I thank the committee for the opportunity to present here today on the very topical issue of early childhood care and education in Ireland. It is timely that we have an opportunity to meet the committee to discuss current issues in this regard.
We are happy to be here to discuss how we can best contribute to the development of a robust and comprehensive early years strategy and to ensure a bright and sustainable future for early education and care in Ireland. Today, we would like to talk about the three major and interconnected challenges facing the early childhood education sector in Ireland, which are quality for children, sustainability for services and their staff and affordability for parents. We will focus our submission on the issues of quality, sustainability and affordability.
Well-qualified staff are essential for the delivery of a quality early education and care system. The difficulty faced by providers in retaining and recruiting well-qualified staff will not be resolved until the issues of low pay and poor conditions in the sector are dealt with. Low pay cannot be addressed without proper funding that also supports sustainable business models for child care provision. There can be no positive progression in any of these areas without recognition of their interconnectedness and significant targeted investment by Government.
Our input today is based on our contributions to the recently established national collaborative forum for the early years care and education sector. It is also informed by our analysis of budget 2017 and our new report, Doing the Sums: The Real Cost of Childcare in Ireland, which was launched by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, on 29 September, with which I know some members are familiar. The previous Oireachtas joint committee made a very useful policy contribution in its Report on Affordable and Quality Childcare in Ireland in January this year. This committee is well placed to continue this particular dialogue.
There are three strategic priorities for this sector, including quality, sustainability and affordability. In regard to quality, in our recent budget submission we set out the immediate requirements to ensure we can build the quality of early education and care. We argued that improvements to the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme will contribute to quality as they will address the professionalisation of the sector.
We called for an increase in the level of capitation with a ring-fencing mechanism to ensure that both service sustainability and staff wages are addressed. We also called for the extension of the current ECCE programme contract by three weeks in 2017, reflecting an investment in non-contact time for early years professionals. In our submission we also recommended the creation of a new permanent learner fund to cater for the continuous professional development needs of the sector.
These investments in the infrastructure of the sector are essential to underpin quality. Budget 2017 partially addressed the second aspect of this quality agenda, that is, the extension of the programme contract by 1.4 weeks or seven days, through the provision of an additional €14.5 million, representing a significant recognition of non-contact time. We warmly welcome that initiative because it will allow us to build on the number of days in the coming years. We are disappointed, however, that the other suggestions relating to ECCE capitation and continuous professional development have not been advanced in budget 2017 and consider these as matters for urgent attention.
We were equally disappointed that there was no expansion of paid parental leave in this budget. There is growing research evidence on the beneficial outcomes for a child of being cared for by a parent for at least the first 12 months of life and we have strongly advocated that position. Prior to the introduction of two weeks paid paternity leave from September 2016, Ireland was one of only nine European countries that had no paid paternity leave. Since its introduction and together with the provision of 26 weeks paid maternity leave, Ireland now offers a total of only 28 weeks of paid leave compared to the average of 76 weeks for parents across Europe. We are also mindful, however, that there is a commitment in the programme for Government to extend this leave. The programme refers to the Government's intention to “significantly increase parental leave in the first year of a child’s life”. This was also recommended in the inter-departmental group report.
In addition to these initiatives, we believe that the Government needs to initiate a new plan for the early childhood education and care workforce to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of well trained and well qualified staff in the right places across the country. That plan must be linked to any plans to further extend capacity within the sector. The Government also needs to work with the sector to agree a set of recognised salary scales
for early years educators and introduce subsidies so that those salary scales can be met.
We also strongly support the inclusion of child minding in the new single affordable child care scheme announced in the budget. There has been much controversy about that issue in recent days. We have long been concerned about the numbers of children being minded in the informal and unregistered child minding sector where the cost of care is sometimes lower but where there is no regulation, oversight or inspection of quality. We hope that the new scheme will lead to a much greater engagement by childminders and we are encouraged by the current work of Childminding Ireland and the Department to advance this. We would like to offer our support for these efforts over the coming months.
We also welcome the introduction of the Access and Inclusion Model, AIM, a model of supports designed to ensure that children with disabilities can access the ECCE programme. AIM is very new and a lot of monitoring needs to be done on its implementation within the sector. It only commenced in September 2016 and we are monitoring its implementation very carefully. We are anxious to see AIM extended throughout the early education and care sector to ensure that children with additional needs in all child care settings can avail of appropriate supports and not just those availing of the free preschool year. We are committed to working constructively with the Department, Better Start and the sector to that end.
I will now move on to discuss sustainability and viability for early childhood care providers and their staff. Some elements of the quality agenda also have a bearing on the sustainability of child care providers and their staff. It is critical, in addressing the short-term and long-term challenges to sustainability, that the Government bases subsidies on a realistic assessment of the cost of providing child care. The financial viability and sustainability of child care providers needs to be a key concern of policy makers and not just of the providers themselves. The Government must address the structural deficiencies in the current funding model, whereby low State subsidies lead to low margins and keep the sector from fulfilling its mission. The levels of subsidy underlying the design of the single affordable child care scheme, as well as the existing ECCE programme, must be based on a realistic assessment of the cost of providing child care with adequate margins. Our recent report, Doing the Sums: The Real Cost of Providing Childcare in Ireland, provides useful insights into the sustainability challenge for the sector right now. Among the key and worrying findings of that report are that the average child care service in Ireland, whether private or community run, urban or rural, operates on a break even basis. Even when a surplus is generated by a child care facility, it is often too little to meet the cost of reinvestment. In addition, there is a clear trend for providers towards an ECCE-only or free preschool year only model, alongside out-of-school care, in an effort to remain viable. This has led to a reduction in the provision of non-ECCE child care such as year-round full day care and care for children under the age of three. Indeed, I was at a meeting of the Tusla consultative forum last Thursday and that agency confirmed that its recent re-registration process showed a clear trend towards ECCE-only provision.
We know that our report and the analysis and recommendations that are built into our research are being studied carefully by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and will contribute to the design of the single affordable child care scheme. It is also likely to serve as a useful starting point for the Minister’s own study on the cost of child care, as committed to in the programme for Government. The report of a recent review of the status of community early years services in Cork and Dublin called Breaking Point will further contribute to the discourse. We look forward to working closely with the Department to ensure that we can add value to the Government’s own efforts to address the sustainability challenge.
In order to advance this agenda, the Government also needs to develop a capacity plan for the sector. This must be based on evidence of need and set out the numbers and locations for provision, as well as measures to address the most effective and efficient setting size mix, subject to geographic and other factors. We are also aware that the Department intends to launch a new report on school age child care in the coming weeks. That report must outline a new model of out-of-school care that is regulated, subsidised and avoids displacement. The Departments of Children and Youth Affairs and Education and Skills need to be cognisant of the important role out-of-school care plays as well as the danger of displacement to the viability and sustainability of many child care services in the planning and development of any new out-of-school care model. We have made a number of submissions to this process and have included a briefing note setting out our position in the appendix provided to committee members.
We must also eliminate disincentives so that providers can offer a full suite of child care services. The Government needs to carefully construct its supports for early care and education so that it does not inadvertently create disincentives and barriers to services providing a full suite of child care for children up to the age of six and out-of-school children. We would also like to, once again, recommend to the Government that it makes all early education and care provision exempt from commercial rates because of their educational nature. The current inducement to providers to move to an ECCE only model needs to be addressed immediately, where all community and private child care providers offering ECCE-only services are exempt from commercial rates.
I would like to spend a little time talking about affordability. In budget 2017, the Government made provision for the introduction of the new single affordable child care scheme from September 2017, including both targeted and universal elements. We strongly agree with the approach that underlies the budget announcements which includes a new child care subsidy for children under three that is universally applied, as well as the development of a new consolidated and enhanced targeted scheme so that families on low incomes can avail of greater supports on a graduated basis, thus directly addressing the needs of children at risk of poverty. We also agree with the approach whereby the State pays the provider or registered childminder directly to subsidise the real cost of child care, in keeping with the international research I referred to earlier. However, the initial €19 million investment in 2017 must be increased consistently year on year. We envisage that the universal scheme should achieve a minimum subsidy equivalent to approximately €60 per week for full-time care by 2021.
We also believe the targeted element can be further developed to ensure its efficacy in the coming period.
It is critical that we get the single affordable child care scheme right from the start. The new scheme must be planned and developed to ensure it provides a comprehensive and coherent system of supports for all children availing of child care, including the free preschool year and out-of-school care, as well as providing a flexible and robust platform for all future investment. The design of the scheme must be informed by the knowledge and expertise that the sector has to offer. Preparations for the scheme must include a comprehensive consultation and engagement process to ensure that the voices of providers and parents are heard. We believe the new early years forum is one step forward in that consultation.
The scheme must recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach will not suffice and that one level of capitation will not work everywhere. For example, where the needs in particular communities must be addressed or where there are geographic factors at play, it may cost more to deliver a service. The universal level of capitation needs to be supplemented, where required, as part of the overall scheme. Moreover, the new scheme needs to be based on year-round supports and incorporate non-contact time and continuous professional development for all staff. It must allow parents and providers to interface with a single, accessible and coherent system of supports.
We look forward to working with the committee, the Department and the Minister to develop this infrastructure. I am happy to take questions from the committee.