already, we know some children go straight into junior infants rather than participating in the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme. There are approximately 1,700 children who participate in the Department of Education and Skill's Early Start in disadvantaged schools, and some children with autism spectrum disorders participate in special autism preschool classes. Some children with very complex disabilities attend special preschools and each year approximately 900 children are home schooled, and it is likely those children do not participate in preschool either. The number varies each year. Some children in full day care are recorded as being in the children's community subvention programme, so they do not appear in the ECCE figures. Work is ongoing to get the detailed information on these groups, mainly from the Department of Education and Skills.

Services for People with Disabilities

Seamus Healy

Question:

124. Deputy Seamus Healy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will provide extra resources to child care providers in respect of children with additional and special needs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7976/15]

Will the Minister to provide extra resources to child care providers in respect of children with additional and special needs?

The ECCE programme is one of a number of child care support programmes implemented by my Department to assist parents to access quality child care services. The programme, which provides one free preschool year to qualifying children before they commence primary school, is a free and universal programme to which all children, including those children with special needs, have access. The issue of access to the free preschool year for children with special needs was taken into account when the free preschool year was launched and a number of measures were introduced to make the programme more accessible for these children. The measures include an exemption from the upper age limit for qualification under the programme where a child is developmentally delayed and would benefit from starting primary school at a later age. In addition, children with special needs can apply to have the preschool year split over two years on a pro rata basis, for example, availing of the programme for two days a week in the first year and for three days a week in the second year, if that would be in the child's best interest.

The majority of children with special needs avail of the free preschool year in mainstream child care services. I am aware that the Health Service Executive assists, where possible, children with special needs who may require additional support to enable them to avail of preschool services in mainstream settings, but the fact that this is not nationally consistent is a source of concern for me. My Department has been working with the Departments of Health and Education and Skills to build better supports that will facilitate children with special needs. The aim is to develop an agreed framework for the provision of resources to support children with special needs in mainstream child care settings.

I have established a high-level interdepartmental group to examine the issue of future investment in early childhood care and education and child care for school-going children. As part of its work, the group will consider how best to make appropriate provision for children with special needs who are accessing mainstream child care services. I have asked the group to report to me by the summer.

As the Minister knows well and has mentioned, the provision for children with disabilities or special educational needs is limited in the extreme in the child care area. Where it is available at all, it is very limited and inconsistent throughout the country. The measure of any society is how it supports the most vulnerable members, and surely young children with additional and special needs are the most vulnerable people in society. Early intervention, particularly in this area, provides a major return. We need to do the right thing with this.

I ask the Minister to take the issue of resources for children with additional or special needs out of the wider review and deal with it immediately.

The interdepartmental group will be critical in assessing these issues. Children with special needs should not be taken out of that group but should be treated within that group with the same respect and degree of analysis and scrutiny as all other groups. As I said, many children with disabilities participate in the free preschool year without seeking the exemptions that I mentioned earlier. The figure for take-up of those provisions is far smaller than the number of children in the programme who would be entitled to do so.

This area is one that concerns me. A good start in life is critical, and nowhere more so than when one has a child with special needs. What we all want for our children is that they reach their full potential. By investing in children with special needs early in life, one reduces their dependence on others later in life in a major way.

I hope the Minister is not suggesting that I wish to take these children out of the wider review for any negative reason. The reason I ask that they be dealt with separately from the review is to ensure that their special needs can be adequately and urgently addressed. I ask the Minister to seriously consider doing something immediately for children in this regard.

I would not suggest that. Deputy Healy's concern, interest and bona fides in this area are clear and sincere. However, I am pointing out the dangers of unintended consequences. Taking this group out of the main group will not serve their purposes as well as leaving them in the mainstream group. The thrust of our educational approach for children with special needs is to support them in the mainstream as much as possible, for a host of reasons which I will not discuss now. As the parent of a child who had particular special needs early in life and whose outlook was very poor, I can state that keeping him in the mainstream was a major goal for us and it yielded huge results.