I acknowledge that many early learning and care and school-age childcare services are reporting staffing and recruitment challenges, with increased pressures as a result of Covid-19. There is no official data on the extent of such shortages. However, officials in my Department have been actively monitoring the issue and have sought data and evidence-based proposals from sectoral representatives on the Covid Advisory Group on Reopening, which has been meeting regularly over recent months. The Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme is available to the early learning and childcare sector, with a full exemption to the turnover rule, to assist them with staffing costs.
I am committed to supporting providers in responding to current challenges. In designing responses, it is important that any measures considered are proportionate to the problem they seek to address and that wider impacts would be carefully considered. In that regard, it is important to stress that the minimum qualification requirement to work directly with children in an early learning care service (Level 5 on the National Framework of Qualifications) was introduced in 2016 in order to improve the quality of provision and to achieve better outcomes for children. (There is currently no minimum qualification requirement for staff working in school-age childcare.) To remove this minimum qualification requirement could be contrary to the best interests of children and the vision for the sector that is outlined in First 5 , the whole-of-Government strategy to improve the lives of babies, young children and their families. Such a move could be a significant backwards step in efforts to improve quality outcomes for children and could only be considered if there were a very strong evidence base requiring a change.
Staffing and recruitment difficulties are being caused not by insufficient supply of qualified personnel, but by high levels of turnover and attrition. This is predominantly down to poor terms and conditions in the workforce, with for example, the average pay being €12.55 per hour, and half of staff only being able to access part-time contracts. It is expected that poor terms and conditions will be addressed in the medium to long term via three plans currently being pursued by Government: a new funding model, a workforce development plan and additional investment. Short-term measures are more challenging to find and, as stated above, the Department continues to work intensively with sectoral representatives to examine what might be possible. One potential solution that has been proposed by the sector is being given active attention at the moment by the Department of Education and Skills and my Department.
With reference to the example suggested by the Deputy of allowing retired teachers to work in the sector, individuals who hold qualifications to teach in primary schools have previously been approved by my Department to work in early learning and care services, and my Department’s list of recognised qualifications includes a number of teaching qualifications. In reality this is not likely to be a major source of staff due to the sectoral terms and conditions referred to above. The list of qualifications eligible to work in the sector can be found on my Department’s website. Any individual who holds a qualification not on this list may apply to my Department for recognition of their qualifications.