Last Thursday, the Committee on Gender Equality met to discuss recommendations made by the Citizens’ Assembly which centred on ‘Parental Leave and ’Childcare’. Early Childhood Ireland, SIPTU’s Big Start campaign and Treoir were invited to address the Committee. The Committee is chaired by Deputy Ivana Bacik and comprises Deputies Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Sorca Clarke, Neasa Hourigan, Paul McAuliffe, Brid Smith, Niamh Smyth, and Senators Lisa Chambers, Regina Doherty, Alice-Mary Higgins, Pauline O’Reilly and Fintan Warfield.
The Committee has been meeting to discuss the recommendations made by the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality. These recommendations made can be found in the Citizens’ Assembly Report.
Quality for Children and Core Funding
Some of the key recommendations outlined in the report, recommendations 8 (a) and (b), call for a move to the publicly funded Early Learning and Care (ELC) sector, with an increase in State funding to 1% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Key questions on how to achieve these recommendations were posed by Deputies Clarke, Carroll MacNeill, Hourigan and Bacik with further questions by Senator Doherty. Throughout the session, Core Funding was repeatedly acknowledged by witnesses as being a welcome step in addressing these recommendations. It was noted that poor pay and terms and conditions in the sector contributed to poor quality and outcomes for children through a high turnover of staff and recruitment difficulties. Added into this mix is a workforce that is almost entirely female, underpaid and often in precarious employment.
Core Funding represents a mechanism for the state to address issues with accessibility, affordability and quality by freezing fees and increasing investment for pay. What will be vital to the success of Core Funding is confirmation of it being multi-annual, along with year-on-year increases to funding. Indeed, Minister Roderic O’Gorman recognised it as such in Parliamentary Questions this past Thursday. Here, the Minister outlined how Core Funding would be vital in opening new ELC places for young children. It would also serve as an important tool in developing a “world-class” ELC system, of high quality with good pay and terms and conditions for staff.
Accessibility and ELC as Family Support
Keeping recommendations 8 and 9 in mind, accessibility of early learning and care services was something which was also mentioned throughout the hearing. It was acknowledged by witnesses that the ideal situation for children is to be raised by their parent(s) for the first year at home, and this should be facilitated by the state by providing adequate parental leave. This is established in recommendation 9. However, adequate support should be given to children and families should plan change or crises occur in that first year. Responsive, available, affordable and accessible centre- or home-based early learning and care should be available for all families. Again, this is something which will only be achieved through increased investment allowing for increased spaces for younger children.
Moreover, further supports identified would include the expansion of the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM) programme. This model currently provides universal support to pre-school settings, with targeted supports available that focus on the needs of the individual child. Importantly this is not tied to any disability diagnosis. Currently, AIM provides an important mechanism for the full inclusion of eligible children into the Early Childhood Care and Education programme, however, it is not applicable outside of this programme. Universal access to AIM across ELC and SAC would provide children and families with added support.
The importance of accessibility was also underlined at the concurrently held Public Accounts Committee, which was attended by officials from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY). Committee members were concerned with shortages of places for children, as well as high costs.
Much work has been done recently to increase quality, accessibility and affordability in the ELC sector, along with the School Age Childcare (SAC) sector. However, key challenges remain and buy-in from providers and educators is vital. Securing further investment in the sector remains a priority, and it is vital that Core Funding is multi-annual, with increasing budget commitments year on year. Moreover, and as referenced by Early Childhood Ireland, the government still has work to do in “selling” its vision of the sector as outlined in the Nurturing Skills and Partnership for the Public Good reports.
Early Childhood Ireland welcomes the recommendations outlined by the Citizens’ Assembly and will continue to monitor the progress of the Committee on Gender Equality. If you have any questions about our work, please drop us an email at email@example.com.