My Department funds a number of early learning and care (ELC) and school age childcare (SAC) programmes. Given the large amount of public money that is used in funding these programmes, there needs to be an appropriate level of oversight and accountability. The largest programme, both in terms of public funding and children registered, is the Early Child Care and Education (ECCE) programme.
The ECCE scheme is administered by Pobal on behalf of my Department. Pobal conducts unannounced compliance visits to participating service providers. The purpose of compliance visits is to assess whether a service is operating the ECCE programme in accordance with both the ‘ECCE Funding Agreement’ and ‘Rules for DCYA childcare funding programmes’, the most recent of which was published on 9th August 2018.
Over the course of a compliance visit Pobal will typically check all of the schemes operated by a service against the corresponding rules. Rules are designed to not only protect public money but also to ensure that certain quality and operational standards are met by the service provider. This is vital in order to make sure that the goals of the ELC schemes, funded by my Department, are being met.
In relation to attendance records, this requirement is not just a means of safeguarding public money; it is also an issue of child safety and a requirement of the statutory regulator, Tusla's Early Years Inspectorate.
The number of children participating in ECCE, the number of services providing ECCE, and the number of compliance visits varies from each programme cycle. Each year the Department agrees a new compliance service offer with Pobal. While the specifics may change each year, the underlying principle of the compliance approach remains to effectively address risk, ensure the ELC schemes are operating as intended and provide assurance that the significant public investment in ELC is being protected.
In each programme cycle since 2015, the approach, coverage and categories of compliance have changed to some extent.
Prior to 2017/2018, major non-compliance referred to any breach of specific programme rules, such as incorrect PIP registrations. Previously, any incorrect PIP registrations would result in a finding of major non-compliance. This was revised in 2017/2018 to ensure that major non-compliance referred to cases where a breach of the rules resulted in a significant risk to exchequer finances. For example, a small number of incorrect PIP registrations will now result in a finding of moderate non-compliance, while a large number of incorrect registrations will result in a finding of major non-compliance. This change ensures that the finding of major non-compliance is now a more accurate and proportionate categorisation.
As a consequence, it is important to note that the compliance outcomes are not directly comparable with the previous programme cycles.
In the 2015/16 programme cycle there were 4,178 ECCE contracts. Pobal reviewed 2,075 of these representing 49.66% of all ECCE contracts. In the 2015/16 programme cycle Pobal found that 38% of all contracts reviewed were recorded as major non-compliant with ECCE programme rules. However, only 2% of ECCE contracts were found to be majorly non-compliant in relation to attendance records.
In the 2016/17 programme cycle Pobal reviewed 1,644 ECCE contracts out of 4,260, representing 38.59% coverage of all ECCE contracts. 45% of ECCE contracts reviewed were found to be major non-compliant in the 2016/17 programme cycle. 10% of ECCE contracts were found to be majorly non-compliant in relation to attendance records.
In the 2017/18 programme cycle Pobal reviewed 1,598 ECCE contracts out of a total of 4,246. This represented 37.64% coverage of ECCE contracts. The level of major non-compliance fell to just 7% of ECCE contracts reviewed (note the statement above re the re-categorisation at the beginning of this year).
Further, in 2017/18, only 2% of ECCE contracts reviewed were found to be major non-compliant for not delivering sufficient free access to ECCE. This shows that 98% of services are meeting the core goal of ECCE; to provide access to 3 free hours per day of ELC to children. This represents a positive outcome for ECCE which will continue to run in parallel with National Childcare Scheme (NCS) into future programme years.
I am not in a position to provide the attendance records for children registered in the ECCE programme and my Department does not routinely collect such records from services. During a compliance visit, Pobal reviews attendance records on site but may also take copies and remove the records from the premises if necessary.
In summary, it is a key priority of my Department to ensure that providers fully comply with all programme rules in an effort to ensure the programmes are operating as intended and to safeguard public funds.
One of the most significant developments in the childcare area in recent years will be the introduction of the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) later this year. The NCS is a legislatively based ELC scheme, that will provide great opportunities to children, families and service providers. Building on existing schemes, the NCS will contain rules that will be child-centred, fair and proportionate, clear and consistent. They will recognise the need for flexibility for parents. They will not disadvantage services for what can be considered minor non-attendances. At the same time, they will recognise the need to protect State finances by ensuring that Exchequer funds are used to support the maximum number of families in need of financial support, represent value for money for taxpayers, and are managed and allocated in accordance with robust and appropriate procedures.