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Why do childcare workers earn such low wages while parents pay high fees?

Thousands of childhood professionals are taking to the streets across the country this weekend to protest over a fundamental imbalance in their industry.

EARLY CHILDHOOD PROFESSIONALS are this Saturday taking to the streets in Cork, Dublin and Sligo in a bid to secure a wage that is commensurate with their important role of supporting children and families at the key stage in the young child’s development.

When childcare was first provided outside of the home it was generally by the woman who lived down the road and took in a few children to supplement the family income as she raised her own children. There were no requirements in terms of qualifications, regulations, inspections, observations, curriculum planning, continuous professional development, community involvement, etc. This woman kept the child safe and fed and her job was done.

The vista of early childhood and care is completely different in 2015. Today, the practitioner is a professional person whose role extends beyond their care work with the children.

What is expected of an early childcare professional, and why?

Today’s professional must still ensure that the children are kept safe and fed but there is so much more expected with it. This heightened expectation is because we know so much more about child development.

Research indicates that early experiences affect the quality of the architecture of the brain by establishing either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all of the learning, health and behaviour that follow. The brain is more ‘plastic’ at this stage and so young children can learn at a more accelerated rate – just look at how quickly and effortlessly the young child becomes fluent in at least one language.

The role of the early childhood professional is to support the child and family during this critical stage of development. Childcare has now extended to include early childhood educator, administrator, curriculum planner, researcher, cleaner, counsellor, communicator, parent coach, nurse, facilitator… and the list goes on. The amazing thing is that all these services are provided by one very capable multi-tasker who earns little more that minimum wage!

This vital work is becoming impossible 

The early childhood workforce is at breaking point and can no longer afford to deliver this level of service for the pay they receive. Many have to take on a second job and increasing numbers are making the difficult decision to leave the profession that they love but cannot afford to remain in.

Students in colleges are reconsidering working with our youngest citizens and are applying for further courses to transfer to primary teaching or completely moving from the idea of working with children at all.

Car loans, mortgages, pensions and medical insurance are unaffordable. Employers struggle to take a wage themselves after they pay all the costs that are associated with delivering high quality early education and care. Wage bills account for 60-80% of these costs even though many are on little more than minimum wage.

Adult-to-child ratios

This is because of the adult-to-child ratios that are required under legislation. In baby rooms there is one adult for every three children. In the toddler room this increases to1:5 and in the preschool room it is 1:8 for full daycare and 1:11 for sessional services. Add to this the cost of rent/mortgage, rates, utilities, training, resources, insurance, programme costs and maintenance and you can see why the cost to parents is so high and why wages are so low.

Early childhood education and care meets two distinct set of needs. The first is supporting children and parents with early learning. This period is the foundation stage that primary and post primary build on, yet it fails to be recognised in this context and so fails to receive the level of government funding that it requires.

Secondly, it also meets the care needs of parents who work outside the home. For both these reasons, early care and education needs to be recognised as a public service and allocated appropriate funding.

The level of funding is simply not enough to provide quality care

The key fact behind the Dublin, Cork and Sligo rallies is the stark reality that Ireland currently spends 0.2% of GDP on the early childhood sector, compared to an OECD average of 0.7%.

This level of funding is inadequate to deliver high quality early care and education. There is an expectation that this service can be provided using a market model but the regulatory requirements make that impossible without increasing the cost to parents and this is not a viable option. State investment is the only solution.

Research indicates that this investment will yield high financial and societal returns in terms of reduced spending on health, justice, social welfare and educational intervention. Further financial gains will occur from an increase in workforce participation and in tax returns.

Investment in early childhood education and care is a win-win scenario if only our government had the political bravery to grasp this nettle and be progressive instead of merely reactive.

Marian Quinn, Chairperson of the Association of Childhood Professionals. For further details on Saturday’s rallies visit

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