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'If we want better people working in childcare, we need better working terms'

Policy is driving precarious work for professionals in childcare, writes Sinead Pembroke.

HOW MUCH DO we know about the working conditions of the early years’ educators who look after and teach our pre-school children?

A lot of the media focus tends to be on the cost of childcare, and malpractices within the childcare sector.

However, very little is known about the terms and conditions of employment, which is predominantly insecure, temporary, and low paid.

Childcare workers are well qualified and on 10.27 an hour

There are 23,000 people employed in childcare. They’re mostly female with a minimum qualification of FETAC level 5. There has been a big push to professionalise the sector, and as a result there has been an increase in the amount of graduates working in childcare.

However, the average rate of pay is 10.27 euros per hour. Consequently, the majority of early years’ educators are well qualified and employed on a low hourly rate, with no job security and no career progression.

For example, one woman I spoke to had finished her Masters and she was on ten euros an hour with no prospect of getting a pay increase.

There are 4,500 providers; about a third of the services are community providers and two thirds are private providers. Private providers are usually small, employing four or five people, and a lot of the older operators are self-employed.

While parents pay high fees, most are only just about staying afloat, and as a business it is not sustainable.

The ECCE scheme is driving working conditions down

State investment into the sector is low by European standards; 0.2% of GDP funds go into childcare whereas the European average is 0.8%. The UNICEF goal is 1% of GDP being invested into the sector.

State funding comes in the form of the Early Childhood and Care Education programme (ECCE), which gives a free pre-school year to all children. Approximately 95% of all childcare services offer this.

On this scheme, early years educators are employed on a fixed term contract of 38 weeks a year, working part-time for fifteen hours per week, (three hours per day). Once the 38 weeks are over, educators go on the dole for the summer months, after which they will either be issued with another 38-week part-time contract or not; there is no guarantee they have a job to go back to.

There are no employment benefits such as a pension, maternity pay, and little if any sick pay for educators employed on the ECCE scheme.

They are paid for three hours of contact time with a child, but there’s a huge amount of work that goes on outside of the paid three hours, such as observation reports, preparation work and other administrative responsibilities they have to complete.

Impact on lives of early years’ educators

We also have to think about the effect this is having on the lives of our early years’ educators; they are unable to plan for the future, such as start a family, buy a house or apartment, or even to afford some independence to rent on their own.

Early years’ educators are incredibly devoted and passionate about their profession, but they don’t feel respected because of the poor working conditions that are being promoted under the ECCE scheme.

If their working conditions are not changed to give them job security, better rates of pay with pay increments and payment for non-contact time, then they will have no option but to leave the sector altogether.

Policy driven precarity in childcare sector

Consequently, the precarious nature of the childcare sector is policy driven because a lot of providers are dependent on State funding. More and more services are going towards the ECCE scheme, and that by nature is more precarious.

Community not-for-profit providers were traditionally funded by the childcare subvention scheme, and this model provided for full-time, permanent positions with much higher rates of pay. The latter funding model shows that government policy can be used in a positive way to drive employment practices in the childcare sector.

If we want better quality, devoted, and well qualified people working in childcare services, then we need working terms and conditions to match.

Sinead Pembroke is a researcher at TASC (Think-Tank on Action for Social Change).

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