We have come a long way in recent years in improving Early Learning and Care (ELC) and School Age Childcare (SAC) support in Ireland. Investment in ELC and SAC has increased by 141% over the last five years. This has enabled us deliver, for example, a second year of free pre-school to all children, the international award winning Access and Inclusion Model for children with disabilities, a doubling of the number of children in receipt of subsidies, an increase in the number of places by approximately 60%, and the highly innovative and progressive National Childcare Scheme. However, I acknowledge that regardless of the positive strides made, more investment is needed. Historic under investment in ELC and SAC has created a situation that has no quick solution.
In terms of policy approaches, my Department has set out its vision for the sector, and a roadmap to achieve it, in First 5, A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families 2019-2028 . A key vehicle to ensure that significant additional investment in the sector delivers for children, families and the State will be a new Funding Model. This new Funding Model will provide mechanisms to deliver additional funding to ELC and SAC providers to ensure greater levels of affordability, quality and inclusion in their services.
An Expert Group to develop the new Funding Model for ELC and SAC was announced in September 2019 and commenced its work in October 2019. The Expert Group is tasked with examining the current model of funding, its effectiveness in delivering quality, affordable, sustainable and inclusive services and considering how additional resourcing can be delivered for the sector to achieve these objectives, drawing on international practice in this area. The Expert Group’s Terms of Reference includes to:
- Agree a set of guiding principles to underpin the new Funding Model for ELC and SAC
- Review the existing approach to funding ELC and SAC services by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in terms of its alignment with the guiding principles as well as effectiveness in delivering on the policy objectives of quality, affordability, accessibility and contributing to addressing disadvantage
- Drawing on international evidence, identify and consider options on how additional funding for ELC and SAC could be structured to deliver on the guiding principles and above policy objectives
- Agree a final report including a proposed design for a new Funding Model, with accompanying costings, risk analysis and mitigation and phased implementation plan (with funding likely to become available on an incremental basis) to recommend to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and ultimately Government.
The Expert Group is independently chaired and includes national and international experts in ELC and SAC systems, funding and quality; economics; and relevant policy experts from the Government Departments which will be involved in implementing the new Funding Model. A research partner, Frontier Economics, has been appointed to support the work of the Expert Group.
A consultation and engagement process to take account of the voices of providers, practitioners, parents and other stakeholders within the sector had to be postponed due to COVID-19. Further information on the Funding Model and its progress is available at: first5fundingmodel.gov.ie
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented situation that has required a series of emergency responses from the Government. I am acutely aware of the particular impact this has had on ELC and SAC providers, practitioners, parents and children. I am also very conscious of the importance of the ELC and SAC sector for children’s positive development and in terms of supporting the economy as we move beyond this crisis.
As a direct response to the COVID-19 closure of ELC and SAC services, I launched the Temporary Wage Subsidy Childcare Scheme (TWSCS) which is a very significant measure to support the sector. The aim of the TWSCS is threefold:
- to support the sustainability of the ELC and SAC sector so that it is in a position to reopen after COVID-19;
- to provide parents with a reassurance that if their ELC and SAC provider signs up to the scheme, they are not required to pay fees during this COVID-19 crisis, and they will maintain their ELC / SAC place when services resume and
- to give Early Learning and Care practitioners security and to retain these vital Educators in the sector.
The TWSCS builds on the wider provisions by Government and recognises the unique place and importance of the ELC and SAC sector.
Overall, Budget 2020 saw a 9% increase in investment in ELC and SAC. Additional investment of €63.6m brought investment to €638m in 2020, as noted a 141% 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 these policy outcomes.
My Department has made considerable investment in the sector in recent years. I want to preserve the fruits of this investment for children, families and our much valued ELC and SAC workforce and ensure that, when COVID- 19 has passed, we will have retained as many services, staff and places as possible and that we are moving progressively towards the vision outlined in First 5 which was unanimously welcomed by all stakeholders.
I welcome a recent evaluation by the European Commission which noted that substantial progress had been made in recent years in the area of childcare. It recognised the systemic, comprehensive and strategic cross Government approach that had been adopted, the development of important legislation in the area and the solid plans for the future. My Department remains committed to maintaining this momentum and transforming early learning and care to a system that is truly accessible, affordable and of high quality.