I am acutely aware of the difficulties that many early learning and care services report in recruiting and retaining qualified staff, and the high rate of staff turnover in the sector. In Pobal’s latest Early Years Sector Profile Report (2017/2018), the staff turnover rate stood at 24.7% which, despite a 3% improvement on the previous year, was unsustainably high. However, data from previous years suggests that only half of those contained in the 24.7% figure have left the sector, with the other half joining other services.
Low pay and poor working conditions in the sector remain a serious concern and impact on the quality of provision to children through their effect on the recruitment and retention of qualified staff. The lack of consistency of care caused by high staff turnover impacts directly on quality, while low wages are a constraint on plans to upskill and professionalise the workforce. The most recent data on pay and conditions indicates that the average hourly pay in early learning and care and school-age childcare is now €12.55 (as of May 2019), which represents a 3% increase on last year.
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. My support for improved pay and conditions for early learning and care professionals has been explicit, as their role is critical to supporting children’s development and delivering better outcomes for children and families.
Budget 2020 saw a 9% increase in investment in early learning and care and school age childcare. Additional investment of €54.5m will bring spending to €628m in 2020, a 138% increase in investment over five budgets. The very welcome level of investment needs to continue 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.
My Department has set out its vision for the sector, and a roadmap to achieve it, in First 5 the whole-of-Government strategy for babies, young children and their families. First 5 recognises that the workforce is at the heart of high-quality early learning and care and school-age childcare and seeks to build ‘an appropriately skilled and sustainable professional workforce that is supported and valued and reflects the diversity of babies, young children and their families’.
In particular, First 5 commits to a Workforce Development Plan to raise the profile of careers in the sector and to ensure sufficient numbers of staff at all levels within the sector. The Workforce Development Plan, work on which began recently, will set out plans to raise the profile of careers in the sector, establishing role profiles, career pathways, qualifications requirements, and associated policy mechanisms along with leadership development opportunities and work towards a more gender-balanced and diverse workforce.
Preparation of the Workforce Development Plan will involve close collaboration between the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Education and Skills, and an extensive consultation process. To help ensure a strong consultation process, a Stakeholder Group comprising representatives from across the sector has been formed and will work alongside the Steering Group.
Delivering on a further commitment in First 5, I have also recently appointed an expert group to examine the current model of funding for early learning and care and school-age childcare and its effectiveness in delivering quality, affordable, sustainable and inclusive services. The Expert Group is independently chaired and includes national and international experts in early learning and care systems, funding and quality, economics, and policy experts from a number of Government Departments.
In Budget 2020, I secured increased funding for the sustainability fund for the sector. This will see funding to support sustainability rising from €1.7m to €2.2m per annum. The fund will assist high quality services which are experiencing financial difficulties to transition themselves to a sustainable footing, and will also assist with needs arising in the event that the Labour Court introduces a Sectoral Employment Order, which I have repeatedly called for the sector to pursue. My Department will readily co-operate with such a process when it is under way.
Other recent measures I have taken to assist employers to improve the pay and conditions of their staff whilst also addressing administrative demands 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 to offer full-time, full-year employment contracts; and a pilot measure to fund participation in CPD. In April I announced capital funding for service providers who sign up to the National Childcare Scheme. This funding allowed service providers to purchase ICT support which will assist them in recording and reporting children’s attendance.