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Column 'Free preschool has to be backed by strong political will'

Education and care go hand in hand, argues Irene Gunning, and the care of toddlers and preschoolers can’t be separated as two different processes.

THE SUSTAINABILITY OF the free preschool scheme was high on the agenda for the 250 delegates attending our conference “Leading the Way in Early Childhood Care & Education” in the RDS over the weekend.

As the representative group for 80 per cent of preschools, daycare, parent & toddler and after school services, we are calling for an additional €5 million budget to maintain the free preschool scheme to deal with Ireland’s baby boom.  While our members were somewhat reassured by the Minister for Children’s comments that the free preschool year is here to stay, this has got to be backed up by strong political will to keep this scheme free and universal.

Referred to as the ECCE (Early Childhood Care & Education) scheme, this is I believe the best single policy measure ever and it has saved the childcare sector from buckling under, but finances are still too tight for many.  The way the ECCE scheme works is that the government are the buyers and control the price as they put the money into the services and parents put their children into the services.  However, there’s only so much downward pressure that can be applied to the capitation rate, without putting people out of business.  I would invite politicians to have a go at balancing the books of their local preschool for just one week, to get  a true sense of the challenges being faced every day by those working in the sector.

“If we are to follow that utopian childcare model in Scandinavia… we have to invest in the sector to get there”

Through the scheme, we’ve embraced more young children from disadvantaged backgrounds into preschool, something they wouldn’t perhaps have experienced without the ECCE scheme. We want to repeat our call to expand the scheme to 2 years, as Ireland plays catch up with our European partners who have way more State investment in both preschool and after school services.  We must also address the needs of children with special needs who also have a right to attend preschool.  If we are to follow that utopian childcare model in Scandinavian countries that Minister Joan Burton refers to, we have got to invest in the sector to get there.

And speaking of Minister Burton, the escalating debate around childcare for lone parents in light of proposed social welfare changes was considered by our 250 delegates who came from after school services nationwide, as well as preschool and daycare.  We were reminded by those delegates that we already have the blueprint for the free preschool scheme, a scheme that was fast-tracked by this sector as we demonstrated great flexibility in implementing this scheme over the past 2 years.  This blueprint will be the starting point for joint discussions with Ministers Burton and Fitzgerald regarding their action plan to support lone parents with the best quality childcare.

We will also use our meeting with Minister Burton to once again warn her about proposed legislation whereby employers would be made responsible for the first four weeks of an employee’s sick leave.  If implemented, this would devastate the sector because of the ratio regulations and many providers would simply have to close their doors as they couldn’t afford that double whammy in terms of cost.

The recent €60 million in applications from the childcare sector for capital grants from a €6 million fund was also discussed, and this is a sign of the times and indicative of the needs for building improvements in the sector.  Responding to this and expanding the fund will have real benefits to childcare providers, the construction industry and the children.

“There are inconsistencies around whether childcare facilities qualify as ‘education facilities’ which are exempt from rates”

Another bugbear for our members that raised its head at the conference is the issue of commercial rates and the inconsistencies around the country about whether childcare facilities qualify as ‘education facilities’ which are exempt from rates.  This is an issue that both Minister Fitzgerald and Minister Hogan are well aware of and we need a solution fast before more people go out of business, the last straw being their big rates bills.

We have argued with both Ministers that the care and education of toddlers and preschoolers can’t be separated out as two different processes, something that is actually reflected through the merger of the inspection process between the Department of Health and the Department of Education, which makes absolute sense.  Education and care go hand in hand and the bottom line is that more childcare services should qualify as education facilities and therefore be exempt from rates automatically.

It was heart-warming to hear keynote speaker Dr Anne Looney, CEO of NCCA (National Council for Curriculum & Assessment) acknowledge the leading role that early education and care plays in modern day Ireland.  What a champion for the early years sector Anne is.  I totally agree with her observation that the most important influence in education is not the policy, or the curriculum, or the building, all important elements in their own right.

Rather it is the quality of the adult that interacts with the child and it’s not just how well they know their stuff that matters. It is what they believe that really counts. Do they believe that every child can learn and has the potential to succeed?  We’ve got recognise the quality people working in the early years sector and invest in them through continuous professional development and training.

We welcome the Minister for Children’s announcement of a new Expert Group to advise on Ireland’s first Early Year’s Strategy, and I look forward to playing my part on that group.   Childcare is a critical issue that must be higher on the government agenda and linked directly to jobs.

To put it in context, the early childhood care and education sector generates almost €320 million in salaries, with a further €105 million spent in the wider economy and employs 22,000 qualified professionals.

Every effort must be made to that services remain open and viable, so that they can support children and enable parents to participate in the workforce.

Irene Gunning is CEO at Early Childhood Ireland.

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