I thank the committee for the opportunity to discuss the single affordable child care scheme. The Association of Childhood Professionals, ACP, is a professional body representing practitioners in early years and school age care and education. We are a voluntary organisation and all of our council members give freely of their time so that we can fight for the profession that we value so much, but that is at the bottom of the pile when it comes to recognition, respect and remuneration.
We welcome the concept of a single affordable scheme. Such a scheme facilitates the streamlining of existing schemes and provides a platform for investing in early childhood education and care. Increased investment is important if we are to provide high-quality, affordable services to the children and families with whom we work. Given the focus of our association, we have reviewed the ACS from the perspective of the early childhood education and care workforce.
When child care was first offered outside of the family, it was generally provided by the woman who lived down the road and took in a few children to supplement the family income as she raised her own children. There were no requirements in terms of qualifications, regulations, inspections, observations, curriculum planning, continuous professional development, community involvement, etc. This woman kept the child happy, safe and fed, and then her job was done.
The vista of early childhood education and care is vastly different in 2017. The practitioner is now a professional person whose role extends beyond care work with children. Professional responsibilities include supporting the child and family during this critical stage of development and, as a result, the early childhood professional is now an early childhood educator, administrator, curriculum planner, researcher, cleaner, counsellor, communicator, parent coach, nurse and facilitator. The list goes on. As the CoRe report reads, "[Early childhood education and care] is increasingly expected to fulfil societal expectations regarding active citizenship and democracy, offering a strong foundation for lifelong learning, contributing to reducing child poverty, realising equal opportunities, and strengthening creativity and innovation in young children." The amazing thing is that all of these professional services and societal contributions are provided by capable multi-taskers who earn little more than the minimum wage.
The language of the draft ACS document reflects a serious disregard for staff working in early childhood education and care. At one point it states, "Efficiency can be achieved through combining part-time places ... and through managing staff resources ... at different times of day and different times of the year". In practice, this would require the introduction of zero-hour contracts and further reduce the job security of an already underpaid, primarily female, workforce. The ACP views this as contrary to the Government's stated objective of supporting the professionalisation of the early years workforce and increasing quality provision. It is well documented nationally and internationally that working conditions and pay are central to providing high-quality early childhood education and care. The quality of the relationships between the children and the workforce are a key indicator of high-quality provision. Attracting and retaining a professional workforce are vital if these relationships are to flourish.
The draft ACS document sets a subsidy rate based on current schemes available in early years. This assumes that current subsidies cover the cost of delivering schemes. As many recent reports have indicated, there are serious sustainability issues in many services, meaning that existing subsidy levels are generally insufficient to meet current costs of provision. There is no allowance made for increasing wages that arise as a result of professionalising the early years workforce. Qualification requirements have been introduced to our profession, yet subsidy rates remain at pre-qualification levels.
The wage rate used in the draft ACS document is €10.79 for practitioners, although this figure is likely to be reduced due to the Minister's announcement that the scheme will now employ a 52-week as opposed to a 48-week funding model. While this figure is slightly above the average rate currently being paid, it is still significantly below the living wage and will provide little incentive for attracting or retaining a qualified and motivated workforce. The most recent Pobal early years sector profile indicates that 18% of staff were working in their respective centres for less than one year. Pobal believes that this is an indicator of significant staff turnover. The report also states that more than half of the staff are aged between 25 and 44 years. This is the time when many are hoping to buy a home and start a family. Current pay and conditions will not support these aspirations and, as such, will result in a loss of professionals from the workforce or push them into poverty.
Providing a high-quality early years service requires significant planning, documentation and continuous professional learning. There is little provision for these in the costing for the ACS. If the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is serious about ensuring high quality, there needs to be adequate provision for this in the ACS document. The Department is committed to providing an independent review of the cost of child care, but it makes no sense that this review would happen after the ACS begins. True costs need to be established before the new funding model is introduced. Unfortunately, the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme has proven that, if a scheme is not costed properly before its inception, conditions will continue to deteriorate, as there is little Government appetite to redress the difficulties imposed on providers and their staff.
The draft ACS document makes reference to the use of an hourly rate for child care subsidies, thus encouraging providers to charge an hourly rate for child care. The use of an hourly rate is not consistent with sustainable provision and thus further endangers the security of the workforce.
The early childhood workforce is at breaking point and can no longer afford to deliver this level of service for the pay it receives. This and successive Governments are taking advantage of good people who are committed to providing support to young children and families throughout the country. It is exploitation, pure and simple. It has to stop. As one early childhood professional stated:
I wonder why I bother; I am often on the verge of tears with exhaustion and frustration. Then I think of how much I love my job and the incredible enjoyment and fulfilment I get from working with young children. The government, both past and present, are taking advantage of my commitment and of the commitment of hundreds of other early years workers. I feel a fool to keep going.
Many have to take on a second job and increasing numbers are making the difficult decision to leave the profession that they love but in which they cannot afford to remain. Car loans, mortgages, pensions and medical insurance are unaffordable. Employers struggle to take a wage themselves after they pay all of the costs associated with delivering high-quality early childhood education and care. Wage bills account for 60% to 80% of these costs even though many are on little more than the minimum wage.
The young children of this country have a right to high-quality early childhood education and care.
Their families have the right to societal support in rearing their children and the professionals providing this high-quality early childhood education and care and support have the right to be recognised, respected and remunerated for their work.
In the context of the workforce development plan for the early childhood care and education sector in Ireland, the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, former Deputy Barry Andrews, said, “The development of the ECCE workforce has been identified as a key 'pillar of quality' alongside sustained financial investment in service provision." He also stated, “The challenges are undoubted but the rewards are also clear; a better prepared, skilled workforce in our early childhood care and education settings will improve the quality of centre based early childhood experiences of our children and impact positively on the lives of the children and their families.” The document highlighted that, “National and international research has established that the skills and qualifications of adults working with young children is a critical factor in determining the quality of young children’s early childhood care and education experiences.”
Unfortunately all this rhetoric was followed by, “While issues such as the status and the terms and conditions of employment of people working in the sector-----