In the first instance I would state that there is little or no evidence that the early years sector is in crisis or that providers are not signing up to administer Exchequer funded childcare schemes. Whilst some providers are expressing dissatisfaction with the speed of change and enhanced governance requirements, many also acknowledge the unprecedented increase in investment and supports. Indeed, with contracts for the 2019/20 childcare schemes going live in recent weeks, DCYA has seen a very significant early take up by service providers, far in excess of that we would have seen previously ( for example the new National Childcare Scheme has seen 1400 services sign up within 5 working days of the contract being available, this is far beyond the level of take up anticipated). My Department has also been informed by Pobal that their Service Provider Helplines are seeing a relatively low number of calls-queries when compared with previous years. The rules for ECCE scheme and the text of the National Childcare Scheme contracts for providers were published on 31st May, together with an Explanatory Guide covering all aspects of the NCS contractual requirements, including the rules relating to children's attendance, and the general operational arrangements for the Scheme. In addition, the Childcare Support Act 2018 (Payment of Financial Support) Regulations, which are the regulations of most relevance to service providers, have been published, in draft form, so that childcare providers can be fully informed of the terms and conditions of the new Scheme before signing up.
There has been an unprecedented 117% increase in investment in the childcare sector over the last four budgets, now totalling €575m per year. In securing these significant increases for early learning and care services, I rely substantially on a wide ranging evidence base to underpin my Estimates submissions. This evidence base is greatly assisted by information obtained directly from early learning and care services, primarily through the annual early years sector profile survey conducted by Pobal.
Given the large amount of public money that is invested by the Exchequer in funding childcare programmes, there needs to be an appropriate level of oversight and accountability. A high level of compliance with programme rules is vital to maintaining existing investment as well as ensuring future investment. It is a requirement that services operating the Early Learning and Care and School Age Childcare programmes, funded by my Department, must be compliant with the ‘Rules for DCYA childcare funding programmes’ which are prepared having regard to relevant central Government rules and guidance around the administration of State funded schemes. Compliance with these Rules is overseen by Pobal on behalf of my Department. Subsidies for the Early Learning and Care and School Age Childcare programmes are paid based on attendance (not enrolment). This is a vital governance component of the funding for which my Department is responsible. It is in recognition of this work that I introduced Programme Support Payments for Early Years service providers a number of years ago, now valued at €19.4m per annum. Each provider receives an annual lump sum over the summer in this regard.
The National Childcare Scheme (NCS), when introduced later this year, will represent a major landmark for all children and families in Ireland, and especially for lower income families and lone parents. It can be accessed by all families and not just those working or studying full time. The new Scheme will replace the existing targeted childcare schemes with a single, streamlined and user-friendly scheme. It entails a fundamental shift away from subsidies grounded in medical card and social protection entitlements, and towards a comprehensive and progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies. By making this shift, and by tangibly reducing the cost of quality childcare for thousands of families across Ireland, the Scheme aims to improve children's outcomes, support lifelong learning, make work pay and reduce child poverty. It is also designed to have a positive impact on gender equality in relation to labour market participation and employment opportunities.
Under the auspices of the campaign, a dedicated website was launched, information packs issued to every service provider in the country, and a nationwide training programme for providers commenced. This programme delivers training across multiple platforms, including classroom-based and online. It is designed to meet the needs of busy childcare providers and to ensure that they are well prepared to operate the Scheme in advance of its launch. Communications and training sessions have been very positively received to date: as of now, 3,520 childcare professionals have attended NCS Phase 1 training. Phase 2 of the training will commence in the coming weeks. This training is designed to be comprehensive and ensure that providers are prepared and confident to operate the Scheme once it opens.
The new National Childcare Scheme is designed to be flexible, recognising that childcare needs are different for each family. In creating a single, national scheme, it was important to recognise these differences and create a system that could respond to them without affecting service operations for providers. For this reason, subsidies will be awarded as an hourly rate, along with a maximum number of hours for which that rate is payable. The hourly rate of subsidy illustrates to parents their level of subsidy and will not affect service operations. Parents and providers will continue to work together, as they currently do, to decide on the amount of childcare that is needed and can be provided. Providers will continue to set their own fees, sessions and admissions policies; there is no change to this. The scheme will pay subsidies based on the hours of care agreed between the provider and the parent, up to the maximum hours awarded to the parent. Providers are not required to change their operations to run their services on an hourly basis.
As regards the workforce issues mentioned. the Early Learning and Care (ELC) and School Aged Care (SAC) sector is recognised as a sector in which low pay and high turnover of staff are common. The 7% increase in ECCE capitation I secured from September 2018 was designed to specifically target these areas and support employers to improve terms and conditions. I look forward to seeing the result of this initiative in the sector profile survey for 2019. Further, I have been a strong advocate of a Sectoral Employment Order (SEO) as a mechanism to address issues of pay and conditions in the early years sector. An SEO would provide for mandatory terms and conditions in the childcare sector, minimum rates of remuneration, pensions, and sick leave along with a dispute resolution procedure but will require an employee representative body to progress.
In addition, First 5, the Whole of Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families, includes a commitment to review the funding model for the ELC sector, under which employers will be supported to provide more favourable working conditions to attract and retain staff. The new funding model will leverage additional investment for certain criteria, for example, better pay, or full implementation of the curriculum. It is envisaged that this may open up alternative mechanisms by which the State could incentivise services to meet national standards in relation to wages and/or working conditions. Officials from my Department have commenced work on the development of a Workforce Development Plan, which will identify practical steps to achieve First 5 commitments.
Other initiatives I have introduced which have assisted in improving conditions in the sector include:
- The development of paid CPD (continuous professional development)
- Development of multi-award winning training opportunities (LINC)
- Enhanced career options for graduate staff which includes Inspector positions in Tusla, the Department of Education Early Years Inspectorate, and positions to support quality and inclusion development within Better Start.
- Additional investment in higher capitation in relation to the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme which has seen the number of services employing graduates rise from 11% to 50% and attracts €24m of additional funding annually
- The incentivisation of school age childcare services to enable part time Early Learning and Care services offer full time contracts to staff
From September 2018, all children meeting the minimum age requirement of 2 years and 8 months are eligible for a full two programme years on the Early Childhood Care and Education programme (ECCE). This measure refines the development introduced the previous year and increases the duration of each registered child on ECCE from a previous average of 61 weeks, to a potential duration of 76 weeks (two programme years). This delivers fully on a commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government that is good for children, families and Early Years providers.
As regards issues of consultation, both my Department and I are very active in our consultations with the early years sector. These consultations are both formal, through structures such as the Early Years Forum, stakeholder groups established as part of the NCS project, various Open Policy Debates held each year; and informal, through almost daily meetings and other interactions with front line service professionals, providers and representative groups.
Finally, to address the issue of tax credits, the possibility of allowing a tax credit to parents for the provision of childcare was discussed by the Inter-Departmental Group (IDG) on Future Investment in Childcare in Ireland. The purpose of the group was "..to identify and assess policies and future options for increasing the quality, accessibility (including supply) and affordability of early years and school-age care and education services in Ireland." The report of the IDG was published on 22nd July 2015. The IDG considered both supply and demand side measures in terms of supporting parents by removing barriers including the specific issue of affordability. The Group was particularly mindful of the views expressed in the consultation with parents regarding the possible introduction of a tax credit. Looking at the current mix of universal and targeted schemes, and having considered the option of a tax credit, the Group concluded that investment in supply side measures was strategically optimal in achieving the combined objectives of affordability, accessibility and quality. In comparison with other measures, the introduction of a tax credit does not bring sufficient impact to the policy objectives. In particular, the Group was concerned that a tax credit measure would not necessarily achieve that purpose. Further information from the report of the IDG is available on my Department's website: www.dcya.gov.ie.