I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak about the reality for early childhood professionals in Ireland. I reiterate what Ms McCormilla has said, and having read all the presentations made to the committee, I agree with the majority of them. We will not get into it now, but one can assume that if we had longer than five minutes to speak, we would address those issues.
The Association of Childhood Professionals is a body representing practitioners in early years and school-age care and education. We are a voluntary organisation and all our council members give freely of their time so 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. The landscape for child care has changed greatly in Ireland over the past 20 years and the practitioner is now expected to be a professional whose role extends beyond care work with children. Professional responsibilities include supporting the family and children during the critical stages of development. As such, child care has expanded, so a professional's role includes being an early childhood educator, an administrator, a curriculum planner, a researcher, a cleaner, a counsellor, a communicator, a parent coach, a nurse, a facilitator, etc. The list goes on.
The CoRe report, or Competence Requirements in Early Childhood Education and Care, from 2011 found that 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." It is amazing that all these professional services and societal contributions are provided with very few, if any, State support by very capable multi-taskers who earn little more than minimum wage, or sometimes less than minimum wage in the case of employers.
The early childhood workforce is at breaking point and can no longer afford to deliver this level of service for the pay these people receive. This and successive Governments are taking advantage of good people who are committed to supporting the young children and families of this country. It is exploitation, pure and simple, and it has to stop. The young children of this county have a right to high-quality early childhood education and care. Their families have the right to societal support in rearing these children and the professionals providing this care and support have the right to be recognised, respected and remunerated for their professional role. These are fairly basic rights.
When the Workforce Development Plan for the Early Childhood Care and Education Sector in Ireland was published in 2010, the then Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, Barry Andrews, stated: "The development of the early childhood care and education work force has been identified as a key pillar of quality." The report also indicated that national and international research had established that the skills and qualifications of adults working with young children are a critical factor in determining the quality of young children's early childhood care and education experiences. Unfortunately, this was followed by a statement that "While issues such as the status and the terms and conditions of employment of people working in the sector are very much to the fore, they are outside the scope of this policy document," which was to develop the workforce. It was another policy document with no teeth, in line with the finding of the CoRe report that found that in the Republic of Ireland, "the history of early childhood provision and professionalisation reads like a collection of unfinished stories, of fragmented and un-coordinated initiatives.”
There are approximately 25,000 people in the early childhood workforce, and this excludes childminders. In 2013, Early Childhood Ireland found that practitioners earned an average of €10 per hour, equating to an annual salary of €18,200. That is an unsustainable income, and matters are made worse when we consider that a sizable portion of the workforce are seasonal, sessional workers who are only paid for their contact time with the children and not for many other elements of their job description, such as planning, documenting, meeting parents, engaging with external professionals, etc.
The reality is that this average figure of €10 hides the fact that many are on little more than the minimum wage and certainly earn far beneath the living wage of €11.45. I did an economics degree in a previous life, and I remember our lecturer saying that average figures are dangerous to work off because if one's feet are in the freezer and one's head is in the oven, one's average temperature is normal. This is essentially what is happening with the figure of €10. Many people, when they hear that the average is €10, point out that they are nowhere near €10. Indeed, they would aspire to €10, and, unfortunately, might consider themselves happy were they to get that. Employers struggle to take a minimum wage or any wage at all. This really brings down the €10 if we factor it in. The fact that people are on the minimum wage, or less than the minimum wage, is despite the fact that wage bills are between 60% and 80% of the cost of running services. There is no money for pensions, health insurance, car loans, mortgages, supporting the family, etc.
There is a requirement to upskill but no possibility of increased pay. Workers are excluded from the learner fund if they are trying to gain a level 6 qualification or higher, despite the report recommendation that we should have a 60% graduate-led force by 2020. In most cases there is no possibility of paid time to engage in mandatory continuous professional development. There is no time for team meetings, supervision, on-the-job supports, development of community practice, etc. There is a requirement to use Síolta and Aistear despite the lack of a national roll-out. The inspection system is not fit for purpose and demonstrates little or no respect for the profession. There is a funding and policy divide between care and education, resulting in a two-tier system for the professionals in terms of pay and conditions. There is a lack of support for the inclusion of all children, regardless of additional needs. Professionals are experiencing increased workloads and stress, due to the lack of sufficient personnel and resources, in trying to provide an inclusive environment for the children. Professionals are working in a vacuum while waiting for the long-overdue national early years strategy, regulations and standards, a registration system and yet another layer of inspection. Indeed, we do not know what else we are waiting for while we are waiting for that to hit us on the head. There is a lack of job security as a result of the refusal by various Departments to develop and implement policies that prevent new services from opening at will and displacing or putting at a disadvantage existing high-quality services. There is uncertainty due to shifting deadlines. A recent example of this is the postponement of the minimum qualification deadline. There was no consultation with the profession, although those involved are keen for there to be at least a minimum qualification for working in our profession. Childminders are excluded from regulatory frameworks and most funding schemes. The impact of this on the profession includes low morale, increased stress and burnout.
OECD research has pointed out that the ability of staff to attend to the needs of children is influenced not only by their level of education and training but also by external factors such as their work environment, salary and work benefits. There will continue to be an increased difficulty in terms of attracting, training and retaining a suitably qualified workforce. There is beginning to be a pull-back in the profession because of either reduced interest or reduced ability - due to low morale - to engage in continuous professional development and extracurricular activities, despite the fact that these have been taken at the personal and financial cost of those involved for the past 20 years, if not more.
We recommend a review of the quality agenda. In our opinion it was not fit for purpose in the first place. It should put the focus on the things that really count. These include higher wages and better working conditions. These are the things that affect people's job satisfaction, work motivation and, indirectly, the quality of teaching, caring and interactions with the children.
There needs to be a recognition and acceptance of early childhood education and care from birth to six years rather than only from three years upwards. It should be seen as a public service and it needs to be publicly funded. Investment needs to be incrementally increased in order that the provision is heavily subsidised for parents. There needs to be an increase in the salaries of the workforce to enhance the status and quality of early childhood work. Governments may wish to consider introducing equal working conditions, such as salaries, benefits and professional development opportunities, for equivalent qualifications across early childhood and primary education fields. Care should be taken to ensure that in-service training is linked to career progression and to obtaining further qualifications. This OECD recommendation dates from 2006. There is a need to negotiate sectorally agreed pay scales linked to capitation payments and to increase investment to facilitate contracts that cover all aspects of the job, such as non-contact time. For example, for every three or four hours a person is working with children, sufficient time should be given for documentation, planning, parent meetings, staff meetings, practice etc. Again, the OECD has recommended time for staff to plan, develop, analyse and reflect, individually and collectively, on their work with children, as this is seen to improve quality. That is a key measure.
There should be a minimum of five CPD days per year. We are in favour of introducing the early childhood care and education scheme contract to cover 52 weeks of the year - we are upping it on other people. This should include not only a 52-week year but also time for CPD, training and all the various aspects, including engagement with parents and so on.
There should be increased investment to facilitate lower child-staff ratios where services are supporting inclusion of children with additional needs, including those who are diagnosed and undiagnosed. Again, this is somewhat different from the idea of looking for a special needs assistant. If we had qualified, experienced people working within the sector and they had lower ratios, it would help in terms of inclusion. If additional support over and above that is needed, then perhaps a special needs assistant may be necessary. Under the current system a SNA does not have to be qualified beyond junior certificate level. That needs to be looked at.
We are in favour of extending the learner fund to provide access to level 7 and level 8 training. We favour an increase in investment to roll out the Aistear and Síolta programmes. This should include training and resources. As a stopgap measure, there should be significantly reduced levels of PRSI and all centres should be exempt from rates. This would ensure additional funds to increase wages or improve working conditions.
We should recognise professional childminders providing a home-based equivalent, support moves to centre-based provision and regulate accordingly. We should develop standards and regulations for out-of-school care and recreation. We should carry out a detailed cost analysis of provision and ring-fence an appropriate budget to allow for professional pay and conditions. In this way we can ensure this sector will not find itself in the same mess that we currently have in early childhood care and education. We need to learn from past mistakes. We need to engage in real consultation with our profession in terms of the policies being developed in an ad hoc fashion. We hope the committee will work with us to prevent the further exploitation of this generous, caring and dedicated workforce.