Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Questions (543)

Brendan Griffin


543. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her views on correspondence (details supplied) regarding child care; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [30715/13]

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Written answers (Question to Children)

The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme introduced the first-ever requirement for minimum qualifications for staff working in the childcare sector. Under the programme, the pre-school leader delivering the programme must hold a qualification in childcare/early education at a minimum of Level 5 on the National Framework of Qualifications of Ireland (NFQ), or an equivalent nationally-recognised qualification or a higher award in the childcare/early education field. A higher capitation rate is payable to services where all of the pre-school leaders hold a bachelor degree in childhood/early education (minimum of Level 7 on the NFQ) and have three years experience working in the sector, and where all of the pre-school assistants hold a relevant major award in childcare/early education at Level 5 on the NFQ.

I have indicated my intention to increase the qualification requirements for all staff working in pre-school services. The minimum requirement of Level 5 for pre-school leaders delivering the pre-school year will be increased to Level 6. In addition, all pre-school assistants, and all other staff caring for children in a pre-school service, will be subject to a minimum requirement of Level 5. This requirement will be effective from September 2014 for new services, and from September 2015 for existing services.

Under the Child Care (Pre-School Services) (No 2) Regulations 2006, the inspection of pre-schools is the responsibility of the Health Service Executive (HSE).

It is important to realise that inspections alone are not the answer to improving quality. What is required is a multifaceted approach, and since this Government came to office we have been working to ensure issues relating to child protection and welfare are put front and centre. The establishment of a Department of Children and Youth Affairs was recognition of the huge body of work which needs to be done in this area.

As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, driving the early childhood care and education quality agenda is one of my key objectives. I believe we can achieve this objective by taking a number of steps in conjunction with the Department of Education and Skills, including the adaptation of the existing pre-school inspection system to provide a more comprehensive and broader-based inspection regime for pre-schools, moving to a greater focus on outcomes for children.

In support of this, a Joint Pilot Inspection of Early Years Services was carried out by Inspectors from the HSE and the Department of Education and Skills between September 2011 and May 2012. This pilot will inform the proactive approach being taken.

The Programme for Government includes a commitment to improve the quality of the free Pre-School Year and, by extension, the quality of all early childhood care and education, through the implementation of standards and by reviewing training options for the workforce.

This commitment has always been a key priority for me. This is why my Department and I have been progressing work on Ireland’s first-ever Early Years Strategy and this why we have been working on a comprehensive Pre-School Quality Agenda.

We have identified a number of key areas of action which I believe need to be considered and addressed as a matter of urgency. These include:

- Introducing a registration system for all pre-school services

- Taking steps to make the inspection system more consistent and more robust

- Publishing inspection reports on-line as soon as possible

- Ensuring appropriate action is taken in response to findings of non-compliance

- Increasing and widening the sanctions which can be taken for non-compliance.

Registration of all childcare providers

Work is already underway in the Child and Family Services area of the Health Service Executive (HSE) to introduce a registration system for pre-school services. I understand this system will be in place for new services from the end of this year and will be phased in for existing services thereafter. This is an important development because it will move services from the current position, where they are required to notify the Pre-School Inspectorate of their intention to open, to a requirement to be inspected and found satisfactory, before being permitted to open. All pre-school services are currently required to pay an annual fee to the HSE of between €40 and €80. I am looking at increasing this fee. The additional funds raised will assist in improving inspection and supports for quality improvement.

Publication of Inspection Reports

Parents will rightly demand and expect the highest standards and this will be a key factor in driving change in the sector. Publishing inspection reports is an essential step in ensuring high standards and accountability. All new inspection reports will be made available on-line from the HSE as a matter of urgency. All current inspection reports will be made available on-line in 2014.

Taking steps to make the inspection system more consistent and more robust

We are working on developing a more robust, consistent and regular inspection system. There has been a significant programme of work underway in the HSE over the past year to develop a single, consistent national inspection service (as opposed to 37 different local systems).

We propose moving to a position where there is consistent and assured national target rate for the frequency of inspection of pre-school services, while ensuring capacity for prioritisation based on risk assessment. The HSE is currently reviewing the regional spread of inspectors with a view to identifying whether either additional resources or redeployment of existing inspectors is required to achieve this.

Building on this work, officials of my Department and the Department of Education and Skills have been examining options to incrementally develop a more comprehensive and broader-based inspection regime for pre-schools; moving away from a narrow focus on compliance, and leading to a greater focus on children's outcomes, including educational development and child wellbeing. This work is being informed by the findings of the recent Joint Pilot Inspection carried out in a small number of settings by Inspectors from the Health Service Executive and the Department of Education and Skills.

Ensuring appropriate action is taken in response to findings of non-compliance

We are working to ensure consistent action is taken in response to findings of non-compliance. There must be a follow-through on inspections. Clearly, services which are found to be in serious breach of the Regulations will face closure and prosecution. It is proposed to develop a protocol with the Pre-School Inspectorate which will take a calibrated approach and which will enable more decisive action to be taken in response to non-compliance.

Increased Sanctions for non-compliance

My Department will also be undertaking a review of the penalties currently in place for breach of the Child Care (No. 2) Regulations 2006, as provided for under the Child Care Act 1991. The review will look at increasing the range and severity of the existing penalties including the actions which can be taken by Inspectors without recourse to court prosecution, as is currently the case.

In relation to childminders, one of the specific issues of policy which I have identified for consideration in the preparation of the new Early Years Strategy is the future role and regulation of the childminding sector, which I recognise as an important component of early childhood care and education. It is expected that the Strategy will be published later this year.

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 Committee published their report last year and my Department is currently considering the broad range of submissions to, and recommendations of the Committee, including those submissions pertaining to the issue of childminders.