Improving the Quality of Early Years Education: Statements

I welcome the Minister and invite her to make her opening statement.

I thank the Acting Chairman and Members of the Seanad for providing me with the opportunity to update the House on my plans for strengthening the quality of early years education. I realise I am speaking following a very historic debate because that very important Bill is initiated in the Seanad.

I wish to recognise the contribution that early years practitioners are making to our society. Each and every day they support the educational, physical and social development of our youngest children and I place a huge value on that work. I am committed to engaging with and finding ways to support those working in early years settings in order that together we can further strengthen the quality of early years education.

As Minister for Education and Skills, I am determined to ensure that early years education is viewed as a central element of the overall education continuum. Many stakeholders would argue that the early years is the most important part of this continuum. High quality education at this stage helps each child to develop and learn at this vital early stage and lays the foundations for future educational achievement and success. Early years education affords us an opportunity to ensure that we level the playing field for everyone so that no child gets left behind at the start. All of our children can avail of free early childhood education through the free preschool year. The popularity of this option among parents is clearly apparent, with 96% of the eligible cohort now availing of the free preschool year. This means that any improvement in the quality of early years education has the potential to benefit the vast majority of our young children.

As a former Montessori teacher who ran my own preschool for a number of years, I am very aware of the positive benefits of early years education, both for the individual child and for society as a whole. It is, therefore, absolutely essential to provide high quality early years education. If we do not get things right from the start by establishing strong foundations in terms of positive learning dispositions and basic skills development, we will need to spend more of our time and resources playing catch-up later. This is why I have made early years education one of my key priorities as Minister for Education and Skills.

The education sector, including the early years sector, is playing a crucial role in our economic recovery and in contributing to future sustainable economic growth. Equally important, education also plays a vital part in building a better society for us all. By promoting inclusivity and diversity, the education system can help to build a society that is truly representative of the many different communities now living in this country.

In my capacity as Minister, my first priority is to achieve greater investment in education as a whole and there has been some progress in this regard. In the budget I secured the first increase in education spending in recent years. While the level of increase was modest - a €60 million increase over 2014 spending - it has allowed us to stop the reduction in education spending. It has also allowed us to provide the teachers and funding necessary to support the growth in student numbers in schools. Securing the funding is one challenge but it is equally important to ensure that this funding is supporting quality educational outcomes. To this end, my Department is involved in a major programme of reform across the education continuum with the objective of supporting a system that responds to the needs of modern society and that promotes positive outcomes for all of our learners.

This programme of reform encompasses measures such as the following: the continued implementation of the literacy and numeracy strategy; the continued roll-out of junior cycle reform; the measures adopted under the further education strategy; the higher education strategy; and a renewed focus on apprenticeship training.

I have also sought to extend this reform agenda into the early years sector. Since my appointment as Minister, I have made a number of significant announcements regarding early years education. This includes the establishment of an early years education advisory group and is the first time such a group has been convened to advise the Minister for Education and Skills. The group will provide advice on education issues across the entire early years sector, covering children from ages zero to six, and will report to me twice a year. It will also co-ordinate existing education-related activity within the early years sector, identify means by which the quality of early years education can be strengthened, and ensure that the early years are integrated into the overall education continuum. I have sought to ensure major organisations working in the sector, including Start Strong, Early Childhood Ireland and Barnardos, are included in the membership of the advisory group. I also recognise the importance of associations and unions representing those working in the sector, and the Association of Childhood Professionals, the INTO and IMPACT will also be represented. It will never be possible to include every organisation or individual with an interest in this area, but I intend that the group will regularly organise plenary sessions through which a much broader range of voices can be heard.

I have also announced that we will begin an important review of the education and training programmes leading to qualifications in early years care and education. The review will help to ensure that such programmes equip graduates with the skills, knowledge and dispositions to support quality educational outcomes in early years settings. The extent to which early years practitioners are appropriately qualified is recognised internationally as an important factor in determining the quality of early years education.

The review will begin with a public consultation which I hope to launch shortly. I encourage anyone with an interest in early years education to submit their views as part of the consultation process. As well as carrying out a general consultation we will also be conducting stakeholder-specific surveys. These surveys are intended to elicit the views of education institutions delivering programmes, early years practitioners who hold these qualifications, and employers of early years practitioners. In addition to these new initiatives my Department also continues to provide additional support to those in disadvantaged communities through the Early Start preschool programme.

Early Start has been a flagship initiative of my Department for the past 20 years. Last summer, we published a focused policy assessment of the programme, the recommendations of which were discussed with staff from all 40 Early Start units in November last year. Progress with the implementation of those recommendations will be made in 2015 in close consultation with these key stakeholders. This will ensure Early Start continues to serve the needs of some of our most vulnerable children and their parents.

I use this opportunity to highlight the opportunities for the early years to inform developments in other parts of the education continuum. My Department, in conjunction with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, is in the process of revising the primary school curriculum. Priority has been given to the development of a new integrated language curriculum and a new mathematics curriculum. As part of this reform, measures are being taken to strengthen the links between early years education and infant classes in primary schools. In particular, we are ensuring the key principles of Aistear, the early childhood curriculum framework, inform practice in infant classes.

I am committed to continuing to work closely with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, on the broader quality agenda in the early years sector. We have worked closely together on the creation of Better Start, the new national early years quality support service. Better Start is adopting a model that has worked very well in the school system, where support services have facilitated innovation and supported improvements in quality for many years. The work of Better Start in engaging with early years providers will be supported by a new practice guide that will distil key principles from Aistear and from Síolta, the national early years quality framework.

The practice guide, which is being finalised by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, will be an important resource tool for all early years practitioners. It focuses on developing the capacity of early years educators to create and implement curriculums which adhere to the key principles, standards and guidelines contained in the two frameworks. Through the use of practical resources such as video, self-evaluation and planning tools and research digests, early years educators will be encouraged and enabled to improve the quality of their educational programme content and delivery.

I am working closely with the Minister, Deputy James Reilly, on the introduction of education-focused preschool inspections for the first time. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has provided funding for dedicated early years inspectors, who will be employed alongside our school inspectors. These inspectors will work to improve and enhance educational standards within this sector. They will complement and not duplicate the type of inspections that are carried out by the Child and Family Agency, Tusla. The education-focused inspections will be developed in close collaboration and consultation with the early years sector. We will make every effort to ensure we do not create unnecessary administrative burdens for our early years settings. We will work to make sure these inspections help to support improvement in the sector. Recruitment for the dedicated early years inspectors will begin in the spring. We will work with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to implement the education-related commitments in the new national early years strategy, which is currently being developed by that Department.

I am grateful for the opportunity today to further strengthening the quality of early years education. I have identified some of the major reforms and initiatives that are already under way or are planned. I hope Senators will agree that this amounts to an ambitious programme of reform. I would like to conclude by emphasising that in progressing this reform agenda, we will be working in close consultation with the early years sector. Indeed, I have met many of the groups at this stage. I have the utmost respect for those who work in and support this vital sector. My intention, and that of my Department, is to ensure we support early years practitioners in continuing to provide quality educational outcomes for all our children.

I welcome the Minister. I also welcome the establishment of the early years education advisory group. As the Minister said, the membership of the group includes organisations like Start Strong, Early Childhood Ireland, Barnardos and the Irish National Teachers Organisation and representatives of child care professionals. It is positive to see a Minister for Education and Skills prioritising this area. I am sure her decision to do so reflects her own background and experience and her commitment to early years education. I would like her to clarify in her closing remarks how this fits in with the early years strategy that has been promised by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The Government originally gave a commitment that the strategy would be published in 2012, but it has yet to be published. Perhaps the Minister has some intelligence to give us on the reasoning behind this. What has caused this delay? More importantly, I would like to know how the strategy fits in with the Minister's approach. It is important that we avoid duplication. I would love to see the Department of Education and Skills taking the lead on this. For too long, early years provision has been treated in Ireland as childminding rather than as education. What is the current fit between the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Education and Skills? Is the strategy that has been announced in line with the Minister's own plans?

Traditionally, we have not had a great record of prioritising investment in early years education. In the past, we were behind many other European countries in getting started with child care and early education. We are still behind now. Fianna Fáil prioritised this issue when it was in government. It started to make a major investment through the equal opportunities child care programme, which ran between 2000 and 2007 and created 40,000 extra places. Its successor, the national child care investment programme, created a further 25,000 places between 2006 and 2011 by providing capital grants to child care providers in the private and community sectors. Those programmes dramatically increased the availability of child care places across the country. The introduction of the free preschool year was also a major step forward. Indeed, significant advances were also made in developing important quality and curriculum frameworks for the sector and putting in place a development plan to ensure the professionalisation of the service. Unfortunately, in respect of the latter I do not think the resources have really been provided to this day to roll out the curriculum framework. While it is being very well implemented within the primary curriculum in schools, child care providers would say they have not been given the resources they need to actually implement it. It is important that the curriculum is not just inspected - it also needs to be supported. We should not just be coming in to pick up where we think people are going wrong. The supports should be in place to help them to upskill their staff and deliver a high-quality curriculum.

One of the big issues for us as a country is that early years work is traditionally poorly paid. It is still poorly paid in this country. This sector is very professionalised in countries that have grasped and prioritised early education. Such countries tend to allow people who are starting teacher training to opt to be a primary school teacher or an early years teacher. They are paid at the same levels. In some countries, one is actually paid more for working with children in the early years than for working in education in the later years. We have the opposite here. People are working on the minimum wage. Services are under pressure. They cannot afford to buy in the expertise and skills they would like to have. I think that is a huge challenge for us. Regardless of what else we do, we must provide for serious State investment to help improve quality without worsening affordability for parents. We already have an expensive service. I am not proposing the introduction of qualification criteria that would increase the price paid by parents even further. As the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, acknowledged earlier this week, we already have one of the most expensive child care systems in the world. There is a need for State investment to fill that gap and for us to take investment in early education seriously.

All of the research shows that investing in early education is right from a social and an equality point of view and makes economic sense. Even at a time of limited resources, it makes sense purely from an economic perspective to prioritise early education. Research shows that the skills children develop in their younger years in areas like self-control, curiosity, perseverance and teamwork are not just important in themselves, but are also important in helping children to avail of later educational opportunities. The earlier they can develop those skills, the better. The 2010 OECD report, Doing Better for Children, argued that public spending on services for children should be frontloaded onto the early years because the economic research is so strong. The PISA study found that children in certain countries who "attended some pre-primary school [who had early education] outperformed students who had not". It found that "the difference between students who had attended [early years education] for more than one year and those who had not attended at all averaged 54 score points in the PISA reading assessment" and that this amounts to "more than one year of formal schooling". That is really significant. Similarly, US research shows that those who avail of early education are more likely to do well, not just in education but also in employment. They are also more likely to find themselves in high-skilled jobs.

Research shows that early education reduces child poverty. There is a lot of compelling research that tells us this is where we should spend money and it is what we should prioritise, yet we do the opposite in Ireland. We spend more per capita on education in the later years, on post-primary and tertiary education, than on education in the early years, and by some margin. We need to address the issue and take it seriously. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Education and Skills is personally committed to education in the early years. However, the Government must give her the resources required to make an impact, and we support her in that regard. It is crucial that proper resources are invested.

There are gaps in a number of areas. The free preschool year was a good initiative for working parents because it allowed them to have some child care supported by the State rather than paying for expensive care themselves. The initiative also means every child has some level of early education. The groups we wished to benefit the most were children from disadvantaged areas and children with special needs. Last May the Government published a report which showed that the initiative did not give these children any advantage. It lifted all children equally; therefore, everybody benefited a little, but the gap between children from disadvantaged areas and those from better-off backgrounds stayed exactly the same. Things improved a little for all children but the gap stayed exactly the same. That is a real challenge for us. Research shows that to tackle disadvantage among children, one must intervene at the youngest possible age.

Let us look at best practice. My area of Darndale, Dublin 17, has the early childhood initiative and a Preparing for Life initiative. All of those initiatives show that the Government needs to work with parents almost immediately after a child is born. If we did this it would help parents to become their child's first educator and thus ensure that children do not fall behind by the time they start school. We need a proper full-time year-long service, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

The Minister mentioned the early start scheme, which is still a pilot scheme. Schools have asked me why the early start scheme is still a pilot one, what is going on, whether the Department is committed to the project and whether it will be extended. I ask the Minister to give us her views on the matter.

Regrettably, cuts have been made to community child care provision. In the past few years I have fought in this House on behalf of the Jigsaw project in Darndale, the biggest child care centre in the country, which was threatened with closure last year as a result of cuts. The commitment of the Minister, and that of the Government, will be judged on whether resources are put in place to provide a service.

There is another big gap in the area of special needs education. A lot of parents with children who have special needs have found it impossible to secure a place. Providers say there is no place for them due to a lack of support and because providers do not receive extra capitation or payments from the State. They feel that in order to support a child with special needs, they need smaller ratios and a special needs assistant or something like that, but I remain unconvinced. The system of providing an assistant in schools has had some drawbacks that we did not anticipate. Some form of extra support must be provided, particularly if children have high care needs, in order to ensure these children can be integrated properly. There is no point in enrolling a child in preschool if he or she is left sitting in a corner and is not integrated - a situation which is not fair on anybody. These are a couple of the issues that I would like the Minister to elaborate on in her closing address.

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach.

I admire anybody who deals with early years education. When I was a teacher I only taught in an infants' class for 20 minutes and afterwards I decided I could not do it any more. Teaching such young children is a very challenging and complex task. People dealing with children of that age need to be fully supported. Maria Montessori wrote a book on early years education. As the Minister is a qualified Montessori teacher, there is no one better placed to deal with early years education. That includes the setting up of the new early years education advisory group, which will include the professionals who work in the field, which is a very good idea. The Minister's personal commitment to the sector, as stated here and in other places, is welcome. As we know and as the Minister has stated, there has been a 96% take-up of the preschool year.

Education reform was mentioned. I wish to digress a little and appeal to the teachers and organisations involved in tomorrow's strike to support the Minister's junior cycle reform programme. She has gone out of her way to alleviate the worries of the teachers and organisations involved. I have spoken to many teachers around the country and they agree with me that she has been more than facilitating. I call on the ASTI and the TUI to move forward in a spirit of working together and for the benefit of all children.

The Minister has mentioned that we may shortly have an inspectorate to examine the work of preschool units. That is probably a good idea. The Irish word for "inspector" is "cigire", and the meaning of the first part of the word is to look, to see and, at the very worst, to spy on. That is how the role was perceived at one time. We need, as is happening, to move the inspectorate away from the perspective of us against them. I remember Liam Mulvihill said that to me in 1979 when he came to my club, which was just after he had been appointed director general of the GAA. On that occasion I said to him, "You are on the other side from me," and he replied: "No. We are all on the same side." I hope we can continue to move the inspectorate to a role of cigire or helper system, particularly as it is being set up anew.

The Association of Childcare Professionals has said that its members do not feel valued, that they have had enough, that child care is a sector of high expectations but low investment and that they need more assistance. I think assistance will be provided in degrees. We also need to look at the present FETAC level 6 qualification framework for leaders, which I think it is fine. The association is comprised of 3,500 members. Can a mentoring system for new principals, such as the one for the Irish Primary Principals' Network, be introduced? If that was done it would mean new leaders would be mentored by people within the organisation and the system would develop.

The early years education policy is now co-located within the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Education and Skills. This was done in order to ensure policy developments in the early childhood sector are developed within an overall strategic policy framework for children. We also have the early years education policy unit, EYEPU. We have the Aistear in Action toolkit, a set of practical resources on the four themes of well-being, communication, identity and belonging, and exploring and thinking.

We have Síolta, the national quality framework for early childhood education, and the workforce development plan. We have the Early Start programme, a pre-primary initiative for designated areas of urban disadvantage, with 40 centres and 1,650 spaces. On that and what Senator Averil Power said about special needs children in early years education, perhaps we could have an added focus in order that the outcomes could be stronger. It may be something on which the advisory group and all those involved could work. It would be very beneficial.

The question is to where we now go to move on from childminding and child care. We remember a time when a "crèche" was a car accident in Dún Laoghaire, as they used to say. There were also childminders. We want to know how to nurture the holistic being. We need to move on from diverse forms of provision to best practice, in terms of facilities, providers, leaders, ancillary staff, resources, standardisation and quality control.

The early child care and education programme is designed to provide for children from birth to six years of age. The free preschool year provides for children from three years and two months of age. Perhaps we have a lacuna. The parent is the primary educator of the child, something we should not forget when we are dealing with early years education. We need programmes for parents in order that they can read to and with their children in the very early years, perhaps from the time they are three or six months of age, which is a major benefit.

We must further encourage and develop in-service training in order that leaders and assistants can remain up to date with relevant research and ideas. This should include assisting all staff in an understanding of practical child psychology. If this discipline is so vital for infant education in primary schools, where it receives a special focus, it can be no less vital for the three to six year olds in preschool settings.

Síolta does, admittedly, deal with this somewhat, but we need to be sure all carers and educators understand the theory and how to apply it in practice. I have no doubt that the Minister is proving to be an excellent Minister for Education and Skills and will deal with all of these issues very effectively.

I welcome the Minister to the Seanad. She is particularly welcome as she is dealing with the issue of early years education. I know her personal commitment to and experience of the issue. The steps she made in the early days in terms of examining the early years and setting up the work she will do in this area are welcome. We have had many excellent debates in this House on the importance of the early years and I do not need to rehearse them. My colleagues have articulated the importance of early years education.

I should start with a declaration of interest. I am chair of Early Childhood Ireland, but it is a governance role. In speaking here today, I am not speaking in that role. I chair the board in the organisation in a governance role.

The Minister mentioned inspections and the importance of the inspectors she will appoint, which I welcome. It is an excellent decision. She said the inspectors will complement, not duplicate, the type of inspections carried out by the Child and Family Agency. At the moment early childhood care and education settings are inspected by Pobal and the Child and Family Agency, and will now be inspected by the Department of Education and Skills. I do not see why we need all of these inspections and different types of people doing the inspecting. It represents a mentality we have, namely, a silo effect of government. We need to be much wider and broader.

I would welcome the Department of Education and Skills taking the lead in inspections. Would we accept multiple agencies and public health nurses inspecting the work being done in our primary and secondary schools? How many of us would say that makes sense? It does not make sense in terms of the use of public health nurses or the education and care of our children and young people.

In my experience, the Department of Education and Skills has built up a recognised and approved inspectorate. The Minister receives a lot of criticism, but it is rare that I hear criticism levelled at the inspection system. There is scope for us to examine how we develop an inspection system for early childhood care and education settings that is led by the Department of Education and Skills and not have other Departments involved in the inspection process. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs can play an important part in the delivery and provision of settings, but we have to consider a much more co-ordinated approach. It is something I would urge the Government to reconsider.

I take the Minister at her word when she says this will complement inspections, but the reality is that I meet owners of child care settings who tell me two different inspectors will arrive, coincidentally, on the same day who are looking at slightly different things within their settings. They do not have extra staff to allocate to these inspectors. We need to be careful about what we are trying to achieve with the inspections. Are we really trying to ensure that the quality and standards improve? Are we trying to ensure that Síolta and Aistear are implemented in our child care settings or are we trying to make sure that a sink is in the right place? What are we trying to achieve with the inspections? What is the primary consideration for the inspections? I ask the Minister to go back to her colleagues in government and ask whether we can re-examine this and find a better way.

I am greatly concerned about the investment by Government in child care settings. It is not adequate. We have to consider how we will increase it. Everybody agrees on the importance of the period from birth to six years of age, but early child care settings are only open for 39 weeks of the year. I would like to see the number of weeks provided for children in early child care and educations settings greatly extended. I would like to ensure that the staff are qualified. We will hear more in February about those who are on low and minimum wages, part-time contracts and go on the dole for the summer. One does not get paid for any non-access hours or child-free time. Teachers will get non-contact time, but those working in early child care settings do not, yet we are asking them to drive for quality while paying them the minimum wage or lower.

We have to examine how we can raise the quality bar and encourage teachers in early child care settings to get further education to be able to deliver the type of services we want to have. It is important that we build this up.

The other area of concern is children with special needs. This is not within the scope of the Minister's Department, but the current system does not allow flexibility for children with special needs. Everybody agrees that we should extend the amount of time special needs children receive and that they would at least get a second year, as all children should get. The Department said it will have flexibility in regard to such children, but the ratios operate at a local level. A parent might know that a child with special needs can attend two or three days in a week. Nobody knows on a Monday the two or three days that will be used; therefore, the setting has to provide the necessary staff. The State will only pay the service for the days the child attends. It does not compute.

We have to re-examine this issue because we need to ensure such children are in the system. We know early identification of special needs issues can often equip children to develop their full potential and be much more able to deal with and be part of life. We need to determine how to provide a facility whereby children with special needs and parents can feel they do not have to say they are fully in or out of the special needs early education system.

There is an issue in that the State is engaged in providing the free preschool year. I have had major debates on the issue of rates in this House, which the State sets in every county. I acknowledge that this does not come within the scope of the Minister's Department, but it is a cost for child care facilities. In different services in different areas of the country, charges, be they rates, water charges or other charges, differ by area, yet the State decides how much a child care facility gets paid per child, the space required per child and the number of early years educators per child. It sets all these parameters and specifies that child care facilities cannot charge parents anything extra, which I support and with which I am in agreement. Different child care facilities, depending on where they are based in the country, are viable or not viable because of external costs such as rates or other charges related to the premises. This is an issue in that the State cannot say it is responsible for all these pieces, but it is responsible for the setting of rates. It is an area we need we need to revisit and in respect of which we need to look forward.

We need to ensure we treat all children equally, which is why I am a big supporter of the free preschool year. I would like it to be extended and the State to invest more in services. As I said when we debated the Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Bill, at the start of the recession we were lectured - I use that word wisely - to the effect that it was not about cash transfers and that the way we could improve outcomes for children was by investing directly in the services and in the infrastructure to support such better outcomes. I hope, as we see an upturn in the economy, that those words will be acted on and that we will start investing in children's health care and education and not go back to a system of cash transfers, which we know do not necessarily deliver better outcomes for children. I would encourage the Minister to say that we need a co-ordinated approach and a single system of inspection in order that it is clear both to parents and to those running child care facilities that our intention is to improve outcomes for children. I encourage the Minister in what she is trying to do and I welcome this debate.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, to debate how we can improve the quality of early years education, which is a key priority and of great importance to her. She has clearly and publicly outlined areas of particular focus in her portfolio, including increasing investment and making early years education a priority in our education system. I welcome her statement that work has already begun to improve the early years sector, including the introduction of preschool inspectors. I agree with Senator Jillianvan Turnhout that perhaps it is something the Minister could examine again with a view to leading. There is the saying that too many cooks spoil the broth and the Minister has said one will complement the other, but perhaps we could have a leader in order that people are clear on what exactly is required in the inspection.

I welcome the introduction of Better Start, the new national early years quality support service, the announcement of the first major review of education and training programmes that lead to qualifications in early years care and education, and the creation of the advisory group on early years education, with a range of stakeholders represented. Budget 2015 represented a further investment in education and the early years, with an increase in current spending of €60 million, which sounds amazing but is a drop in the ocean in terms of what we can do to help improve services in education for young people. While we will have 1,700 new teachers and special needs assistants to meet the growing number of children in the schools nationwide, the early years service is an area we need to separate and in respect of which we need to consider providing specific additional funding. The announcement of the allocation of €600,000 to immediately recruit a new team of early childhood education inspectors is welcome, as it will promote and enhance good educational practice. I agree with Senator Jillian van Turnhout that there must be education-focused inspections on early childhood education facilities participating in the free preschool year programme. I hope that is the case and that clear guidelines will be in place to complement Tusla, as the Minster said. That is something we should closely monitor.

I, too, am completely supportive of the continuation of the free preschool year, from which 68,000 children benefit each year, but we can go further. I am a strong supporter of a second free preschool year. We spoke about children with disabilities. That is a huge issue and one I deal with on a weekly basis. People who have children with special needs would have half the free preschool year one year and the other half the next year, but they do not know how the child is behaving from one week to the other. There must be more flexibility, and children with special needs should definitely have an entitlement to a second free preschool year.

When we talk about very young children in that preschool year - I can only speak for my own county - I know that the early intervention services and the disability services can be very good. We cannot forget that and put it under an umbrella service. I have found in my area that while disability services for children under the age of four can be very slow to get started, they are very supportive in ensuring a special needs assistant is with the child to give it every advantage. Regardless of whether that works throughout the country, it is something we must focus on to ensure children with special needs get not only equal treatment but the extra support they need.

With regard to the qualifications for early child care professionals, the annual survey conducted by Pobal looking at the early years sector found a very wide range of qualifications. I welcome that from September this year it will become a requirement that everyone working in early years education and directly with children will be required to have a level 5 award on the National Framework of Qualifications.

Excellent work is being funded and carried out at a local level. In my county in November 2013, €1.5 million in funding was announced for the Louth Genesis Programme by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs for an area-based childhood programme. I congratulate and commend everyone involved in the Genesis Programme, as they recently completed all stages, and the Louth Leader Partnership signed the area-based childhood programme contract in November, with the programme officially commencing on 1 December last. The school programme was developed by a working group of primary school principals, parents, HSE representatives and community leaders to support local children and their families. The programme has more than 60 consortium members and will deliver the Incredible Years programme to disadvantaged areas in Louth, both in Dundalk and in Drogheda. As with many areas and issues, early intervention is key. The recognised target group for this programme is zero to six years of age and the group proposes to invest in evidence-informed interventions to improve the long-term outcomes for children and families living in areas of disadvantage. Having visited the schools involved and seen the work done by the individual teachers, principals and other members involved, the work is phenomenal and I have no doubt this programme will ensure many hundreds of children, with the support of their families, will stay in education. That is the key to any success in any education programme.

The Incredible Years programmes aim to promote and enhance children's cognitive, social and emotional well-being at this very early stage of life. The project has only just officially begun, but many years of work and dedication have ensured that this important programme will hit the ground running and provide an effective and necessary service for many children and families in Dundalk and Drogheda. I congratulate and commend all involved on their hard work and dedication in ensuring that this programme will reach the local children. I have no doubt of the positive effects it will have, not only for the children of Louth but for their families.

I recognise and appreciate that there is still additional work to be done to address issues and improve the quality of the early years sector. Affordability remains a major issue for many parents. When it comes to children's education and well-being, many parents, educators and politicians would agree that we can never invest enough attention, funding and resources to improve the educational, social and emotional outcomes for our children at any age.

This area needs to remain a focus for the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. An investment in early years education is an investment in the future. The Minister is committed to improving the quality of early years education and I am committed to working with her in that respect.

Let me mention the school completion programme. I have met representatives of schools and many teachers involved in the programme. I acknowledge this is moving on, but I would really appreciate the Minister's comments today on the current position on funding. Schools should know what exactly they can do and the current position on the programme. I met a group in recent months and am meeting it again this week. I have seen at first hand the absolutely brilliant work done in my area. The programme in the area has kept hundreds of students in school. The service is vital and it is vital that it be retained and adequately funded.

The Minister is very welcome. I am delighted to see her here again. She attends regularly. I am reminded of when she was a Member here. Her interest in this topic was evident then.

I wondered what I would speak about today. I have five children and 16 grandchildren and, therefore, have some experience from that point of view. My other experience is that, in my business approximately 40 years ago, we established playhouses in each of our supermarkets. We established a condition at that very early stage that the playhouses, which were for children up to seven and eight years of age, would never be just for entertainment; we were trying to develop the children. It worked very well over the years, to the extent that parents shopped with us not only because we looked after their children, but also because we developed them. We learned later from schoolteachers that they could identify the children who had been used to the playhouses from the age of two or three. Therefore, very early development is an important aspect.

When I was chairman of the committee on the applied leaving certificate, we learned that youngsters of 16 and 17 years only suddenly blossomed when doing the applied leaving certificate examinations because, from a very early age, at four, five, six or seven years, they had been at the back of the class because they were not academically minded. Since they were at the back of the class, they were ignored to a large extent. It seems their abilities and talents were not developed until a much later stage. It is a real reminder that the onus is on us as a nation to ensure we educate children at a much earlier age. That is why I welcome the debate today. We need to do much more in this area. In this regard, one should note that many states in the United States now believe investments in early learning programmes deliver better dividends than similar investments in university education. I was surprised by that, but it is never mentioned. Although we talk about lifelong learning, could a strong signal be made to reflect the importance of this point? Could we count school years from birth rather than from the start of primary school to underline the importance of the preschool years in child development? It has been argued that this would encourage school readiness among parents and children. We must make it clear that the educational cycle does not begin at primary school but at birth. This would be a very interesting idea to consider, and I am interested in hearing the Minister's view on it.

My second point is very obvious, but perhaps it is too readily ignored. Could a national campaign be launched to educate people in the basic principles of parenting in terms of our early years strategy? We teach skills such as driving but, although the skill of parenting is so important, we ignore it. Why? A programme could be along the lines of a public health campaign that would explain to parents the importance of the first three years of a child's life in setting up emotional and even academic foundations. Many still do not fully understand or accord enough weight to the fact that the child's experience in the family has a massive impact on his educational achievements. Do parents know how to respond to a baby's cues? Do they know how they should talk to the baby frequently? Do they know certain gestures have an effect on the mind of a child? I am not sure they do. I would be interested in hearing the Minister's views on this because it refers to a basic part of a child's development. There is a lot of potential in this area.

On preschool years, according to a major study every euro invested in preschool years for at-risk children reaps between €8 and €9 in return. Early years comprise such a crucial time, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Research published in the journal Child Development has shown that young children do better in socially mixed settings. For instance, when children with weak language skills are in preschool settings alongside children with stronger language skills, their language skills develop faster than those of children in settings where all the children have relatively weak language skills. We could do more to encourage the mixing of children from different backgrounds at preschool level.

Many parents may not be sending their children to preschool as they may be unemployed and cannot afford it, even though preschool years are crucial for children. How do we nudge parents to make their children attend? In Norway, where the majority of preschools are privately run, there are public subsidies and national regulations that set maximum fees. In 2011, the maximum fee charged to parents was €310 per month, or €70 per week. We need some more movement in this area. I would love to believe we could do something. Given that child care is so expensive in Ireland, could the State invest more in kindergartens?

Are preschool teachers' qualifications strict enough, given the importance of early years education? Should we be improving the quality of preschool teachers? I would be interested in hearing whether the Government has any plans in this area.

With regard to learning how to learn, we must teach children how to learn. This may seem obvious but the ability does not come naturally. Many countries, including Finland, have set courses in learning how to learn. Student behaviour has changed radically over the past decade.

EUROSTAT recently reported that Ireland had the lowest level of foreign language tuition in Europe and that the study of at least one foreign language at primary school level had become compulsory in every European country except Ireland. We have an unusual set of circumstances in that we speak English as a first language in most cases and, therefore, do not get around to learning other languages. I sent my three boys and two girls to school in France for the short summer term at the age of 13 years. It is a little dangerous because the two girls fell in love with Frenchmen at the age of 13 years and are now married to Frenchmen. We have a number of French grandchildren. It is great to be fortunate enough to be able to learn a language. We should do whatever we can in this regard.

I have called before for the use of the Michel Thomas method. In French, one does not pronounce the "s" in Thomas. The method is amazing and has led to proven results. Students do not have to learn grammar and are excited to learn according to the method. As when we went to the Gaeltacht, we did not learn grammar but how to speak. We chatted and it was just a joy to do that. The Guardian recently described Michel Thomas's teaching of French in a school.

He astounded staff at a school in north London by teaching a group of teenagers deemed incapable of learning languages. In one week, they learned the amount of French it normally takes five years to acquire.

There is a danger of becoming stuck with rote learning and stodgy grammar.

My other point is on teaching entrepreneurship, even at a very early age. On Friday morning, I will be speaking about entrepreneurship to students in fifth class in a school where I live. It seems some schools are doing this very well. It should not only be in secondary school.

People forget that disadvantage and mental development are linked with food and nutrition. It is a crucial part of early development.

On improving the quality of early years education, it should be mandatory for schools to give swimming lessons and the Government to fund them. It is ridiculous that, as an island nation, so many people are unable to swim or have difficulty in doing so. It is interesting that other European countries have made swimming lessons compulsory at a very early age.

The amount of effort they put in to teaching children how to swim at an early age shows it is worthy of inclusion in their education.

The Minister is very welcome. I am delighted to have this debate and I hope she will find it useful in making decisions.

I welcome the Minister for what I would call one of the most important debates. Prevention and early intervention for children and education is most important, as is the provision of services in this area. We all know - the Minister better than most, as a former Montessori teacher - about the absorbent mind of the child. I was there myself. I used to go around Ireland at one stage inspecting, before inspectors were prominent or even regulated in Montessori schools.

I know practitioners and organisations out there are working and doing their level best to support positive outcomes for children, families and communities through programmes, now that some of them are serviced and provided for through the funding system. Before that, indeed, I want to pay tribute to the many preschool educators and providers that did it before it was even on the agenda of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Health, or anybody else.

The establishment of the Child and Family Agency in January 2014 represents the most comprehensive reform ever on child protection, early intervention and family support services in Ireland, and we cannot speak of one without the other. Family support is most important in providing education from womb to tomb, from birth to age 24 - that is the age covered by the Brighter Futures programme. Brighter Futures recognises that our increasing child and youth population is a significant resource for our country, and further recognises that ensuring the best possible outcomes for this group is therefore an important element, not only for the child and family but for our economic planning also. I know the Minister recognises that, but not everybody in every Department recognises the importance of investing in early childhood care. The Growing Up in Ireland study conducted by the ESRI and Trinity College Dublin for the national framework illustrates that very well. Parents are the primary educators under our Constitution. We know that reports on parenting provide details on what investment has done to support parents and parenting programmes. We have some supported parenting programmes, as the Minister knows, in the family support service and in the Department of Health, but we need an awful lot more targeted and universal parenting programmes to support parents, because family circumstances and family needs are different. Tailored approaches are needed for children of different ages, depending on developmental stages and different types of intelligence, of which there are many, as we know.

We have learned lessons from the past and some very difficult lessons, particularly with regard to preschool. We saw this on the "Prime Time" programmes recently, but the legacy and failings of the past are now promoting a culture of cross-governmental approach to improving outcomes for children. This has been a priority of the Government and I know the impetus the Minister is giving to it with her training. I welcome her arrival in the Department of Education and Skills. The delivery of support to families is important, and between the Departments of Education and Skills and Health, this issue could fall through the hoops. There are the early start centres and as I know somebody mentioned all ofthe different ones, I will not go through them. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs administers two support schemes to encourage more vulnerable families to make use of the early childhood care and education programmes and different subvention programmes.

On the issue of continuous professional development, CPD, and training for preschool teachers, I welcome the introduction of a requirement from September 2015 that all those dealing with preschool children must have a qualification of at least FETAC Level 5. That is down to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Is preschool not formal education? There should be continuing training and development in a formal way for preschool staff as well as for teachers. They are all teachers in preschool. The setting is informal, but the actual delivery of the outcome is formal and it is recognised with Level 5 training. I ask the Minister for details about CPD in this area. That has to be looked at when preschool is taken into consideration.

I welcome, in the Minister's Department, the introduction of focused inspections for high-quality education provision in early childhood education settings, particularly for the preschool year. We also have the preschool inspectorate under the Child Care Act 1991 to ensure the safety and welfare of preschool children; therefore, we have, as one of the other Senators said, both types. How many inspectors do we need? We need inspectors for care, education, the whole lot - we need it all and it has to be done. A new implementation structure is required - I know that there was a group set up in the Department last year and I am waiting for a report on that to bring it all together - with joined-up thinking on care, education and early intervention.

I want to say a word about the availability of resources. I ask the Minister to provide a report on a pay scale for teachers in preschool. We cannot leave it to everybody's imagination to introduce pay scales. We have to pay people if we want good outcomes. If we invest in preschool, we will get a better return than we would on any stock market - that is definite - but we cannot have good child care and early intervention without appropriately qualified and remunerated staff. Somebody else mentioned the percentage of GDP that we are spending on preschool education. The Minister should have a look at it - we are third from the bottom in Europe.

I have not got time to go into the area of special needs, but somebody mentioned it. We must not forget this, as it needs special attention. The after-school programme is also important. I could discuss it for longer, as it is important. The Minister has the right mind.

This is an extremely important debate. We need the Minister's leadership. We need significantly more ambitious change in this sector therefore, it is really great to have the time to discuss this and to hear the Minister's plans and the things she has already put in place. As the Minister knows, when early-years education is of high quality it benefits children from all socioeconomic classes and also benefits society and the economy as a whole. Research shows that it leads to better educational outcomes and a more skilled workforce. It reduces poverty and can even lower crime rates, but only if the quality is high. Low-quality services can be unsafe for children.

We know the quality of early-years education here in Ireland is mixed. It can be unacceptably low, as was shown in the 2013 "Prime Time" investigation and documentary, "A Breach of Trust". At most child care centres across the country, though, the quality is good or excellent, particularly under what are often very restrictive circumstances. What we need to aim for is a sector which provides excellent quality early-years education at all times for all children.

I have been involved in the sector for almost 30 years, since my partner, Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan, and I founded the Shanty creche in Jobstown in 1986 to provide child care services for women who took part in our education and training programmes up in the mountains. We have since established the Rainbow House educational child care centre, operating in An Cosán, and a network of educational child care facilities in the community of Tallaght. We have also led the establishment of a childhood development initiative in west Tallaght and I have co-authored a manual on early-years education and care with the specific intent of raising quality in the delivery of this level of education, particularly through the integration of Síolta and Aistear, in the context of particular approaches to early-years education.

It is evident from my own experience and from listening to educators who work daily with young children that more resources need to be available for the sector. That is what all of us are saying, if we want to improve the quality of our early-years education services. It is not necessarily just a question of resources, but we do need more investment - it is as simple as that - because the resources cannot come from the parents alone, as other Senators have said. Our child care fees are among the highest in the world, despite the variable quality of our early-years services. The high fees exclude many women from returning to the workforce - we have also been saying this for years - and exclude their children from accessing early-years education. It is as unacceptable today as it was in previous years. High costs and parents' lack of resources reflect the lack of public investment by the State in early-years education. Others have referred to our international comparisons.

We are not spending enough in terms of percentage of GDP. When our GDP goes up, we should spend more on early years education and care. I am aware the Minister believes that too. Therefore, we are expecting great things from her in terms of increasing investment in early years education. We have some public funding schemes - the preschool year, the community child care subvention and the ETS scheme. They are positive and make the services more affordable for parents but they can only deliver quality if there is sufficient funding for the programmes. All of these schemes fail to provide funding for non-contact time which is to provide for continuing professional development for staff. It is important that they get a fundamental training but also ongoing training. Level 5 is great but it is only level 5 and we are talking about what is in effect the most important time of a child's life. We need support for non-contact time. It is essential if we want to provide quality in early years education. Of course, I want and would welcome a second free preschool year but we need to ensure the quality of the scheme is in place and that the funding includes non-contact hours. Also, there is a huge need for more specialised training among early years educators. Others spoke about special needs, and there have been hugely positive results in many arenas, for example, speech and language training and the childhood development initiative in west Tallaght, as documented, which through early intervention and specialised speech and language training for educators, has significantly improved children's educational outcomes.

We need to listen to the professionals in the field. In regard to early years education and care, we need to invest in universal schemes and training that can deliver quality that is expected to benefit children. I was pleased to hear the Minister mention Early Start. It was terrific at the beginning, it has been improved over the years and the Department continues to support it.

The investment that we all talking about will not jeopardise the economic recovery. We cannot argue that we can only do it when we can afford it. In fact, it helps create that economic recovery by enabling women to return to work. It is really turning on its head the most popular argument that we will invest if we get the money, but we need the money to invest to increase productivity and prosperity. Enabling women to return to work, will raise the standard of living for many families and contribute positively to the economy. I have spent many years making economic arguments, as has the Minister, for the investment in early years education and care. I hope she will continue to advocate and convince her colleagues of this.

I welcome the Minister. Many of my comments will echo some of those made already. The importance of early years education to the overall education system cannot be overstated. However, more could be done when it comes to supporting the area that will provide children with the building blocks for their education, essentially for the rest of their lives. My party has recently expressed concern at findings in OECD reports comparing vision of early childhood education in Ireland with other countries. An estimated 63,000 children aged three to six years participated in the free preschool year introduced in 2010. The estimated cost of the scheme is around €166 million. A 2005 National Economic and Social Forum study estimated that on average more than €7 of returns are achieved for every €1 invested in early childhood education. Previous speakers have mentioned that this in itself is an economic return, which is why we need to invest heavily in it from the beginning. Given the gains that can be made, it is alarming that early childhood education accounts for 1.7% of overall education spending, which is more than nine times lower than that of Hungary where the amount spent is approximately 14.1% of education spending. Ireland's is the lowest amount in the surveyed sample. To put that in context, when compared with the second lowest level of relative expenditure by the United Kingdom, it allocated more than three times as much of its education budget to early childhood.

Clearly, what is needed is an increased commitment to early years education. To begin with, we would like the Early Start preschool project extended to all schools in disadvantaged areas with the maximum child-adult ratio of 12:1. Ideally, we would like to see introduced a universal preschool session of, perhaps, 3.5 hours per day, five days per week, for children aged three to five years. More than €320 million has been taken out of early childhood care and education in recent years, and in many services practitioners' hours are being cut. They are forced to maintain quality through voluntary hours. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs should consult those in the sector to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the resource level and policy development required to ensure quality for children and families.

There is a clear need to increase the qualification standards of child care staff further. While the introduction of the minimum FETAC level 5 qualification standard in September is a welcome development, I do not think it will help achieve the European target of a 60% graduate-led workforce by 2020. An emphasis needs to be placed on supporting the large number of practitioners already holding a level 6 qualification with routes to level 7 and level 8 programmes. Courses are not available in many areas of the country and where they are available, they can be seen to be prohibitively expensive. A more robust, consistent and regular inspection system should be developed. The inspectorate has been increased through the employment of additional public health nurses. The proposed model means, however, that inspectors will be lucky to complete two inspections per week. At this rate, the inspectors will not be able to cover the services in a reasonable timeframe. Inspection reports are being published online. While this is a good thing, inspectors are spending so much time getting reports ready for publication that they are not carrying out enough inspections. The need for more inspectors could be addressed in part by employing additional early years professionals as well as public health nurses to carry out inspections. The inspections are part of supporting quality delivery and, as such, are welcome by providers once they are conducted by professionals who are qualified and have experience in early years care and education.

Those are my main comments. I do not wish to labour the issue and repeat comments already made. I thank the Minister for coming.

I congratulate the Minister on the delivery of her brief in education and, please God, it will all work out for the best. In addressing the issue of economic and equality goals and early childhood care and education, I believe and all the evidence shows that the benefits of early childhood care and education accrue disproportionately to those children who are economically disadvantaged. As such, the goals of equality and economic development coincide in this policy field of early childhood care. Education disadvantage can be discussed in terms of the accumulation of well established warning signs. UNICEF presents the following individual at-risk markers: a home in which children or families experience poverty, unemployment, low parental education, substance abuse, mental illness or cultural and language problems.

From my experience, in my 24/7 engagement with Lir Chocolates, the same applies to a young person who has been unemployed for a long time and gets a job. If a young person struggling to do a job comes from a family where they are the third generation that did not have a job, and if there are any of those issues, such as substance abuse, mental illness or cultural and language problems, it is very difficult for that person to engage and have the emotional stability to be able to do a job for the day. It is the same issue if there is disadvantage at home. They cannot hold on to a job. I have seen it myself. A father of a young man whom we took on from the long-term unemployment list told me that he was going to Mass every morning to pray that his son would be able to do the job every day. Another young person who had brilliant potential was going home at night to parents who were drunk.

I approached the then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Development, former Deputy Mary Harney, to ask if she could establish a mentoring service for young persons going home to such a setting. Generally, parents encourage their children to develop a work ethic. However, some young people who are trying to hold on to a job need a mentor to compensate for the lack of emotional stability at home. I asked the then Minister to establish a mentoring system for them, but she did not engage with the idea. I had a formal meeting with her, but, to be honest, I did not get anywhere. There are many young people with similar problems.

In 2005 I compiled the first report entitled, A New Approach to Child Care Policy, and compiled the second in 2006. I gave marks and credits on the issues that had been followed up. Fianna Fáil introduced the first free child care services. I put pressure on the then Taoiseach, former Deputy Bertie Ahern, who responded positively and said it had to be done. The momentum generated by a by-election in County Meath where parents were seeking child care facilities, coupled with the pressure I was putting on the party, helped to achieve early childhood care services.

A large body of research in the social sciences, psychology and neuroscience shows that skill begets skill and learning begets learning. All of us who are privileged to be here know this. There is strong evidence that once a child falls behind, he or she is likely to remain behind. To some extent, the basis for future learning and social and emotional development is set before a child starts at school. Thus the foundations of policy lie in the realisation that learning abilities are formed during the early years of childhood. As a former school principal - an príomh mhúinteoir - Senator Jim D'Arcy knows only too well how learning begets learning. As an educationist, Senator Sean D. Barrett knows that the more one learns, the more one wants to learn. When children do not have a good start in life, early intervention is essential, as generally schools are ill equipped to remedy a bad start. Studies of the relative return on skills investment in early life show that such investment yields the highest return from age nought to six years and climbs exponentially thereafter. The return is especially high for underprivileged children. The OECD argues that early investment is vital. Such investment needs to be made in the exploratory years of early childhood relative to the Facebook years of later childhood. Spending in the early years can be more effective than expenditure on adults. An analysis undertaken for the European Commission showed considerable evidence that education and training policies targeting low-skilled adults had often been ineffective. Meanwhile, the little European evidence that is available shows that early investment has important and long-lasting effects for children.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. It is good to have another Limerick person here for a change. I do not feel as alone any more. I wish her continued success in her big portfolio. She will continue the work undertaken by her predecessor, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, who was a very fine Minister for Education and Skills.

Senator Jim D'Arcy said he used to have about six minutes in an infants class before pulling his hair out. I spent two years in an infants class - courtesy of someone who must have been a very forward thinking Fianna Fáil-influenced principal - before coming to the Seanad. I found it far easier to deal with 27 infants than with some people here.

Early childhood education is hugely important, although it has not received the attention it needs and deserves. I commend the Minister for the work she is putting into it, especially as she comes from a Montessori background and knows what she is talking about. She also knows the dividends that can be gained if it is done properly, which is the crux of the matter.

Teachers should be coached to ensure that in the early education age group every lesson is engaging, interesting and fun. Children learn so much more when they are engaged with a subject. I had difficulties when I was working in the sector. I found that the curriculum was inadequate, especially the way in which we could fall into a lazy way of doing things such as having children colour in a page of a book at a certain time each day. It is not the way education subjects should be taught, especially in the early years. Perhaps it might come back to the issue of teacher training. I undertook my training in the United Kingdom where specific courses were provided for persons who would become specialists in early school education. For example, such teachers' graduate degrees could be specific to early education between the ages of three and seven years. They worked in a special environment and could be involved in specialised teaching.

I remember being involved in a classroom inspection and wondered about some of the feedback I had been given. I am glad that the Minister intends to recruit dedicated early years education inspectors. It is a welcome move that needs to be made. When I taught, I had to fill in a cuntas míosúil at the end of each month on the work that had been done. However, much of it could not be written down because the evidence of learning could not be shown. For example, if I found a spider in the classroom, we would have been able to do so many things; we could have had an art lesson, an Irish lesson or a PE lesson based on it. The children would have been so engaged with it and one could have seen the results. Many teachers cannot use such holistic or organic teaching methods because they feel restricted by the curriculum. I am glad, therefore, that the Minister has decided to put together the early years education advisory group, which is a great initiative. My only recommendation is that instead of reporting to her twice a year, it should report more regularly and its reports should be made public in order that people would know exactly what was being done.

Previous speakers referred to the Scandinavian teaching model. I spent time in Finland where I was exposed to state-aided early education methods, including kindergarten teaching methods.

It is probably the best practice we have seen in Europe and it is certainly one to which we should aspire.

I know the former Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, was almost pilloried at an INTO conference when he referred to the profession as being largely female-dominated. It is a fact that it is female-dominated but are any steps being taken by the Department to encourage more males into primary school education? This is important, given that today's families are different from the traditional family model of the past and influences at a young age are very important for shaping a person. I remember my junior infants teacher putting tape across my lips to keep me from talking. That did not work very well but it is a clear memory. My favourite teacher taught senior infants, so I know teachers have a major influence on children at that age.

I remember dealing with three children with special needs in an infants class and it was difficult enough. Perhaps special needs assistants could follow the children to which they are allocated. It is a common practice in schools that a special needs assistant would become more of a teaching assistant. I know there are teaching assistants in the United Kingdom, but a special needs assistant should always follow the special needs child. If there are three children with special needs, there should be three special needs assistants for the class. They should not be divvied up among other classes, which is a commonplace practice.

I do not know if there can be collaboration between the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Education and Skills, but there is now an onus on teachers to report issues related to the domiciliary care allowance, specifically relating to a child's progress. Teachers are not medical professionals and it is unfair to put an onus like this on a teacher where sometimes they are forced to say X, Y or Z about a child for a parent to qualify for the domiciliary care allowance. It is a bit much to ask of a teacher and it can be difficult. People in education would know parents and families very well; therefore, this can be an added pressure that teachers can do without. Perhaps the Minister might look at that issue.

I welcome the Minister. What we are doing is most important. The research indicates that these are really important years in a student's life. Professor James Heckman won the Nobel prize for his work in this area. I wish the Minister good luck and more power to her in addressing this issue. This could be the era of people's lives in which they will learn fastest and do the most valuable work. Perhaps we should go right to the very other end of this spectrum and reduce post-doctoral places as there might be a bigger return if Professor Heckman is correct.

Given the difficulties we face, as we are still borrowing €8 billion every year - we have all come here in the past three or four years to try to do something about this and I hope signs are getting better - there were reforms in the McCarthy report which would free up some of the funds required for today's purpose. There is more than incrementalism involved. When we start a new programme, we should consider all the others and see if there are any returns or programmes which have outlived usefulness. There were some suggestions from an bord snip nua, such as 36 management allowances which cost €236 million per year and which seemed to grow out of a period of social partnership when, to try to conceal the overall rate of pay increase, people were given allowances. A massive number of allowances are paid and these are covered in the McCarthy report.

The growth in the number of special needs assistants is particularly relevant. The McCarthy reports points out that between 2005 and 2009, the numbers grew from 6,000 to 10,500. Was that properly analysed? He thinks not and that there is a surplus of approximately 2,000 assistants. Did we analyse the opportunity cost of that compared with what we are discussing? As there is not much difference in the ages of some of the children, would they be better served by the programme we are discussing or within the formal school system? It was a vast growth in numbers and I was certainly surprised to see there were 10,500 special needs assistants. It seemed to have grown like Topsy. There was also €300 million for substitution, etc.

How do teachers relate to these children and this vital area which we are discussing? I have to say I think it is badly. We had debates about where teacher training should take place - it was largely between institutions - with very little emphasis on children, certainly on small children. I overheard some comment to the effect: "who wants teacher training anyway", and that we can do something much more prestigious in - insert the name of the university concerned. This is the most important area. I have felt for a long time that maths teachers should be trained in mathematics departments with everybody else and not siphoned off into lower grades of courses. This is the most important task they will face and it is much more important that we do that than training people to become bankers or stockbrokers subsequently and proceed to do serious damage to the country. This is important but I do not see the university heads addressing it. Many of the people in the departments I mentioned were not very interested in the importance of Heckman's work. Maths departments should have a cohort of people doing this work, because that is where we will get our next generation of geniuses in that kind of subject.

I know the next matter is close to the Minister's heart. We have been too financially based in our approach to language departments. We have reduced or shut down more language departments in Irish universities in recent years and put them under serious pressure. That is important because the research material provided to us indicates that children at a young age learn languages really well and quickly. Is Ireland just to speak English, our own language, and no other world language? I know and the Minister will know from her time with us that people in language departments feel under increasing pressure because such departments do not cause economic growth and are, therefore, a peripheral concern. They cost rather little to run, however, and make a significant contribution to the attractiveness of the country.

We cannot just find the money to do this. With the best will in the world, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, does not have it; therefore, all budgets within education should be assessed, as Mr. McCarthy did in 2009, and we must see if this matter under discussion is a stronger and greater priority. I believe it is and that it is well worth the investment. I ask students who their best teacher was or who the teacher was they remember most, and it is usually somebody from preschool or primary school. Inspiring teachers seem to be encountered mostly when children are young, and that inspires people to carry on with their careers.

Within education, while I mentioned the allowances, we must emphasise the classroom. That is where the important work is done. I know people want posts of responsibility, fancy titles and so on. It is said that every day a Kerry person spends away from Kerry is wasted, but every day and hour a teacher spends away from the classroom is really a waste. We have made the process too bureaucratic recently. Let us go back to the basic relationship between the teacher and student. The classroom is probably one of the most rewarding places where that relationship will manifest itself. I wish the Minister good luck in her efforts and she knows she has support from these benches.

I thank all of the Senators who contributed to the debate.

There was cross-party and Independent support on the vital importance of the early years in any child's life and on what I am trying to do as Minister for Education and Skills. I deliberately highlighted this area because it is crucial. I am delighted to see that there is so much understanding, experience and support in this House. In having had this debate today, it strengthens my hand, for which I thank Senators.

I need not repeat what has been said on the research showing that what one invests in early years is returned manyfold at a later stage. I will not repeat any of the points made, but thank Senators for making them. Perhaps I will clarify a few of the areas that were highlighted by Senators, where issues were raised to which I might respond.

Quality, in terms of the educational quality of the early years, is my area of responsibility, which is why I am establishing the review of qualifications. I note Senators Feargal Quinn, Sean D. Barrett and others have raised that issue around qualifications. We are reviewing all of the qualifications, including higher education and further education, to ensure that there is quality across the board and there are quality trained staff working in the sector. That is also why we have the inspectorate. Senator Jillian van Turnhout and others raised the issue of the number and different kinds of inspections. We want to co-ordinate the inspections. In fact, recently I attended a conference where I took part in a question and answer session where there were staff from the two Departments answering persons working in the sector on the different inspectorates. We want to ensure we co-ordinate the inspections and do not place too much of a burden on the sector. I stress that the purpose of the education inspectorate is centred on support where help is needed rather than on judgment, closing anybody down or anything like it.

Primarily, the two Departments, although the Department of Health is also involved, particularly for young people with disabilities, are working together. In answer to Senator Averil Power's question on the early years strategy, we expect that will be published in the first half of this year. My Department is feeding into it also. Alongside that, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, has received approval from the Cabinet to set up a cross-departmental group on the cost of child care. As has been repeated across the House, Ireland has not invested in this sector in the way that it should have over the years. The preschool year was a good investment but we need to catch up on other countries. I would certainly be committed to working with Government colleagues to see where we can invest further because investment is important in this area. The Minister, Deputy James Reilly's cross-departmental group will help to both inform the early years strategy and give us solid evidence in terms of where and how we need to invest. With the economy a little better than it has been in recent years, we hope we will be able to proceed along those lines.

Senator Mary Moran, in particular, raised the issue of disability and the early years, working across the early years sector with the primary school sector as well and having supports. The National Council for Special Education conducted a review of the way in which we support children with special needs in schools and made recommendations on changes in how we do so. We want to use the data from the early years, and from the disability services through the HSE, on which there is cross-departmental work being done at present as well, so that we have a better idea of what the needs will be when the children get to schools because one of the criticism of the current system is that one must get a diagnosis before one gets the supports in schools. We want to get as much information as we can to ensure we can put the supports into schools where they are needed in order that they will be there for the child and there is that continuum between children with special needs in the early years and their support right up through school. I acknowledge that children with special needs, in particular in the early years, need to have their needs addressed. That is one of the areas on which I will ensure the advisory group focuses. I also take the point that we need to ensure that the group reports regularly, but the group will conduct broader consultation and it will not be only the groups which are represented on the advisory group that will be consulted. They intend to conduct consultation within the sector across a wider area.

I responded to Senator Averil Power on the strategy. I am not sure whether she had come back in at that time.

Have I just missed it?

It will be in the first half of this year. It will be linked to this cross-departmental work on the cost of child care.

Is the Minister's work feeding into the overall strategy?

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs is developing the strategy, but in conjunction with my Department and other Departments.

There is a twin-track economic argument involving, obviously, allowing women to go back to work - a point made by Senator Katherine Zappone - but also in terms of the child's development. If children miss out in the early years - this point was made towards the end of the debate - catching up later becomes difficult and they find it hard to participate later on. It is crucial, both in terms of those young people in their personal development and in terms of how they contribute to society and the economy later.

Senator James Heffernan spoke particularly about the engaged holistic learning from his experience as a teacher. That, I suppose, is the kind of learning we want in the early years. It is based on play and enjoyment, but also on it being a learning environment, and that while the child may not be conscious of it, one provides a quality experience where he or she is learning. We have all of that data to feed into what we are doing.

I have covered some of the specific points raised. I do not know if I have answered anybody's particular questions. In response to Senator Sean D. Barrett on languages which is probably not closely connected to what I am talking about today, I met the future skills needs group last week and one of the areas it stated we need for the economy is more skill in languages. I agree with the Senator that the earlier, the better.

It is interesting that they have identified that as an economic need, not only as something we think would be good.

I thank everybody who contributed. I will feed back what I have heard here into the work of the advisory group and the cross-departmental work. It will be important that we ensure there is co-ordination, that there is no duplication and that we work with the sector because there is an understandable sense of uncertainty in the sector and a feeling that it needs more support. There is still a lot of low-paid work in the sector and we need to recognise that. By valuing it, by setting up what I am doing and by working in a cross-departmental way, and by continuing to have debates such as this which focus on that sector which is so important,-----

Will the Minister respond on Early Start, if she did not do so already?

Early Start, as the Senator will be aware, is effective but has not been developed over the years since it was set up by the former Minister, Ms Niamh Bhreatnach. It is something that we will incorporate into the work of the advisory group. I suppose the question is that, while there are a lot of different types of provision in the early years, obviously there is a lot of private provision, there is community provision and there is the more formal setting of the school in the Early Start programme - the Early Start programme is valuable and good, particularly for that sector of children who benefit from it in the area of disadvantage - it is something at which the advisory group should look to see how we co-ordinate that experience across a wider sector and ensure we develop what has been, as the Senator stated, a pilot scheme for many years.

Sitting suspended at 4.50 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.