Thursday, 28 March 2019

Ceisteanna (6)

Anne Rabbitte


6. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the implications the new after-school care regulations will have for schools and childcare providers; and her views on whether sufficient consultation was conducted with the affected groups. [14504/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

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

Has the attention of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs been drawn to the implications of the new after-school care regulations for schools and childcare providers? Was there sufficient consultation? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

We need to regulate school-age childcare to ensure children's health, safety and welfare. I introduced regulations for the first time for this purpose in February. They will promote quality of service for children. In addition, registration with Tusla will allow school-age childcare services to take part in the national childcare scheme when it opens later this year, thus addressing the issue of affordability for parents.

While the regulations are critical for quality and affordability, I am conscious of the impact they may have on providers and I have made provisions accordingly. For example, all existing services have been given until 18 May to apply for registration. Services already registered as preschool services have been given an extended timeframe to 18 August. In addition, I have recently provided for a six-month extension of the date on which the minimum child-adult ratio will come into force. The minimum ratio of one adult to 12 children will come into force in mid-August, allowing services that have operated with a higher child-adult ratio more time to adjust.

The regulations reflect advice received from the school-age childcare standards working group which included representatives from across the sector. In developing its proposals the working group reviewed international evidence and practice. The group was reconvened in September during the drafting of the regulations for consultation specifically on the child-adult ratio. A ratio of 11:1 has been introduced for three to five year old children in the free preschool programme. I believe a 12:1 ratio for school-age children who may be as young as four years of age is appropriate. It should be recognised that in non-term time periods children may attend such services for 40 to 50 hours per week.

I emphasise that the regulations that came into force in February represent a first stage only. Public consultation is planned this summer in advance of developing a fuller set of regulations that will cover additional quality objectives.

I too would like to say I agree with regulation absolutely. It was an area in which regulation was needed. It needed to be put on a statutory footing. However, I possibly disagree with the Minister on the ratio being 12:1. I might not disagree with a 12:1 ratio for junior or senior infants. Such children would be in junior aftercare services. However, when children are leaving a classroom setting where the ratio is 26:1 and entering a setting where the ratio is 12:1, I have to think about the cost and staffing implications. We all know that in the childcare sector the cream was in after-school care services. That is where those involved in the sector made their money in many settings. I am a little disappointed that possibly there might not have been enough consultation on the ratio. I think I said this the last time I was before the Minister in the Chamber. The ratio will be at the end in closing some of these services. I am not being alarmist, but the ratio of 12:1 is probably too tight. I acknowledge that there is a May and an August deadline, but I would have preferred if there had been some consultation on the ratio to start the conversation.

I appreciate that the Deputy has set out her view. The 12:1 ratio is based on many views, as well as international research and evidence. That is how ultimately we came to the figure of 12:1. The second point is that we have discussed the matter previously. Was there enough consultation? The action plan for school-age childcare published in 2017 included a commitment to introduce a quality assurance system for school-age childcare services. It was on that basis that we pulled together the working group to respond to an urgent need to address the affordability of school-age childcare services as expressed by parents and providers. My Department acted quickly on receipt of the draft standards to introduce statutory regulations. They included the issue of ratios. The new regulations will enable school-age childcare services to take part in the national childcare scheme to be introduced later this year. That was part of the need for urgency. The Deputy asked about the group. Many of those involved were representative of the sector, etc. I hear what the Deputy is saying. As she is aware, there will be additional consultation. I have identified the need for further consultation in the development of a fuller set of regulations. The Deputy is requesting whether the child-adult ratio could be looked at in that context. I will bring that request back to the Department.

Will the Minister confirm how many after-school care providers have signed up at this stage? I was in contact with my city and county childcare body and unable to obtain a definite answer. That information would be welcome.

How many of the new providers would have signed up to it as well? That will be a barometer of how people in the industry see this going.

Does the Minister have any concerns regarding the impact of this regulation on the affordability and accessibility of after-school care, and how does she formally plan to support that sector? I believe there will be providers who will need transitional support, be it in staffing terms or otherwise. I would say some of them are oversubscribed. There will be a capacity issue. I would like to hear how the Department will address it.

I appreciate the questions Deputy Rabbitte always brings. They are rooted in listening to and being with the childcare providers. In terms of the numbers of people who have signed up, I do not have that information but I will certainly get it for the Deputy.

Deputy Rabbitte will agree that we need the regulations. We need quality in our school age childcare services. There has been a determination initially of some of the basics of what that quality requires. I am sure the Deputy agrees that we need that, and we have done that.

If there are services that will find that kind of approach to quality more challenging than they have in the past, it is a good question whether they will require some support to get there. I will bring that back to the Department. As the Deputy will be aware, my Department has a habit of supporting people in transition, and if that is required, that is a useful request. The bottom line is that together we need to make the regulations to ensure the quality and then to support people in the childcare sector.