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Dublin: 1 °C Wednesday 26 February, 2020

Column: We must tackle the underinvestment in pre-school education

Ireland has historically tries to provide education ‘on the cheap’ by affording remarkable influence to religious bodies and other patrons, so the recent childcare controversy should shock – but not necessary surprise – us, writes, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Senator, Labour

JUST LIKE EVERYONE who viewed last week’s Primetime Investigates programme, I was appalled at the images shown on screen. While the vast majority of childcare workers are exemplary professionals, what we witnessed in the ‘Breach of Trust’ programme amounted to emotional abuse and an outrageous disregard for vulnerable children.

Sadly, despite the immediate outburst of outrage from political and media circles, it would appear that this is already last week’s news. Time moves on and people have already progressed onto the next major revelation. However, what the programme failed to highlight, and what the media analysis since has failed to engage with is our underinvestment in pre-school education over many generations. That is the enduring scandal.

The importance of early education

The international research is overwhelming. The Hart and Risley report of 1995 showed that the average three-year-old from a disadvantaged background has only one-third the vocabulary of a three-year-old from a professional family. The positive impact of early education, focusing particularly on oral language and social skills is undeniable. However, the state has concentrated its funding on school-going children.

Right at the time when enlightened educationalists across Europe were investing in early year education and state-sponsored childcare, Irish governments were giving politically advantageous direct payments to families by means of child benefit and childcare supplement. Instead of building an educational strategy for those crucial early years, successive governments abdicated on this responsibility.

The only rebalancing of this state neglect came a number of years ago when, as a cost cutting measure, the childcare supplement payment was replaced by a free pre-school year known as the ECCE (Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme). So we outsourced our state-sponsored education to the private sector, and hoped for the best.

Getting education ‘on the cheap’

We should not be surprised at this outsourcing model. It is what we have always done. Since the establishment of the Irish state, patron bodies have fiercely guarded their educational independence. We have a state funded education system which affords remarkable influence to the religious bodies and others who act as patrons of our primary and secondary schools. We have historically liked getting education on the cheap, so the recent controversy should shock, but not necessary surprise many.

Rather than discussing more state inspection, overseeing the national curricular frameworks of the Aistear and Síolta programmes, and potentially rowing out a second free ECCE year, the backlash has started. Conservative commentators have already opened their phrase-books and are talking about ‘institutional day-care’ in classic scaremongering fashion.

Let’s be clear about one thing,  none of the scenes illustrated on the Primetime ‘Breach of Trust’ programme would ever occur in an infant class in an Irish primary school. That is why we need more state involvement, for the benefit of the children and their families. A second ECCE year would cost approximately €137 million. Considering the prohibitive costs of childcare to families, and the benefits that three years can garner from social interaction, positive interaction and oral language development – the campaign for this investment should continue.

Tackling the issues raised

This government, I believe, is in a much better position to tackle the issues raised by the Primetime programme than any previous administration.  With a committed Minister for Children & Youth Affairs at the cabinet table, these issues are discussed at the highest level, where they belong. What we have achieved in the realm of children’s rights in the last two years should not be underestimated: the passing of the children’s rights referendum, the establishment of the Child and Family Support Agency, the roll out of the national primary and secondary literacy strategy, the removal of children from incarceration in St Patrick’s Institution and the funding of area-based anti-child poverty strategies in Darndale, Ballymun and Tallaght.

We have more to achieve including an honest discussion about balancing the needs of direct payments to families versus investment in social infrastructure and this should inform future budgetary decisions.

We need as a society to examine how best we care for our children, what we really want for our children in those formative years, and who best should be charged at delivering that service. It is important that we do not let investment in childcare and childhood to slip off the national agenda. We must ensure that our childcare facilities are properly inspected and that children are protected. We should not shy away from facing up to our past failures, and to invest more where it can make the most difference to our children’s futures.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is a Labour TD for Dublin North Central and the Vice Chair of the Joint Committee on Education & Social Protection. Prior to entering politics he worked as a Principal in Dublin’s Sheriff Street. He tweets at @Aodhanoriordain.

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About the author:

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin  / Senator, Labour

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