Wednesday, 27 May 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Joe Costello: I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to the Fine Gael motion relating to the early child care supplement and the proposal next year for a preschool year in early childhood care and education scheme. The initial halving and eventual abolition of the existing child care supplement, in operation since 2006, is a very devious piece of work by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. We must not forget that particular doormat for Fianna Fáil, as the Green Party says much but does very little.
The introduction of the cutback was very carefully orchestrated. In April’s supplementary budget, it was announced that the early child care supplement would be halved from 1 May, although people have lost sight of that. The benefit is paid in arrears by a month so the April payment was on the second Monday in May and the May payment — which will be half the previous payment — will be payable on the second Monday in June.
What is happening on the first week of June is not exactly a secret, as we will have European and local elections and two by-elections, one of which will be in my own constituency. The elections will take place on 5 June and on 8 June, parents will suddenly realise that the early child care supplement has been halved, with a payment of €41.50 instead of €83.
Deputy Joe Costello: This particular cut was nicely orchestrated to take place at this time. I am sure the Minister for Social and Family Affairs had something to say on the matter but I am not privy to what goes on at various Cabinet meetings.
Deputy Joe Costello: The early child care supplement was a useful, if inadequate, payment to families who had children under five. It was to provide financial assistance and support for child care, which was a welcome help in the cost of raising children. It has been halved from 1 May and will be abolished by 1 January 2010.
What is being presented as a replacement is a different matter entirely and it should not be dealt with as a replacement. We are not comparing like with like in that respect. A scheme of 18 months of preschool education on a universal basis is an enormous and very important initiative and I compliment the Government on its introduction. It is one of the few welcome initiatives by this Government.
It should not be introduced as a replacement for the child care supplement scheme, which was a tranche of money provided to parents to support the raising of children. This scheme must be a structured preschool 15-month period that would be available for young children from the age of three years and three months until four years and six months, which is missing in the current system. We will not delve into the past but there are reasons there has never been a preschool year.
The Labour Party has always sought this initiative and when I was spokesperson on education, I articulated such a scheme on a universal basis as one of the ideas that would be a major priority for us. Nobody expected it to be provided in the fashion proposed, with a budgetary announcement that will be introduced in one form or another between now and 1 January 2010. Depending on the children’s age, 1 December will be the starting point. There is a short space of time to prepare if we are to have a properly structured set-up.
We must ensure we have sufficient and suitably qualified people to provide the service. Any requirements should be met, although there is not much time to do this. We must ensure spaces are available in existing services and premises. We should have considered this matter in the context of how we provided free education in the past with free primary, secondary and third level education.
For example, there would be much space in certain areas of primary education and this could have been considered for the provision of a structured space in that area. We are not sure if there is any space in primary schools, if an audit of such space has been done or whether prefabs will be used come 1 January. That date comes in the middle of the school year for all other pupils. Will the allocated funding be adequate? The specified funding of €64.50 per week is proposed with no provision for a top-up, and it will be a compulsory five-day week without any flexibility within the system.
The announcement should have been made but there should have been a lead-in period where there could have been consultation with all the providers of preschool services. The parents and their organisations could have been brought on board and the matter could have been discussed by the various bodies who would consider a suitable curriculum for the preschool year, as we do not have such a curriculum now. This would be instead of having an ad hoc announcement in the budget that will fall into place to a greater or lesser degree in different parts of the country depending on existing levels of service. That was a questionable way to introduce a major initiative in education.
If it goes well, a universal preschool service would be enormously beneficial in constituencies like mine, where there is considerable disadvantage and where young children find it difficult to have a decent level of education right across the board at any stage. In some cases it is particularly difficult for youngsters to get a good preschool education because neither the facilities nor the funding is available. If we have a quality universal preschool education service, it will do much good work in preventing much of the limited educational attainment in disadvantaged areas which often result in difficulties in later life. I urge the Minister to provide a more structured approach to the provision of preschool schemes.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: The introduction of the early childhood care and education scheme is the most significant development in early childhood care and education which has taken place in Ireland. Building on the progress made over the past decade by three successive Fianna Fáil-led Governments, we are now taking the first major step in providing universal preschool education for all children. This is a huge achievement for any Government at any time. While the critics on the Opposition benches snipe at this, they are failing in their duty to build a consensus in this House on the best structure the scheme should take.
Children will be eligible for the free preschool year when they are aged between three years, three months and four years, six months on 1 September of each year. Exceptions will be made where a child has special needs or to accommodate children due to the enrolment policy of a local primary school.
It is important that preschool provision is delivered in a consistent format set within an appropriate educational environment and structure. When my children were at this age, these facilities were not available. Now, wonderful structured facilities are available and it is important the opportunity for free preschool education is available to all children. It will help them to integrate and make the transition from home life to school much easier.
An annual capitation fee of over €2,400 will be paid to participating services, the equivalent of €64.50 per week for a service participating for 38 weeks and €48.50 per week for one participating for 50 weeks. Services will be paid in advance at the start of each term. As a free preschool year, participating services must agree to provide the service in return for the capitation grant which is obvious enough.
Service providers may charge parents for additional services provided which would be optional. These would include additional hours, over and above the free preschool year requirement and additional services in the form of various one-off or ongoing activities or services such as birthdays, meals or dancing, etc. However, all additional services offered must be clearly optional and not hidden or underhand charges and subject to parents’ agreement. The Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, must be strong on this point.
It is expected 70,000 children will participate in the scheme from the early stages of its introduction. This would represent 90% of all children eligible in the 15 month age range allowed for and almost all children when the pattern of enrolments in the year prior to starting primary school settles into place. A sufficient number of preschool places is expected to be available based on the existing capacity in the sector and it will be open to all preschool services, of which there are almost 5,000, to participate.
That payments will be made at the start of each term is a significant benefit to services, particularly in the current economic climate. While some high-cost services have argued that the rate of capitation should be higher, the majority of services have expressed their support for the scheme. If the capitation were higher, it would be unsustainable. Whatever rate one decides on, there will always be someone who wants it higher as everyone’s perception of fairness is different. The fee is much higher than that allowed for under the equivalent scheme operating in Northern Ireland, which amounts to a weekly fee of £30. For most service providers, the scheme will see an increase in their income, allowing them to meet the higher standards required for participation relative to the existing requirements under the child care regulations.
Research has shown the greatest benefit from preschool is found among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. In these tough economic times, these children should be given priority. Preschool education should be a right for all, irrespective of class, creed or income. The introduction of this preschool year has been welcomed as a positive step by Barnardos and other national child care organisations. This is a long-term decision that will reap huge benefits in years to come. It will give equal opportunities to all children, particularly the most marginalised who would not otherwise be able to attend preschool, as well as helping parents who, up to now, had to meet the cost of preschool provision. With any new scheme, there will be teething problems and we must identify those as soon as possible to iron them out. The true long-term benefits will be on a societal level. For this, the Government will be thanked in years to come for introducing this scheme.
Deputy Niall Blaney: The free preschool year in the early childhood care and education scheme breaks boundaries in early education and child care provision. It is incredible that many Members appear opposed to it or, at the very least, are intent on making false claims about it. It is important to step back to consider how far this country has come in early childhood care and education in the past 15 years. I recall there was little provision of early childhood care and provision when I was young. Today, however, it is available for the majority of children. There are child care providers in every nook and cranny of a rural constituency such as Donegal North-East providing an invaluable service to children and their parents. There is much voluntary work involved in many of these and it generates a sense of community for those involved.
As the father of two young children, of whom the eldest has just begun preschool, I am well aware of the wonderful opportunities available to young children through these facilities. I want providers to be assisted in the most efficient manner so they can continue to provide their service in a cost-effective manner, ensuring no child can be deemed disadvantaged in availability and affordability.
Some Members get so caught up in trying to achieve perfection that they fail to look back at the wonderful achievements the Government has brought about. Childhood care and education is one of those. It is, however, necessary to look forward, to always endeavour to achieve more and better. This is what the Government is doing by offering the free preschool year in early childhood care and education. It is also ensuring that funding is available to provide the best possible service required for our children. That is what this scheme epitomises.
Children will be eligible for the free preschool year when they are aged between three years, three months and four years, six months on 1 September of each year. Exceptions will be made where a child has special needs or to accommodate children due to the enrolment policy of a local primary school.
Two offers are available to providers. They can offer three hours a day, five days a week for 38 weeks in the year free of charge or they can offer two hours 15 minutes per day, five days per week for 50 weeks in the year free of charge. Participating providers will receive a capitation grant totalling €2,400 per year to cover the cost of offering this service free of charge to parents and their children.
While providers may charge for additional services, these must be optional. They may include additional hours, activities or services such as outings, birthday parties or additional teaching resources such as dance, music or food. The flexible nature of this scheme will ensure availability and suitability for all children. It is not mandatory for any provider and is an opt-in service in which providers can partake if they desire. Furthermore, it provides a degree of flexibility for providers that cannot, for good reason, operate over five days. Such cases will be considered and where appropriate may provide the service over four days for three and a half hours per day over 41 weeks of the year. This demonstrates the necessity to facilitate, rather than hinder providers.
When the economy was booming in the recent past, the Government was in a position to offer the early child care supplement, which unfortunately is no longer sustainable. However, the Government has accepted that the savings must be redirected towards a targeted and child-centred measure. I believe this new scheme to be forward-thinking and appropriate, even in the difficult times in which we now find ourselves. This new scheme has been widely welcomed across the sector by organisations such as Barnardos and other major national child care organisations. There already has been huge interest from child care providers and many child care workers have expressed an interest in setting up new additional services in anticipation of the scheme. The Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, has been meeting child care providers and their national representative organisations in respect of this new scheme since it was first announced, and reports are highly positive. Applications will be sent to all preschool services at the end of next week and will be available from the Department and county child care committees. Moreover, parents will be informed fully about the scheme by the Department over the coming months.
Research has shown that a preschool year is of enormous benefit to children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is of particular interest to me as a representative of the constituency of Donegal North-East, much of which is considered to be disadvantaged. I believe this scheme will bridge the gap for many children in my constituency, which I greatly welcome. The current economic downturn is making survival a top priority for many parents of young children. It would be devastating were children to be taken out of child care or preschool due to financial strain on any family. This scheme will prove vital to those who are finding themselves in that position.
The benefits of this new scheme will be seen for many years to come as our children are encouraged to learn and grow in a positive educational setting from a young age. The benefit of a preschool year for children is immense and has well-documented benefits for society as a whole. Fault-finding with this scheme is no easy task but the Opposition has gone to considerable lengths to so do in this debate. The motion tabled by the Opposition is negative and can be described as being nothing short of electioneering. The Opposition is doing its best to put a negative spin on all things good in the hope that it might gain a few votes here and there. I do not believe that children’s futures should be used for electioneering.
Deputy Niall Blaney: The free preschool year in early childhood care and education is a good news story and it is a shame the Opposition does not have the backbone to get behind such initiatives for the greater good of the country. The Opposition had the same reaction to the early child care supplement on its introduction in 2006 and at this point it constitutes tiring rhetoric. I commend the amendment to the House.
Deputy Mary Alexandra White: The area of child care and preschooling for young children is a hugely important public policy issue. The scheme the Government now is introducing is very positive and reflects an enormous commitment to the country’s children in the context of the great difficulties being experienced in respect of the public finances. The Government’s announcement in April that it intends to introduce a free preschool year in early childhood care and education is welcome. The Green Party’s manifesto in 2007 committed us to initiating a free and universal preschool education of 3.5 hours, five days a week for all children in the year before they go to school. Although the commitment was not incorporated into the programme for Government, the Green Party is pleased this idea has become Government policy. It is a sound policy that addresses the issue of what the State can afford to provide while instituting a universally-entitled scheme at a crucial stage in a child’s development.
Studies have shown the positive impact of preschool education for children. One such recent study from the National Institute for Early Education Research in America, which was published last September, stated that well-designed preschool education programmes produce long-term improvements in school success, including higher achievement test scores, lower rates of grade repetition and special education and higher educational attainment, particularly among children from low-income families. In its analysis of the likely impact of a publicly funded pre-kindergarten scheme, which may be comparable to what the Government is introducing here, the institute found there would be a paradoxical but worthwhile effect in terms of educational gains.
The Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, recently stated the response of one Fine Gael Member to the Government’s initiative was to suggest the scheme should not be free and that service providers should be allowed charge fees from qualified parents in addition to collecting the capitation fee in the form of a top-up. Such a system would be deeply flawed and would inevitably be to the disadvantage of children from low-income families. The need for clarity and certainty for both parents and child care providers about how the scheme will operate is vital and it is important that all the relevant information is circulated to people as soon as possible.
Deputy Mary Alexandra White: On the various aspects of the scheme that must be clarified for the public, the Minister of State has provided the necessary answers. In particular, Members now know the scheme’s choreography as to when preschool education will begin, when education providers can apply to provide the preschool year and when information on who will be providing the scheme will be made available to parents. I understand this will take place in October. Members know that smaller services, particularly in my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny and other rural areas of the country, will be catered for despite the standard pupil number criteria announced, which specified a minimum enrolment of eight children.
On the issue of the capitation fee and the cost of the preschooling year, Members know that most services will see an increase in their income because of this scheme, which will allow them meet higher standards. Members also know what service providers can and cannot do in respect of charging and access. For example, there will be no booking deposit and enrolment cannot be dependent on making a voluntary donation. Moreover, Members have been apprised of the standards in training which providers must have.
Having read the details of how this scheme will work, I am confident it will be administered in the most efficient way possible, such as, for example, through the provision of a capitation grant to the provider, rather than to the parent, on a quarterly basis. I believe the Minister of State and his office are preparing this preschool year provision thoroughly and Irish children can look forward to a worthwhile initiative in the provision of child care.
Last night, in response to the Ryan report and its aftermath, my party leader, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, stated there must be a new system of child care based on the needs of the child and not the needs of institutions or organisations providing care. As we chart a new direction for child care and preschool education in Ireland, those swiftly moving years of early childhood with their burst of growth, imagination, trust, love and dependency must be protected and looked after and I believe this scheme will give parents a window of support to be used in the best interests of our children. I support the Government amendment.
Deputy Peter Kelly: County Longford Childcare Committee was established in 2001 as part of the national child care strategy of 2000. It is the first point of contact for the public when applying for grant assistance under the national child care investment programme. It offers a wide variety of services locally, which include advice on setting up a child care business, child care information sessions, training courses for those considering a career in child care, advice and support on applying for child care funding, support to parent and toddler groups and support to childminders. They also offer services to parents, such as providing information on local child care facilities and information on parent networks.
In total, there are 33 child care facilities in County Longford, both public and private. Each child care facility is a great credit to the people who run these facilities. They are state-of-the-art, world class facilities, well run by professional, loving and caring staff. Each centre is worth a visit to see the excellent facilities and the great staff at work.
This initiative is the first time in the history of the State that we are introducing preschool care in education. Service providers will be given a capitation fee to cover the cost of approximately €2,400 per year and they can run twice daily sessions if they so wish. All parents whose children qualify will be notified shortly. Applications can be made to the Longford County Childcare Committee and this committee will be the link with the local providers. Terms and conditions to service providers will be sent out early in June. The scheme begins in January 2010. Locally, service providers have said they will be able to operate within the fee structure. Access to a preschool year is a great idea and will be of immense benefit to the children in later life, as well as being a huge benefit to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I want to take the opportunity to congratulate the Minster of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, a concerned Minister who is on top of his brief. I thank him for his recent visit to Longford when he came to see first hand the child care facilities. It was a very pleasant and happy day, with children, parents and politicians all mixing together and enjoying the good weather and good facilities in Longford.
I congratulate the Minister of State on introducing the free preschool year in early childhood care and education which will be under the auspices of his Department and for which he will be responsible. This is a landmark development in the provision of early childhood care and education services for young children in Ireland. The new scheme will be implemented by the office of the Minister of State and will be open to all private and voluntary preschool services which meet the requirements of the scheme. As I said, the grant is approximately €2,400 per annum and is a payment made to participating services for each child enrolled. The full year cost of the scheme is expected to be approximately €170 million.
Parents who avail of the scheme in a playschool will be entitled to a free preschool provision of five weekly sessions of three hours per day for 38 weeks per year, which amounts to a weekly capitation grant of €64.50. Parents who avail of the scheme within a full-time or part-time child care service will be entitled to 50 weeks of free preschool provision of five weekly sessions of two hours and 15 minutes per day. This amounts to a weekly capitation grant of €48.50 and the service must reduce the weekly child care fee for parents by this amount.
The scheme will be introduced from January 2010. It is intended to benefit children in the year before they start primary school. For this reason, the age of eligibility for the scheme has been set at between three years and three months and four years and six months, as at 1 September each year. In January 2010, it will be open to children who at that point are aged between three years and seven months and four years and ten months. Parents will be advised to coincide their take-up of the scheme in line with the admissions policy of their local national schools. If cases arise where a national school does not admit children until they are more than five years and six months at 1 September each year, these cases will be examined to ensure they are not excluded for this reason alone.
Children with delayed development, who as a result will be accepted into their local national school at a later age than normal, will be able to access the free preschool year to coincide with their school starting date. Preschool services which are notified to the HSE and services which are registered with the IMEB can apply to participate in the scheme. The Department will contact these services, which total approximately 5,000, providing an information pack and details regarding the application process.
Child minders who are notified to the HSE will be included in this process. Services will normally be required to have an enrolment of at least eight children in the preschool year. Exceptions will be made in some cases, for example, a small rural service may be considered eligible where, due to low numbers of preschool children in the area, it is necessary for it to have some children in their preschool year and some who are a year younger. Child minders who are notified to the HSE and who have an enrolment of at least five children in the preschool year will be considered for entry to the scheme if they hold a child care qualification at level 5 or 6, or equivalent; operate a programme-based, preschool service which is compliant with the preschool regulations and which adheres to the principles of Síolta; and are recommended by Childminding Ireland as an appropriate setting for delivery of the preschool year.
The city and county child care committees are expected to play an important role in supporting the new scheme, particularly as a contact point between services and parents. My experience of my county child care committee is second to none, and anyone else’s experience in County Longford would be the same. It is the most helpful, efficient group of people I have come across in a long time. They are there to help anybody in the child care business, whether public or private. It is great to have people like them who give all the reasons one should do something instead of all the reasons one should not do it. It is great they have encouraged so much and that we have seen such huge developments since the year 2000 in child care facilities in our county. I am sure it is the same throughout the country.
Following the issue of information packs, it is expected services will be asked to return their completed application form to their local child care committee during June and early July. The Department will finalise and approve applications in the following months and advise the committees of participating services in their area. From October 2009, parents will be able to contact their local child care committee to get details of participating services in the local area.
Participating services will be asked to make an electronic return of their enrolments to the Department in January 2010. This will be processed and will determine the grant level by reference to the number of capitation fees payable for that term. An interim payment will be made to services pending the outcome of this process if any significant delay is expected. A second payment will be made in April in respect of the following term. The process will be repeated in September as this will be the start of the first full preschool year.
Deputy David Stanton: I commend Deputy Enright and others on tabling this motion for consideration. It is very important for us to debate this topic because it is one of the most important matters we could discuss in the House. Like other bodies, the National Economic and Social Forum has produced a great deal of research in this area. The forum has made the point that education is not a repeatable process:
It is important that the Members of this House should have a proper debate on this issue. I suggest that it is so important that it should be debated at length by a joint committee. We cannot do it proper justice in this forum.
The elephant in the drawing room is the fact that €477.2 million was spent on the early child care supplement last year, whereas just €170 million is being provided for early childhood education under this scheme. It is clear straight away that there has been a major cut in this area. We all welcome the decision to provide one year of free preschool education to every child. Nobody could argue with that. It is important that we debate how and why it is being done. In 2005, the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, who is now the Taoiseach, told the Dáil:
He went on to explain that a payment of €1,000 per annum would be provided in respect of each child aged six years or under. That decision was made at a time of full employment, when we were told the country had tons of money. Now that we are facing a period of huge unemployment, and massive stresses and strains are being faced by the same families the current Taoiseach acknowledged in 2005 were under pressure, the Government has decided to cut the level of support being offered to the families of small children by hundreds of millions of euro. That elephant in the drawing room has not been acknowledged by Deputies on the Government side. We all agree that the provision of a year of free preschool education during early childhood is a good and laudable idea, but we must also acknowledge that it is accompanied by a massive cut. It would be wrong to ignore that. It is disingenuous of Deputies on the other side of the House to ignore that fact.
Children learn a great deal, including language and social skills, when they are two or three years of age. As it is a very important time, we need to provide high-quality preschool care and education to children of that age. I acknowledge the good work that is being done in this area. I encourage those involved to continue it. The imposition of charges has been referred to. I suggest that a progressive scheme should be introduced. I ask the Minister of State to examine what is being done in Denmark and Sweden. I am sure he is aware, having visited those countries a number of years ago, of some of the policies being pursued there. The charge that is imposed in Denmark is capped at between 30% and 33% of the cost. Low-income families pay much less. A similar regime applies in Sweden where a certain amount is charged for this service.
I am a little concerned that if child care providers are not allowed to impose charges, they will not be able to afford to continue to provide this service. This is a practical concern. I do not want people to suggest that Fine Gael wants to introduce a charge. We should have a proper debate on this. This real concern has been brought to our attention by child care providers. I am sure they have also brought it to the attention of the Minister. They have to pay rates and various other costs that are associated with providing a service. The Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, spoke about labour costs last night. Perhaps we should consider allowing child care providers to impose a small charge on those who can afford it. Those who cannot afford it should be entitled to get child care for free or for a lesser amount. That might be worth considering and debating.
This is a crucial issue. I know the Minister of State is familiar with the research that has been done under the US-based Perry scheme. It is estimated that $8 is recouped from every $1 that is invested under the scheme. Perhaps one year of free preschool education is not enough. We must remember that children need to be ready to move on to the next level. I know the Minister of State understands that. While I accept that there might have to be an arbitrary cut-off point, perhaps it is not right to move the child on if he or she is not ready. Some children need 18 months or two years of preschool education. Our motion states that some flexibility must be built into the system. I ask the Minister of State to organise a proper debate on this matter at a joint committee. Perhaps this measure can be discussed with the experts as it develops and progresses. We should not forget that the abolition of the early child care supplement will have a huge impact on families at the lower end. That is a concern to others.
I could talk about other matters. I was told at the time that the initial administrative cost of establishing the early child care supplement scheme was approximately €6 million. Issues arose when it became clear that a small proportion of that money was going out of the country. It all counts now. We should have a proper debate on this issue. We should develop the new approach properly over time. We should ensure as many children as possible can avail of early childhood education until they go to primary school.
Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome the opportunity to speak during this important debate. I commend Deputy Enright on bringing this motion to the House. The Minister of State will be aware that the recent supplementary budget piled much more financial pressure on families. Many families are struggling to pay household bills. The reality is that the last two budgets have taken a sizeable chunk out of many household budgets. Families are now very cautious when spending their money. Many retailers are only just about surviving. The Commission on the Family has recognised the need to prioritise investment in child care.
I welcome the decision to provide for a year of free preschool education. As Deputy Enright said last night, such a system should have been developed during the Celtic tiger era rather than having to be developed now at a time of recession. Deputy Blaney said earlier this evening that the Government is very forward-thinking, even though it has taken the Government three years to think about what it should do in this area. Deputy Kelly suggested this proposal makes history. I remind him that when the early childhood supplement scheme was introduced three years ago, Fine Gael tried to no avail to put pressure on the Government to provide for a year of free preschool education. The Government has eventually woken up to the need for such an approach.
The abolition of the early childhood supplement payment will have a severe impact on many middle and low-income families. They already have less income than they had this time last year. They are faced with the doubling of the income and health levies. At the same time, they have witnessed mortgage interest relief being whittled away. The early childhood supplement was of great importance for many families as they planned their annual budgets. Such families have been left with an unfair burden on their shoulders.
The provision of affordable and accessible child care is a huge issue on the doorsteps. Those of us who have been canvassing with local election candidates over recent weeks have encountered this issue frequently. We are no wiser about the operation of this latest scheme now than we were when the Government introduced it two months ago. The Government has not put any thought into the practical operation and application of the scheme. Under the current proposals, the scheme will be subject to eight guidelines. If a child is to be allowed to avail of the scheme, he or she must be between three years and three months and four years and six months on 1 September of the relevant year. The Minister has failed to take the enrolment policies of many primary schools into account. Many primary schools throughout the country do not accept children until they are five years of age.
This scheme does not seem to take account of children with developmental problems. I recently spoke to one of the parents of a young boy who needs speech therapy. He is in a child care facility at present, but he will not be able to go to school until he is five years of age. His mother is finding it difficult to pay the bills. She is already worried about how she will cope from January of next year. I am delighted to see that the Minister of State with responsibility for children is present in the House. I suggest he intervene in cases of this nature to make exceptions to the scheme’s strict guidelines. The implementation of such guidelines will put children with developmental problems at a disadvantage. This issue must be addressed.
Serious questions also arise about whether thousands of parents will be able to avail of the scheme. There was no discussion with the providers before the Government announced this scheme under which the Government will have to pay the schools a maximum of €64.50 to cover three hours of preschool education for five days a week. Many providers have pointed out that the capitalisation, which covers 38 weeks, will not cover the day-to-day running costs, whether wages, water charges, waste disposal charges or equipment. There are many areas where rent is high. Many of the providers will find it difficult to sustain their businesses, yet we can ill afford to lose more jobs at this difficult time.
The Minister of State must address the concerns of the providers, otherwise many families will find that they have no places to send their children for preschool education. I commend the many community groups around the country that have provided fantastic facilities in their parishes. Their commitment to child care is second to none. In my parish in Lissycasey a crèche and after school learning centre are being built and will be open next September. The Minister of State was in Clare recently where he visited some of the facilities. My neighbouring parish of Kildysart has spent €1.5 million on developing a centre. That will open on 25 June and will provide excellent child care facilities from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There are other centres throughout the county in Ruan, Ennistymon, Flagmount and Miltown Malbay providing these services and they must fundraise. I commend the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for providing grants for these centres. I could spend more time on this subject. Fine Gael brought this motion forward because of the public uncertainty and the Government must clarify the situation.
Deputy Deirdre Clune: I, too, commend the proposal to introduce a year’s free preschool education. It is highly desirable and has long been policy on this side of the House. Anybody involved with children or visiting schools will realise that unless children have had some form of preschool education they are at a disadvantage because most children have had it, through either a community or a private facility. Reports have been published and studies conducted on its value and it is good to see that we are taking a step to introduce such a provision for our preschool children.
The manner in which this proposal has been introduced, however, has raised more questions than answers. This leaves much to be desired and I am delighted that this motion is before the House to enable us to try to glean some information from the Minister of State and put forward some of the comments and concerns that providers and parents in our constituencies have raised with us. For example, I have correspondence from the owner of a local Montessori school. She runs a private school charging €330 a month for a five-day week, for 43 weeks, coming to €3,300 per year. Under the scheme as proposed she will receive €2,451 leaving a shortfall of €859. She pays her staff over the summer months but will not be able to afford to do so under the new scheme. Will her staff be allowed to sign on to claim unemployment benefit during those months? She has high costs because she bought a building for which she is paying a mortgage. She must pay rates, equipment costs, insurance, lighting and all the costs incurred by any small business. She is not looking for a break on those. She went into the business with her eyes wide open.
We all know that child care or preschool facilities are not big money-spinners. They are relatively small earners. Most people do this work out of love of working with children. They like to teach children for maybe two years before passing them on to the school system. It requires dedication. Now, however, many people, such as this private provider, wonder whether they can afford to stay in business. I suspect that some may not and the proposed restrictions, the payment of only €64.50 a week for 38 weeks of the year, will be an obstacle to their continuing in business. This must be considered particularly if we are depending on these people to provide the necessary places for preschool students.
According to the statement read on the Minister of State’s behalf last night, by the end of 2010 all the places will be available. This scheme is due to start in January 2010 so there will be some confusion for 12 months. The Minister of State has ruled out completely an added contribution from parents and I can see how that would be contrary to the provision of free child care places, but I urge him to consider this carefully, particularly because he is depending on these private child care providers to implement the scheme he proposes.
I would like to have spoken on the early child care supplement. I am very disappointed that the Minister has removed it because it supported parents of young children, particularly those facing excessive full-time child care costs while they work. This can be very expensive and while it varies from one area to another it is a heavy burden on working parents. The removal of this supplement along with the changes to child care benefit that we face in the next budget, and the removal of mortgage interest relief in this last budget, have had a detrimental effect on and are a serious blow to parents with young families.
Deputy Tom Hayes: I am pleased to have the opportunity to say a few words in this important debate. Like many other speakers I welcome the free preschool year. We have proposed it and looked for it and are pleased that it is now in place. People on the Government side have said that this motion was put down because of the local elections and that it is a vote getting exercise. It is not. The motion was put down because there is widespread concern among those who use the facilities. That is why Deputy Olwyn Enright put down this motion and I commend her for it. There is real fear and worry because of the way this was announced in the budget when nobody knew that it was coming. People were not consulted.
I thank the Minister of State for receiving the deputations from my constituency. He saw at first hand the difficulties my colleagues are encountering in running the facilities and heard the concerns of the county child care committee. When it was announced in the budget without prior consultation the providers experienced fear and worry. Deputy Clune spoke about the inherent cost of running a business. I was canvassing some nights ago and came across an individual in Clerihan who has invested a considerable sum in a business but who does not know the future of that business. People like doing what they are doing and those involved in child care are trained to do so and are genuinely committed to it. They have been trained and have invested in their careers. Planning guidelines in respect of many housing estates, villages and towns nationally stipulated that child care facilities should be provided as part of new developments. People invested in them, yet the Government changed its mind without consulting anybody. This is wrong. If anything emerges from this debate tonight, it will be that changes have been made without consulting the people.
Many men and women throughout the country are losing their jobs, have large mortgage repayments or are in other difficult circumstances because of the economic downturn. Preschool education is now part of the education system as a whole. It is a fact of life that young children need to go to preschool to prepare for primary school and there is no doubt it is better for them. Anybody who sends his or her children to preschool will note that they benefit from it. We should encourage it. The Government does not have a planned approach, nor has it adhered to the proper guidelines or determined what should be done and what is best for the children.
When the Minister of State is contributing, he should understand the needs and concerns of the people providing preschool services. While he must consider the difficult economic circumstances we face, the reality is that money spent on meeting the educational needs of children is money well invested. When this country was doing well over recent eyras, it was because of our education system and the manner in which we prepared people. Part of the preparation involves preschool education. When the Minister of State is contributing, he should note the considerable worries and fears of the parents and preschool education providers.
Some might welcome the Government’s proposal in isolation but it is only when they link it to the other anti-family cuts introduced by the Government over the past six months that they will realise the scheme was not introduced to benefit children and families but to save money. We are told up to 70,000 children will benefit from the scheme in the first year. We are to provide an average supplement of €64.50 per week per head to provide the service. The reality is that in 2006 the Government introduced, to a fanfare, the early child care supplement. In 2008 it cost €480 million, yet the scheme to be introduced next year is to cost approximately €170 million. There is no indication whatever that the Minister knew the numbers involved. On one occasion there was a reference to €70 million and on another there was a reference to approximately €76 million. Nobody knows. Any Government that introduces such a scheme must surely understand it is but another cutback measure. When it was announced as part of the emergency budget, nobody, including parents and service providers, had a notion about what was happening. Can the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, state clearly tonight how and where the scheme will be introduced?
The scheme might work in an urban setting — I say this in a qualified way. However, has the Minister of State ever considered how it will work in a rural setting? The Government is pitting urban against rural once more, thus creating a two-tier system. The Minister of State said the €64.50 per week cannot be capped or increased by people themselves. If so, how are the service providers, who are now charging up to €500 per week, to provide the preschool service and crèche facilities for young children? How will they pay for the staff to deliver the service? There is no indication the Minister even thought of this when introducing the measure. The confusion that has existed from the outset and which still exists today indicates the scheme is badly thought out and will not result in the benefits associated with an early start, as mentioned by Deputy Clune. The mess that has been proposed will be of benefit to nobody.
The Government has slowly but surely withdrawn the €450 million available through the early child care supplement and has replaced it with an allocation of €170 million, which indicates clearly it is not interested in preschool education. Thousands of parents will not be able to avail of the preschool year because of the capped payment, with which I have dealt.
Many problems with the scheme have been identified by members of the Irish Pre-school Play Association. The main one is that the subsidised sum of €2,450 per annum does not cover existing costs. A top-up in terms of specified hours is not permitted by the Minister. This is because it was never intended to subsidise a two-tier preschool system. The Minister of State, when summing up, should indicate clearly that he understands the scheme and will explain it for the parents and providers once and for all such that the ambiguities and uncertainties that exist for so many will be eliminated. I do not know whether he can do this but, if not, the scheme will be a failure. The relevant infrastructure and personnel are not available to deliver the service.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Barry Andrews): I am pleased to be able to speak on this motion and support the Government’s amendment. The value of early investment in education has been well charted over recent years. Deputy Stanton referred to the return of eight to one for every euro invested in this area. Reports indicate the return is even greater for disadvantaged children. Thus, there should be widespread support for the measure introduced in the budget. An equivalent measure in the United Kingdom has been described as a quiet revolution, the benefits of which will not be seen for many years.
I thank the speakers on the Government side for their support for this proposal. The NESF said it would be a landmark in Irish social and educational history if it were introduced. That was in 2005, at the height of the Celtic tiger boom, when there was plenty of money around. The preschool scheme will yield major benefits for Irish society and for children at a time when there is great focus on preparing a better life for our children, particularly those who are disadvantaged and have not hitherto benefited from preschool services.
Clearly, there will be challenges; change always brings challenge. However, one Deputy after another on the Opposition side, while talking about consultation, mentioned occasions on which I have met representatives of the child care sector in their constituencies. Deputy Hayes referred to visits I made to Cahir and Fethard, Deputy Breen referred to visits to Kildysart, Ennistymon and other areas, and Deputy Kelly referred to trips to Longford. There has been much consultation, and what has been said to us time and again is that the downturn in the economy means there are fewer people using preschool services. We are told there is greater capacity and there are empty places, and that there has been migration from private facilities to the community sector. I have been asked what I was going to do about it. We did something about it. The Government decision was a visionary one and was completely against the tide of reductions in other areas of the economy.
Support for the scheme has been widespread. Of the people who have contacted my office, 80% or 90% have been supportive. Deputies have said information is not available. The national voluntary child care organisations have circulated information to their members. My own office has information on its website and we have a telephone line on which we have received thousands of queries and have been able to support people. The city and county child care committees have been circulating information to their members, and next week packs will be sent out to 5,000 service providers throughout the country. Applications will be accepted between 8 June and 11 July by the city and county child care committees and will be processed by the end of September. Parents can enrol children in October or November and the scheme will commence in January 2010. That information is and has been available.
Deputy Breen said the issue has been coming up on the doorsteps. It may well have been, as people are interested in it. This information will be made available to them in due course. However, he makes a mistake with regard to his concerns, which would be legitimate if they were not already dealt with, about children with developmental delay or who might not be able to avail of the scheme because of local school enrolment policies. These issues have been considered and dealt with in the scheme, and this information has been circulated to the city and county child care committees for their benefit. I reject the Deputy’s comments in that regard. I hope this will assuage his fears and allow him to support the measure that is before the House.
Where are we going with this measure? The NESF report from 2005 to which I referred earlier contained a reference to ten-year development in this area. We need a workforce development plan and to improve the skills of staff who are working in this area. The curriculum will be based on Aistear, which will cover junior and senior infants as well as the pre-school year, and Síolta provides us with a framework for quality in early childhood care and education. We will continue to have an open-door policy with the providers. I have met all of them and continue to meet them in my constituency clinic. I will meet some more of them later this week. We would like to move towards providing a higher payment to services with higher levels of qualification among teachers.
Deputy Alan Shatter: For many years I have been of the view that we should provide a universal free preschool service throughout the country. In principle I welcome the announcement made by the Minister of State and I welcome the fact that this scheme is being established. My criticism of the Government is that such a scheme should have been established many years ago at a time when the State was not under financial pressure. It is of major importance that the scheme as implemented is flexible so that it addresses the needs of different families, and it is also crucial, in the context of the service providers, that the scheme is pitched at a level that makes it economically realistic to provide the service and ensures the essential standards that are now prescribed are fully complied with.
One of the great difficulties with the scheme when it was announced, which remains a difficulty to this day, is the provision of information so that both child care providers and parents know exactly how the scheme will work in practice. The Minister of State is correct in stating there is information on his website about the scheme. However, that information has changed from time to time, and the difficulty faced by many providers is that the cost of providing preschool facilities varies substantially depending on location. The Government’s preschool plan pays a maximum of €64.50 for 15 hours per week, which is a total of €250 per month for the provision of a free preschool service. However, some providers charge closer to €500 for 15 hours a week, because in certain parts of the country providing the service is a great deal more expensive. Many providers claim that the maximum of €64.50 per week per child will not cover a variety of running costs, which include wages, relief staff, rent, rates, heating, light, insurance, water charges, waste charges, equipment, materials, snacks, food, and accountancy fees — all the usual expenses that arise in the provision of this type of service.
In the context of my constituency of Dublin South, a major expense incurred by all providers is the rates imposed by the council, which are exorbitant and are making it difficult for many providers to ensure they provide a service at a price that parents can truly afford. I doubt they can provide the service based on the expenses they have in the context of the financial parameters being imposed by the Government. This is a major problem. Primary and secondary schools are rates-exempt. If we are serious about providing a high-quality preschool system that every child can attend at a reasonable cost, we must ask why rates are imposed on such facilities when primary and secondary schools do not pay them. The rates vary; in the constituency of Dublin South, depending on whether one’s preschool is located within the South Dublin County Council area or the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area, one will pay a different amount. This is in fact a tax on the provision of child care.
While the Government is providing financial assistance, it is making it uneconomical, particularly in parts of Dublin, for child care providers to opt in to this public system. Thus, we may end up with some providers only providing preschool care and education in an entirely private capacity at a higher cost in particular locations. Of course I need to be concerned about the situation in Dublin South. However, as the Fine Gael Party spokesperson on children, I believe the scheme must have the flexibility to recognise regional variations, the variation between town and country, and the types of facilities provided. It also needs to take account of the cost of maintaining the important standards that have now been imposed to ensure we have a system of which we can be proud.
I appreciate the Government has finally come forward belatedly with this scheme but I have some concerns about it. Within its context, the scheme allows, where there is provision for the three hours, five days a week, for some additional charges to be made for additional services during extra hours or exceptional teaching and facilities in areas that would not normally be covered by preschool. This is a matter of concern. In Dublin South, for instance, if there is a preschool that opts into the scheme and there are parents who can only afford the three hours at this rate, but the preschool is open for four hours and there are other parents who can afford the extra hour, there will be segregation between children. Children from poorer families will leave earlier than those children whose parents can afford the extra time. It may well be that this creates a real differentiation in the minds of children between them and others.
There is a minimum enrolment provision of eight children for the scheme in any preschool. While the Minister of State has agreed to look at the issue and the draft guidelines to allow for some flexibility in some cases, the criteria for exceptions appear to be very restrictive and the provider is only allowed to avail of them “subject to complying with all other contractual arrangements”. The difficulty is that we do not know what the other contractual arrangements are. I presume in the context of the information pack the Minister of State will send out that they will become apparent.
This debate has been important and I congratulate Deputy Olwyn Enright on tabling the motion. It will stimulate the Minister of State’s meetings with organisations tomorrow to tease out some of the glitches with the scheme.
I do not want to be mealy-mouthed about the scheme, I want to be clear. I welcome in principle the fact that the Government has recognised that we have an obligation to provide a universal preschool education system. I am concerned, however, about the costings. I am also concerned that if the numbers the Minister of State believes will use the scheme are realised, we will not have sufficient facilities to provide the preschool education people are now being promised. That is another issue the Minister of State must clarify.
I have been following the debate in this House and I notice frequently in debates here that the Green Party is more prominent by its absence than its presence, although Deputy White contributed tonight. This is an important issue for children and Deputy Enright, the Minister of State and I are members of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, which deals with children’s rights and the possibility of a constitutional amendment to protect children. That committee has published two interim reports, one on the use of soft information to ensure children are properly protected against sexual predators being given jobs where they are working with or close to children and a statutory vetting process to provide protection for children and another that addressed the issue of statutory rape. I find it remarkable that some members of the Green Party seem to be more interested in light bulbs and green shoots of the plant variety than in children. It is extraordinary — I am not sure the extent to which other members of the committee have noticed this — that the one Green Party member of the committee, Deputy Gogarty, simply does not attend meetings or participate in discussions and did not make any contribution to the publication of the report on soft information or the report dealing with statutory rape.
It is extraordinary that the Green Party has no interest in children’s rights and the protection of children. This committee has serious work to do in the next six months and if Deputy Gogarty has no interest in attending, it is time he was removed from the committee and replaced by a Member of this House who has the interest and commitment to contribute to the work of the committee and to ensure we bring forward a constitutional provision that will truly ensure we protect children and their rights in future.
Deputy Olwyn Enright: I thank everyone who contributed to this debate. I want to make clear that everyone accepts the principle of one year’s preschool. It is wrong that the Government is saying that we rubbished the proposal. It is the practicality of the proposal that Fine Gael is concerned with. If the Government wants to question our bona fides on this issue, it should go back to when we were last in power in the 1990s, when the first preschools in the country were established, particularly in disadvantaged areas. It is lamentable from our perspective that it has taken 12 years for further progress in the area and for that small but significant start to be built upon.
This is not visionary. Fine Gael and the Labour Party published proposals on preschool education prior to the 2007 general election. This is not something we have come to as guests at the end of the night, it is something we have long held as policy and we welcome the fact that the Government has finally seen the light on the issue and is willing to admit that a year’s preschool is necessary. It is the way the Government is going about it that we question.
The speech the Minister of State, Deputy John Moloney, was given to deliver was more interesting than the one he made, which was not quite so contentious. He stated clearly last night, however, that our motion is about providing services with a higher profit margin because of operation in an area that previously tolerated higher fees. That was utterly disingenuous and is simply not the case. The motion is to ensure the commitment made can succeed, as it will not as currently constituted. The principle behind the Government’s proposal enjoys widespread support but the practicality does not, in spite of the claims of the Minister of State. The fact that the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, is meeting a group that has more than 300 members, which was only established after the announcement, is proof of the concerns that exist. That group felt it necessary to come together to question some of what is being decided.
The Government attacked us for being concerned about the absence of information and consultation, yet we do not have any more information tonight than we had prior to putting down the motion. The notion of the Minister of State going to openings and calling them consultations is wrong. We all know what happens when a Minister visits a constituency — there is little real consultation going on and the photographs appear to be more important at these events. To say there is no absence of information and then tell us that there will be a census of preschool services to get data on service provider levels is laughable because it would not be necessary if the information was available, and that is exactly the type of information needed to calculate costs and work out availability.
The Government speakers were more concerned about achieving consensus than having a discussion. Is there something wrong that the Opposition might try to ensure a scheme this important actually works? That is our job. Deputy Conlon might prefer if we left the Government to run the country on its own but that will not happen.
It is ironic to hear the Government question the Fine Gael figures when the figures in the Minister of State’s initial statement were different from those used when Fianna Fáil Members questioned our figures last night. Likewise, on the early child care supplement, six Ministers, including the Taoiseach of the time, gave different figures about how much it would cost.
The motion was purely an attempt to tease out the issue and make it work for the benefit of children. It will not work if the providers cannot afford to participate. We have suggested changes, particularly the indexation of costs for rates, rents and wages. I ask the Minister to look at that because there is confusion in the Government about the issues of child care and preschool. Boasting about 65,000 child care places is not the same as preschool places. The fact that the Government is doing the census and has not given us a figure for preschool places makes me question what will happen. I ask the Minister to listen to the points made and take them on board. They are well meant. We want to see this work, but we do not see how it will work as constituted, and the Minister needs to have an open mind on it.
|Ahern, Dermot.||Ahern, Michael.|
|Ahern, Noel.||Andrews, Barry.|
|Andrews, Chris.||Ardagh, Seán.|
|Aylward, Bobby.||Blaney, Niall.|
|Brady, Áine.||Brady, Johnny.|
|Browne, John.||Calleary, Dara.|
|Carey, Pat.||Collins, Niall.|
|Conlon, Margaret.||Connick, Seán.|
|Cregan, John.||Cuffe, Ciarán.|
|Cullen, Martin.||Curran, John.|
|Devins, Jimmy.||Dooley, Timmy.|
|Fahey, Frank.||Finneran, Michael.|
|Fitzpatrick, Michael.||Fleming, Seán.|
|Flynn, Beverley.||Gogarty, Paul.|
|Gormley, John.||Grealish, Noel.|
|Hanafin, Mary.||Harney, Mary.|
|Haughey, Seán.||Healy-Rae, Jackie.|
|Hoctor, Máire.||Kelleher, Billy.|
|Kelly, Peter.||Kenneally, Brendan.|
|Kennedy, Michael.||Kirk, Seamus.|
|Kitt, Michael P.||Kitt, Tom.|
|Lenihan, Brian.||Lenihan, Conor.|
|McEllistrim, Thomas.||McGrath, Mattie.|
|McGrath, Michael.||Mansergh, Martin.|
|Martin, Micheál.||Moloney, John.|
|Moynihan, Michael.||Mulcahy, Michael.|
|Nolan, M. J.||Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.|
|O’Brien, Darragh.||O’Connor, Charlie.|
|O’Dea, Willie.||O’Flynn, Noel.|
|O’Hanlon, Rory.||O’Keeffe, Batt.|
|O’Rourke, Mary.||O’Sullivan, Christy.|
|Power, Peter.||Power, Seán.|
|Roche, Dick.||Ryan, Eamon.|
|Sargent, Trevor.||Scanlon, Eamon.|
|Smith, Brendan.||Treacy, Noel.|
|White, Mary Alexandra.||Woods, Michael.|
|Allen, Bernard.||Bannon, James.|
|Barrett, Seán.||Behan, Joe.|
|Broughan, Thomas P.||Bruton, Richard.|
|Burke, Ulick.||Burton, Joan.|
|Carey, Joe.||Clune, Deirdre.|
|Connaughton, Paul.||Coonan, Noel J.|
|Costello, Joe.||Crawford, Seymour.|
|Creed, Michael.||Creighton, Lucinda.|
|D’Arcy, Michael.||Deasy, John.|
|Doyle, Andrew.||Durkan, Bernard J.|
|English, Damien.||Enright, Olwyn.|
|Feighan, Frank.||Flanagan, Charles.|
|Hayes, Tom.||Higgins, Michael D.|
|Hogan, Phil.||Kehoe, Paul.|
|Lynch, Ciarán.||McCormack, Pádraic.|
|McGrath, Finian.||McHugh, Joe.|
|McManus, Liz.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
|Morgan, Arthur.||Naughten, Denis.|
|Neville, Dan.||Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.|
|Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.||O’Donnell, Kieran.|
|O’Dowd, Fergus.||O’Keeffe, Jim.|
|O’Shea, Brian.||O’Sullivan, Jan.|
|Penrose, Willie.||Perry, John.|
|Rabbitte, Pat.||Ring, Michael.|
|Shatter, Alan.||Sheahan, Tom.|
|Sherlock, Seán.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Stanton, David.|
|Timmins, Billy.||Upton, Mary.|
|Varadkar, Leo.||Wall, Jack.|
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