Strategy on Children’s ‘First 5’ Years Gets Thumbs Up from Children’s Rights Alliance
The Children’s Rights Alliance has welcomed today’s launch of the Government's ‘First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families 2019-2028’ by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone TD and their government colleagues. The long-awaited strategy is the first of its kind in Ireland, recognising the importance of investing early in all aspects of a child’s first five years of life.
Tanya Ward, Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance commenting today said: “The earliest years of life are incredibly precious so we are pleased that ‘First 5’ is an ambitious, ten-year, whole-of-Government approach that affirms that babies and children are everybody’s business. Up to now, we haven’t had a high level plan for young children even though we know that investing in children early works. For far too long, the rights of young children have been ignored and we pay the price for that every day. With this Strategy, we now have a clear acknowledgment that early childhood matters and supporting parents matter.
The Children’s Rights Alliance is giving the Strategy a thumbs up but its success will depend on successive governments making the hard decisions to follow through and invest. Will we actually get a well-resourced public health nurse service that can work with every child? Will the Government make the strategic investment in early years’ education so we can retain good staff and guarantee every child a place? Will struggling families finally get the support that they need to protect their children from adversity and keep their heads above water? These are some of the challenges that we face in Ireland which this Strategy must address.
The Children’s Rights Alliance’s Top Five from First 5:
1. Early Years’ Education:
The Strategy commits to introducing a universal legal entitlement to two years free pre-school for children meaning no child can be turned away. Crucially, the Government also plans to control the fees charged to parents in return for increased State investment in quality early learning centres. This will help to support families struggling to meet the cost of childcare which is often akin to a second mortgage. Going forward, the Government will need to make significant investments year-on-year to ensure that reduced fees do not result in lower quality services.
The Children’s Rights Alliance is strongly of the view that public funding should not be spent on childcare and services without guaranteeing regulation. We welcome that this aim is explicit in the Strategy, as it is a key way to protect children from harmful or poor-quality childcare. A key challenge for the sector is poor pay with many services struggling to retain staff particularly those with qualifications. The Strategy plans to raise the professional status of staff through a Workforce Development Plan and to adequately compensate them for their extraordinary skilled work supporting children’s learning and development. It offers support to employers so they can offer more favourable working conditions to staff. This is urgently required to retain early educators in the sector who are leaving due to low pay and poor conditions. It will be required to retain graduates in order to meet the strategy’s goal of a graduate-led childcare workforce.
There is a clear focus on maternal health care and pre-birth in the Strategy. Critically, the Strategy commits to resource and support the implementation, expansion and enhancement of the National Healthy Childhood Programme through the development of a dedicated child health workforce. Public health nurses play a crucial role in delivering the Programme. Right now, they support all age groups in the community, from cradle to grave, ranging from newborns to end of life care. Their workforce was depleted during the economic crash. To support this commitment, children and their parents need a dedicated public health nurse-led system.
The Children’s Rights Alliance welcomes that the Strategy puts play front and centre, recognising that play is how learning happens for young children. The strategy is making the right moves, empowering parents to create playful early learning opportunities at home through shared book-reading with a free book scheme, and supporting local authorities by creating guidelines for planning and developing safe, child-friendly communities. We need the commitment of local government to ensure the implementation of these guidelines. Too many communities built over the last 20 years have not been spaces of safe discovery and learning for children.
4. Child Poverty:
When it comes to the high numbers of children living in poverty in Ireland, the most significant commitment in the Strategy is the introduction a DEIS-type programme for early learning centres in areas of disadvantage and introducing measures to address food poverty. Children just can’t learn and thrive without being fed. We have heard first hand from our members that small children have been stealing food from crèches just to survive the weekend so this new measure from Minister Zappone is very welcome.
5. Supporting Parents:
Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world, but it comes with no manual. The Strategy commits to a national public information campaign on positive parenting. Positive parenting nurtures, empowers, guides and recognises children as individuals in their own right. It also supports parents to make the best choices they can for their children. Children’s rights organisations have been calling for a campaign like this for decades. The Strategy commits to a maximum of 14 weeks paid parental leave by 2021 for working parents, in addition to maternity and paternity leave. This is moving in the right direction but not enough to ensure that children get the best start possible by being with their parents round-the-clock at this age. Research the world over tells us that children do best at home in the first year of life.
Tanya Ward continued: “We would like to acknowledge the leadership of Dr. Katherine Zappone TD in ensuring this strategy has come to fruition. We now need to see an implementation plan and the necessary level of public funding to guarantee the success of this strategy. We look forward to closely scrutinising the strategy as well as monitoring its roll-out and impact on children’s lives over the coming months and years.”
Notes to Editor:
- Tanya Ward, Chief Executive and Saoirse Brady, Legal and Policy Director are available for interview.
- First 5, A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families is available here.
About the Children’s Rights Alliance
Founded in 1995, the Children’s Rights Alliance unites over 100 members working together to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child. Further information is available at: www.childrensrights.ie or on Twitter, @ChildRightsIRL