Dáil Question on free pre school education

1st June 2013 - Alan Farrell TD

To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she will advise on her consultations with pre-school representatives in relation to the current pre-school year and any possible increase to this facility; if there are any concerns raised by the industry regarding costs and regulation; the submissions she has received from pre-school managers; and if she will make a statement on the matter.
 

Reply from Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald T.D.
 
I have already outlined, to both the Dáil and the Seanad, that I found the scenes broadcast on the Prime Time programme of 28th May distressing, shocking, and absolutely unacceptable.
 
What we saw was poor practice and a dereliction of duty and care, resulting in the appalling mistreatment of young children; and this is currently and rightly, the subject of a thorough and comprehensive investigation by both the HSE and Gardaí.
 
Since coming into office, I have prioritised a much-overdue focus on early years services. Up to the last decade, Ireland’s pre-school sector was almost non-existent. During the late nineties we still had one of the lowest female participation rates in the developed world, and one of the highest unemployment rates. The years of the Celtic tiger saw a scramble to put services in place in respect to demand, but a wholly inadequate approach to quality and sustainability.
 
 
We have seen what happens when you don’t invest in building an effective system and culture of qualify-focussed, child-centred service provision, and when you don’t invest in robust oversight and inspection.
 
 
This Government has been working to address this legacy.
 
 
The Programme for Government includes a commitment to maintain the free Pre-School Year in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in order to promote the best outcomes for children and families, and we have secured the additional monies required to do that.
 
But the Programme for Government also includes a commitment to improve the quality of the free Pre-School Year and, by extension, the quality of all early childhood care and education, through the implementation of standards and by reviewing training options for the workforce.
 
These commitments have always been a key priority for me.
 
This is why my Department and I have been progressing work on Ireland’s first-ever Early Years Strategy and this why we have been working on a comprehensivePre-School Quality Agenda.
 
We have identified 8 key areas of action which I believe need to be considered and addressed as a matter of urgency.
· Increasing the qualification requirements for all staff in pre-school services to a minimum standard at FETAC Level 5.
· Improving the quality and curricular supports for pre-school services when implementing the Siolta Framework and Aistear Curriculum.
· Implementing the new National Pre-School Standards.
· Introducing a registration system for all pre-school services
· Taking steps to make the inspection system more consistent and more robust
· Publishing inspection reports on-line as soon as possible.
· Ensuring appropriate action is taken in response to findings of non-compliance.
· Increasing and widening the sanctions which can be taken for non-compliance.
 
Increasing the required qualification standards of childcare staff
 
We are working to increase the required qualification standards of childcare staff. The majority of staff working in the sector now have qualifications to FETAC Level 5 and I believe that this should be made a requirement for all staff working in the sector by September 2015, and for new services by the earlier date of September 2014. I am also proposing that the minimum qualification requirement for Pre-School Leaders within the Pre-School Year should be increased from FETAC Level 5 to FETAC Level 6 from those dates also.
 
Supports for Aistear and Siolta.
 
We are working to improve support and mentoring for individual pre-school services in implementing Síolta and Aistear. This is essential if we are to ensure that all services understand and implement a child-centred approach to the care and education of young children.
 
Implementing the new National Pre-School Standards.
 
We are developing new National Pre-School Standards, designed to support providers in delivering a high quality service and parents in choosing the childcare best suited to their needs. New day-care standards have been completed but have not yet been implemented. Later this year it is intended to launch these standards alongside further standards on sessional care and childminding which are currently being finalised. These standards will replace all current guidelines and will be implemented and inspected in line with the new registration system and improved inspection systems
 
Registration of all childcare providers.
 
Work is already underway in the Child and Family Services area of the Health Service Executive (HSE) to introduce a registration system for pre-school services. I understand this system will be in place for new services from the end of this year and will be phased in for existing services thereafter. This is an important development because it will move services from the current position, where they are required to notify the Pre-School Inspectorate of their intention to open, to a requirement to be inspected and found satisfactory, before being permitted to open. All pre-school services are currently required to pay an annual fee to the HSE of between €40 and €80. I am looking at increasing this fee. The additional funds raised will assist in improving inspection and supports for quality improvement.
 
Publication of Inspection Reports.
 
Parents will rightly demand and expect the highest standards and this will be a key factor in driving change in the sector. Publishing inspection reports is an essential step in ensuring high standards and accountability. All new inspection reports will be made available on-line from the HSE as a matter of urgency. All current inspection reports will be made available on-line in 2014.
 
Taking steps to make the inspection system more consistent and more robust.
We are working on developing a more robust, consistent and regular inspection system There has been a significant programme of work underway in the HSE over the past year to develop a single, consistent national inspection service (as opposed to 37 different local systems).
 
We propose moving to a position where there is consistent and assured national target rate for the frequency of inspection of pre-school services, while ensuring capacity for prioritisation based on risk assessment. The HSE is currently reviewing the regional spread of inspectors with a view to identifying whether either additional resources or redeployment of existing inspectors is required to achieve this.
 
Building on this work, officials of my Department and the Department of Education and Skills have been examining options to incrementally develop a more comprehensive and broader-based inspection regime for pre-schools; moving away from a narrow focus on compliance, and leading to a greater focus on children’s outcomes, including educational development and child wellbeing. This work is being informed by the findings of a recent Joint Pilot Inspection carried out in a small number of settings by Inspectors from the Health Service Executive and the Department of Education and Skills.
 
Ensuring appropriate action is taken in response to findings of non-compliance.
 
We are working to ensure consistent action is taken in response to findings of non-compliance. There must be a follow-through on inspections. Clearly, services which are found to be in serious breach of the Regulations will face closure and prosecution. It is proposed to develop a protocol with the Pre-School Inspectorate which will take a calibrated approach and which will enable more decisive action to be taken in response to non-compliance.
 
Increased Sanctions for non-compliance.
 
My Department will also be undertaking a review of the penalties currently in place for breach of the Child Care (No. 2) Regulations 2006, as provided for under the Child Care Act 1991. The review will look at increasing the range and severity of the existing penalties including the actions which can be taken by Inspectors without recourse to court prosecution, as is currently the case.
 
The recent broadcast highlighted practices on the part of individual staff members which were of very serious concern. The responsibility of management must also be the subject of questioning. Management is responsible for the selection and training of staff, the development of operational policies and practices and the management of day to day service delivery. Most of all management is responsible for the culture and ethos of the pre-school €“ they set the tone through their example, their interaction with children and parents and their guidance of staff.
 
This pre-school quality agenda represents an essential building block towards the future extension of universal pre-school provision; including the objective which I have previously spoken of in relation to introducing a second free-pre-school year.
 
There is a wealth of international (and emerging Irish) research which highlights the economic benefits of investing in the early years and which demonstrates how quality pre-school provision can greatly contribute to improved educational and developmental outcomes for children, including school-readiness. A second free-pre-school year would also represent an equivalent saving of approximately €2,500 – €3,000 in childcare costs for parents.
 
However in discussing the possible extension of the free pre-school year, I have also always been clear that ensuring quality provision is critical.
 
I see my pre-school quality agenda; and measures to be considered in the context of Budget 2014, as a first step in a multi-annual approach which could eventually lead to the introduction of a second year.
 
I believe it is critical to the quality agenda for early childhood care and education that my Department continues to work in close co-operation with the Department of Education and Skills, given the overlap of interest between the Departments in regard to education for children under 6 years of age, as reflected in Síolta, Aistear and the Workforce Development Plan, and the professional training role of the State funded training bodies. The two Departments are already working together on these issues and on the development of a joint approach to pre-school inspection.
 

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