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'Dodging regulations and ratios happens everywhere' - The realities of working in childcare

Low wages, high staff turnover and common ratio breaches are not unusual in the childcare industry.

Childcare has been the focus of public attention this week.
Childcare has been the focus of public attention this week.
Image: Shutterstock/Ulza

THERE WAS WIDESPREAD anger and upset after an RTÉ Investigates programme aired earlier this week showed mistreatment of children at the Hyde & Seek childcare chain in Dublin. 

The practices seen on the programme such as adults yelling at young children, child to adult ratios being breached and watered down milk being served to children were extreme, but workers in the childcare industry have said some of these actions are not uncommon.

Going over child to staff ratios, poor pay and cutting corners for inspections are just some of the issues facing people in parts of the childcare industry. 

Source: RTÉ - IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA/YouTube

‘Disgusted, but in certain ways, unsurprised’

Niamh* is a childcare worker in Co Kildare who spoke to TheJournal.ie about her experience working in the industry for six years. 

She watched the RTÉ programme on Wednesday and said that although this was a particularly bad facility, some aspects of their actions were nothing new. 

“I was disgusted, but in certain ways unsurprised. It is not uncommon for creches to cut corners, especially in the private sector,” she said.

“What she [Anne Davy, owner of Hyde & Seek] did in terms of pushing children down and shouting was awful. But dodging regulations and ratios happens everywhere, that much I can guarantee.

“On paper, places are fully qualified and fully vetted but upstairs, there are people hiding without their uniforms on.”

This was in reference to a Tusla inspection that took place in her place of work last year. She said that six of her co-workers did not have all of the necessary childcare qualifications at the time, although they were in the process of gaining them. 

Some of her co-workers were also not garda vetted. Niamh said that her manager told Tusla they did not work for the facility. Although many of these workers have since gained their qualifications, two are still taking the necessary steps. 

“On the outside, a lot of places can come across as lovely but behind closed doors, it is completely different,” said Niamh. 

94% of childcare workers have a Level 5 qualification or above, according to a Pobal 2017/2018 report. 

Ratios breached

Niamh works with children aged between one and two. The ratio requirement for this age group in full-time or part-time day care is one adult for every five children. However, she said this is “not uncommon” for these ratios to be breached far too often. 

She spoke about one incident when there were 12 children in the room with her when no other staff members were present. 

“I notified the manager when 12 children were in the room and the manager said: ‘Well, what do you want me to do about it? We don’t have any extra staff’.”

“They would often be squeezing the maximum amount of space out of every room.”

She said that often, the daycare would be booked in for more children than the ratios allow and it was just hoped that a parent would cancel or a child would get sick.

“But we should be prepared to cater for those kids on the days when capacity is full,” she said. 

Most of the time, if the facility was breaching ratios, no extra staff would be called in. 

“I would be expecting that nine out of ten times, you are just told to suck it up and deal with it,” she said. 

No time to prepare

Last year, Niamh was asked to take on the role of organising the curriculum for her place of work. This extra role requires planning out different lessons for the children.

However, she has not been granted any paid time at work to plan for this since October. 

“We spend 40 hours a week working with the kids, and every hour of that is spent with them,” she said.

“I’m working with 10 or 11 kids every day and I’m not given any time to prepare.”

“You look at things like Aistear and see that it is brilliant, but we are not given the time to use it properly.”

Aistear is the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework for children from birth to six years. It is applicable to most situations and can be used with all curriculum approaches from Montessori to Reggio. 

“I used to have one hour a week to plan future lessons and things, but not anymore,” she said. 

“I am expected to do it for all the classes and I am expected to do it in my own time,” she said. 

Niamh earns €10.50 an hour and was given no pay increase to plan the curriculum. 

“The pay is awful for the amount of work we have to do. Most people who have been here for years, they are working for minimum wage,” she said.

Staff turnover 

High staff turnover is another huge issue in the childcare sector. 

According to a HSE report, staff turnover in the health sector in 2017 was 6.4%. Research from Adare Human Resource Management in 2018 of 260 organisations showed that businesses were expecting an 11% staff turnover for last year. 

The staff turnover rate for early childcare workers was 25% in 2017/2018, down from 28% the year before. 

The average hourly wage of staff working in the early years sector is €12.17, an increase of 2% from 2016/17. 

Donegal had a 34% rate of staff turnover, the highest in the country. Clare had the lowest with 18%.

An owner of a childcare facility in North Dublin said that although the situation shown in Hyde & Seek on the RTÉ programme was “evil”, it is not the biggest issue in the childcare industry. 

“The big problem in childcare comes when it becomes a business,” the owner said. 

“People have relied on devotion to keep childcare running, and this just isn’t enough.”

“As a business, it doesn’t make any money unless you cheat. You just can’t make a living out of it.”

“There are huge problems and parents are paying a fortune to keep their children in childcare,” they said. 

High price for parents

Childcare is a huge expense for parents in Ireland with the average cost of full-time childcare per child currently standing at €177.92 per week, according to a 2017/2018 report by Pobal.

According to OECD statistics, childcare in Ireland costs 30% of a net household income for a couple with two children on average. This is the second highest percentage in the EU.

Countrywide, average fees are highest in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown which has an average full-time weekly fee of €233.26 per child.

The 2019 budget announced an €89 million childcare allocation, €61 million of which will be spent on different childcare schemes.

As the total budget is €66.5 billion, this represents around 0.13% of the total budget. 

OECD’s Education at a Glance 2017 report showed that Ireland’s expenditure on early childhood years education at this time amounted to 0.1% of GDP compared with the EU average of 0.8%.  

 *Name has been changed for confidentiality purposes

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