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Column: Our children are an investment worth making

Budget 2014 is an opportunity to take stock of how we prioritise children and whether we put our money where our mouth is, writes Irene Gunning.

Irene Gunning

WITHOUT QUESTION, our most important resource as a nation is our growing population of children. They are the lifeblood of the country. In economic terms they demand heavy investment in the ‘development’, requiring feeding, clothing, minding, teaching with a good dollop of love!

But, within 20 years or so, it is payback time as they evolve into the teachers, the farmers, the builders, the inventors, the lawyers, the doctors, the artists, the economists, the guardians of the Irish economy.

These are the future ‘knowledge workers’ who will keep the rest of the population warm and cosy into retirement. And we’d do well to remember that.

So, when talking ‘return on investment’ in Budget 2014, Ministers Noonan and Howlin must heed the recommendations of the Right from the Start report of the Expert Advisory Group on Early Years Strategy which was presented to Minister Fitzgerald, the children’s champion, last week. Hopefully, this comprehensive report has given Minister Fitzgerald the ammunition to convince her cabinet colleagues that children are an investment worth making.

Positive outcomes for children

As a member of that report’s Advisory Group, we in Early Childhood Ireland see it as an essential guide to achieving our own organisation’s mission of ‘enabling the provision of quality early childhood care and education in Ireland, with positive outcomes for children.’ Indeed, our 3,300 members around the country, who between them employ some 18,000 childcare professionals supporting over 100,000 children and their families through preschool, afterschool and full daycare provision, are the front row audience for this report.

This 148 page report is published online by the Department of Children & Youth Affairs, and is essential reading for parents, grandparents, childcare practitioners, teachers and tax payers alike. It is full of common sense and repeats recommendations Early Childhood Ireland has been making on behalf of our members for years. Taking a holistic view of young child growing up in Ireland, this report interconnects care and education – as it should be – while spelling out the required 0.7 per cent of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) investment in the early years sector within the next five years, moving to 1 per cent of GDP as soon as we can.

It’s great to see this emphasis, throughout the report, on quality, instead of the of the bricks and mortar approach. We know that only quality experience matters for young children and anything short of this can be detrimental.

Increase in parental leave

The recommended increase in parental leave to one year, with the option for parents to share this leave between them will be welcomed by hard-pressed mums, dads and grandparents across the country.

While some are already questioning if Ireland can afford this, we say look first at the benefits to the child and indeed to the parents to put this investment into context. Parents are the primary carers of children and, as such, they must be supported in doing this job which pays dividends in later years for every member of Irish society.

Likewise, those charged with wellbeing and development of children in preschool, must also be supported. Therefore, key recommendations in relation to the training and mentoring of childcare professionals to graduate level and incentivising this drive towards better qualifications through higher pay, are both timely and sensible.

Meanwhile, we need to dispel this myth that ‘anyone can mind children.’ We already have a world class preschool curriculum in Ireland called Aistear and Siolta, but this can only be implemented nationwide through proper investment and resources.

Other key recommendations in relation to the preschool inspection process to make it more robust, consistent and effective in order to combat the current inconsistencies and infrequency, are good for the sector and will give better peace of mind to parents who leave their child each working day in the charge of their local daycare centre.

Early childhood care and education investment

Of course, when talking about childhood in Ireland, we must talk in the here and now. The stark reality today is that early childhood care and education investment in Ireland runs at only 0.4 per cent of GDP annually, lagging way behind the European average of 1 per cent of GDP.

In parallel, the burden on parents in terms of how childcare is paid for needs to be addressed, as well as the very low pay scales for staff in the early childhood care and education sector where higher qualifications do not result in higher remuneration. The majority of those working in the sector are low paid (average €10.50 per hour for those with Level 5 qualifications), have little access to continuing professional development and are paid only for the time spent directly with children.

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Budget 2014 can change this reality and this Tuesday 15th October is a day to take stock of how we prioritise children and whether we put our money where our mouth is.

This hugely important debate will continue amongst 400 delegates from across the country and from the international stage when they all descend on the Aviva Stadium from 16th to 19th October to discuss, challenge, celebrate and consider new and better ways of supporting young children’s well-being, learning and development.

Let’s challenge the status quo

This Global Gathering entitled ‘Today’s Children, Tomorrow’s World, Turning Points?’ will draw on the expertise from home and abroad on hot topics such as the power of play, increasing stress levels amongst children, Ireland’s proposed Early Years Strategy and the required investment in children and with 90 research papers being presented we will leave no stone unturned.

As a society we must challenge the status quo and actually define what childhood in Ireland should look like. Our conference will do this by road testing the ‘Right from the Start’ report and the debate will have something for everyone from childcare professionals to primary teachers, parents and policy makers alike.

Check out www.earlychildhood2013.ie for more information.

Irene Gunning is CEO at Early Childhood Ireland. Early Childhood Ireland is the representative group for 3,330 childcare professionals who support over 100,000 children and their families through preschool, after school and full daycare (crèche) provision nationwide. For more articles by Irene for TheJournal.ie please click here.

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Irene Gunning

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