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Workforce Development

Transforming Ireland’s early learning and childcare system

Katherine Zappone
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs

The government’s First 5 strategy identifies over 150 actions across the domains that affect young children’s lives, including ambitious and far-reaching actions related to the early learning and school-age childcare sector. In this article the Minister summarises the challenges facing the sector and the actions planned and currently being taken to meet them.

Maria Montessori, one of the most influential early childhood educators, once said: ‘Early childhood education is the key to the betterment of society.’ Montessori dedicated her life to finding a better way to teach young children so that they would fully develop their skills and reach their full potential. In similar ways, many of our early years practitioners working in the sector today are dedicating their lives, their energy, and their enthusiasm to children’s development, and by doing so are creating a better future for us all.

We still face challenges in ensuring that those working in the sector get the recognition they deserve for the important work they do. But these are challenges we are seeking to address in all the ways we possibly can. It is critical to improve conditions in the sector, given the importance for child outcomes of recruiting and retaining qualified staff and upskilling the current dedicated workforce. There is a need to recognise the true value of the work carried out by early learning and care and school-age childcare professionals every day, the work that is changing lives, transforming communities, and making our society better, one child at a time.

Addressing these challenges is a priority for me, as I know what a positive difference those who work in the sector can make to children’s lives and how valuable their work is. As you know, my Department is not the employer of early learning and care and school-age childcare staff – in that it does not pay the wages of staff and cannot set wage levels or determine working conditions for the staff. However, I am doing all that is in my power to improve wages and working conditions in the sector. I have repeatedly called for the sector to pursue a Sectoral Employment Order, which offers a viable mechanism to establish appropriate wage levels. My Department will readily cooperate with such a process if and when it is under way.

In 2017 I established a sustainability fund for the early learning and care and school-age childcare sector to assist high-quality services that were experiencing financial difficulties to transition themselves to a sustainable footing. This is part of a range of supports to services. In Budget 2020 I have increased the funding available under this fund to €2.2m and have asked that the use of the fund now be extended to support the sector in the event that the Labour Court introduces a Sectoral Employment Order in a sustainable way for the providers. 

During my time as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, my Department has increased its investment in Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare by 137%. The new National Childcare Scheme (NCS), which opens for applications on 20 November 2019, is the first ever statutory entitlement to financial support for early learning and care and school-age childcare. It will establish a sustainable platform to enable the Department to continue investing for years to come, and it is designed to be flexible, allowing income thresholds, maximum hours, and subsidy rates to be adjusted in line with government decisions and as more investment becomes available.

The NCS entails a fundamental shift away from subsidies grounded in medical-card and social-protection entitlements, and towards a comprehensive and progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies. By making this shift and by tangibly reducing the cost of quality early learning and care and school-age childcare for thousands of families across Ireland, the NCS aims to improve children’s outcomes, support lifelong learning, make working outside the home possible, and reduce child poverty. It is also designed to have a positive impact on gender equality in labour market participation and employment opportunities. It will support families with children aged between 24 weeks and 15 years who are attending any participating Tusla-registered ELC or SAC service, including any Tusla-registered childminder.

I am also pleased that I was able, as part of Budget 2020, to secure additional hours of subsidised income-based childcare. From September 2020, the maximu

m hours for the new scheme will increase from 40 to 45 hours per week, particularly benefiting parents of school-age children who need before-school and after-school childcare to include time for work and commuting. Low-income parents who are not working or studying will have their hours increased from 15 to 20. Also, parents who currently benefit from subsidies for 17 hours of School-Age Childcare per week will be subsidised for up to 22 hours of school-age childcare. These measures, I believe, will support our objective of promoting employment and reducing child poverty.

I was also able to secure additional funding in Budget 2020 to extend the ‘savers’ schemes beyond August 2020. This means that people who are registered on the Community Childcare Subvention (CCS) or Training and Employment Childcare (TEC) schemes before they close, and who retain their eligibility, will be able to remain on them indefinitely, until they no longer require early learning and care or school-age childcare. Parents using the saver arrangement can of course, at any point, move over to the NCS.

Another significant element of the increased early learning and care provision in Budget 2020 is the additional funding secured for the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM). AIM enables children with disabilities to access and fully participate in the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme. The increased funding will enable an additional 1,000 children to access targeted preschool supports, bringing the number availing of the scheme to approximately 6,600 children in 2019/20. This measure supports more equal access for children with disabilities to participate in high-quality early childhood care and education, which is critical to optimise their early development and better outcomes.

All of these initiatives support our ambitions under First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families (2019–2028), which was published in November 2018. First 5 identifies over 150 actions across the domains that impact on young children’s lives, including ambitious and far-reaching actions related to the early learning and care and school-age childcare sector. First 5 commits to at least doubling the investment in early learning and care and school-age childcare by 2028. A key vehicle to ensure that such significant additional investment delivers for children, families, and the State will be a new funding model for the sector.

The new funding model will be a crucial mechanism to deliver additional investment for early learning and care and school-age childcare, in order to improve affordability for parents, sustainability of providers, conditions for staff, and most importantly quality of services for children.

To lead the development of the funding model, I have appointed an expert group with expertise in early learning and care and school-age childcare systems, funding, and quality, as well as skills in economics and policy development. The group has been convened to examine the current model of funding for early learning and care and school-age childcare and its effectiveness in delivering quality, affordable, sustainable, and inclusive services. It will make recommendations on how additional funding for the sector can be structured to deliver on these objectives. Although this is a complex project and is likely to take some time to be developed, work is under way, and the expert group held its first meeting on 29 October 2019.

I have also set out my vision for the early years workforce, in First 5; indeed, First 5 contains a commitment to develop a Workforce Development Plan, which will ensure appropriate levels of ELC and SAC staff at all levels in the sector. As Minister I am acutely aware of the difficulties faced by providers in terms of recruitment, retention, and financial incentives for staff. The Workforce Development Plan aims to address these difficulties by establishing role profiles, career pathways, qualification requirements, and associated policy mechanisms. It will set out plans to raise the profile of careers in early learning and care and school-age childcare, establishing a career framework and leadership development opportunities and work towards a more gender-balanced and diverse workforce.

The Workforce Development Plan will be carried out in two stages. The first stage will involve preparation of a core report that sets out a high-level vision for the early learning and care and school-age childcare workforce for 2020–2028 and a pathway for achieving the commitments set out in First 5 for developing that workforce. It will include qualification requirements for different roles in the sector, including ELC, SAC, and childminders. This stage is expected to conclude by mid-2020. The second stage will involve completion of implementation plans by working groups to be specified in stage one. Stage two is expected to be completed by mid-2021.

While much has happened over the last few years in the sector, and we have definitely reached many milestones, I fully accept that there is still a lot of work to be done. I believe that my ambition and vision for the early learning and care and school-age childcare sector can be fully realised during the lifetime of the First 5 Workforce Development Plan – and that we can transform one of the most expensive early learning and care and school-age childcare systems in the world to one of the best, one that is fully accessible, affordable, and high-quality.

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