I have been unequivocal in my support for better pay and conditions for early learning and care professionals, who play a critical role in supporting children's development. They deserve to be valued and respected for this.
My Department funds a wide range of initiatives to support the quality, affordability and accessibility of early learning and care. However the State is not the employer of staff and cannot therefore set wage levels.
Instead, I have actively supported a range of measures to improve pay and conditions. These include the 117% increase in investment since 2016 that has enabled services to operate at optimal capacity; the 7% ECCE capitation increase for providers last September and the introduction of Programme Support Payments to providers, which this year amount to €21.4m.
The average wage in the sector rose from €11.93 per hour in 2017 to €12.17 per hour in 2018, but there is a very long way to go before staff have the wages and working conditions that reflect the importance of the work they do, particularly now with 22% of the workforce being graduates.
Services are experiencing difficulties recruiting and retaining qualified staff, mostly I understand due to poor terms and conditions and partly because of the major growth in the sector that has happened in recent years.
Pobal data shows that 130,000 children were attending services in 2014 but this grew to 230,000 in 2018. While the staff turnover rate fell from 28% in 2017, to 24% in 2018, the rate is still too high.
I have repeatedly called for the sector to pursue a Sectoral Employment Order, which offers a viable mechanism to establish appropriate wage levels.
As the Deputy will be aware, neither I nor my officials can initiate a Sectoral Employment Order, but my Department is ready to input to such a process, if and when the sector seeks it.