Affordable High-Quality Child Care: Discussion (Resumed)

I welcome Dr. Fergal Lynch, Secretary General, Ms Elizabeth Canavan, assistant secretary, and Dr. Anne-Marie Brooks, principal officer, all at the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I thank the witnesses for being here this morning to discuss the interdepartmental review on child care. It is part of the work which the committee has been undertaking in recent weeks. I wish to acknowledge the work of Deputy Sandra McLellan, who is our committee rapporteur on this area. Although we have received apologies from a number of members, the people in the room are highly committed to and interested in this area.

I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite Dr. Lynch to make his opening remarks.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

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.

There is a vote in the Dáil so I propose we let Dr. Lynch finish his remarks and we will then suspend until after the vote.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

Most important, well-structured investment benefits children directly and that should be our key concern.

The interdepartmental group's terms of reference refer specifically to children with special needs. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has recognised the problems faced by some children in accessing the free preschool programme, although some measures have been in place to try to ensure easier access. These include an exemption from the upper age limit for qualification under the programme where the child would benefit from starting primary school at a later age. In addition, the preschool year can be split over two years on a pro rata basis, for example, using the programme for two days a week in the first year and three days a week in the second year.

Recently, the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Education and Skills, and Health agreed to work together to improve things by developing a new model of supports for pre-school children with special needs. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs is leading the process with full and active support from the other two Departments and their respective agencies. A group comprising representatives from these three Departments, the HSE, Tusla, the National Council for Special Education, the National Disability Authority, Better Start and the Dublin City Childcare Committee has started its work. We aim to have an agreed model by early September, with a view to making a cross-departmentally supported proposal for the resources required in time for the Estimates process. There will, no doubt, be challenges to agreeing an appropriate and workable model for children and implementing it but we are determined to address this long-standing issue to the benefit of children with special needs. Any new model may benefit from piloting.

To conclude, the interdepartmental group is working to identify some realistic costed options for Government to consider in the early years and school-age sector over the coming years. It will, of course, be a matter for Government to decide on its priorities. Our hope is that the group's work will assist the Government in making important decisions in this area. I thank the Chairman for the invitation to present to the committee. My colleagues and I will be pleased to hear members' views and to answer questions.

Sitting suspended at 11.29 a.m. and resumed at 11.48 a.m.

We will resume in public session. Is that agreed? Agreed. Dr. Lynch has concluded his opening remarks so I will hand over to Deputy Troy.

I welcome our witnesses today and thank them for coming forward.

I remind members that Dr. Lynch is not a member of Government so it would be appreciated if members could confine their remarks to non-political elements. That was not directed at Deputy Troy. It applies to everybody.

I have a number of questions. We have had a number of successful sessions on early childhood care and education. There is common agreement across all political parties and Independent Members that we need to see greater investment in high-quality and affordable child care. While I welcome the establishment of the interdepartmental group, I question why it has taken so long to establish it. However, it is not for any of the witnesses to comment on that.

The previous early years strategy took us up to 2010 and we are still awaiting the publication of the new strategy. I believe that a lot of policy developed in the past number of years on a very ad hoc basis with no overarching strategy or vision. Has the strategy been finalised? If so, when will it be published? Is it feeding into the interdepartmental group in respect of specific initiatives the Department is working on?

Dr. Lynch spoke about bringing forward costed options. Has he been given a target for the size of the allocation in respect of which he will be permitted to make proposals? We are all acutely aware of the existing allocation but has he been given a direction by the Minister on increasing expenditure by a certain amount and, if so, can he bring forward proposals to match the expenditure?

I have repeatedly raised over recent years the issue of special educational needs provision. Why has a second working group been established to investigate special educational needs? Surely this should be dealt with as a priority area by the existing interdepartmental group, which already brings together the main stakeholders. Is the framework for action on the inclusion of children with special educational needs and early education, which was commissioned in 2010 by the Department of Education and Skills, being considered? It is to the detriment of young children with learning difficulties that we have a plan which is not being implemented. That is a disgrace.

I was concerned to hear the claim that a new model may benefit from piloting. If the Minister made that claim I would see it as a fancy way of saying it would be implemented on a phased basis rather than through a national roll-out. Supports for children with special educational needs are good in some areas but more limited in others. We need to deal with that inconsistency. Can the witnesses confirm whether the supports will be in place for the free preschool year in 2015?

Quality was a common thread throughout Dr. Lynch's presentation, and rightly so. What is the status of the eight-point quality plan? The new standards have not been announced and the qualification requirements have been delayed by 12 months. Everyone I have engaged with on this subject has stressed the importance of having a qualified workforce. A target was set whereby everyone would have a level six qualification by September 2015 but that was kicked down the line by 12 months. When will the early years strategy be published? Why is the new registration process still not operational despite the fact that we put the legislation in place? These tangible quality improvement measures should have been delivered by now.

In regard to the community child care subvention, CCS, scheme, in 2013 the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, launched a report commissioned by the Donegal county child care committee. She gave a clear commitment that the scheme was under review and acknowledged that the CCS segregated children from less well-off families and that, by virtue of the fact it is only available in community facilities, two thirds of services are not eligible to provide the scheme. This has meant that some of the most vulnerable families have been left without the necessary supports because of their geographical location. Yesterday I attended a cross-party seminar on prevention and early intervention which set out stark evidence on the importance of early intervention. The CCS scheme could provide a funding stream to help children from the most vulnerable of families.

I note a vote is taking place in the Dáil.

I understand there will also be a vote in the Seanad shortly.

Does Deputy McLellan wish to speak now or shall we suspend the committee?

I do not mind. It is up to the Chairman.

We will suspend now in order that the Deputy's time will not be divided. I apologise to the witnesses for the interruption.

Sitting suspended at 11.56 a.m. and resumed at 12.13 p.m.

I thank Dr. Lynch for his presentation. The issue of the crisis in the quality of child care in the State has come up repeatedly during our hearings. The Government is about to be monitored on quality. The European Council of Ministers last week approved the employment performance monitor for 2015. For Ireland, the report identifies the availability of affordable and quality child care as a key challenge for Ireland and one the Commission will monitor. Is the Minister serious about improving quality? The Department of Children and Youth Affairs recently rode back on the minimum qualifications for child care workers, as Deputy Troy stated earlier. What is the reasoning behind this and how does the Minister intend to put the issue of quality firmly on the child care agenda?

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has published a list of questions for the Government. Question No. 12 asks that the Government provide updated information on measures taken to provide early childhood education, particularly for children with disabilities, and provide information on measures to ensure teachers and schools are provided with the necessary training and resources to address the needs of children from ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. Given the significant barriers to access for children with disabilities in this State, what does the Minister plan to do on this?

There was a proposal last week suggesting to increase investment to facilitate lower child-staff ratios to support children with special needs. There is a different group looking into special needs, according to a letter we got from the Minister last week. Could this be considered and is the Department suggesting the capitation rate should be increased for children with special needs? Does this include SNA support?

The other issue with special needs is whether there will be a guarantee to a full second free preschool year for children with additional needs. Such children have broken-up time over two years but my party believes this is detrimental to their progress. It has been brought to our attention that sometimes children are not diagnosed in the first year, they may be diagnosed late on and they may have to go home for a year if the parents cannot afford it. This latter issue is significant. It has come up on a number of occasions that perhaps we should look at providing at least two full years which the parents or guardian could break up in whatever way they wish.

On the issue of the registration of childminders, my party estimates that 50,000 children are being cared for by 19,000 childminders who are not related to them, and only 1% of those childminders are registered with the HSE or Tusla. What are the Minister's plans to implement a system of registration, inspection and support in order that childminders do not work in complete isolation, as they do currently? Is the interdepartmental group considering any subsidisation of the cost of childminding and childminders, subject to childminders meeting agreed criteria?

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in its recommendations, referred to the need to speed up the enactment of the family leave Bill, and to introduce a statutory entitlement to paternity leave for all fathers. Is that being considered?

The issue of tax credits also came up. The feeling from many whom we met is that it would not benefit those who are most disadvantaged. Does Dr. Lynch have a position on it?

Is the Department looking at increasing the capitation grants? If so, is there any indication of how much they would be increased by?

On community employment schemes, how does the Government plan to use participants on community employment schemes fairly and in a way that does not replace regular employees? Does the Department have a position on that?

Deputy Ciara Conway took the Chair.

I merely want to let Deputy McLellan know that it is only the Minister, not the official, who could have a position. Deputy McLellan might want to rephrase some of the questions.

"Position" might be the wrong word. Does the Department have-----

An opinion.

-----an idea on how it will address it?

The issue of subvention was raised quite a lot at our outreach meetings. On the concept that funding should follow the child, there is the issue with private and community child care where in many rural areas, parents may not be in a position to be facilitated by a community crèche. Children from disadvantaged areas are not always disadvantaged and vice versa. It has come up that the funding should follow the child.

I presume Síolta and Aistear have been discussed. Has the Department discussed the training needs, the types of modules and the timeframe in which they should be rolled out because there seems to be an issue with that? Do the officials know whether there will be an increase in investment in child care? Do they know what kind of figure we are talking about? Have they been given a figure? They must appreciate that it is difficult for us to make strong recommendations in the report when we do not know how much we are talking about.

Dr. Lynch referred as well to the fact that the Department is examining the issue of after-school services. Would these include transport to and from the school because it could also be an issue for parents to get their children from the school to the aftercare?

Has the interdepartmental working group on child care been taking account of the issues we are raising in the committee sessions?

I welcome the witnesses. To make a declaration of interest, I am the chairperson of Early Childhood Ireland, but that is a governance role and I am not necessarily advocating its positions.

My first question is in regard to inspections. Is consideration being given to bringing inspections together and to who should take the lead? There is a strong role there for the Department of Education and Skills. I am concerned about the rates of pay for those working in the sector. One sees advertisements at assistant director level for primary health care nurses, who are not qualified in child care, to be in the position of inspecting people in child care who are qualified and who are being paid less than the minimum wage. The State has something to say about that. With regard to the inspections, I heard of a case early this week where a child care setting was told that children under three would no longer have access to the sandpit because there are six steps up to it, and we all know that children do not live where there are steps. It is as if children live in a flat world. Many crèches find that we are not allowing children to deal with steps, negotiate hills and so forth. I worry about it the more I visit child care settings. They all have mats and it is all a safe flat world. I appreciate Dr. Fergal Lynch's comments regarding the outcome for the child, but are we really seeking to have that lifelike and realistic environment?

Deputy Jerry Buttimer resumed the Chair.

Regarding the additional and special needs, I greatly appreciate the two days per week in one year and the three days per week in the following year. However, when the providers appeared before the committee, I asked them, from an employer's perspective, how they managed it. How does one get the staff? One has to know what is required as one goes down through the ratios of two days per week versus three days per week. If the child does not attend, they are expected to return the money even though they have paid for the staff member. All the cards appear to be held by the Department, not the providers. Is the Department considering some type of anticipatory model for additional needs? We have very good statistics on children to know, on average, the needs that will be presenting geographically. Is there a way we could examine a model to anticipate? If there were additional needs above that, perhaps that could be brought into consideration.

Regarding after-school care, will the Department be introducing clear guidance and regulation for that area? One of the questions I have been asked is why the ratios will change if one has a child or children in the classroom. There is a primary school teacher in charge of the classroom but when it switches to after-school, the ratios increase. Again, it goes back to the value-----

There is a vote in the Seanad.

I am conscious of that. This comes back to the value we accord to a primary school professional versus an after-school professional and looking at the qualifications of someone in the profession. The issue of professionals having to sign on for 14 weeks of the year also must be addressed. Has consideration been given, for example, to having continuing professional development days for part of that time or to other ways of increasing the number of weeks of the first year?

Another issue is the capacity of the sector. We see new places opening up but I also hear of several places closing down and exiting the market. Throughout the country there are variances and discrepancies in the number of places. What role can the State play in ensuring places are allowed to open in some areas, while in others being able to say there are enough places? I am concerned about the number of places that are closing.

I strongly support a model of investment in early years education.

I will be brief. Many of the issues I intended to raise have been raised. However, there is the issue of commercial rates in respect of child care facilities and the cost to the facility. On the one hand the Department is disbursing money to the facility and, on the other, a local authority takes it back. Can that issue be tackled, and speedily? It is extremely important.

The other issue I raised earlier in a private discussion is the Life Centre in Cork, where there are 45 children who have dropped out of school. They do not fit into any category. The Department of Education and Skills says it is not its problem. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and I have met the Minister, says it is not its problem, and the Department of Justice and Equality says the same. The 45 children have dropped out of the school system. School attendance officers have no difficulty in referring them to the centre but it is only getting €47,500 per annum. When I visited Oberstown I looked at the figures for that facility. One person there costs approximately €350,000 per year. Even if one person exited the facility we are providing in the Life Centre in Cork to Oberstown, and I am not saying that will happen, it is a huge cost issue. One size does not fit all and we have people who do not fit into the education system. The issue is how we deal with that and how we react at a very early stage, not when it is gone beyond where we can help the child and help the parents to keep the child out of difficulties and out of the criminal justice system. It is something we must examine, and we must do so quite quickly because a number of children are caught up in that. I ask that it be examined.

I support the Senator with regard to the Life Centre. It is not part of today's discussion but it is an unconventional facility that is keeping young people in education who would be lost otherwise. As a teacher, I believe it is a matter we must examine. Senator Burke is correct. It is not a one-size-fits-all model but it is keeping young people in education and away from trouble and from falling out of the system. There must be some type of collaboration between the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Justice and Equality on that because it is a very good model.

I thank the witnesses for their report this morning. Rather than repeat the issues, as there are many similar threads, I wish to tease out some of the issues that have been raised over recent weeks and years.

The responsibility for the development of Síolta and Aistear is with the Department of Education and Skills. However, it was pointed out to the committee last week that students study early childhood studies in, for example, UCC, Cork Institute of Technology, Waterford Institute of Technology, or wherever it might be. Would the witnesses envisage that those programmes could be delivered to the students who aspire to work in early years education rather than delivering it to them when they come into the workforce? I understand that there is practical implementation, but perhaps it could be done in an introductory way in order that we know the people who are coming into the workforce are familiar with, and have a working knowledge of, the curricula we want them to implement. There must be creative thinking about this. There appears to be a huge difference in the access that child care workers and early years educators have to these training programmes versus primary school teachers, who appear to have received the Rolls-Royce version of training. Perhaps the witnesses would comment on that.

On the issue of children with additional needs, do the witnesses have a view about what works? The letter we received from the Minister last week stated that there is no agreement about a model. Has the group looked at it in any way? The issue of special needs assistants has arisen from time to time. The minimum qualification for a special needs assistant is the junior certificate. It does not presuppose any developmental knowledge in terms of what is appropriate for a child or what developmental goals a child should be meeting in a preschool setting. That would concern me. My preference would be to have additional staff in the setting who are able to cater for the individual child. That is what early years education is about. The child would simply present with additional needs rather than having a disability. That is my thinking on it, and I hope the witnesses will comment on it.

The other issue is funding based on quality rather than opening it up to everyone, and that where quality standards are met, it is rewarded. That is something we struggle to do in public services all the time, but this is a watershed time for early years education and it is something we should be ambitious in trying to achieve.

There is a plethora of grants which providers can access. Has the group given any thought to combining grants in a central fund rather than adopting a piecemeal approach? I refer, in particular, to independent and community-based providers because accessing them is hugely time consuming. There is much talk about quality, but I do not think "non-contact time" is the appropriate term to use. It is important in the early years to engage a child by means of his or her interests. Staff cannot be expected to do this off the cuff because it forms an integral part of planning, arranging and implementing the curriculum in the classroom, as well as deciding what is and is not working. If we are serious about ensuring quality, the interdepartmental group should advocate for investment in the service, with particular reference to the terms and conditions of those who work in it. All studies dating back to the 1970s have found that high levels of training, as well as good relationships between children and the workers are very important.

I refer to the alarming reports that those attending early years education training courses at third level try to get out of it as quickly as possible. I do not blame them when we hear that people working in fast food outlets are being paid more than they are. The Government contracts providers to provide the service. We can talk about the matter until the cows come home, but significant investment will be required to improve the quality of care provided to benefit children.

I refer to an excellent suggestion made in recent weeks about having an early years education national week, a national campaign to be led by the Department and the Department of Education and Skills, to illustrate the importance of early years education. It would not just be of benefit to children but would also benefit us all if we had a good quality early years child care and education system.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

I thank committee members for their comments and questions. I will begin with an issue raised by Deputy Sandra McLellan because it is a theme common to all questions, that is, whether we have looked at what the committee has been doing. I can confirm that we have. I have gone through all of the transcripts and issues raised. It is important that we join up all of the work done in that context. I reassure the committee that the Department is not doing something in a separate environment. I will work my way through the questions from members and group them as best I can.

Deputy Robert Troy asked about the future plans for the early years strategy and whether there was an overarching strategy. Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures is the overarching strategy which was published in April 2014. It forms the basis for everything we do. There are a number of constituent strategies, the most recent being the national participation strategy which was launched by the Minister last week. The youth strategy will be launched shortly. We are working on the early years strategy specifically, but as there are only so many things a small number of people can do at the one time, we are working our way through it as best we can. As I said, the overarching strategy is Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, on which we have made reasonable progress.

On costed options and targets and whether we have been given targets for the future, the Government has not specified a specific sum of money. However, the clear running instructions we have been given are to incur realistic costs on the basis of realistic implementation options. There is no suggestion that it is simply an option for one year; we are talking about a developmental process - I hope an investment platform - over a number of years. The options we will suggest will be on that basis. There is no specific sum of money, but we will look at the matter in each case in terms of costs and benefits. We have done a good deal of work in that regard.

There was a series of questions on the subject of special educational needs. The most important question is why a second group is necessary. It is being established for a very good reason. The overall interdepartmental group I chair is trying to set costed options for the Government covering the entire sector. The group we set up recently to look at special educational needs has a very specific purpose, which is to develop a model which would be agreed, I hope, between the sectors of health, education and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. We have had difficulty in agreeing on what the model should be and how it should operate. That is why it is being done in this way. We are drawing on the expertise of the National Disability Authority, the NCSE, Tusla, the Better Start programme and so on. The group has a larger number of representatives than the interdepartmental group specifically, but it is important-----

When is it expected to be ready?

Dr. Fergal Lynch

We hope to have it by early September in order that it will also be able to feed into the process. We will have the report of the interdepartmental group shortly and this other separate model will be developed and worked out by early September in order that they will both be able to feed into the process.

I do not wish to pre-empt the findings of the report, but will it include in the area of special education places for school leavers and different categories of people with disabilities?

Dr. Fergal Lynch

No. It will look specifically at early years education and how we ensure children with special needs can benefit from an early years education service. We have a concern that while about 95% is the take-up rate for the scheme overall, there are another 5% who are not availing of the scheme for various reasons, some of which we suspect may have to do with special needs.

I know that this is not within Dr. Lynch's remit, but I am referring to a young person leaving school who has no place to go to.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

We will certainly take that matter into account. It will be dealt with in the youth strategy which we hope to finalise shortly.

To conclude my remarks on the special educational needs element, Deputy Robert Troy also asked about pilot schemes. I emphasise that there is no intention that pilot schemes will slow us down. We hope our overall approach will include other aspects that will benefit children with special needs. It is to try to have the model developed by early September in order that it can be introduced as part of the overall structure.

The Deputy also asked about progress made on the eight point quality plan. I will deal with a couple of its elements, the first being early years education regulations. We are working intensively on them and hope to produce them as quickly as possible. They will be a significant step forward. We have run into some practical legal difficulties. Currently there are regulations and guidelines. Effectively, the new system will comprise the regulations and guidelines incorporated into legal structures, but the process has proved more difficult and it is taking longer than we would have liked to complete. However, we are working intensively on it and I can assure the Deputy that we will bring forward the regulations for the Minister's consideration as quickly as possible. I do not wish to put too specific a timeframe on it because each time we think we are there we run into another practical legal issue. We place huge emphasis on the regulations, but we would like to get them right because there is no point in us producing them and then finding that there is a flaw in or a specific difficulty with them.

A number of Deputies and Senators asked about the qualifications required and why we had pushed back the qualification requirements to be met to September 2016 when initially they were to be met by September 2015. We were reluctant to do so, but we had to recommend to the Minister that this happen for a number of practical and logistical reasons. The most practical reason has to do with community-based services and community employment scheme workers. By definition, a number of community employment scheme workers tend not to have the qualification.

If they were no longer counted for the purposes of the ECCE scheme, in other words, if they became supernumery, then that would have significant implications for some of the centres. In some other instances, child care workers have worked their way through and got the qualification. It should be acknowledged that it is a significant qualification which, as far as I can recall, is comprised of eight modules. While a number of people have made good progress, not all of them would have been qualified by September 2015. If we had applied that aspect immediately from September 2015 then we would have run into a serious practical issue of service provision. There will always be an issue of quality versus an ability to provide a service in an appropriate timeframe, which is a theme that I shall return to later. That is why we approached the matter in the particular way that we did.

Let me outline some of the other things that we have been doing, under the quality agenda. There is the education focused inspections which we are about to start. There is the fact that Tusla is now publishing its own report online and has done so since the middle of 2013. It soon will publish retrospective reports as well. There are a number of things, under the heading of quality, that we are anxious to progress as quickly as possible.

A number of Deputies raised questions on how the schemes operate. They certainly struck a chord as a number of people have said that they are confusing, that a lot of them operate in different circumstances and different rules apply to schemes such as the CCS and TEC programmes. The comments will form part of our review. The question of whether one could streamline or make them more accessible will also be taken on board.

Equally, I take the point made by Deputy Troy about the Donegal report. It is not ideal to have segregation, in some instances, between the community and independent or private side, with the term depending on how one describes it. That is something we will take into account in what we are proposing as well. We are anxious to get the matter right, if at all possible.

I have dealt with Deputy McLellan's question on quality. On the disabilities issue, she asked me about increased capitation and special needs assistant supports. The overall question on how we deal with this will be looked at in the context of the interdepartmental group. Obviously we are looking at a number of different ways in which supports can be given in the future. One question which has been raised repeatedly is should we have an increased capitation payment. Another question that has been regularly raised is should we at least restore the cut that was introduced a number of years ago.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

All of those issues will certainly be looked at and there is a series of drivers that will help us in that regard.

I shall make an overall point about all of these questions because a number of Deputies and Senators wanted to know our thoughts. In summary, we are trying to develop options that will appropriately cover the areas of early years, school-age after-school and special needs and will also meet the requirements of affordability, quality and accessibility. I am not suggesting that every option will cover or tick every one of those boxes. I suggest that a combination of those will, hopefully, produce a significant improvement and all of that clearly depends on investment. I have stressed from the beginning of the meeting, and in my opening statement, that the level and extent of investment is a matter for the Government to decide.

The registration of childminders is an area that we would like to look at in the context of the interdepartmental group. Clearly, there are a number of other quality issues that we are pursuing. Obviously we must prioritise issues of that kind. Certainly, as this is a quality issue, we would like to link the subventions to quality in each instance. I think that is an important way of doing things.

In terms of some of the questions that Senator van Turnout raised, I shall first refer to the question of joint inspections. I am conscious that there is Tusla, Pobal, the Department of Education and Skills and so on. I suppose in an ideal world, and perhaps at some future stage, we would have a situation where one would have one single common inspection. I am not going to pretend such development is easy or that it will happen quickly. At the moment we are focusing on making sure that there is good co-ordination between them. We have, for example, established a group that now meets to ensure there is good co-ordination and co-operation between the different forms of inspection. The last thing we want to do is impose an unnecessary administrative burden on any of the providers.

The capacity of the sector and the role played by the State is another issue that was raised by Senator van Turnhout and other speakers touched on the same subject. One of the things that we certainly wanted to do is get ourselves into a situation where we can develop a model of future needs. We can, for example, draw on the model that the Department of Education and Skills already uses for projecting places in primary schools and we will draw on that information. We are conscious, for example, that at a practical level, and as investment grows, if that is what the Government decides, and we create further incentives for more usage of these services then, inevitably, these measures will have a cost issue. Equally, they will have a capacity issue. It is true to say about 10% of children are in centre-based care. It is possible that as we develop this sector, improve quality, and if the Government decides that it can invest further, then obviously those aspects will have an implication for places and numbers. We must examine the matter very carefully.

In terms of commercial rates, I hear what Senator Colm Burke is saying. We will certainly take his comments into account. Obviously the rules relating to rates are outside the Department's jurisdiction but we will take account of the matter.

The Senator also mentioned the Life Centre in Cork. Certainly, if there is any area where centres or services are falling between the cracks then we need to pursue that. One possible option would be looking at funding from dormant accounts. Pobal is running such a scheme at the moment. I think the applications for the scheme are open but they will close in the next couple of weeks. It is an idea that is worth pursuing. Similarly, I think there is a role here for the youth strategy that we hope to finalise soon. In particular, there is an issue here in regard to transitions between different age groups and transitions between forms of education and care.

In terms of Deputy Conway's questions on Síolta and Aistear, we are extremely committed to helping the Department of Education and Skills to develop as much as we possibly can. The group will look at how best to roll out these schemes and continuing professional development is an important element. The whole area of professionalising and helping to professionalise the workforce is one that we are very much attached to. Again, it probably brings us back to the tensions that I talked about in my opening statement between achieving the right level of quality, affordability and accessibility. Sometimes it is difficult to achieve all three at the one time but we must strike the right balance.

In terms of some of the schemes such as CCS, TEC and others, I take the point that they can be time consuming and confusing. One additional point I would make is that the programmes implementation platform, PIP, will help us in terms of running the schemes and helping people to understand them. Certainly, if and when the Government decides that it is moving forward in terms of investment, we will take that aspect into account when designing what we put in place.

Let me check if there are other specific questions that should be raised. In regard to the early years strategy, I wish to put on record that we hope to have it done later this year. It is a significant priority for us.

In terms of the suggestion to have a national week dedicated to early years education, we would be happy to do anything we can in that regard, particularly to help parents understand and take on board the importance of quality as well as issues of affordability in this regard. I hope I have covered a reasonable number of the questions in that context.

I shall allow Deputies Troy and Conway to make a brief comment.

I asked what work is being done by the interdepartmental group and the new second group in terms of special educational needs. The framework for action for the inclusion of children with special educational needs in early education is a 2010 report that was commissioned by the Department of Education and Skills. Has it been considered as a way forward? Will the report feed into the process because I believe it has the right process? Does the Department plan to regulate after-school care?

My last question is on the new registration process. The legislation for same was enacted over 12 months ago but the scheme has still not been rolled out. When will the new registration process be rolled out?

Dr. Fergal Lynch

In terms of the framework for action, I can confirm that we are taking it into account. Our focus is to develop a logistical model that will work. No reflection on the framework but I think we need to go a bit further in terms of specifying and understanding how a model would work.

We would be committed to after-school regulation. In respect of new registrations and the approach to that, we are very anxious to finalise those regulations which would provide for registration in that early years sector. We have been somewhat delayed and would like to move that forward. The next significant area after that will be after-school regulation.

I thank Dr. Lynch for his response to the question about the national week on early years and quality child care. What can we do to make this happen? Would he like us to put together a proposal? Should we facilitate a meeting with some of the other interested bodies? This is something we should do. It would be very good to see a national campaign on early years and quality child care as an outcome of these hearings.

Dr. Fergal Lynch

I would be more than happy to talk to the committee about that in any context. There are wider debates to be had on this area and I am more than happy to participate in them.

We can discuss that and come back to Dr. Lynch with a proposal.

I thank Ms Canavan, Dr. Lynch and Ms Brooks most sincerely for being here, for their courtesy and information. We look forward to continuing this dialogue as part of the development of the strategy.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.51 p.m. until 12.15 p.m. on Thursday, 2 July 2015.