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‘Children's needs should be the priority for after-school services’

Prevention and Early Intervention expert Marian Quinn outlines the need for a reimagined after-school sector on the other side of Covid-19.

Marian Quinn Chair, Prevention and Early Intervention Network

This is the final in a four-part series of letters addressed to new Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, Roderic O’Gorman, on the future of childcare in Ireland. This morning we hear about the need for change in the after-school sector. 

DEAR MINISTER O’GORMAN,

After-school provision is well established as an important mechanism for supporting, not only children’s learning and social development, but parental childcare needs, and indeed the emphasis has tended to be on the latter. 

Recent experiences have demonstrated the true value of frontline, often underpaid, staff, as well as the importance of group and community connectivity and the challenges for families when these supports are removed. 

We now have an opportunity to reimagine and create a new way of delivering services which recognise these factors and respond to the multiplicity of needs.

  • Read more here on how you can support a Noteworthy project to examine how we can construct a childcare system in post-pandemic Ireland that works for everyone.

The Prevention and Early Intervention Network (PEIN) which I chair promotes and supports high quality, evidence-based policy and practice and our members include those delivering services to children and families across the country, as well as those involved in advocacy and research work. 

Many of our members provide after-school services across the continuum of need. This includes universal provision, often offered through early years services; progressive universalism, where the service is offered to all children in a certain geographical area or target group; and targeted provision with specific anticipated outcomes and referral criteria such as pro-social behaviour interventions.

There is incredible work happening during the after-school period, whether that’s giving children a safe place to chill after a busy day or to do their homework; thematic provision such as arts activities; or services aimed at supporting children who have additional needs or vulnerabilities.

‘Inevitably Inconsistency’

Inevitably though, there is inconsistency. Why inevitably you might ask? 

We have long known the value of high quality services for children, and the benefits subsequently reaped by their provision. We have learnt a great deal about what children need and how to implement effective services, and we have a creative, dynamic and highly skilled workforce. 

And, yet, we are a long way from being confident that all children, in any location, have access to universal and targeted services which meet their needs.    

The first standards for out-of-school provision came into effect in early 2019. Prior to that, there was no clarity and no agreed expectations on the quality, staffing or content of services provided to children in the after-school space. These standards were initiated following the development of a comprehensive action plan for providing childcare after-school.     

However, this process was fundamentally flawed from the outset because it considered provision only in the context of supporting parental employment and did not focus on the ways in which after-school provision could, should (and often does) meet children’s needs. 

Furthermore, the Department of Education and Skills remains clear that it has no function in or responsibility for the quality of provision in after-school services, regardless of their potential to enable positive educational outcomes. These two policy issues are fundamental to the difficulties in the sector. 

We won’t be able to provide consistent, high quality, evidence-led services outside of school settings until there is recognition that educational needs are also met outside of class and that we must give at least as much attention to children’s needs as those of parents and employers. 

Time for a ‘reimagined sector’

A reimagined sector for out-of-school services would be supported by a whole-of-government approach to meeting children’s needs, which recognises that children learn and develop in and out of school and that maximises all opportunities to enable them to maximise their potential.

We also need to ensure that parental employment needs are not allowed to take precedence over those of children and are managed through connected policy and stakeholder engagement.

Resource allocation should recognise that we need to provide ongoing opportunities for professional development, and we should also be creative about utilising the expertise already existing in the sector.

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Minimum standards also need to be set that go beyond existing regulations to encompass the quality of relationship, parental participation and the provision of tailored, evidence-informed approaches. 

And, as we continue to explore how to navigate the current pandemic, after-school services should be seen as an important, flexible and accessible mechanism through which we can enable children to relearn how to socialise and connect and re-establish a sense of community.

Marian Quinn is chair of the Prevention and Early Intervention Network and has previously worked in the Department of Justice where she had responsibility for children and families in the asylum process, and the Health Services Executive as Director of Children’s Services.

CHILDCARE CROSSROADS Investigation 

Do you want to know the toll that the pandemic has taken on the childcare sector?

The Noteworthy team wants to do an in-depth investigation into this issue and examine how we can build a more resilient and reliable childcare system for Ireland’s future.

Here’s how to help support this proposal> 

About the author:

Marian Quinn  / Chair, Prevention and Early Intervention Network

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