I have been unequivocal in my support for better pay and conditions for staff in Early Learning and Care services. Early Learning and Care practitioners play a critical role in supporting young children's early learning and development and in providing a safe and caring environment. They deserve to be recognised, valued and respected for this.
While my Department funds a wide range of initiatives to support the quality, affordability and accessibility of early learning and care and school age childcare services, the State is not the employer of staff in this sector and cannot set wage levels. The large majority of Early Learning and Care settings are private businesses (74% according to the most recent figures from Pobal), with the remainder being independent, community-based, not for profit organisations (26%).
I have repeatedly called for the Early Learning and Care 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 will readily co-operate with such a process, if and when it is underway.
My Department has also supported a range of measures to improve pay and conditions using the tools available. These include the 117% increase in investment over the last 4 budgets that has supported services to operate at optimal capacity and has provided additional capitation for early learning and care programmes, including a 7% rise in September 2018 in the ECCE capitation rate. Measures also include the introduction for the first time of an annual Programme Support Payment to recognise the administrative roles that services play; this totals €21.4m in 2019. I have also continued to provide a higher rate of capitation payment for graduate-led pre-school rooms, to encourage the attraction and retention of Early Learning and Care graduates, and in 2017 I introduced a higher capitation payment for services that employ a qualified Inclusion Coordinator as part of the AIM programme. In addition, last year I introduced a pilot measure for funding services whose staff take part in continuing professional development, and I am extending the pilot this year to include the new 'Aistear and Play' CPD programme implemented by Better Start. I hope to build on this pilot further over the years to come, following an evaluation. I have encouraged providers to use such additional funding to support, wherever possible, improved pay and conditions of the hard-working frontline staff that make such a lasting difference to children's lives.
The 2018 sector profile published by Pobal showed an increase in the average wage in the sector from €11.93 per hour in 2017 to €12.17 in 2018, but it is clear that there is a long way to go before staff have the wages and working conditions ( including full time , full year contracts) that reflect the importance of the work they do.
First 5, the Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and Families, includes commitments to move to a graduate-led workforce, with at least 50% of staff holding an appropriate degree-level qualification by 2028, and to raise the profile of careers in Early Learning and Care (and school-age childcare). Work will commence shortly on preparing a Workforce Development Plan, which will set out the actions required over the next 10 years to achieve these commitments in First 5 .