As members know, one of our key asks for each of the political parties in the recent election was a commitment to establish a single Early Years and School-Age Childcare agency. This ask was carried over from our 2020 Budget policy document which asked the then Fine Gael led government to commit to establishing the agency. Two Parties, Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats, included the establishment of a single agency in their manifestos.
The current negotiations on a new programme for government present us with another opportunity to reinforce the argument for a single agency. The single agency would be particularly important in light of the emerging possibility that the new government may seek to abolish both the Department of and post of Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. If this were to happen, responsibility for early years services would be spilt and transferred to other government Departments.
This would add to the already existing fragmentation of the early years system and is a move not supported by the majority of the public. Early Childhood Ireland’s 2020 Childcare Barometer found that 72% of Irish adults would be opposed to any changes to or downgrading of the status of the Department.
The view of Early Childhood Ireland remains that the current arrangements for oversight and quality assurance in the sector are not fully fit-for-purpose; neither guaranteeing the best outcomes for children nor sufficient support for providers. If the new government goes ahead with its plan to abolish the Department, then it must agree to establish the agency as a matter of priority. Without it, the early years sector will drift into further disarray.
While the vast majority of services are providing high-quality care in a nurturing environment, the current fragmented inspection and oversight system allows problems to slip through the cracks. Further splitting of functions will exacerbate this problem. The Early Years and School-Age Childcare Agency would draw together all the different strands currently responsible for oversight and planning in the early years and school-age sector under one roof. It would have sole responsibility for inspections and quality assurance for early years settings, school aged childcare settings and those providing home-based care.
Instead of the current system of separate thematic inspections, there would be a single ‘whole-setting’ inspection to examine all aspects of care and education alongside financial compliance. The work currently being done by Better Start and the County Childcare Committees would be more effectively integrated into the quality assurance infrastructure and a new single-inspection framework would be developed to replace those of Tusla and the Early Years Inspectorate
The agency would align and co-ordinate all functions relating to quality and curriculum, planning, administration, funding and capital investment in the early years sector. It would also act as a ‘one-stop shop’ for all information for parents and providers; providing real-time updated inspection reports, information on the National Childcare Scheme, ECCE and so on. A rapid intervention team would also form part of the agency’s work and allow for immediate remedial action to be taken. This team would address very serious concerns as soon as they are raised. This team would comprise quality, regulatory, and financial experts, as required, who would work with the setting to ensure that issues are addressed and rectified. If the setting refuses to engage, or immediate and critical child safety risks are identified, the agency would have the power to issue an immediate closure order.
Given the scale of the issues that our sector is facing owing to Covid-19, it is essential that there is a single authority that providers can deal with. This is in contrast to the current set up, where time and effort is wasted dealing with separate agencies and groups who do not speak to each other. Early Childhood Ireland will be strongly making the case for a single agency with the parties involved in government formation talks, and for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to be retained.