Thank you for the invitation to address the committee in my capacity as chairman of the interdepartmental group on future investment in early years and school-age care and education services. I am joined this morning by colleagues from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Ms. Elizabeth Canavan, assistant secretary and Dr. Anne-Marie Brooks, principal officer. I know that the joint committee is doing its own work on child care and family issues, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss issues of common interest. This morning’s discussion also gives us an opportunity to hear and reflect on the views of the committee as we reach the final stages of our own work.
The interdepartmental group, IDG, which I chair, was established by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in January of this year. Its purpose is to identify and assess policies and future options for improving the affordability, quality and supply of services in the early years and school-age care and education sector in Ireland. The group comprises officials from all of the Departments with a significant interest in the area, namely, the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Social Protection, Education and Skills, Justice and Equality, Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance, and the Department of the Taoiseach. We have met on five occasions to date, and have also worked bilaterally within and beyond the Departments which are on the IDG itself. We have consulted with key stakeholders, both directly and online.
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs led an open policy debate with a range of stakeholders from the early years and school-age care and education sector on 31 March. We also hosted an online public consultation process aimed at providers, practitioners, academics and advocates, together with a separate consultation process, also online, aimed directly towards parents. The inputs from these processes have proved very useful and will be fully reflected in the final report of the inter-departmental group. The Department has had valuable assistance in developing cost estimates and in facilitating and analysing outputs from the open policy debate and the online consultation processes from the Centre for Effective Services, Start Strong and Pobal, for which we are very grateful.
The Government currently spends some €260 million each year on early years and school-age care and education services. The bulk of this, approximately €246 million, goes on three programmes for approximately 100,000 children and aims to improve the affordability, accessibility and quality in the sector. The three programmes are the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme, the community childcare subvention, CCS, and the training and employment childcare, TEC, programmes. The remaining €14 million is directed towards funding all city and county child care committees, the national voluntary child care organisations and a range of quality development and training initiatives such as the learner fund, better start, childminder development grants and toddler group grants.
In addition to these forms of direct investment, the State spends some €2.2 billion on a range of child-related payments including the universal child benefit and the targeted schemes of family income supplement, back to school clothing and footwear, and guardians' payments. Finally, the Government spent almost €270 million on maternity benefit and adoptive benefit entitlements in 2014.
In terms of the interdepartmental group's work, the committee will appreciate that it is ongoing and that I cannot pre-empt what its final conclusions will be. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will wish to bring the report to Government for consideration in the first instance. However, I think it might be helpful to outline the overall policy objectives with which the group is dealing and to sketch out what we are trying to achieve in terms of quality, affordability and accessibility of services and outputs.
In the first instance, I think it is fair to say that our work is very much in keeping with the previously stated objectives of Government policy. In line with our terms of reference we are aiming to promote optimal development for all children and to narrow the gap in attainment between more and less advantaged children through the provision of quality early childhood care and education services. This is pursued at present, for example, through the ECCE scheme. We aim to enable parents to prepare for a return to paid employment by participating in training, education and other activation measures. At present we pursue this under the suite of training and education child care programmes. We aim to support families, particularly those in low paid employment, in making work pay. Currently we aim to do this, for example, through the community child care subvention.
Uniting these three objectives is the goal of reducing poverty. We know that poverty is inter-generational; quality investment in the early years benefits all children, but the poorest children benefit most from the developmental opportunities. Investment prepares children to reap benefits from school attendance. More than three quarters of poor children live in jobless households. To tackle child poverty effectively, we need to develop the services and supports that will help their parents earn enough to leave poverty permanently. We aim to achieve this through the programmes I have just mentioned, in conjunction with income support measures such as child benefit, family income supplement and lone parents schemes.
These four objectives are very much interrelated and can work in a complementary way. However, there can also be tensions between them. For example, cheaper child care in a deregulated environment might support easier access and greater affordability, but it could have a detrimental effect on children through poor quality of service. Similarly, a rapid introduction of a very high bar of qualifications could have a positive effect on children’s outcomes, but at the expense of higher cost, restricted supply of places and problems of affordability and access for parents. The challenge for the interdepartmental group, therefore, is to keep these objectives in balance and at all times to remember that the needs of children must come first when we are designing our child care policies.
We want to address three key concerns for the sector - affordability, quality and accessibility. In terms of affordability of services the critical issues are the cost of child care supports for parents and sustainability issues for providers. Parents need to be able to afford services at reasonable cost, which has of course been an issue of considerable concern in the debate. We are conscious of the importance of ensuring a sustainable early years service for providers, so that services can be offered in a stable environment and parents can be reassured about continuity of provision. However, we must also be concerned with affordability for the Exchequer and any options that are put forward must be realistic, implementable and demonstrate their value.
In terms of quality, we want parents to be reassured about the standards applied to the services given to children. This raises issues about training and qualifications of the workforce, the standards of facilities and the way in which quality is monitored and assessed. International research underlines the importance of quality in this sector. The literature indicates that although access is a key issue, access without quality may even be detrimental to children. Similarly, the research indicates that high quality is of particular value to vulnerable children.
In the case of accessibility, we are concerned with the supply of services, including their availability within a reasonable geographic distance, and the ability of parents and their children to use the service in a way that meets their needs.
Within our terms of reference we are examining the issue of after-school services. This includes the need to explore models of provision, to develop a quality infrastructure and to make it accessible and affordable. From the perspective of the interdepartmental group's work, it is important to say that we have been asked to develop costed options for consideration by Government. Our job is to examine the current system and to put forward possible approaches for Government. It will, of course, be a matter for Government to decide on its priorities and to set a strategic platform for any additional investment it wishes to devote to the sector in the coming years. The interdepartmental group's brief is designed to help Government by identifying possible options for consideration and by estimating their respective costs and benefits.
The latest census data, in respect of 2014, indicates that there are approximately 436,000 children aged between nought and five years and almost 460,000 children aged six to 12 years living in Ireland. Of these, about 18.3% live in a lone parent household and 5.8% of them have a disability. The latest data from the EU survey on income and living conditions estimate that some 7.4% of nought to five year olds and 11.1% of six to 12 year olds are classified as living in consistent poverty.
In this context, the value of initiatives in the early years and school-age sector has been well documented in the international literature. It is clear that quality investment in this area improves outcomes for children and families. Properly designed, investment can help children to benefit more from school and it can compensate to a degree for inequalities in other factors related to disadvantage and parental income. Investment is associated with better health for children, better employment attributes, lower crime, less need for social interventions and greater civic contribution as well as the economic benefits to society of a more skilled workforce, higher productivity and direct employment effects.