Work on the development of Ireland’s first Early Years Strategy for children aged from birth to 6 years, is already underway in my Department. The approach I am taking in developing the Strategy has received Government approval. My intention is to create an innovative and dynamic blueprint for the future development of Ireland’s early years sector and a coherent approach to seeking to improve the lives of children from birth to 6 years.
A broad range of issues relating to regulations, standards, quality assurance, and inspection are currently being considered by the Expert Advisory Group which is advising my Department on the Strategy. As Minister I am committed to ensuring high standards in early years service provision, both in terms of care and curriculum. The role of quality provision is critical in contributing to childhood development and I an determined that this key objective will be reflected fully in the Early Years Strategy. One of the specific issues of policy which I have identified for consideration in the preparation of the new Strategy is the future role and regulation of the childminding sector, which is already an important component of early childhood care and education. At present preschool services are subject to the Child Care (Pre-School Services) (No.2) Regulations 2006, as provided for under Part VII of the Child Care Act 1991.
Services providing care for children who have not yet commenced primary school are required to notify their service to the Pre-School Inspectorate of the Health Service Executive (HSE) and are subject to inspection and report by the Inspectorate on a regular basis. Services covered by the Regulations include full-time, part-time and sessional services as well as childminders taking care of more than three preschool children from different families in the childminder’s home.
The National Guidelines for Childminders, compiled by the National Childcare Co-ordinating Committee established under my Department, provide guidance to childminders in regard to the Regulations and good practice in the provision of child care services. In that context, the City and County Childcare Committees, which assist my Department in implementing its early childhood care and education programmes, encourage childminders to voluntarily notify themselves to their local Committee. As is the case with all regulatory requirements, the Child Care Regulations set the minimum standards which services are legally required to comply with. My Department will continue to adopt a pro-active approach to promoting the highest standards of care and education throughout the sector, including childminders, given their importance in this crucial phase of children’s lives.
The Deputy will be aware that I published the Draft Heads and General Scheme for the Children First Bill 2012 on 25 April 2012 and immediately referred the Heads of Bill to the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children for consideration and advice. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children published their report in July 2012. As part of the Joint Committee's consultation process a number of submissions were received. Overall there was a welcome that the legislation would increase the focus on child protection. The contributions in the main came from organisations already implementing Children First. Submissions were not all in agreement and many points emerging needed to be considered and reconciled. This involves consideration of policy and operational issues, including those pertaining to childminders, as well as the best legal approach to achieving Children First objectives. In this regard, officials within my Department have consulted with a number of organisations and individuals and I recently met with a number of key stakeholders to discuss the complex issues that have arisen. I have also taken the opportunity to consult with a number of experts in relation to the development of the policy in this area. These discussions will inform the preparation of enhanced policy proposals that is currently underway.
The obligations of mandatory reporting are onerous and the inclusion of specific professionals and post holders is being considered very carefully at this time including persons working in the child care sector generally. I should emphasise that under the existing Children First National Guidelines, there is very clear advice available to all employees, volunteers and parents on how to raise any concerns they have about a child's safety and welfare. It is my intention to submit further proposals to Government as soon as possible with a view to the drafting of the Children First Bill as a priority.