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'Government thinks it's perfectly acceptable for childcare workers to have absolutely no training'

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has rowed back on its promise that every childcare worker will need a minimum qualification by this September.

ANY ONE OF us who watched the Prime Time Programme A Breach of Trust will remember the scenes of children being manhandled, shouted at, restrained for long times – those scenes of mistreatment, which we watched just over two years ago, will stay with us for a long time yet. But apparently not with the Minister or Department of Children and Youth Affairs, who have just rowed back on their promise that every childcare worker would need a minimum qualification by September of this year.

The Pre-School Quality Agenda was announced after that Prime Time broadcast, and included a requirement for a minimum level of qualification (Level 5 – equivalent to Leaving Cert). The sector was given two years to get its house in order. Some financial support was put in place to help people get training, and the deadline of September 2015 was set.

Many committed professionals, dedicated to the early education of the children in their care, made sure they could meet the deadline. They undertook, usually on their own time and often entirely at their own expense, training to make sure they met (or exceeded) the new qualification requirements.

Now, two years later, the government has delayed the requirement for minimum qualifications – a central plank of the Pre-School Quality Agenda –for another 12 months. So it is still perfectly acceptable for childcare workers to have absolutely no training or qualifications.

Why don’t we demand better for our children?

Imagine if school-teachers didn’t need any qualification. Imagine if only 1 in every 8 teachers, who help our children learn, had been to college and have a degree. We wouldn’t accept it. We would demand better for our children. Yet we don’t demand that for our younger children. One of the greatest indicators of quality in early education is the qualifications of staff. The CoRe report, prepared for the European Commission in 2011, recommended that 60% of staff in early care and education services be graduates. In Ireland it’s around 13%. And now we’ve even delayed the requirement to have a basic qualification for another year.

And deeper problems remain that the Government has not yet even tried to address. The childcare workers whose behaviour was caught on camera by Prime Time two years ago were products of a sector in which many staff earn the minimum wage despite the high fees paid by parents; a sector in which working conditions are poor, with many staff laid off in the summer months every year; a sector in which many services have not been inspected for four or five years, and inspectors themselves are Public Health Nurses who are not required to have any training or qualifications in early childhood care and education.

We need to start taking this seriously

Irish parents pay some of the highest costs in the world for childcare without any guarantee of quality. We don’t generally regard childcare as a cost to be shared between parents and the government, instead expecting parents to pay all the costs outside of the Free Pre-School Year hours. That’s reflected in the numbers. We spend less than 0.2% of our GDP on early years services, the OECD average is 0.8%. The international quality benchmark is 1% – five times what we spend at the moment. And the little we do spend isn’t even linked to quality.

This is despite the reams of international evidence that show the huge benefits of high-quality early care and education. Studies, surveys and research that demonstrate how high-quality early care and education strengthens the foundations of children’s learning and development, resulting in higher skills, educational attainment and even lifetime earnings. That same evidence also shows that those benefits don’t happen unless it is of high quality. Where early care and education is poor quality, children don’t benefit and can be harmed.

Much of the political debate about childcare over the last while has been about the high cost to parents. We are anxious to see the report of the Inter-Departmental Group set up by the current Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, James Reilly TD, to look at future options. Of course, the high cost for parents must be addressed. But it must not be at the expense of children themselves. Any measures to address the cost of childcare must put children’s interests first. That means early years services must be high quality, with workers who are all qualified and who are recognised as professionals, with the pay and working conditions of professionals and with an inspection system that puts an end to low quality childcare.

Let us hope Minister Reilly has really learned the lessons of Prime Time. The only way to ensure childcare is both affordable and high quality is through public investment, and linking public funding to quality standards.

Ciairín de Buis is Director of Start Strong, a coalition group campaigning to improve government policy on early years in Follow on Twitter @StartStrongIrlor like on Facebook

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