I am acutely aware of the pay and conditions issues that exist within the sector. I take every possible opportunity to highlight the importance of the work the sector does for children and how we must value it for this. Current hourly pay rates, as well as availability for many practitioners of only part-time-part-year contracts, do not reflect the level of responsibility that early learning and care professionals hold, nor the increasing qualifications required from them.
While we have a long way to go to rectify this situation, I am doing everything in my power to do so. I have set out my vision for the sector, as well as a roadmap to achieve it, in First 5, the whole-of-government strategy which I launched with the Taoiseach last November. Within First 5, there is a commitment to develop a workforce development plan which will ensure appropriate levels of early learning and care, ELC, and school-age childcare, SAC, staff at all levels in the sector. The rate of employees at graduate level currently stands at 22%. First 5 aims to increase this level to 30% by 2021 and to 50% by 2028.
The steering group for a new workforce development plan for the sector will meet for the first time on 30 May. The plan will include actions to move to a graduate-led workforce by 2028 and to raise the profile of careers in the sector. It will have regard to the development of a new funding model which will also seek to address workforce issues.
As the State is not the employer, I cannot set wage levels or determine working conditions. I have instead repeatedly called for the sector to pursue a sectoral employment order, which offers a viable mechanism to establish appropriate wage levels. My Department will readily co-operate with such a process when it is under way.
In the interim, I have introduced a range of measures to support employers to improve pay and conditions. These include a 117% increase in investment over the past four budgets; a 7% increase in early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme capitation in 2018; higher capitation payments for graduates and for inclusion co-ordinators; and annual programme support payments of over €19 million to recognise administrative demands.