My name is Paula Donohoe. I am a private provider from Ballyconnell, County Cavan. I am very at home in the setting where I am working with 20 children on a daily basis. This, I must say, is completely taking me out of my comfort zone but because I am passionate in my beliefs that we need to improve conditions for the children attending our services, the parents who avail of our services and the staff who work those services, I am appearing before the committee this morning. As I am rather nervous, please excuse the shakiness.
My background is that I have a degree in Montessori. I worked for 16 years in a Department of Education and Skills special school in Cootehill, County Cavan, where I was a teacher, before making the decision to open up a Montessori and day-care facility in Ballyconnell, which I did in 2008. I am a relative newcomer to the area of child care but I have the best part of 30 years behind me working with children. I first thank the joint committee for giving me this opportunity to have our voices included in this very important discussion with regard to child care and its future. My hopes for today are that I can, as best as possible, represent the issues as they arise for us the providers, with particular reference to the private providers on a daily basis. I wish to both highlight our issues and accompany them with what we believe may be viable solutions to issues we identify. I wish to provide a practical and proactive response to this invitation. I will discuss the issues as they arise under a number of headings. We looked at sustainability, the ECCE scheme, special needs, Aistear and Síolta, grants and community child care subvention scheme, CCSS, funding, Garda vetting, registration, rates, PRSI, VAT and childminders.
As I am sure all members are aware, there is a huge sustainability issue in the area of child care facilities, with many of my colleagues struggling to keep their doors open, let alone actually take a wage for themselves. We have seen far too many closures over the past number of years due to insufficient investment in this sector. The sustainability issues arise from ever-rising costs we are facing such as insurance, which increased by 30% this year alone, running costs and ever-increasing wage costs, coupled with being obliged to take a decrease in our ECCE payment since its introduction in 2010. This has left a lot of crèches and day-care facilities at breaking point. As we try to ensure that all our services are run to the highest of standards with a huge emphasis on driving forward quality in the sector, we also are faced with ever-growing costs and what we consider to be a lack of investment in the area, which leaves us facing major problems. The average cost of child care in the County Cavan region is €150 per child per week for full day care.
We are well aware that this is a huge bill for parents and that they cannot pay any more. What we are saying is that our Government, like its counterparts in most European states, needs to invest in child care and thus invest in the future of the most important asset our nation possesses. Research has repeatedly shown that investment in the early years benefits all in the future. I do not think any Minister, Deputy or Senator can disagree with that but the important issue is whether we are willing to make the necessary investment.
I propose to discuss some measures which we feel will really help not only improve quality in the sector, but also alleviate some of the very concerning issues we are facing in the context of sustainability. We recognise that the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme is a hugely important investment in our sector which has greatly enhanced the lives of many children and their parents since its introduction in 2010. That said, we also feel this investment does not go near far enough towards facilitating the desired level of quality in our sector. At present, we receive €62.50 per week per child at the lower level and for those on the higher capitation - the latter only represent a very small percentage of preschools as a whole - the amount is €73, which breaks down as €4.16 hour or €4.86 per hour at the higher level. This is paid for a three-hour period only. However, we in the preschool sector are aware that in order for quality to be present in the three-hour contact time with the children, many hours of non-contact time, including preparation time, setting-up time, team meetings and parents consultations, must take place. The capitation is only paid for three hours per day and for 38 weeks per year. It does not even cover arrival and dismissal times, which generally take between ten and 15 minutes before and after class finishes. It in no way allows for any planning time or time required to compile records or learning journals. It covers a bare minimum and nothing more at a time when there is huge pressure on to increase quality.
To help us in our endeavours to meet the higher standards, which, I must add, the sector has, in the main, been requesting for many, many years, we ask that the Government increase its investment in this particular programme so that we can reach those standards. At present, the sector, both private and community services, is paying for all non-contact time, preparation time, etc., the community sector by means of fund-raising and the private sector by unpaid hours done by management and staff. This cannot continue. The Government cannot continue to advertise a free preschool year when, in fact, it is offering the minimum and the sector is providing the rest. I speak for myself when I say that I currently do all my planning and record keeping at home in my own time. All my learning journals, which are kept for every child in the preschool programme, are completed in the evening. I am very positive that I am not alone in this practice. Three hours a day does not allow for any team meetings, planning or otherwise. If we were to complete all this work while the children were in situ, there would be very little time left for us to deal with them. This work is done but for the most part it is completed in the private time of the room leaders.
Our proposals are that the Government should increase the capitation grant for ECCE at both higher and lower levels; increase the number of hours per day, from three to three and a half or four, so that the grant would be paid out for allowing realistically for time of arrival and dismissal and much needed non-contact time in order to facilitate team planning and record keeping; and increase the number of weeks per year over which the grant is paid out by at least another three to allow for preparation of materials, yearly planning, etc. We are, therefore, asking that the capitation to be paid out over a 41-week period. This would assist us owner-managers to pay staff their statutory entitlement of holiday pay, which, at present, we feel the ECCE scheme does not cover.
The issue of special needs is particularly close to my own heart. It is a subject about which I am very passionate. I do not wish in any way to take away from my fellow providers, who also feel this is an area into which we must make huge investment in order to try to address the specific need of the many children with special needs who are enrolling in preschools. At present, children with additional needs enrol for their free preschool year under the ECCE scheme in the same way as other children. We, as providers, welcome their inclusion. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs allows children with specific diagnosed needs to spread their free preschool over a two-year period, attending possibly two days per week in the first year and three days per week the following year, and pays the grant on a pro rata basis. This is the only specific help a child or a service receives in recognition of the diagnosed additional need. Special needs assistant, SNA, hours are not allocated in respect of the child and we do not receive any specific training regarding special needs. SNA allocations-----