The early learning and care sector has been identified as a sector in which low pay and poor working conditions for staff are common, which impacts on the quality of provision to children through its effect on the recruitment and retention of qualified staff. The lack of consistency of care resulting from high staff turnover levels impacts directly on quality, and low wages are a constraint on plans to upskill the workforce. My support for improved pay and conditions for early learning and care practitioners has been explicit, as their role is critical to supporting children’s development and delivering better child outcomes.
Over the past 4 budgets the level of public investment in early learning and care and school-age childcare services has increased by 117%. The level of investment needs to continue to rise if we are to offer services that are of high quality, affordable and accessible. However, increased investment by itself will not ensure that staff wages and conditions will improve.
As the State is not the employer, my Department does not pay the wages of staff working in early learning and care settings, and I cannot set wage levels or determine working conditions for these staff.
I am, however, doing all that is in my power to improve wages and working conditions in the sector. I have repeatedly called for the sector to pursue a Sectoral Employment Order, which offers a viable mechanism to establish appropriate wage levels.
Under the terms of industrial relations legislation, for the process of establishing a Sectoral Employment Order to commence, the body or bodies commencing the process must be "substantially representative" of either the workers or the employers in the sector. It is not yet clear at what point any organisation representing workers or employers in this sector will reach a membership level that the Labour Court accepts as substantially representative. Nor is it yet clear what the decision of the Labour Court might be, or what the implications of any such decision might be for the cost of public funding schemes in a context where the State is not the employer. However, I can assure the Deputy that my Department will readily co-operate with a Sectoral Employment Order process when it is under way.
In the interim, I have introduced a range of measures to support employers to improve pay and conditions. These include a 7% increase in ECCE capitation in 2018; higher capitation payments for graduates and Inclusion Coordinators; annual Programme Support Payments to recognise administrative demands; support for school-age childcare, which will make it easier for service providers to offer staff full-time employment contracts; and a pilot measure to fund participation in CPD.
I have set out my vision for the sector, and a roadmap to achieve it, in First 5, which contains a commitment to develop a Workforce Development Plan which will ensure appropriate levels of early learning and care and school-age childcare staff at all levels in the sector, will achieve a graduate-led workforce by 2028, and raise the profile of careers in the sector. I have put the Steering Group in place to lead this work.
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is aware of my commitment to addressing not only access and affordability, but also quality and the importance of a valued workforce in that regard and he has been very supportive to date with my endeavours.