Wednesday, 28 September 2005
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Mr. B. Lenihan): I welcome everyone to the debate today. I am speaking on this topic on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin. I would like to start by emphasising the importance which the Government attaches to this subject. It is of fundamental importance to the future weIl-being of all our people. The early childhood period is widely recognised as a key source of health, well-being, socialisation and, crucially, the foundation for the lifelong learning that underpins all other aspects of life.
I will address specifically the education dimension of the early childhood period, but it is important to understand that while there is a difference in theory between early childhood education and early childhood care, the two are very closely linked. For this reason the early childhood period is a classic policy issue involving inputs from a number of Departments and agencies.
The Department of Education and Science is strongly committed to the development of early childhood education. The enhancement of early childhood services in accordance with the White Paper on early childhood education, Ready to Learn, is being undertaken on a collaborative phased basis and will draw together and build upon the many examples of best practice in early education that have emerged in recent years.
The White Paper sets out a strategy in respect of children from birth to six years of age. The key objective is to support the development and educational achievement of children through high-quality early education, with a particular focus on the disadvantaged and those with special needs. The guiding principles which underpin the White Paper strategy are as follows: that quality must permeate all aspects of early education provision; that the State will seek to build on existing provision and use the existing regulatory framework where possible; that implementation will be undertaken on a gradual phased basis to allow all the participants in the system to prepare adequately for the challenges which lie ahead; and that progress will be achieved through a process of consultation, dialogue and partnership with parents, providers and interested parties.
In order to combat disadvantage and promote education, special emphasis is being placed on the provision of appropriate pre-school education in areas of social deprivation and those with special needs. The Early Start pre-school project was established in 40 primary schools in designated areas of urban disadvantage in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Galway, Drogheda and Dundalk in the mid 1990s. The aims of Early Start are to expose young children to an educational programme which will enhance their overall development, prevent school failure and offset the effects of social disadvantage.
The approach taken in Early Start is to establish groups of 15 pupils in existing primary schools in disadvantaged areas, with each class being run by a primary school teacher and a qualified child care worker. While the Early Start curriculum emphasises the development of cognitive and language skills, due regard is also paid to personal and social development.
Some 56 teachers and 56 child care workers are employed in 16 full Early Start units serving 60 children each, split along the lines of 30 in the morning and 30 in the afternoon, and 24 half units in the mornings only. The total number of places at present is 1,680 and total expenditure is in the order of €4 million annually.
In addition, a new action plan called Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools was launched by the Minister for Education and Science last May. This action plan aims to ensure that the educational needs of children and young people from disadvantaged communities, from pre-school to completion of upper second level education, are prioritised and addressed effectively. This action plan will be implemented on a phased basis over the next five years and will involve an additional annual investment of some €40 million on full implementation. It will also involve the creation of about 300 additional posts across the education system generally.
Targeted early childhood education provision will be a key element of this new action plan. The objective is to concentrate early education actions on those children, aged from three up to school enrolment, who will subsequently attend primary schools serving the most disadvantaged communities. On a phased basis, the 150 primary schools serving communities with the highest concentrations of disadvantage will be provided with access to early education for children aged from three up to school enrolment.
The approach of the Department of Education and Science will be to work in partnership with other Departments and agencies to complement and add value to existing child care programmes in disadvantaged communities with a view to ensuring that the overall care and education needs of the children concerned are met in an integrated way.
A total of 46 pre-schools catering for approximately 500 Traveller children are supported by the Department of Education and Science. The Department funds 98% of the tuition and transport costs involved in this service. It also allocates an annual equipment grant to each pre-school and pays an additional grant of €50 per child over three years old and less than five years old. In some cases, the pre-schools also receive support from health boards, often to defray some of the costs associated with child care assistants.
The Department is developing a Traveller education strategy. The main objective of this strategy is to ensure equality of outcomes for Travellers from education. It will map out the way forward for Traveller education, taking account of the complexity of the issues involved, the history of provision and existing measures. It will mark out the challenges for the future and identify ways to approach those challenges. Pre-school provision for Travellers is being examined as part of this process. The development of pre-school services generally, outside of the specific area of disadvantage, is also a priority.
In 2002, the Department established the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education as part of the Government’s commitment to early education for all children. The remit of this centre includes the development, co-ordination and enhancement of early childhood education in Ireland. The centre has a valuable role to play in laying the foundations necessary to support developments in the early childhood area. The centre is currently developing a conceptual framework for early childhood learning that will be comprehensive in nature and will cover such issues as the following: national standards for quality in early childhood care and education, covering all aspects of provision, including environment, programmes, activities and staffing; provision for a range of supports for early childhood care and education practitioners and services; and the assessment of quality. The draft framework wiII be available within the next few months. The centre operates under the aegis of my Department and in conjunction with St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, and the Dublin Institute of Technology. The initial operating period of the centre was three years and it is a measure of the Government’s commitment to the work of the centre and to the early childhood area generally that the Department has recently sanctioned the continued operation of the centre for a further period of three years.
In order to obtain an international expert assessment of the situation in Ireland, in 2002 the Department invited the OECD to conduct a review of early childhood policies here. The OECD’s dedication over many years to high-quality research leading to collective discussion and analysis of policy has earned it an extraordinarily high level of public trust and respect. The focus of the OECD review team was as follows: to place the issues around early childhood provision firmly within the Irish context; review the early care and educational policies and practices as they meet the needs of Irish children and their families; consider ongoing developments with a critical eye for sustainability; make recommendations that would make success more likely; and indicate areas for future effort and emphasis.
The review team met with many Departments, agencies and other stakeholders dealing with early childhood issues and made site visits covering a range of services for young children from four months to six years of age. It brought a wealth of international expertise to bear on the issues involved, as we knew it would, and it produced a host of very valuable recommendations across the three focus areas of access, quality and co-ordination. As the report of the OECD review team makes clear, these recommendations were offered not as hard and fast conclusions, but in the spirit of professional dialogue for the consideration of policymakers and specialists. The Department is examining the policy implications of the OECD’s recommendations.
In March last year the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment produced a consultative document called Towards a Framework for Early Learning which dealt with the development of a national framework to support children’s learning. Such a framework will be useful to those who are responsible for children’s early learning and development. This includes parents, guardians, childminders and practitioners working in a range of settings outside the home. This framework, focusing as it does on curricular matters, will complement the development of the quality framework being developed by the centre.
In addition, the National Economic and Social Forum, NESF, has just completed a report focusing on the development of a long-term vision for the provision of integrated early years services in an Irish context. This report had three clear aims as follows: to identify what progress had been made with regard to implementing the recommendations of recent reports and policy documents; to develop a coherent policy framework for early childhood care and education; and to set out an implementation process with key targets and objectives to be achieved at policy level over the next five years.
The overall approach of the forum is evidence based and brings together the complex strands of policy and service interaction involved in developing early childhood education and care in a comprehensive way. The report sets out a policy framework and recommendations based on five principles which reflect those set out in the national children’s strategy. The report clearly acknowledges the value of investment in this area which has beneficial outcomes for children and families as well as for the economy.
The NESF proposals envisage a timeframe of up to 2015 for implementation. While the NESF also favours a degree of universality in its recommendations, there is also an acknowledgement of the need for prioritisation and for targeting those families and children with particular needs. This is a measured approach which balances the need to make improvements with the need to take a staged approach to build up the necessary infrastructure and workforce.
As I stated at the outset, the link between the education and care aspects of early childhood provision is very strong. Consequently, it is important that I should briefly address the care element. The bulk of pre-school places in the country are financed by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which has provided unprecedented levels of funding for child care in recent years. The Department of Health and Children also provides grants to child care groups, including community groups in areas of social and economic disadvantage. Child benefit has more than tripled from €38.10 in 1997 to €141.60 today. Since 1997, the Government has increased the annual provision of child care services by more than €198 million in real terms and has invested in excess of €60 million in capital projects for services for children who are at risk and their families.
In the specific context of child care — in the sense of the care and minding of children not at risk — the equal opportunities child care programme running from 2000 to 2006 has a total budget of €499 million. This programme is administered by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and received an increased allocation of current funding in the context of the mid-term review of the national development plan. It subsequently received an increased capital commitment totalling €90 million over five years, of which the first €50 million will be available for the present phase of the programme. This was done in the 2005 budget to help meet the need for centre-based community non-profit-making child care services to support parents in employment, education and training. The original intention was to increase the supply of child care places by 50% or 28,300 new places. However, commitments to date will lead, when complete, to the creation of more than 39,000 new places. Of these, some 24,600 were already in place at the end of December 2004. The programme also aims to enhance quality awareness in the child care sector and to promote better co-ordination in the planning and delivery of child care at local level.
The programme operates under three sub-measures to meet its aims and provides grant assistance in the form of capital funding for both community non-profit-making groups and for private providers; staffing supports for community non-profit-making groups in disadvantaged areas; and supports for quality improvement projects, including supports to the 33 city and county child care committees and the national voluntary child care organisations.
The total funding committed over the period from 2000 to date is more than €447 million, of which almost €392 million has been allocated to child care facilities. This includes €45.6 million in capital and staffing grants announced by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on 22 June 2005. Over €55 million has been allocated to quality improvement measures to date.
A significant part of the remaining funding will be required for the following: the roll-over staffing grant supports being made available to child care facilities which cater for disadvantaged families; ongoing supports to the city and county child care committees; the national voluntary child care organisations; the national childminding initiative; the Partnerships for Quality Childcare collaborative initiative; the provision of capital grant assistance for the development of child care facilities in areas where there are gaps in service provision; and for the development of school age child care.
The achievements of the programme to date include the awarding of more than 3,300 grants to a mixture of community group and private provider child care facilities. On occasion, projects may be in receipt of several grants. In addition, the original target under the national development plan for new child care places has been adjusted upwards to 31,300 new child care places following positive assessments under the mid-term evaluation of the development plan. Moreover, some 39,000 new child care places will be created with funding committed to date. Of these, 26,000 new places were in place at the end of June 2005.
While this means that the expected number of child care places created will exceed the target set for the programme, the requirement for further child care places has been identified. Consequently, the creation of further quality child care places remains an important goal of the equal opportunities programme.
While there already are school age child care facilities in place in Ireland, including a number which have received funding under the programme, it is hoped that the new initiative to promote school age child care will give greater impetus to the future development of this part of the child care sector. On 22 June 2005 the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform announced the publication of a report dealing with school age child care in Ireland. The report makes a number of recommendations for the development of this sector to support the child care needs of parents, including the use of school premises where appropriate as a location to develop a quality school age child care service. The report also contains recommendations which place a strong emphasis on delivering quality in developing this aspect of child care.
The 33 city and county child care committees will have a major role in bringing forward this new initiative. A seminar was hosted by the Department for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on Monday, 26 September to further this role. Funding is being available to the committees to enable them to publicise the report locally and to identify school management authorities who might be interested in developing a service to complement and link with their schools. In addition, a national and local advertising campaign is about to be launched to publicise the initiative, as this approach to school age child care will involve the participation of parents, school management authorities, relevant statutory bodies, community based non-profit-making child care services and private child care providers. Other issues under consideration at present include the following: the introduction of appropriate fee structures for community based services to ensure their sustainability; the introduction of new arrangements for the support of community based services in areas of significant disadvantage where the parents cannot afford to contribute to the economic cost of providing a service; and the development of ideas on the next phase of the programme for the next national development plan.
Mr. B. Lenihan: These developments represent just some of the many initiatives currently being undertaken in the area of child care. Much has happened in respect of both the education and care aspects of early childhood provision and no doubt much more will happen in future. All this activity must be linked together to maximise its impact on the provision of the best possible service to young children and their families.
For this reason, the Government through the Cabinet committee on child care and education asked the National Children’s Office to chair a high level working group to develop an integrated response to the issue of child care and education. The children’s office is a cross-cutting office set up to support me in the implementation of the national children’s strategy and was considered by the Government to be best placed to chair this group. The group will have due regard to the importance of a child-centred approach including the whole child perspective.
The unique aspect of this review is that it incorporates all the Departments with a role in this area within the group. Through the involvement of the National Children’s Office, it safeguards the child-centred approach required and is specifically focused on dealing with the problem of integration of policy development and implementation. Progress reports were submitted in April and July 2005 to the Cabinet committee on children.
This working group will provide the Government with a range of options which will make the link between education and care and the benefits to be gained by individual children as well as by communities and society in general; increase the supply of appropriate early childhood education and care settings by developing capacity in the system; include measures which make services more affordable; and ensure quality is a design feature in the child care system.
As part of the work of the high level group, the children’s office has commissioned an independent economic and cost benefit analysis of current policies and future policy options for increasing the supply and affordability of child care. This report has been received by the children’s office and is currently under consideration by the group. The high level group is expected to report back to the Cabinet shortly with an integrated set of policy options. As part of its work, the group will also be considering a number of significant reports that have been published recently which make a valuable contribution to the child care debate.
The NESF report on early childhood care and education which was published earlier this week will be considered in full by the group. In this report the forum recommends a policy framework and implementation plan to cover a ten year period. However, many of the underlying principles for their proposed policy reflect those adopted by the high level working group and as such, the group will consider the NESF’s recommendations as part of their examination of the options. Similarly, the National Women’s Council recently launched their accessible child care model report which will also be considered by the high level group.
In devising policy, it is often easy to see what worked well in the past. It is even easy to see what is working well at present. However, it is much more difficult to create something that will properly address future needs. To do so in a sustained way calls for hard-headed realism in assessing challenges that are still emerging and the creativity to imagine the structures that will best meet them.
Everyone here today and everyone else active in the area of early childhood care and education wants to put in place the best possible service for our children and for the hard pressed parents who strive on a daily basis to juggle the commitments of work and home. Commitment is not the issue, rather it is devising the structures to deliver the best service. The very best of intentions will not deliver a service to even one child. Translating our vision and the vision of all those who have contributed to the reviews and reports outlined here today into practical, cost effective structures and processes will deliver the service children need.
The Government recognises the importance of this issue but also the complexity of getting the right mix of initiatives. It is my belief that any future framework must incorporate an integrated approach across Government. It must offer choices to families by increasing supply, diversity and affordability and it must be based on quality services as this is central to achieving the right outcomes for individual children, their families and wider society. All the parties involved in the early childhood education and care sectors have a role to play in building the right structures and processes for delivering a quality service second to none.
Mr. U. Burke: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. In the absence of the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, it is appropriate that the Minister of State with responsibility for children is here. Much of his speech dealt with child care. It is very opportune that we are debating the report on early childhood education at this stage. The report is welcome and is very balanced and I congratulate the Chairman and members of the committee who produced it.
However, there is an element of frustration in the report as it identifies clearly the fact that we have had report after report over the years, along with committee reviews and analyses. In 1998, the National Forum for Early Childhood Education delivered a report, as did the Commission on the Family, which was created by the then Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, while there was also a report by the Partnership 2000 expert group on child care. All of those reports highlighted proposals and recommendations in child care, but we have had no action whatever.
In 1994-95, the early start programme was initiated. In 1996, over 1,600 places were created and there has been no expansion since outside the obviously disadvantaged sections of society in Waterford, Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Dundalk and a few other places. The Minister of State stated in his speech that the Department of Education and Science is strongly committed to the development of early childhood education. That rings hollow in the minds of so many people because the reality is very different. If there was a commitment, why has there been no commitment to expansion, albeit in targeted regions to those who need it? Those who benefit from the €4 million to €5 million contribution welcome it very much.
Throughout the report, there is a criticism that at a time of plenty in this country, the Government has done nothing. It has frozen action on this aspect of early childhood education and care. Other countries are economically worse off than Ireland, yet they still have far greater commitments to providing child care. Our contribution represents 0.2% of our GDP, whereas most other European countries commit an average of 5% of GDP to child care, while Denmark and France contribute 8% and 7% of GDP. In these countries, 90% of the young population have access to and participate in early preschool education and care.
Why do we have such a poor response? There has been no commitment by successive Ministers of Education and Science in the past two Governments to accelerate a programme from which many young people could benefit. It is often highlighted in the report that people in disadvantaged areas have been targeted, such as members of the Traveller community and people with special needs. This is welcome, but we want a universal scheme where every child between the ages of two and five will have access to and participate in early childhood education and care. That is the difference.
This report is nothing more than a clear indication of Government inactivity. I fear that we have a parallel to that which occurred before the summer recess, when we debated the Bill on special needs and the role played by the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Children. One of the strong recommendations of this report is that a single Department takes responsibility for early education and child care. There is no indication in the speech given by the Minister of State that such a change will come about. The Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Department of Health and Children, as well as the Department of Education and Science are all trying to contribute to policy making. There is no co-ordination and no focus on the reality of what is happening on the ground. As there is so much duplication, funds have been wasted which could be used far more appropriately in the delivery of services.
The Minister of State claimed that commitment was not the issue. I differ strongly with him as I believe it is the issue. If a commitment existed, there would be a delivery of a far greater service than that which currently exists. The service is the same today as it was in 1994-95 when the early start programme was initiated and when €4 million to €5 million was spent in 1996. In the US, the UK and northern Europe, a number of cost benefit analyses indicate clearly that the cost of €1 would have a return benefit of €7. If that is the case, I do not know how any Government or Minister can dilly dally any longer. In the heat of the upcoming election, the Minister for Finance recently said in Cavan that early childhood education and care is the important issue to which the Government must respond. However, he said that he would not introduce it in a universal way but in an incremental way, in a period of five to ten years. Nothing has happened in the last ten years so what can we expect in the next ten? The exception is that in this instance we have a report in which a very important cross-section of society has clearly identified what is essential for us to respond to. Many people have the idea that the debate in the current climate is taking place in response to the fact that so many parents, especially women, are at work. While that is a factor, I hope the debate is broadened to a discussion of a response which takes account of the tremendous returns from any input which is made at this early stage. Research has shown that young people aged between two and five years experience the most accelerated period of development of their lifetimes. If we allow those formative years to pass, we will pay the price later as evidenced in societies internationally as well as here where we have experienced a share of crime, drugs, poor health and anti-social behaviour problems which we could well do without. While we must appreciate fully that parents are the primary educators and, as such, have responsibilities, we must acknowledge that many parents are forced into circumstances in which they must go out to work to make ends meet. In the absence of continuing parental education in the home, we must ensure that services provided are of the highest quality and that everyone involved is provided with the appropriate training and facilities.
There is a clear indication that children who transfer to primary school having had access to some element of pre-school education have an advantage over those who do not do so. We were told by the current Minister that one of her priorities in office would be the reduction of the pupil-teacher ratio. Action in this area would have meant a significant advantage for children under nine years of age at primary level, but nothing has happened. While we have been told that 600 additional jobs have been created, they have had no impact on the overall reduction of the pupil-teacher ratio. If we lack commitment to the services which already exist, how can we expect additional funding to be provided? While it might be listed — and the Minister of State has quantified the additional funds which will be put in place — Deputy Cowen’s remarks make it very doubtful that any increments will be other than very small.
In response to the report, I ask the Minister of State, through Deputy Hanafin, to request at Cabinet that a single Department and Minister take responsibility for the diffuse area of child care and early childhood education. This action is necessary to provide focus and to ensure appropriate levels of funding are provided. I hope the Department of Education and Science will indicate that any new national school will encompass facilities on a single campus to ensure the provision of early childhood education is part of the primary system. While I do not know which Minister the Government would decide should take overall responsibility in the area, what is most important is for the Government to establish the scheme on a universal basis at a time when the funds to do so are available. While the targets for disadvantaged areas and others were welcome, access must be universal for all children.
We must pay tribute to the more than 50 groups which made submissions on the report with a view to improving and enhancing services in this area. We have a growing population and workforce and are told we need more workers. Given the extent of the return indicated in the cost-benefit analysis outlined in the report, I cannot understand why we are delaying implementation any longer.
Mr. Fitzgerald: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for outlining developments, improvements and the establishment of structures at departmental and sub-departmental level over the past seven or eight years to address the crucial issue of the welfare and education of children. While I found I came close to agreeing with Senator Ulick Burke on some of the last sentiments he expressed, I disagree fully and fundamentally with him on certain earlier points.
Child care and early childhood education have been accepted internationally as well as in Ireland as crucial issues. Early childhood education strengthens the foundations of lifelong learning for all children. While we have been hearing about child care and early childhood education for a number of decades, there is a definite and growing consensus on these subjects. Early learning is the foundation for all subsequent learning, including lifelong learning, and early childhood offers a tremendous opportunity to enrich and extend children’s learning over time. All ongoing neuroscientific research demonstrates that a child’s ability to learn rapidly develops at a young age and indicates that children are innately motivated to learn and need not be forced to do so. While learning happens spontaneously, we must provide children with opportunities to engage in the process. We must create the healthiest possible environments for learning, crucial to which is the recognition that children have needs both for education and care. The Minister of State and Senator Ulick Burke referred to these needs in great detail.
Government policy in this area came to the fore on foot of the wide-ranging public consultation process on the needs of young children initiated by the previous Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, in 1997-98. From the examination of the pre-school and early school needs of children came the White Paper on early childhood education, Ready to Learn, which was referred to frequently by the Minister of State and Senator Ulick Burke. The White Paper emphasised that the focus can never be exclusively on either education or care, but must be on both. Care is so crucial to the life of a child and the environment in which it is provided is so special that Government must work on the two issues together. To attempt to work on the issues separately would be to miss out on the real gains which are there to be made.
I wish to deal at this early stage in my contribution with an issue raised by Senator Ulick Burke. While the Senator finds it very hard to accept, there has been real progress over the past seven or eight years through investment, support, the provision of increased numbers of places for child care, assistance through the equal opportunities childcare programme to which the Minister of State has referred to in detail, FÁS and the health boards. While the number of places has been expanded and facilities and quality upgraded, there is a significant lacuna which remains to be addressed. To do that, we must move towards the integration of education and care. Three issues are vitally important to deal with an effective programme into the future, namely, the quality of early childhood education and care, access to the service — to which Senator Ulick Burke referred — and proper co-ordination. Substantial additional investment will be required to target these three objectives within the overall programme. The good news, to which the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and Senator Ulick Burke have already adverted, is that it makes a lot of sense from an economic point of view to promote a national programme of pre-school education and care. The return is in the order of 7:1. That was the experience in the United States and that same experience is being vindicated by the National Economic and Social Forum report that was published this week. The good news is that it makes economic sense to go down this road and the most recent report published here by politicians and officials reinforces and vindicates that view.
One of the causes of the lacuna in pre-school services is that 50% of four year old children are enrolled in junior primary school and nearly all of five year olds are enrolled. Due to the fact that children here go to school at such a young age the pre-school service has not been given the same emphasis as would have been the case in Finland and other countries in Europe where the school-going age is much older. As a result of the fact that the school-going age is much older elsewhere, other countries have to varying degrees a more comprehensive national pre-school service. Our service was by and large dependent on voluntary effort. It is reminiscent of the way our adult education service developed in the 1970s and 1980s — on a wing and a prayer. The service was patchy, uneven and there was no comprehensive national programme in place. However, in the past seven or eight years there has been a definite commitment under the equal opportunities childcare programme to develop a policy of pre-school child care facilities.
Senator Ulick Burke referred to the inadequacy of what has been done over the past seven or eight years. It is true that this has been inadequate to meet present and future needs. We would be the first to admit that, but we must take into account how radically society has changed in recent years. In the past nine or ten years we have the highest population since the 1870s. Children under six years of age make up 10% of the population. Lone parent families make up 12% of households in the country. We are rapidly becoming an urbanised society. Most of these things have happened as a consequence of the phenomenal economic growth that has taken place. With all of these changes the demand has increased greatly over that period. Listening to Senator Ulick Burke, one would think that from 1994 to 1997 the Fine Gael Party had no contact with Government or no opportunity to do anything about the needs that were already in evidence and growing.
There have been a number of Government initiatives in this area over the past seven or eight years to target the phenomenal growth and to acknowledge that the problem exists and is growing. First, there was the establishment of a Cabinet committee on children. This was a significant move to try to integrate and co-ordinate the range of services that existed. While there might have been an historical reason the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform had responsibility for policy relating to children, I have never been able to accept it. I do not accept it today and I will not accept it tomorrow. Nevertheless it exists but I hope it will not be there for much longer. To that extent I empathise with Senator Ulick Burke.
The Cabinet committee on children was one structure established by the Government in an attempt to pull all the strands together and to give some kind of unity of purpose to policy and the implementation of policy in the care and education of children. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is an example of how joined-up Government is attempting to work by virtue of his having responsibility across a number of Departments. It is a nonsense that responsibility for children is spread over five Departments. I am prepared to accept that without equivocation. It should not continue for much longer and I hope it does not.
The national children’s strategy was another significant development. The Department of Education and Science published a White Paper, Ready to Learn, following extensive public consultation. Following from the White Paper, the Centre for Early Childhood Development in Education was established. Its aim was to develop and co-ordinate early childhood care and education in line with the objectives of the White Paper. The OECD produced a report last year following a wide ranging examination of early childhood care and education. It identified significant shortcomings to meet present and future demands in this area. Many of its recommendations have been endorsed and reinforced by the report of the forum that was published this week.
A number of significant developments have been and are taking place across Departments. I hope they are all moving towards the centre and that ultimate objective to which Senator Ulick Burke referred with which I agree. For example, in a new departure for it, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has published a document that seeks to work in close partnership with the early childhood sector. It was not established for that purpose but it has now acknowledged that new role and is embracing it enthusiastically. That document was the first publication of its kind to extend beyond the boundaries of pure education, which is a significant development. I admit that progress has been slow. It is not before its time and has a lot further to go but, nevertheless, it is to be welcomed. As I stated, the national children’s strategy is a vital component in the overall approach.
I welcome the National Economic and Social Forum report. Many of its recommendations are far reaching, challenging and tell us some home truths. We are on the right road. We are moving towards a unified approach to this problem in terms of Departments. I call on the Government to designate a single Minister at the Cabinet table with full responsibility for this area. It would be most appropriate that the responsibility would rest with the Minister for Education and Science.
I agree with the conclusion of the forum’s report. We have a unique opportunity over the next ten years to establish a landmark in social and educational history. Many elements are already in place. This debate is concerned with young children from birth to six years of age. It is about how to provide the best care for them in the Ireland of today and into the future. It is about creating the best environment for them in which to learn and about enabling all our children to have the best quality of life possible and to participate as fully as possible in society. If we can move closer to realising those objectives, our children and society in general will stand to reap great dividends along the way.
Mr. O’Toole: I, too, welcome the Minister of State to the House. I remind him that since the redrawing of the boundaries, I am now his constituent and expect to be listened to. I promise him that, as a graduate, I will look after his needs.
There is a considerable amount of material associated with this subject. I sense that the Minister of State has been sent in to bat with a fine speech that says everything but is going nowhere. It is full of possibilities but contains no certainties. He said the NESF report has three clear aims, one of which is to set out an implementation process with key targets and objectives to be achieved at policy level over the next five years. Towards the end of his speech he said the Government will set up a high-level group to work out the options and potential for the next couple of years. One would want to be devoid of a sense of irony not to realise this is just going around in a circle.
Let me draw the attention of the Minister of State to the fact that the NESF report points out very clearly that we have ample policy concerning early childhood care and education but now need structures to ensure its implementation. That is what I want to consider today. I have spoken to many different groups involved in this area and have had some involvement in it in one way or another for many years. To address the issue, we should, as a first step, have one Department, headed by one Minister, responsible for the whole area of child care and education. Which Department it should be represents another day’s discussion. There is an absolute need to increase paid maternity leave to 26 weeks, and we should begin that process immediately. I have said that paid parental leave should be increased to 26 weeks so many times in the House that it does not need to be reiterated. This is absolutely necessary and is in line with what is happening throughout Europe. We also need funded or free universal access to child care for three year olds.
One of the first tasks I would like prioritised and achieved is the establishment of an accreditation system for all the providers in child care and early childhood education. The advantage of this is that it would allow for variety. As general secretary of the INTO, I argued very strongly that there should be a variety of possibilities for children in the formative years from birth to five years. These would include school, play, nursery care and child care, yet there would be an insistence on quality, which would be determined by accreditation. In this regard, an accreditation body is crucial.
There are many people working on this issue. There is no way the high-level working group the Minister of State is about to set up will second guess the levels of commitment and reporting that have been evident over the past ten years. It cannot and will not do so. It would be better for it to consider what every group is saying. I know I am summarising what the Minister of State said and am in a sense putting words in his mouth.
Mr. O’Toole: It will work for several months after several more months have passed, that is the difficulty. At that stage we will surely be close to an election, at which time there will be room for all sorts of promises. I concur with the points made by Senator Fitzgerald. I would like him to be able to say, “I told you so, we did it,” to Senator Ulick Burke in two years time.
I have been considering the work of the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education, which has been mentioned. I have been considering what the Irish Childcare Policy Network has done and have examined the OECD report and the statements of the National Women’s Council of Ireland. I have also looked at the NESF report and have tried to anticipate the content of the national equality framework for early childhood care and education, which will be presented shortly to the Department of Education and Science by the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education. Are there consistent lines and issues on which one can draw? Is there a consensus between these diverse groups? The truth is that there are many consistent demands and conclusions replicated among the statements of these bodies. We should consider them.
The Irish Childcare Policy Network has asked that provision be made for 26 weeks maternity leave, paid parental leave and free preschool for all. I am just summarising some of its demands; it has obviously made more. I want to hang this debate on actualities and real tasks that can and must be carried out immediately.
Consider the OECD report, which states we have a very solid support structure for four to six year olds within the national school system. I am glad some of us took a strong stand on this matter 25 years ago. The support structure is now standing us in good stead. It is important that Irish people understand that, in much of the rest of Europe, this age group would be considered to be in the preschool category. The OECD report also recognised that there was a very solid active and voluntary and community sector in the area of early childhood education and care and that there were strong local partnerships upon which we could build. This is linked to what I said about variety. The existing framework provides a structure on which to build. The report calls for publicly funded support structures for three to six year olds. The Minister of State signed up to this, as did we all. The support structures would involve school and after-school activities.
Consider the relief that would be created by putting in place the publicly funded support structures. The high-level group should take the first step through the current budget. The National Women’s Council of Ireland has sought a very similar provision, namely, universal access and support structures for children between three and six. It has also suggested that there should be a certain level of support for infants from birth to 12 months and an advanced or different level of support for children from one to three years. It has suggested there should be a more regularised structure for those between three and six years. We must consider these issues. Structures should be formal while the activities and learning should be informal. However, in all cases the system should be structured. There should be a framework. One cannot just let it happen by itself.
I am one of the few people in this country who believes it is utterly daft that parents are regarded, under our Constitution, as the prime educators. It is grossly unfair on them that they are lumped with this responsibility. They should have a responsibility to see that their children are educated. It is difficult to understand why the writers of the Constitution said parents should educate their children. Their responsibility should be to ensure that their children become educated and to use whatever structures are put in place by the State to do so. We should be developing such structures for the younger children in question.
The National Women’s Council of Ireland stressed time and again the importance of extending maternity leave and the importance of parental leave. A related issue, dealt with very specifically in a European directive some years ago, concerns the attitude of businesses to women who are pregnant, who have recently had children or who are breastfeeding. I have received many calls from women working in the lower to mid-range of middle management who, on return from maternity leave, are being in some way disregarded and treated with some contempt or are not being afforded equality of esteem because they have taken time out to have children.
In order to ensure the continuance of the tribe, we need to be supportive of child care. It is worthwhile reminding ourselves of the extraordinary announcement last week by the French Government announcing it was making sizeable grants available to “professional” people to encourage them to have a third child. I do not know how this will be achieved but I suggest a high-level group may be needed.
If all children and parents are not supported then this country will encounter the same problem of an unsatisfactory level of births as exists in France. Following a drop to below two, the Irish fertility rate has risen again but it must be raised to over 2.1. The Scandinavian countries——
The experience of other countries should be studied. The NESF has conducted a survey of the literature available. There is nothing the high-level group can do that has not been done. The proposals made by the different groups should be considered. The proposals from the national quality framework for early childhood education will be presented to the Department of Education and Science this week and will be formally launched next month.
I have five points which I ask the Minister of State to consider. I suggest one Minister of State in one Department should deal with the area of child care and child education. I suggest that maternity leave be extended to 26 weeks and that paid parental leave be available for 26 weeks. I suggest universal access for all three year olds to care and education, whichever is appropriate. I suggest an accreditation system for all providers of child care. These suggestions could be written by the Minister of State on the back of an envelope and there is no need for a long speech. These are five easy points.
Mr. Minihan: I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House. The importance of education in early childhood is recognised by all. By means of my party’s manifesto and An Agreed Programme for Government, the Government has sought to bring together the complex areas of childhood education, child poverty and child care, to ensure that all that can be done is being done.
Our objectives are clear, including valuing children to the utmost, providing holistic support, reducing poverty and increasing access. We will ensure the policy and resources are in place to provide the necessary infrastructure for developing and creating services.
I commend the work of the National Economic and Social Forum, particularly its recent report on early childhood care and education which sets out clearly the challenges facing our changing society in respect of such education. Recognising the consequences of our rapidly changing society as the context for our endeavours is the first step.
The NESF paints a clear picture. The population is at its highest level since 1871 and our birth rate has been increasing since 1994. Children under six years comprise some 10% of the population. Our population is becoming increasingly urbanised with 60% of the population living in urban centres in 2002. Our changing society and rapidly developing economy has changed the environment for early childhood learning. The number of women working outside the home rose from 483,000 in 1995 to 771,000 in 2004, an increase of 60%.
I commend the Government and the Minister for Education and Science on asking the Dublin Institute of Technology and St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, to jointly establish the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education in 2001. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, has referred to the great achievements in this regard. This body works as centre of excellence to develop a quality framework for early childhood education; to develop targeted interventions for children who are educationally disadvantaged and for children with special needs. The publication by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment of the Framework for Early Learning is to be welcomed. This sets out the basis for the first national framework for learning from birth to six years. Groups such as the NESF, the National Children’s Office, the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education and many other excellent groups can point out to legislators the challenges to be faced. Parents, families and teachers inform us as legislators of the immediate concerns for children and their education. I recognise that at less than 0.2% of GDP, our investment in early childhood education needs to be reconsidered. I realise that the wider setting of the child must be considered. As the NESF report suggests, if we are to do all we can for early childhood learning, we need to further examine the factors that contribute to, or undermine, the well-being of children in contemporary Irish families. Irish society has changed quite dramatically in the past 20 years. We must devise and implement effective and responsive policies relating to children and to the design of services for children and their families.
I am particularly delighted that, through the National Children’s Office, the Government is funding a national longitudinal study on children. This will be the most significant of its kind to be undertaken, particularly in terms of the cost, scope and the extent of the period to be studied. In the words of the NESF report, we need to look at, “the care and education needs of young children in an enlightened way, identifying and removing the inadequacies and rigidities”. As policymakers we must commend the work of the national longitudinal study, ensure we have an enlightened attitude and also be brave and forthright in identifying and removing the inadequacies and rigidities.
I am conscious of the general link between early learning and child care. The Government has made a greater commitment to the child care sector through the equal opportunities childcare programme, than any other in the history of the State. In line with promises made during the general election, the Government has kept State funding on child care under continual review and has recently committed to increased spending. At least €500 million will have been spent on the EOCP by the end of 2006. Even then the Government’s investment in child care will not stop. In the last budget the Government, through the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, secured a commitment to further increase capital funding under the next phase of the equal opportunities child care programme, which will start officially in 2007. The funding allocated under the 2000-06 programme will result in the creation of some 36,500 new child care places, many of which are already in situ.
The NESF’s call for enlightenment and courage puts the onus on us all to work to address the problems in the system. My party, the Progressive Democrats, has outlined a five-point approach to do this in regard to child care. In the coming days we will develop further our ideas on increasing supply to reduce costs and burden on families to improve the context within which all our policy endeavours must sit. We will examine reforms to address distinctiveness to supply and reforms to incentivise the provision of nurturing environments for childhood learning within the home.
I welcome these statements. This is a complex area. There are statutory and voluntary groups who do great work and provide excellent information for legislators. We have a duty to act on that information. I am certain that further progress will be made in early childhood learning.
This is not the first time we have touched on this subject. The recent report published by the National Economic and Social Forum has allowed us to focus on one part of a broad area of social policy, namely caring for children, for which the term “child care” has become shorthand, with which we are only now coming to terms. It is extraordinary that we are only now waking up to the neglect of this extremely important area of social policy. When I was a journalist in the 1980s and the parent of young children, I tried to interest newspapers in carrying an article on child care and occasionally I was successful. The issues at that time concerned finding a child care place and the regulation and quality of child care facilities and they continued to be the issues for some time. Until relatively recently child care was, to a large extent, a minority issue because there was not the same level, as there is currently, of participation by mothers in the workforce. The increased level of their participation in the workforce has caught up with us very quickly.
A recently published report by the National Women’s Council of Ireland, which I commend for its major contribution to this debate, pointed out that traditionally, the care of children was exclusively the concern of parents and,as policymakers, successive Governments have left it to parents to make their own private arrangements for the care of their children while they go out to work. However, we can no longer do that because of the number of parents working and the fact that this is having an economic impact. It is a regrettable that it is the economic impact caused by the lack of a child care infrastructure that has put this issue on the agenda rather than the issue in its own right.
This debate is good because we have narrowed the issue to focus on early childhood education which has been largely neglected. We have an excellent primary education system but until the establishment of the early childhood development unit in Drumcondra we did not examine the importance of and the measures to be introduced to provide for the education and care of very young children. However, we are dealing with this issue now and we have a unique opportunity to put in place the best possible infrastructure and delivery in terms of child care. I do not see why we cannot aspire to achieving that, given the backdrop of the level of prosperity and economic activity against which we are working.
The Government has a certain level of income, which I hope future Governments will have, but that will be only possible if the child care infrastructure issue is dealt with. Assuming it is dealt with, this and future Governments will have available to them the resources to put in place the best possible child care infrastructure in the world. That should be the foundation for our economy going forward.
We also have an extraordinary opportunity to eliminate childhood poverty and, in many ways, we have a moral responsibility to do so. We have the resources and ability to tackle and eliminate childhood poverty. We have only to look across the water at what the British Government has done to deal with this issue in recent years and compare that to the limited progress made in the United States due to the fairly minimal investment made there. Targeted investment in child care in disadvantaged areas can be effective in tackling poverty at source. We have a moral responsibility to do that. We can do it now and we should. I hope that an initiative to this effect will be put forward by the Government shortly.
The recently published NESF report is a major contribution to this debate. I commend all those who worked on it and produced a valuable addition to the debate on this issue. The press release issued by NESF at midnight on Sunday, 25 September posed the question, what progress has been made on implementing early childhood education policy, to which the answer is very little. The press releases states:
That is a quote from the NESF report and not my version of events. It is the level we are at. There has been inaction, peripheral implementation and drift. Small bits have been done in an ad hoc fashion without any overall thrust in terms of delivery. Other Senators pointed to the absence of a single Department or Ministry with responsibility for implementing child care policy. I believe that is a missed opportunity. However, it is possible to put in place an agency that would be answerable to one Minister and clearly, the Minister for Education and Science has a major role in this area. A single ministry or a well resourced, high-powered agency is required to deliver the necessary infrastructure which we have only started to deliver.
The county child care committees, which took many years to put in place, are working well and are delivering the equal opportunities childcare programme. It is an ad hoc programme devised within the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I am delighted it was devised there because if it was not I do not know where we would be. I wish to mention a public servant, Ms Sylda Langford and pay tribute to the work she has done virtually single-handedly because of her passion for this area. Without her drive and energy this would not be happening. Much has been said about the public service but in terms of an individual who has made a major contribution, she should be singled out in this area.
It is an anomaly that child care is being delivered from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It is being delivered from a single unit and, as pointed out, €500 million has been spent. An examination of the operation of the equal opportunities child care programme reveals the results of good capital investment throughout the country in terms of the delivery of child care centres. However, there is a significant problem regarding the continuity of service because there is a reliance on people participating in community employment schemes to staff these centres. I am on the board of the Nenagh Childcare Centre which is located in an excellent state of the art building on a site donated by the county council and it is fabulously well managed. Of the 22 full-time staff, 17 are community employment workers. I do not have a problem with that as they are all well trained and they are doing an excellent job. Nevertheless, that illustrates the fine balance on which such centres are operating. We need far more investment at that level, particularly in terms of what those publicly funded centres can deliver to target disadvantage and support families who are disadvantaged, not in ghettoised context but in a broader community context. Excellent work is being done in regard.
I point out to the Minister of State what I have said before here, namely, that the equal opportunities child care programme is barely a start. The county child care committees are also barely a start. While the investment made appears significant, it is only scratching the surface of the investment required to provide what needs to be done. This issue needs to be viewed in the wider context of a range of measures, including maternity leave, parental leave, paternity leave, flexible working and family friendly work policies.
I ask the Government to look at what is happening in Britain. I do not propose that we should do what they are doing. However, we should look at what is working and what is not. In particular, we should look at the Sure Start programme from which the results have been spectacular within a very short timeframe. There is a core issue for us to look at from the viewpoint of social policy and the opportunities we have. One thinks of the introduction of free education and the difference it has made to this country over an entire generation. Perhaps quite a number of the Members in this Chamber would not have got the education they did if this had not been available to them. We should also consider the high priority given to education in Ireland and what this has delivered.
However, a key part of the puzzle is missing, namely, the smallest citizen and the earliest opportunity to invest in education. This is in interesting contrast to Britain and presents some key dilemmas for us. My recollection is that the CSO figures show that 50% of children under five are cared for by their parents at home. The remaining 50% are cared for in a variety of settings — crèches, relations, friends, the usual. We are still considering what the best possible arrangements should be, particularly for very small children. I hope we can have a reasoned debate on that whole issue.
The National Women’s Council proposes that those who choose not to stay at home for the first year of an infant’s life should have access to a well regulated and supported child care option. There is an issue to be addressed as regards the so-called stay at home parent. This needs to be looked at in terms of supports. It is not simply an economic issue. It is an issue of social policy that has to do with the care of children. It clearly has to do with parents being in the workforce, but that is not the only dynamic at work here. We are at a point when progress may be made on this issue and something extraordinary can be created, not only for children, but for the whole community.
Ms Ormonde: I welcome the Minister of State. I believe we should concentrate on what can be done for children from the time they are born up to the age of six. Where have matters gone wrong? These are the types of questions I was turning over in my mind as I listened to this debate. Conditions have changed dramatically for Irish society in recent years. There is the population increase, the prolonged commuting from satellite towns as well as the enormous economic growth. Taking all that into account we appear to have forgotten how best to manage and provide early childhood care and education for the age cohort, zero to six. This involves dialogue and consultation with the parents and child care providers as well as the various Departments concerned. The Government has been committed on this. We have seen examples through the White Paper on early childhood education and the Early Start programme. There was also a Cabinet sub-committee on children which dealt with all these recommendations.
However, we are still not getting matters right. This is nobody’s fault as successive Governments have made attempts through the years. It is crucial, as everyone today has said, to set up one Department, without delay. Within that Department there should, perhaps, be a unit for early child development to deal with how to set out programmes and provide an inspectorate for monitoring them. The question of day-to-day administration in terms of the adult child ratio should be reviewed. How do parents feel about these early programmes? So far in this discussion there has been very little linking with parents, as such. Once parents have a new baby they must decide whether they want to stay at home. If so, they must learn how they may be best facilitated as regards grants, etc. It is crucially important not to overlook the mother who wishes to stay at home. This has not been addressed so far. The debate has focused very much on matters outside the home. I hope the Minister will bear in mind that the mother is the key person to be considered.
The local element is also vitally important. Centres should be kept to link up with the local authorities, for example, through the county development boards. These were very much in evidence when I was a councillor in South County Dublin where areas for local child care crèches were provided for under the county development plans, with the requisite providers and programmes, as necessary. This is an area that needs to be decentralised as much as possible. I would also like to see a reform of the infant class system, as referred to in the NESF report. Perhaps a pre-school programme might be introduced within the infant class system. Two programmes could be established, which would allow children to come to school at three years of age. This needs to be teased out.
Child and family centres should be established to provide an integrated service, particularly in disadvantaged areas, where the Early Start programmes have begun. The concept is very good, but somewhat scrappy. I do not know whether it is meant to have pilot schemes or if they are up and running everywhere.
We need an integrated policy, one Department and to enter into discussion with employers on flexitime and how best to help young mothers. If they want to do a couple of hours in the day perhaps they can work at home. An evaluation and monitoring system is needed within whatever Department is set up. There must be an inspectorate to evaluate what types of programmes are being introduced within the crèches. This is very important. It is not always a question of money, but rather how a proper policy may be implemented. At present it is very fragmented. There are good fundamental points in this discussion and in this report. Let us work on those. A good child care service can be introduced and it is not always about money.
Mr. Browne: I welcome this report on early childhood, care and education. It is startling that the report shows that we have the highest population level since 1871, with children under the age of six accounting for 10%. The number of women working outside the home has increased by 60% in recent years. This is a reflection on the Government’s poor planning, where it went out of its way to encourage more women into the workforce while not matching this with increased and improved child care facilities. The schools building programme is still in turmoil. Then there is the Government’s broken promises as regards the pupil-teacher ratio, which applies in particular to younger classes. I am sure that Senator Fitzgerald, on the other side of the House, a former teacher like myself, will agree with me on that point.
Mr. Browne: We have created an awful mess. Grandparents now find themselves taking a very active hands-on approach to the care of grandchildren, after rearing their own children. Their own children invariably commute, work long hours and face considerable pressure to pay mortgages and child care costs almost equal to the value of a mortgage.
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