Wednesday, 25 October 1995
Dáil Éireann Debate
“That Dáil Éireann calls on the Government to formulate a comprehensive and co-ordinated national policy on early education embracing all existing providers of early education in Ireland at present and calls on the Ministers for Education and Health to take the following interim steps as a means towards achieving this objective:
—to establish a National Forum on Early Education made up of representatives from all groups involved in the provision of such education along with representatives from the relevant Government Departments;
—to cease the expansion of the Early Start Programme any further until genuine consultations and negotiations leading to an agreed plan take place with the Irish Pre-School Playgroups Association, An Comhchoiste Réamhscolaíochta, the Association Montessori International, the St. Nicholas Montessori Society, the National Children's Nursery Association and the INTO;
in particular, as one element of the Minister for Education's comprehensive policy for tackling disadvantage in the educational system, it commends the Minister for the establishment, following the most detailed research and preparation, of a high quality pre-school service in areas of disadvantage; and
commends the Minister for Health for implementing a range of initiatives in the area of pre-school care under the 1991 Child Care Act and for the financial and other supports given to voluntary playgroups and other early childhood services”.
Mr. L. Fitzgerald: Molaim an rún atá os comhair na Dála ag an Teachta Martin. Tá sé mar phríomh-aidhm aige polasaí náisiúnta oideachais don aos óg  a chruthú a bheadh comhraghaithe agus forleathan agus ag an am céanna a bhainfeadh fiuntas iomlán — agus tá sin an-thábhachtach — as na seirbhísigh uilig atá ar fáil i láthair na huaire.
I congratulate Deputy Martin on bringing this motion before the House and for the obvious research into its formulation. In particular, I congratulate him on the constructive and positive spirit in which he introduced it. In supporting his case I want to refer briefly to some of the points behind the motion.
I do not wish to knock the early start programme. As I understand it and from talking to teachers, including former colleagues, the early start programme is based on the philosophy of early intervention being targeted at areas of greatest socio-economic disadvantage and marginalisation. It reminds me of the head start programme undertaken in the United States which I studies many years ago. That programme was introduced in the 1970s but as I cannot recall its details and could not find any information about it last night, I cannot say to what extent the early start programme models itself on the United States programme. I recall that case studies were carried out at the time which indicated that this type of early intervention had obvious positive effects.
I must declare a previous vested interest in regard to this debate. I am not saying that primary teachers are not the appropriate profession to implement the early start programme's elements and modules and I am satisfied that nothing in this motion attempts to make that charge. The Fianna Fáil position is that the whole question of early childhood education, if it is to seriously and profoundly address the major challenges faced by a young child growing up in an increasingly more complex environment, must take full account of the totality of needs of the three year old child. We are saying there must be  a comprehensive, co-ordinated national policy in this area. In the absence of such a clearly thought out and well defined policy all that is left is patchwork. Despite all the merits of the early start programme, without a national policy there will be merely patchwork and ad hoc solutions. The Minister of State is, unwittingly, going down this road.
I do not intend detailing the merits of the philosophy and ideology of play and creativity for children; all of us who have studied education are fully familiar with those. The challenge to this House is for a full national debate on the needs of the pre-school child and I am glad the Minister of State with responsibility for children is present. Such a debate will have to embrace all the existing providers of early education, including voluntary groups, the community, professionals and statutory organisations.
I put it to the Minister of State — and he has had a great deal of involvement with children — that if the early start programme is progressed and expanded and if the Department's policy proceeds along that line, it will create a two-tier system. That is very dangerous because those who opt for the State system the Minister has hurriedly put in place will have enormous resources, and I concede that major resources are being made available to the early start programme. Those who continue to opt for the non-State structures, already in place in some cases for over 20 years, or who cannot find places on the early start programme will be at an acute disadvantage. Is this duplication really necessary? Has the Minister sufficiently thought out what she wants to achieve in relation to the whole question of early childhood education? I believe she has not. In turning her back on the providers of this service, she made a fundamental blunder but it not too late for her to seriously examine the suggestion behind this motion.
Mr. Gregory: I will not have time to go through the various aspects of the motion but I pay tribute to the work of  the Irish Pre-School Playgroups' Association which has worked in areas of social disadvantage, with which I am familiar, when nobody else either seemed to care or to be doing anything for children in that age group. I hope its concerns will be met by the Minister.
I want to concentrate on the Government amendment to this motion which I find quite offensive. I refer in particular to the first section which commends the Government for the initiatives it has taken to alleviate the effects of social disadvantage on the educational welfare of children. This Government has done the exact opposite. It has concentrated resources on the children of the rich who least need them by giving free third level education at a time when primary education——
Mr. Gregory: I will continue, hopefully uninterrupted, but the interruption is an indication that the Labour Party is particularly sensitive to the fact that it has given the resources of this State to the children of the rich——
I am still waiting for the Minister for Education to respond to a request from many groups throughout the centre of Dublin — the Minister of State present is aware of this — for a community college in the Sean McDermott Street area. The Minister of State, Deputy Currie, was positive in his response to me but, unfortunately, the Minister does not appear to be in a position to make a decision on this matter.
Deputy Currie is also familiar with the Cherry Orchard area of Ballyfermot where they do not have any school. There is 50 per cent unemployment in the area and the children of those people, whom our friends in the Labour Party were elected to represent, cannot afford to travel to schools in other districts. The area has the highest absenteeism from primary schools in this State. Yet this Government, instead of providing resources to give hope to children in these areas, concentrates most of the resources available on third level education, conferring benefit on people who need it least. I find that extraordinary, particularly considering the presence of two so-called left wing parties in this Government.
It is offensive to hear this Government propose an amendment to this good and comprehensive motion, an amendment which makes claims that could not be further from the truth. I know there are concerned elements within the Government. I ask Deputy Currie to speed up decisions on the  issues I have addressed on numerous occasions in this House. If the Government does that, not just in the two areas I mentioned although they are probably the most acute areas of disadvantage in this State, it will be doing something to alleviate social disadvantage. If it continues to ignore those areas, it cannot with any integrity put amendments like this before us.
Ms F. Fitzgerald: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the important issue of how we treat young children in this society and the range of services and educational opportunity which should be available to them. I welcome Fianna Fáil's late conversion on this issue.
Ms F. Fitzgerald: I am pleased they are now focusing on early school education. Fianna Fáil Ministers for Finance have been extremely slow to put money into and support the development of services in this area. Their motion comes when this Government has not just given a commitment to but put resources into this area.
It is interesting to ask why a country whose Constitution claims that all children are cherished equally produced a political system which had such an insensitive and incomplete response to the welfare of children in the past. We are aware now, because it has been forced upon us, that the welfare of children in Ireland has been a hit and miss affair. We are aware that there is gross abuse of children within the sacrosanct shrine of the family and that the pattern of family life is changing utterly, with vast implications for children. We must pull together the scattered threads of our concern for children into a national  policy of which we can be proud. This Government has that national policy under way. There is increased money for child care, an Early Start programme, both a committee and a commission on the family and increased focus on investing resources in disadvantaged areas. However, more needs to be done.
I welcome the Early Start initiative which is extremely important. It is also important to give credit to the many women and parents in disadvantaged communities who, without State help over a long period, put in great effort to develop pre-schools in their communities. I am pleased to hear Ministers say there is good consultation and liaison with the providers of those services in communities and that a way has been found to link the work in the Early Start programmes with the resources these communities have already put in place. There is great scope for co-operation between the two.
Early Start education is important. It is clear from international research that if we invest money in young children, particularly disadvantaged young children, we reap the rewards later. For every pound invested during the early years, we save £20 at a later stage and we help to move children away from the paths of truancy, delinquency and from being caught up in the justice system. We have been negligent about developing these services and we have been frightened that, by developing services for children, we will somehow undermine the family. This is far from the truth because we support families by giving children these services and we create stronger families. I call on the Minister for Education to expand and develop the Early Start programme once it has been monitored because it is both urgent and vital.
We also need to invest resources in the primary school system generally. I refer to a letter from a teacher in my own constituency who writes about the problems facing children in his primary school in an area where there is a high unemployment rate, poor housing, a  high proportion of lone parents, growing drug abuse, gambling, lack of parenting skills and a high dependency on social welfare. He tells me that within his school there is a great problem with children who are experiencing emotional and educational difficulty. He says that this manifests itself on a daily basis in vandalism of school books and property, absenteeism, lack of punctuality, temper tantrums and aggressive behaviour towards peers. Some 40 per cent of children in this school have reading difficulties. It is critical to focus on the primary schools with these problems.
National policy must ensure that we reduce the numbers in our primary schools as we move towards the 21st century. We should look at the home maker services provided by the health boards and how they can be linked into schools. One of the great changes we are seeing in primary schools is co-operation between teachers and home liaison officers and services provided by health boards. Parents are becoming more involved. This is an important support for teachers but primarily gives a better service to our young people. We also must consider introducing an information programme in the primary schools on smoking, alcohol, drugs and crime. It is not enough to bring these programmes in at secondary level. We should also consider supplying hot meals in schools. Many teachers tell me that children are coming in without breakfast and are unable to learn. We should have a pilot project to ascertain whether this is feasible in certain areas.
I welcome what the Minister said about the implementation of the Child Care Act. People have been calling for its implementation for a number of years. I regret that the social workers have some problems with the implementation of this Act on the basis that they need more resources. It is clear that children need the protection of this Act and the Government is right to go ahead with its implementation. I hope there can be further discussions and  consultations between the social workers and the health boards and that this situation will not escalate further as it is not in anybody's interest. Millions of pounds have been invested in child care over the last few years and it is making up for past neglect in the area.
I welcome the implementation of regulations on pre-schools. It is important to ensure pre-schools comform to high standards. The regulations which will be in place shortly, following some further discussion and consultation, will ensure the standards in pre-schools are uniformly high. This is important if we do not want a hit and miss development.
Ms Shortall: I commend the Government for its initiative in alleviating the effects of social disadvantage on the education and welfare of children. I wish, in particular, to commend my colleague, the Minister for Education, for her role in targeting disadvantage in primary and second level education and for initiating the Early Start projects. Her work in this area indicates a political realisation of the need for a proper State funded pre-school education system.
I welcome this debate on pre-school education, the first such debate in the House. I am glad that at last attention is being paid to this vital area of education. It is interesting that the debate has been initiated by Fianna Fáil which in its typically reactive mode is trying to block the very important initiative by the Minister for Education. This raises questions about what that party did during all the years it had control of the Department of Education and why it was not in a position to introduce a proper State funded pre-school system.
Ms Shortall: The White Paper on Education states that the Government strategy for education is characterised by the hallmark of equality. The denial of education has powerfully negative  social and economic consequences which are all too evident in society. This problem implies a need for intervention in order to eliminate the source of the disadvantage and alleviate the consequences. An integral component of this intervention is pre-school education. The Early Start programme is based on three principal considerations; first, the importance of early childhood experiences for the child's development; second, the frequent difficulties which children experience on entering formal schooling; and, third, early disadvantages which affect the child's enduring experience with formal schooling. Research carried out abroad and here indicates that high quality pre-school education can play a vitally important part in offsetting the effects of social disadvantage and in preventing school failure. The Early Start programme was initiated in the light of these findings and this is reflected in the fact that the programme was another important step in bringing our measures for dealing with educational disadvantage into line with those adopted in other EU states.
The Early Start philosophy views learning as a guided discovery through a series of structured activities with the aim of developing the entire child. The Early Start programme was established with the express objectives of introducing young children to an education programme which would enhance their overall development, prevent school failure and offset the effects of social disadvantage. This is one of the reasons careful consideration was given to the areas selected for the pilot programme. I am very glad that two centres have been set up in Finglas South and Ballymun in my constituency. The programme also involves parents and transition year students. Parents are involved in the programme at three levels: first, they belong to an advisory group in each centre; second, they participate in the everyday running and organising of the centre; and, third, they join their children in many of the centre's activities.
 The correlation between social disadvantage and the lack of formal education is well documented and broadly accepted. Education not only makes a fundamentally important contribution to the quality and well-being of society but also contributes in a very substantial way to an individual's quality of life and well-being. It is extremely important, therefore, for the State to promote and support the conditions within which education can realise its potential in society. It is through measures such as the Early Start programme that the true importance of education can be inculcated and its true potential realised.
Research has shown that the three most important hallmarks of quality are accommodation and equipment, personnel qualifications and the adult-child ratio. Early Start centres are based in good accommodation in existing classrooms and there is a considerable grant of £4,000-£5,000 per classroom for equipment. The teachers are fully qualified teachers with experience of infant teaching, while there is an excellent adult-child ratio of 15:2. The emphasis on these quality issues should be applied throughout the entire education system. I hope they set a precedent for future education provision.
Fianna Fáil proposes the establishment of a national forum to look at the area of pre-school provision. The Minister has set up a monitoring committee which will oversee the Early Start programme. It will carry out its work on an ongoing basis and will advise on best practice in relation to early education. The national forum proposed by Fianna Fáil would work in a vacuum and on a theoretical basis. It is much better to establish a well researched programme on a pilot basis, to evaluate it and to take decisions based on its success.
Nobody denies that the Early Start programme has experienced teething problems. It is only natural that a new system would experience such problems. It is important to recognise the enormous contribution made by the voluntary and private sectors in this area. Many of the people involved in  this area have worked in a voluntary capacity on a shoestring budget. In spite of this they have done much good work particularly in disadvantaged areas. It is important to record our appreciation of the work they have done over the years.
Now that we recognise the role the State must play in a properly funded system, it is important to look at ways in which we can marry the voluntary and State sectors. Obviously the question of consultation and the location of these centres is important and there is room for improvement within the monitoring committee. I recognise the constraints placed on the consultation process this year and I hope there will be improved consultation next year. The question of qualifications is also important and a door must be opened for those who have vast experience and expertise in this area so that they can become involved in the Early Start programme. I am glad the Department has recognised this difficulty and I welcome the Minister's announcement that the NCVA and the NCEA are in the process of introducing a mechanism which will give accreditation to people who have experience in this area. I would like to see this being brought about as quickly as possible.
The Labour Party believes that without due recognition of the socio-economic role of education we can never hope to realise our potential as a modern State. Education is probably the most important formative force in a person's development on both a personal level and also as part of the community. The Labour Party is committed to ensuring that individual and collective potential are realised and the initiation of the Early Start programme is an indication of our commitment in this regard.
Mr. Broughan: I support the final points made by my colleague, Deputy Shorthall. The section in the White Paper dealing with education and the economy made the connection between education and an advanced economy  and paid tribute to the great work carried out by pre-school, primary, secondary and third level teachers in helping us achieve a high tech economy. It has been stated today that there are now more people in better jobs than at any time in our history. The Labour Party is proud that this has been achieved under a Labour Minister for Finance.
The role of pre-school education and the age at which children should start formal education have been the subject of much debate internationally. A later start is preferred in Germany and some Scandinavian countries, for example. It is agreed internationally, however, that early intervention in deprived areas is essential. I, therefore, commend the Minister for commencing the early start programme on a pilot basis last year and for extending it to a further 33 centres this year.
Pre-school education has been developed in an ad hoc manner. Nonetheless, it has to be acknowledged that an enormous effort is being made on behalf of tens of thousands of children by all the teachers in the voluntary pre-school sector who have been trained to a high standard. They must be allowed to participate in the ongoing debate.
The location of pre-schools, including the importance of locating pre-schools in the workplace, has been the subject of lengthy discussions at Dublin City Council. Much valuable experience has been gained during the past 20 to 30 years. I have no doubt that this will be taken into account by the Minister and the Department of Education in evaluating the early start programme and in the ongoing discussions leading to the formulation of a national pre-school programme.
Deputy Gregory cast a slur on the Labour Party in relation to its efforts to eliminate educational disadvantage for children from a working class background. I reject this. Since 1992 the education budget has been dramatically increased by more than 20 per cent in real terms. The capitation grant for primary schools has been increased by almost 50 per cent in the same period. I  would like Deputy Gregory to speak to parents from a working class background on low incomes in my constituency who are now in a position due to a Minister for Education who is a member of the Labour Party to send their children to third level. The Labour Party makes no appologies to anyone for this, certainly not to Fianna Fáil or people like Deputy Gregory.
In commencing the early start programme the Minister was right to concentrate on deprived areas. A number of centres are located in my constituency. I do not know whether the Ceann Comhairle has stepped inside one of the new early start centres, but it is a wonderful experience. I visited one of the centres in the Darndale-Belcamp area some months ago where a special atmosphere was created by the 15 three-year-old children in each class as they beavered away at various tasks with their teacher, parents and child care worker. It is almost impossible to replicate this elsewhere in the education system.
I reject the notion put forward by the columnist Drapier in The Irish Times recently — I understand this column is written by a number of different journalists and, possibly, a number of Opposition politicians — that the Labour Party has abandoned areas such as Darndale in Dublin and others in north Cork to Democratic Left and Fianna Fáil. I am sure that Deputy Byrne of Democratic Left who was due to speak in this debate would share my sentiments that it was not Fianna Fáil which provided the resources for the areas to which Drapier was referring, but the Labour Party which will always seek to have additional resources allocated, despite great opposition from the conservative parties, in the areas of health and education.
Mr. Broughan: I have only been a Member of this House for three years. In that time the Labour Party has carried out its duty in terms of putting a formal pre-school system in place in deprived areas. My colleague emphasised the need to deliver a high quality service and pointed to the current adult-child ratio of 15:2.
I am disappointed that my teaching colleague, Deputy Liam Fitzgerald, cast aspersions on primary teachers who play an important role and who have served their communities well. I thought he would be the last person to do so.
Parental involvement is a key feature of the early start programme. This is happening in the two centres with which I am familiar in my constituency. Second level transition year students are also involved. That is an interesting development.
All aspects of the programme are being rigorously evaluated by the Educational Research Centre in Drumcondra, with a view to assessing the problems encountered during implementation, how it interfaces with other programmes and initiatives such as the home-school-liaison programme, the extent of parental involvement and the achievements of participants as they progress through the formal primary school system.
In addition to principals, teachers and parents, the expert monitoring committee comprises representatives from the Irish Pre-School Playgroups Association, the World Organisation for Early Childhood Education, the colleges of education, the Catholic Primary School Managers Association, the INTO and the Department of Health. The Minister has also nominated two distinguished experts on early childhood from UCD and the Dublin Institute of Technology.
This is the first formal debate in this House on the subject of pre-school education. I hope that all those involved in  the voluntary sector who have been providing a service on a shoestring budget will be encouraged with all those involved in the formal education system to participate in the ongoing debate. I taught many children who came through the pre-school system and they did exceptionally well. I am confident that the Minister in evaluating and expanding the programme will seek to encourage all the interests involved to participate in laying the foundations for a national pre-school system.
She deserves great credit for that. She has laid a wonderful foundation for the future. We will have more good news, like that which we received in recent days on the development of the economy, in the years ahead as our children develop as the most educationally advantaged in Europe. Our education system is, perhaps, our greatest capital investment resource, as the White Paper stated. We have laid a good foundation in the pre-school area to carry that on.
Mr. Flood: I do not intend to take the same line as the last speaker in criticising different political parties because it is a waste of my valuable time. I want to concentrate on the important issues covered by this debate, irrespective of from which side of the motion one comes.
I also take this opportunity to point out to Deputy Frances Fitzgerald that in her comments regarding the treatment of children over the years she neglected to point out that it was my party, after a series of wide consultations which were held leading up to 1991, which was responsible for enacting the Child Care  Act, 1991. My colleague, the then Minister for Education, Deputy O'Rourke, introduced the new home-school liaison officer and the school psychological service. These are only a couple of small contributions but Fianna Fáil has made many contributions over the years to the development of education and child care and the party takes a certain pride in this. We accept we have a long way to go in terms of providing facilities for pre-school children and I hope this debate will help to concentrate the minds of those who have the power to make such decisions.
In my role as Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for child care, I took the opportunity in the short time available to establish an “out of hours” services for the young homeless in Dublin, for example, and to provide a mobile health clinic for travellers, wherever they were located, on official or unofficial sites. I understand both services are working quite well.
In any role which it has been called upon to play, Fianna Fáil has been conscious of its contribution to the development of child care and child care facilities. For that reason this debate is timely. Frankly, I would prefer to avoid this slagging which we have seen earlier in the debate as it does not help anybody. Let us get on with the issues.
The motion on the early start programme gives us the opportunity to discuss this important issue. My colleague, Deputy Martin, set out clearly in this contribution many of the current concerns of the Opposition about the present operation of the early start programme. We are not saying there should not be a programme. We have some pertinent points to make which the Minister for Education, Deputy Bhreathnach, might well consider taking up even at this stage.
Among a number of calls we make on the issue is the need to establish a national forum because one of the criticisms coming through time and time again on the early start programme is the lack of consultation, particularly  with the voluntary and community sectors. This is the kernel of the problem and the area from which the complaint comes. Unlike the Child Care Act, 1991, where there was wide consultation with interested groups who influenced the content of the Act in the end, the same opportunity was not given to those working in this pre-school area on as wide a basis. That is where the criticism comes from and if that consultation had taken place, we might have been able to further develop the early start programme, perhaps in a different way but certainly involving the voluntary and community sectors. I believe genuinely that at this stage in the development of a child, that sector has a role to play.
The compelling reasons for setting up the forum were twofold: first, we needed to consult; and, second, we needed a co-ordinated approach to the provision of early education because it does not exist, if it did, early education would be the better for it.
To illustrate the lack of co-ordination in funding, for example, the following provide pre-school facilities for children; primary schools, nursery schools, Montessori schools, play school groups and naíonraí, the Irish créches. They provide a service and have been doing so for quite a long time but this Government finds itself, as, in fact, other Governments did, funding it through a whole range of Government Departments. The Department of Education, the Department of Health, through the health boards because they grant-aid community play groups, the Department of the Environment, through its consultative role under the Child Care Act, 1991, in relation to setting up play schools and certain facilities in them, particularly in terms of safety, are all involved. Even the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry has become involved under the Leader II programme and the Department of Enterprise and Employment, through FÁS training schemes in the child care area. The Department of Equality and Law Reform is involved too, through a pilot child care initiative, which is  funded through its 1994 budget. I have not been able to get too much detail on the latter initiative but I understand that is where the funding comes from. The Department of Social Welfare, of course, funds various child care projects, particular with reference to disadvantaged areas. Practically every Department is involved in the provision of pre-school facilities and services. That is where the lack of co-ordination arises and where a national forum might help to focus on what may be a wasteful distribution of resources, which are always tight. That is another reason the forum was a particularly good idea.
The Minister missed a valuable opportunity to work more closely with the voluntary sector because of lack of consultation. I believe the voluntary sector would have said many things to the Minister which might well have influenced the manner in which the service was set up and the difficulties it caused in some areas. In one parish in my constituency, where the first of the early start programmes was established, the existing pre-school play group had to vacate the school classrooms because the new service was being made available. In fact, I raised the matter on the Adjournment at the time in early 1994 and the Minister of State, Deputy Eithne FitzGerald responded. Four ordinary people living in the area contacted me when they discovered they were going to lose the facility of a classroom in the area because this other service was being established. They had built up a good relationship with parents and youngsters over the years and it was unfortunate that happened through a lack of consultation.
The Minister could have taken other options in introducing the early start programme and might well have included an initiative with the voluntary sector even if she was treating it as a pilot scheme. She could have explained to the voluntary sector what she was trying to do. She could have asked them if they could play a role become involved or bring their experience to bear on what the Department was trying to do.
 They could also have been asked if the voluntary sector could become part and parcel of the early start programme. Unfortunately, that did not happen. It should have and the voluntary sector ought, at least, to have been given a chance.
If the early start programme continues to expand and be successful, it will push aside the groups which are already working in the community and voluntary sectors. All the experience and local commitment which these groups have brought to bear will evaporate, which is unfortunate. That is another reason wider consultation and a national forum might have given us an opportunity to tackle the issue in a much better way.
I met members of the IPPA, an association which was ahead of its time, when I was Minister of State at the Department. The association, set up in 1969, catered for 22,000 children and with a membership of 1,700 was a substantial organisation with a vast level of experience. It had its own rules, regulations and standards, received State funding and many different State agencies used its network. When I met the members they were talking about recruiting advisers and extending into sparsely populated rural areas.
There is a lack of understanding and sympathy for the organisation. That is why we believe the forum or pilot initiative might be a better approach. It is not too late for that. We are talking about eight early start programmes which are up and running and a further 21 or 22 which is a drop in the ocean.
In the Eastern Health Board region 200 social workers have indicated they find it impossible to operate the provisions of the Child Care Act which is to come into force next Tuesday. The onus on this occasion may well rest with the health board. I agree with Mr. Tierney of the ISPCC when he said: “let us get on with it and implement the provisions”. We have waited long enough for the implementation of various sections. Adequate funding, resources  and structures must be put in place as the Act cannot be implemented if the basic structures have not been provided. I wish the Minister well in tackling this issue and hope he is successful. Children will suffer if this row continues.
I was disappointed with some of the comments made by backbencers on the Government side. They engaged in slagging matches which will not help one child who is affected by the early start programme. I ask the Minister to try to involve the community, the voluntary and private sector which has been so committed to this area and particularly the association I mentioned which has a contribution to make. Unfortunately it has been brushed aside by the Minister who is determined to pursue her own course. There should be consultations between the two sides to see if they could work together and put the best system in place in the shortest possible time.
Ms Keogh: I am pleased to have an opportunity to debate this most fundamental part of education. Over the past 20 years there has been an immense growth in early childhood services, for the most part unregulated and under-financed. This growth has developed for a number of reasons. The number of mothers in the workforce has led to child care becoming a political issue. Deputy Fitzgerald mentioned the head start movement in the late 1960s. Research into that movement demonstrated the intervention possibilities of pre-school provision for disadvantaged children. Early childhood care and education have received little attention in general and virtually none at policy or Government level.
In his book on “Childcare Services in Ireland”, Robbie Gilligan highlights the fact that although we have a high regard for children at a personal level, “child centred public policy in Ireland is more the exception than the rule”. In comparison to our European partners, and despite the advances of the past few years, we remain with Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the UK, lowest in  terms of publicly funded child care provision for young children.
That emphasis must change because we cannot consider children in terms of what they will become or their future as adults — we must consider what children are now. We need children who will cope and succeed as adults, but there is very little debate on how early experiences that are developmentally appropriate can facilitate the development of children who can think, cope and adapt in a rapidly changing world.
My party sees children as a starting point in our plans for the future, particularly at a time when we cannot predict the knowledge and skills they will need. We must ensure they can adapt to and cope with change and think flexibly. Child services were provided on an unregulated and ad hoc basis. There are many committed providers of various types of services working to ensure that their service is of the highest calibre. It is necessary to plan if we are to ensure the best for children. That requires the investment of resources and the collection of information so that various services exist to meet varied needs. In order to plan efficiently and cost effectively, we need to gather material on the number of children and services, those using different services, the spread of services and so on. This must be done urgently if we are to present a policy and begin planning good quality services across the country. The Government need not take on the complete administration of these services but it must support that type of initiative. It can do so by having a policy within which services can develop.
Many voluntary and private bodies which administer services work well but they lack support and a structure within which to grow and develop. There is a role for the State in that and, perhaps, as suggested in the motion, through a national forum. The Child Care Act clearly allocates responsibility to the Department of Health and to the Minister with responsibility for the co-ordination of children's services. It is important that the provisions of the Act  are implemented and it is unfortunate that there are difficulties with this due to a lack of resources.
Different services have different needs and a study of training courses, their objectives, outcomes and validation should be conducted. The Minister rightly established a monitoring committee which is specific to the early start programme. There is provision in the Child Care Act for monitoring which should be extended to provide evaluation and determine what should go into quality child care services generally. I advocate a system of registration and regulation for full day care services. We should be able to collate and disseminate information on issues of concern to the education and welfare of young children and perhaps this could be done by an agency run independently by a board of management with members from both the statutory and voluntary sectors. Funding for such a body should not be a problem as it could be derived from voluntary, trust and membership fee sources, for example. It is important to have an independent evaluation and review of services. Without information on what is already happening, it is impossible to plan or budget effectively.
Some Members of the Labour Party referred to what the White Paper on Education says about our education services generally. It pays very little attention to the early years as being one of the most important stages in educational development, which in a way implies that what we are now doing is satisfactory whereas it is not.
For example, Part VII, section 50 of the Child Care Act, 1991 draws a distinction between a pre-school child and a child attending national school —“pre-school child” meaning a child who has not attained the age of six years and who is not attending a national school or a school providing an educational programme similar to a national school.
Clearly, then, there is a division between care and education. While it is understandable that the Department of  Health should not concern itself with a service regulated by the Department of Education, there is no Government policy on the provision of early education for our young children. We must insist on a national policy on education from the Department of Education.
and went on to outline a number of proposals, one being the strengthening of pre-primary education which contributes to a better subsequent performance at school, particularly in the case of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The need for early intervention strategies to ensure greater access to primary education for disadvantaged children. A substantial body of research from Ireland and abroad suggested that properly structured professionally staffed pre-primary provision can foster positive attitudes to schooling and can contribute significantly to the development of linguistic and cognitive abilities among disadvantaged children.
Therefore there must be wide discussion on policy and practice in early education in general, with particular regard to children at risk of educational failure. I have no difficulty with the principle of the early start programme. Contrary to the impression created, including by some contributors this evening, that is not the purpose of this motion. There is no quarrel with the rationale behind the programme, rather the quarrel is with  the manner in which it has been introduced, the Minister ignoring the facilities already available within the community.
Deputy Shorthall referred to teething problems but I am afraid the problems are somewhat deeper. There is a certain degree of unevenness in the quality of services provided, which highlights the necessity for regulation. The Minister has ignored the facilities already provided over many decades. She was embarrassed into engaging in consultation with members of various organisations who Members of the Labour Party say should have been consulted, but no consultations were willingly undertaken.
People providing pre-school facilities may well ask why we should incur additional expense since there is already a pre-school facility available. How can we ascertain what is needed without consultation? Had there been a proper consultation as promised, the Minister would have had better information to enable her make an informed choice on which children would most benefit from an early intervention programme, and could establish where the early start programme should be placed to best advantage for our children. There has been a dearth of consultation on the early start programme.
In June 1991 the ESRI said in its report under the heading “Education, Employment and Training in the Youth Labour Market” that early intervention is advocated to combat early school leaving and went on to say:
Essential in such an innovation in educational policy would be intervention at an early age, built around the development of stronger links between school, home and the community. Remedial provision, curricular reform and so on, if introduced at the post-primary level, while obviously helpful, would be insufficient.
We have already heard about the financial sense of early intervention. In the Perry pre-school programme study of 1962, Dr. David Weikart discovered that for every $1,000 invested in a high quality, pre-school programme, the return to society was $4,000, mainly through reduced costs of remedial education, reduced legal procedures in the case of delinquent behaviour and increased lifetime earning for its participants.
Along with Froebel, Montessori, Dewey, Piaget and others of more recent years, the Progressive Democrats believe that money invested in the early years of a child's life — when unconscious learning is gradually brought to the conscious level — is money wisely invested. An example of the Minister's incomprehensible decision in regard to the Early Start programme was her refusal to employ Montessori teachers. The Minister of State said last evening that teachers participating in the Early Start programme must have complete mobility within the school in which they are employed and went on to say it was doubtful whether Montessori teachers would wish to apply for the position of child care workers. Of course, they will not want to apply for positions as child care workers. They want to apply for posts as teachers, which is their due after a long training in early childhood psychology and education. Any graduates of colleges accredited to the NCEA should be able to apply for teachers posts, not as assistants; they want their education and training acknowledged. Those who have worked long and hard and gained much expertise over many years within community pre-school groups need to have their expertise and work acknowledged and deserve that recognition.
The Minister of State rightly pointed out the quality issues in pre-schooling, citing as its hallmarks, professionally trained staff. In that case why are those  who are specifically trained, with accreditation from the NCEA excluded?
While we all like to be bolstered up from time to time it is a bit rich that, any time we attempt to discuss educational policy in this Chamber — not often enough as far as I am concerned — Labour backbenchers are wheeled in to deliver eulogies on the Minister's performance. It does not add anything to the debate. One might have thought they would be the very people who would clamour for the type of strategy called for in this motion.
I am very happy to support this motion. It underscores the fact that we are moving in the wrong direction. The Minister does not consult sufficiently, takes decisions and thereafter must pick up the bits and pieces. That is most unfortunate, since we are all agreed on the value of early intervention. The Early Start programme is a good one but why could we not have had consultation, with community groups, who know the needs and have worked with their communities over many years? I find such lack of consultation absolutely amazing and am indeed sorry the Minister appears to turn the blind eye to this so frequently.
Minister for Education (Ms Bhreathnach): I am very pleased to have the opportunity to outline to the House my policy on pre-school education. I am greatly encouraged by the Opposition's belated but nonetheless welcome interest in and appreciation of the need for a high quality pre-school education system. I welcome the recognition that pre-school and infant education is of equal importance to education in all sectors. This has always been my position as a professional early educator and I am delighted to be in a position to do something about it now as Minister.
Early education requires the same high standards of professional training that we have in other educational sectors. Ireland's high standards are the  envy of many European Union countries where the training and conditions of staff are lower for pre-school than for primary education.
No step in Irish education has been as well reported on and researched. There have been exhaustive reports, studies, conferences and publications on this issue over the last 25 years. We are not short of recommendations and policy statements, but until last year when the Early Start programme was introduced we were woefully short on action.
The Government can proudly claim to have a comprehensive policy of tackling disadvantage in education. The Early Start is just the latest strand to be put into operation in this area. In moving the amendment, my colleague Deputy Allen, referred to the very adequate funding of the Early Start project through capitation grants, allocation of additional staffing for schools, and a dramatic increase in the home/school/ community links scheme, Youthreach and the vocational preparation and training (VPT) schemes.
Any suggestion that Early Start was embarked on without a background of education and psychological research at national and international level is false. It is doubtful if any educational reform has such a high level of research consensus to consolidate its position as a very important education intervention.
The vision of intervening effectively at the earliest time in the cycle of educational disadvantage is a bold and ambitious one. It is backed up by decades of painstaking research and experience. This research includes our own results from the intervention programme in Dublin's inner city which, 25 years down the road, is continuing to show that we can break the vicious cycle of poor school attainment, early dropout, low participation in third level and subsequent high unemployment.
All reputable research makes it clear that not all pre-school or care settings will work to offset the blighting and cumulative effects of low school  achievement. To be effective, educational intervention must have a number of quality marks which the House can be assured are present in this programme. These marks are: staff professionally trained in early education and child development; favourable adult/child ratios — the Early Start ratio is 1:7.5; small groups of children; well organised space with a variety of materials; and involvement of parents right through the programme.
It seems illogical and even irresponsible that there are those who would criticise and try to halt the Early Start programme on the grounds that not all other care systems for children under six come up to this standard.
With regard to training in the child care sector, my Department recognises the difficulty that has arisen due to the variety of courses on offer from private organisations. This variety makes the task of selection a difficult one for both parents and employers alike. However, the National Council for Vocational Awards — NCVA — and the National Council for Educational Awards — NCEA — have taken on the task of bringing comparability into the system. The NCVA is in the process of introducing a mechanism which will give accreditation for prior learning to all people with previous training in private colleges or organisations.
I have listened to the debate with interest. I challenge Deputies to continue their support for the concept of Early Start and not to become involved in the efforts being made to destabilise this intervention. We have waited 25 years to increase State intervention in early school-leaving. I cannot be criticised for 25 years of inactivity. I ask Deputies to support this intervention which comes at a time when national and international research points the way to it as a way to break the cycle of disadvantage.
The Opposition's motion has one virtue in that it represents a plethora of interests and concerns within the pre-school area. My concern, however, is with a powerless constituency with no  political voice, namely the children. I make no apology for ensuring that Irish children at the most critical and vulnerable stage of their development will have the best quality educational opportunity available in the European Union.
Miss Coughlan: Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le mo chomhghle-acaithe a bhí pairteach sa díospóireacht seo. I am not going to engage in banter in this debate because I believe this issue is above banter and slagging. There have been no recent conversions on this side of the House. None of us has changed our religion, politics or views regarding the need to pursue and promote pre-school, early child care intervention and so on. We have held that view for many years.
When first elected to this House, I had the honour to participate in two years of debate — between 1988 and 1989 — with regard to the Child Care Act. The committee's debate was non-acrimonious and produced one of the best pieces of legislation put through this House. That legislation involved commitment and the committee engaged in real consultation while producing it. I regret the Minister's statement that her concern is with “a powerless constituency with no political voice, namely the children.” We are all here to represent those with no political voice. It is a disgrace to say that others who support early education do not consider the needs of children. I am sure that is not what the Minister intended to say but that is how I understood it.
This has been a very frustrating debate for those involved in the community pre-school and playgroup area who might have hoped for a real response to their needs by the Minister for Education. They might also have expected a fuller and more enthusiastic recognition by the Minister of the considerable effort and commitment they have displayed in building up the early education sector in recent decades. Initially this was done without significant State aid. More recently, however, it has been achieved with the welcome  support of the regional health boards. Many of these pre-schools were established in areas of great poverty and disadvantage in our cities. Others were set up in areas of moderate advantage, where honest working people came together to do the best they could for their own children. In areas where parents had a desire to ensure that their children grew up with a reasonable fluency in the Irish language, the naíonraí were established.
There are other areas of rural disadvantage, — of particular interest to me — where playgroups have been established and maintained, often with little or no support from the State sector. The concentration of attention on urban disadvantage and the enormous problems attached to it is often used to hide the real problems of rural disadvantage. People living in County Donegal have a unique insight into rural and urban problems because of the close links that exist along the Atlantic seaboard with Scotland and Glasgow in particular. We can readily support initiatives to cope with serious urban problems but we know that, relative to population size, remote rural areas can have different but equally serious problems.
The Minister's Early Start programme is based on designated areas. A significant factor in their designation is the existence of local authority housing and flats. There are not many local authority flats in County Donegal or in areas of rural disadvantage. Many of the other criteria for Early Start do exist. These include possession of a medical card or being in receipt of unemployment assistance. Factors such as unemployment, poverty, low incomes, lone parent families, family break-up and the associated emotional problems, alcoholism, poor housing conditions, lack of discipline within the family, poor financial management skills, poor diet and negative attitudes for schooling are all to be found in remote rural areas, yet the communities there will never qualify for the early start programme. Needs can be met and in some cases are being met by community playgroups which  involve playgroup leaders, community leaders, and parents. This involvement increases the participation of the community in education and gives young parents, in particular, greater control over their lives and the destinies of their children or empowerment — if we want to use the fashionable word. To establish such playgroups throughout sparsely populated rural areas requires leadership, training and a modicum of funding and facilities. The cost of this would be substantially less than the cost of the early start programme. It would provide encouragement or éachtacht mar a dheireann siad to communities which have lost Garda stations, post offices and other public services.
There has been a great deal of debate in recent times on the role of State companies. It is a fundamental tenet that the State does not do what private individuals can do well. The Minister, intentionally or otherwise has been putting community playgroups out of business and I agree with what has been said by Deputies who represent areas which have lost their playgroups. In the two suburban new towns of Tallaght and Mulhuddart in County Dublin the introduction of the early start programme has had a major impact. In Tallaght one of the playgroups lost its premises and closed last year. This year another playgroup has had to relocate and its numbers have dropped from 15 to five. This happened in two communities where the early start programme was established. In Mulhuddart three early start programmes opened this year and the local playgroups have decreased their numbers by almost 50 per cent. The statistics are there but, unfortunately, nobody in the Department of Education read them.
It is frightening that almost 50 per cent of those who attended pre-school playgroups in six areas of Mulhuddart have been attracted to the early start programme. In an article in The Irish Times on 26 September 1995 the Department of Education was said not to be aware of any playgroups closing  down. I am sure the Minister is aware of the position because those ladies who got little recognition made themselves known to the Minister but, unfortunately, did not get to meet her. They have a very strong voice and we should empower them and allow them have a say in their own community. I am sick, sore and tired of discussing the bottom up approach but what is more bottom up than the people in a community for decades providing a service that is not recognised?
Contrary to what Members on the Government benches may say we are not trying to knock the early start programme. It is a tremendous concept and is probably the only scheme that is properly funded. I cannot understand why the programme was introduced without consultation with those in the area. We are ghettoising pre-schools and that was not the intention I am sure of any Member. Why create disadvantage? If there is free access to the early start programme but people pay to playschools that creates an economic disadvantage. That is wrong, it is the worst thing that has happened to the early start programme.
It is wrong to put educationally sound well researched programmes into an area without consultation, pretending that other people do not exist. It amounts to the worst decision made in recent years especially when we are trying to force on the agenda the need for early intervention and to provide a national research study on early childhood services, as we state in our motion, so that we can have a proper database. We do not have a data base. We also need to develop a proper early education policy. The Minister introduced a pilot scheme and if, following the report of the education research centre, it is decided to discontinue the scheme the disadvantaged areas will be in a worse position than when they started because they will have lost what they had set up themselves. Will the Minister give me a guarantee that she will accept the need for a national forum to discuss early education? I dread the day when we will  have areas that need our help and intervention being left worse off than at present.
I would welcome Deputy O'Shea's assurance that Part VII of the Child Care Act will be brought into force during 1996, if I could believe it. As the Minister is aware, it is doubtful if the other 44 sections that were to be brought into force in 1995 will be implemented. Before those sections are implemented very significant resources will have to be found and this in the teeth of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Quinn's embargo. If there is no money there will be no personnel and no implementation. No Deputy believes the Minister of State's assurances that he cannot be accused of misleading the House.
In our motion we are calling on the Minister to consult the various agencies who have experience of developing early childhood education, consider the immediate needs, take note of the desirable medium-term development and put together a programme to achieve it. The education White Paper contains three and a half pages on early education and whether it is in black and white, colour or on video, that is not the plan.
The Minister should listen to the people who have experience of providing playschool and pre-school services. People have provided these services over the decades without State funding or recognition but with a vast amount of goodwill, energy, commitment and hard work. We cannot have the Department of Education, which impinges on everyone's life, behaving like an ostrich with  its head in the sand. It is high time the head was taken out of the sand and that we considered how to use our resources wisely. We are always complaining that we have not the resources but when we have them it is important that we do not waste them. The sum of £1.5 million is being allocated to the early start programme in 30 centres this year but the allocation of £1.5 million to preschools and playgroups would do a great deal for people in disadvantaged areas. There is an absolute need for proper consultation. We are not here to say that the early start programme is wrong.
The Minister seeks to amend our motion to read that Dáil Éireann commends the Minister for the establishment, following the most detailed research and preparation, of a high quality pre-school service in areas of disadvantage; but the one word missing is consultation. So much research has been carried out here that it is a wonder there are any trees left.
Miss Coughlan: All wisdom does not necessarily reside in the Department of Education or in the Minister's office. The Minister should listen to the people. Even members on the Government benches agreed there was a need to change and that we must listen. I commend the motion to the House. I ask the Minister to reconsider her views and accept this motion for the sake of the children.
Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny). Crowley, Frank.
Dukes, Alan M.
Durkan, Bernard J.
Gallagher, Pat (Laoighis-Offaly).
Higgins, Michael D.
Crawford, Seymour. Lynch, Kathleen.
Noonan, Michael (Limerick East).
Browne, John (Wexford).
Burke, Raphael P.
Kitt, Michael P.
 Amendment declared carried.
Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.
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