Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Ceisteanna (99)

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Ceist:

99. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will support the growing demand of preschool child care facility providers for their facilities and services to be seen and accepted as educational in the first instance and formative for the lifetime achievement of their charges; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21148/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

I record my good wishes to the former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and I thank her for the stewardship of the Department over the past three years. I wish the current Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, well in his new responsibilities.

I seek to know the understanding and acceptance of the new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs of the invaluable role played by preschool child care providers. I speak particularly with regard to education and preparation not only for young life but lifetime achievement. I refer specifically to all preschool facilities, without exception, including those covered by the community sector and private providers. It is critical that we have a shared understanding of the important role they play.

I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin for his comments about my predecessor and accept his good wishes towards myself. More than 4,300 preschool child care facilities, which is nearly all of the preschool services in the country, are participating in the early childhood care and education programme, ECCE. The objective of the ECCE programme is to make early learning in a formal setting available to all children in the key developmental year before they commence primary school. Approximately 68,000 children benefit from the programme annually. It is a condition of the scheme that participating services must provide an appropriate educational programme for children which adheres to the principles of Síolta, the national quality framework for early childhood education. I agree with Deputy Ó Caoláin's assertion that the process should be based on education, which should be a fundamental scope in the scheme. Síolta is a quality assurance process which addresses all aspects of practice in early childhood care and education services. It is designed to support practitioners to develop high quality services for children from birth to the age of six.

In addition, the curricular framework for early learning, Aistear, has been developed in consultation with the sector by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. Aistear supports practitioners in planning for and providing enriching, challenging and enjoyable learning opportunities for children up to the age of six.

It is intended that the current minimum qualification requirement of FETAC level 5 for preschool leaders delivering the preschool year be increased to level 6, and that all preschool assistants, and all other staff caring for children in a preschool service, be subject to a minimum requirement of level 5.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

There is significant international evidence of the benefits for children's outcomes of the provision of quality education and child care in the earliest years, and my Department continues to support the development of quality child care services with a particular focus on educational components.

I welcome the Minister’s response. The preschool setting plays an incredibly important role in our children’s development at the most important time in their lives. It is not unfair to say we in Ireland were very slow to appreciate and realise the importance of preschool support. Parents and experts know that children thrive in an environment where the numbers are small, they learn through play and can learn to manage well in group situations. That was not always the experience for many, certainly not in my time.

The impact of early years education on future development is well recognised. Preschool facilities are educational facilities in the first instance and should be properly recognised as such. When I drafted my questions for today the previous Minister was in situ. I appreciate that the present Minister is new to the position. Will he consider taking particular steps to ensure that this cornerstone of the reality of preschool provision is accepted across the board? Education and preparation for a lifetime of achievement is crucial and I would appreciate the Minister’s support in this respect.

I do not disagree with what the Deputy said. There have been developments to improve the infrastructure of facilities. I expect there will be more announcements and more capital funding available within a short time.

My Department has introduced measures to support training for child care staff to enable them to upskill to meet the increased qualification requirements and €3 million is being made available over the next two years for this initiative.

Following the successful completion of the pilot joint inspection of several early childhood care and education services, my Department is working with the inspection service of the Department of Education and Skills to consider how that service might support education-focussed inspections of services providing the free preschool year, and good progress is being made in the development of proposals in this regard.

I agree with the Deputy and will report progress to him as we improve the quality of education and child care particularly in the earliest years and we will continue to support the development of quality child care services with a particular focus on the educational component, as requested by the Deputy.

I welcome the Minister’s response and the fact that he shares my view of the educational role of preschool facilities. I appreciate he is reading himself into his brief. Nevertheless, I appeal to him because this is a question of quality child care provision, one of the key components of which is resourcing when resources are under a great deal of strain. Will the Minister consider the exemption of preschool child care facilities from commercial rates? This has been lobbied for over a long period. It would be another means of ensuring that more of the moneys earmarked for preschool child care provision would be spent at the coal-face of service provision. Will the Minister look favourably on this argument?

This is the appropriate time to make such a case to his colleagues at the Cabinet table, or to the Minister for Finance as the case may be. I bring to his attention that the county authority in my home base, Monaghan County Council, with the support of his party colleagues, unanimously passed a motion making that appeal in recent months. Without making a distinction between the State, the community or private provision, it is about the child in the first instance and I would greatly appreciate the Minister taking up that argument.

Regarding the Deputy's final supplementary, this is an issue upon which there has been considerable discussion during the past number of years. It is not something that is directly under the remit of this Department and it involves engagement with other Departments. It will impact substantially on local government funding but I undertake, as the Deputy suggested, to have a further look at it and see if a decision can be arrived at that will ultimately free up more money for the spending on either infrastructure on the one part or quality training on the other.