Welcome to issue 2 of the Children's Rights Alliance's Early Years newsletter.
Late 2016 and early 2017 has been an exciting time in our Early Years work!
We successfully launched Report Card 2017, our annual flagship publication that grades the Government on its own commitments to children in A Programme for a Partnership Government. The Government received an overall D+ for its first seven months in office, reflecting a mixed bag for children, with no outstanding achievements quite yet.
This is the first year that 'Early Childhood' received a dedicated chapter. The Government secured an overall C+ grade, earning good grades for the initial implementation of its commitment to improve Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC), affordability for parents and for securing an additional €19 million to do so, and for establishing the first Working Group on Childminding to advise Government on reform. However, the grade would have been higher if investment in the quality enhancement of services had been prioritised alongside affordability.
The Children's Rights Alliance is already closely monitoring the Government's progress in meeting its commitments to children in preparation for Report Card 2018. Will the Affordable Childcare Scheme be implemented as promised? Will it actually deliver affordability for parents? Will the Government invest directly in ECEC services to enhance quality for children? Our work is ongoing - stay with us!
Issue 2 highlights new Government action plans on school age childcare and improving quality in ECEC services. It is clear that now, more than ever, we need a National Early Years Strategy. We need an Early Years Strategy that introduces an integrated approach, that respects, protects and fulfils the rights of children in order to give them the best start in life.
It is four years since a Government-appointed Expert Advisory Group convened to inform the development of Ireland's first-ever National Early Years Strategy published its final report. This strategy is supposed to set out the programme of work to implement Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures (BOBF), our national children's policy framework for young children. BOBF anticipated that an Early Years Strategy would be published in 2014 to provide a 'detailed roadmap for the enhancement and coordinated provision of early years services and supports'.
Now is time for action. We need that roadmap in order to get it 'right from the start' for young children.
Children's Rights Alliance
Launch of Report Card 2017: Is the Government Keeping its Promises to Children?
The Children's Rights Alliance publically launched Report Card 2017 on 21 February 2017. Thanks to all of our early years members and friends who participated in a very well-attended event in EU House and who supported us on social media.
We influenced the national news agenda for the week of launch, and for some time after. Read Tanya Ward's Opinion piece in the Independent on 23 February here. Read the Irish Times Report Card coverage here. Listen to Tanya on the Sean O' Rourke Show on 21 February on RTE Radio 1 here. Tanya also appeared on TV3's Ireland AM on 22 February and said that the Government's early childhood education and care funding should support both quality and affordability.
You can listen here to Tanya being interviewed on the Ray D'Arcy Show on RTE Radio 1 on 22 March. She communicated to the public how important it is that we seek quality in early years services for children and how critical access to universal services is for children's early development and wellbeing.
Children's Rights Alliance Early Years Submissions to Government
Submission to Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs on Affordable Childcare Scheme Heads of Bill
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) published the Heads of Bill and General Scheme for the Affordable Childcare Scheme (ACS) on 30 January. The Government referred the Heads to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs for scrutiny, providing the Alliance with the opportunity to make a submission.
The Alliance recommends that the Bill is amended to ensure that only providers registered with Tusla receive ACS funding. We believe that only those services that are inspected and found compliant with statutory regulations should receive public monies. The implication of not doing so is that we potentially could end up giving public money to services that ill-treat children or do not observe basic health and safety.
Early Years Policy Round-Up
Ireland's first School Age Childcare Plan published
The DCYA published its School Age Childcare (SAC) Plan in March, developed with the Department of Education and Skills. The actions in the Plan are welcome and their achievement would be a step forward. The plan sets out the infrastructure to be built over the next two to three years, including:
- developing quality standards and assurance for SAC by September 2017
- linking ACS eligibility with compliance with these SAC quality standards
- establishing a function to identify demand and supply for SAC and early years services
- developing a Workforce Plan and continuing professional development infrastructure
- using schools/ existing community facilities for SAC, and developing guidelines for schools.
€3 million of capital funding has been allocated by the DCYA to incentivise the provision of new SAC places. No current funding to implement the quality actions was announced. Their achievement will require considerable investment in Budgets 2018 and 2019.
Education Action Plan
The Education Action Plan for 2017 was launched by Richard Bruton TD, Minister for Education and Skills on 6 February. Goal 3 in the Plan is to 'help those delivering education services to continuously improve', including early childhood education and care providers. The proposed actions are welcome. Budgetary investment in early years services is key to the Plan's success. Actions to 'improve the quality of learning in early years' include:
- implementing Síolta (national early years quality standards) and Aistear (national early years curriculum framework) jointly with DCYA through the Síolta Aistear Initiative
- conducting the Early Years Education-focused Inspections in the Free Preschool Years
- working with DCYA on a Workforce Development Plan
- consulting on a report on occupational role profiles in the early years sector
- establishing a steering group to review standards and guidelines for higher education programmes for the early years workforce.
Access to Early Years Support for Homeless Children
We welcomed the announcement in December by Dr Katherine Zappone TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, to provide free childcare for homeless children aged zero to five years. €8.25 million has been made available.
The move may provide critical respite and support for families and children, who are too often living in dire and unacceptable conditions, by providing children with a safe, child-appropriate, developmental space (and a nutritious meal) for 25 hours a week, 50 weeks of the year.
Focus Ireland is currently identifying eligible children on behalf of the State. By early March around 22 children were availing of the initiative, although it is early days. There are over 2,000 homeless children sheltered in B&Bs and hotels in Dublin, many of whom are under five years old.
Working Group on Childminding Reforms
Liz Kerrins, Early Years Manager with the Children's Rights Alliance, sits on the Working Group on Childminding Reforms and Supports, which is chaired by the Chief Executive of Childminding Ireland. The terms of reference of the Working Group are to:
- examine the feasibility and implications of mandatory regulation
- identify the reforms and supports required for a robust system of quality assurance
- make proposals and cost short-, medium- and long-term reforms and supports for the sector.
The Working Group is due to finalise its report in May 2017, which will inform reforms of the sector over a 10 year period.
Paid childminding is estimated to be the largest non-parental care sector in Ireland although the sector is unregulated and largely hidden.
European Commission - Country Specific Recommendations
The European Semester Country Report for Ireland was published on 22 February by the EU Commission. The European Semester is how European Union members coordinate economic and social policies throughout the year. The EU Commission annually analyses each EU country's policies and budget plans, and provides their Governments with 'country-specific recommendations' for the next 12 months. The Commission then assesses Governments' progress on its recommendations. The recommendations are important because they encourage the Irish Government to take action in specific areas, such as childcare affordability, and they can influence the annual Budget.
In 2016, the EU Commission recommended that Ireland 'improve the provision of quality, affordable full-time childcare' to encourage parents into work and address child poverty. The EU Commission's assessment of the Irish Government's performance is that it has made 'some progress' on this recommendation, specifically, through the announcement of the Affordable Childcare Scheme, the Early Years Education-Focused Inspections and the introduction of the second Free Preschool Year. However, the EU Commission identifies that 'sustained efforts are needed', particularly for disadvantaged families.
Early Years Research Round-Up
State of the Nation's Children Report 2016
The DCYA published Ireland's sixth biennial State of the Nation's Children (SONC) report in March. SONC charts and tracks the well-being of children in Ireland through a set of indicators.
The only ECEC quality indicator in the report is 'the proportion of pre-school services contracted to deliver the Free Preschool Year in June 2016 that met the higher capitation requirements', i.e. the proportion of services where the Free Preschool Year delivery is led by an early years graduate. Approximately 38 per cent of the 4,178 services with Free Preschool Year rooms met the requirements.
We need better data on quality levels in ECEC settings to understand the impact of services on children's outcomes and wellbeing, and to drive and monitor quality improvement.
Growing Up in Ireland: Research on Impact of Early Care and Education on Cognitive Outcomes
The first five years of life are of critical importance in the development of children's thinking and learning skills. The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) used Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) data to explore the question: Do childcare arrangements at age three influence children's abilities in language and reasoning at age five?
The study found no difference overall in cognitive outcomes at age five between those cared for at home by parents, and those cared for outside the home at age three (before participation in the Free Preschool Year).
The authors note that while there is an increasing policy focus on the quality of childcare, there is a big gap in information on quality in Ireland. While the question of whether parental or non-parental care and education is 'better' for young children is important to the public and policymakers, GUI is limited in the extent to which it can shed light on this debate. The study does not include any measures of the quality of care and early education either provided at home by parents or in non-parental paid childcare services.
Tusla Early Years Inspectorate's Annual Report 2015
Tusla's Early Years Inspectorate is the independent statutory regulator and inspector of registered ECEC services in Ireland since 2014. Their role is to promote and monitor the safety and quality of care and support of the child in early years provision in accordance with national regulations. The 2015 Annual Report is welcome as it provides the clearest public information to date on the outcomes of inspections.
In Tusla's analysis of 500 randomly selected inspection reports, the overall level of compliance across regulations was 72 per cent, with the remaining 28 per cent assessed as non-compliant and requiring ongoing monitoring. Safety for children in services continues to be problematic and issues were identified in 54 per cent of all services included in the analysis. The Inspectorate requires improvement in such services so that they comply with the Regulations.
The report emphasises the important role that regulation and inspection plays in ensuring children are safe and healthy in ECEC services.
Pobal Profile of Early Years
Pobal published its latest Early Years Sector Profile 2015-2016 in December 2016. This provides more and better data on the profile of ECEC providers in receipt of the three main DCYA funding programmes between September 2015 and June 2016. Findings of note include:
- 104,441 children availed of at least one of the early years programmes; 73,960 received the Free Preschool Year. (This figure has increased further since September 2016 due to the implementation second Free Preschool Year.)
- The report suggests that supply and demand is mismatched. Where there is supply it is not necessarily in the right locations or right session times (a.m. or p.m.).
- The percentage of services providing afterschool care increased from 34 per cent to 54 per cent. Pobal suggest that providers could be increasing afterschool supply to diversify their services to ensure financial viability and sustainability.
Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice Seminar
Liz responded to the findings of the research published by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice (VPSJ) When The Living Wage is Not Enough at a seminar organised by the VPSJ in December 2016. The research found that high childcare and housing costs, particularly in Dublin, for families earning the Living Wage of €11.50 per hour, contribute to their struggle to have a minimum living standard and to remain out of poverty.
The research underlines the importance of the affordability of early years and school-age childcare services to lower-paid families, and the importance of public investment in services as an anti-poverty policy.
Start Strong's main publications are available on the Resources section of our website.
Contact Liz Kerrins, Early Years Manager if you have any early years queries.