A new research paper was published by the Oireachtas Library and Research Services, which aimed at providing an overview of the available evidence on the impact of public provision of early childhood education and care (ECEC). The publication was released in advance of the meeting of the Special Committee on Covid-19 on June 23, which discussed the current policy challenges in the early years sector in Ireland.
The study, written by senior parliamentary researcher Dr Emily Heery, points out that Ireland has the highest level of private provision of ECEC in the OECD. In 2017, while 99% of Irish children aged three to five years enrolled in childcare were enrolled in private childcare institutions, the OECD average corresponded to 34%. For comparison, Switzerland and Finland had rates of 5% and 12%, respectively. Moreover, the high level of private provision was not supported by public subsidies, as the Irish state is amongst the lowest spenders on early years. The author also draws attention to the precarious work conditions and the affordability issues that characterise the Irish system. The high costs ultimately detach women from the labour market. Accordingly, the gender gap in workforce participation in the 25-44 age group in the country is larger than the EU average.
Based on a literature review, the paper then argues that the available evidence, although limited, shows positive outcomes in countries that have public provision of early years services. However, the author does not define whether public provision refers to services being directly provided by public entities or to publicly funded programmes offered on a universal basis, though the analysis seems to be referring to the latter. The positive outcomes associated with public programmes include improvements in children’s social and emotional development, increases in maternal life satisfaction, increased affordability, accessibility and quality. It is highlighted that the Nordic countries, considered to have the most successful ECEC systems in the world, share common features. Besides high levels of public investment, those countries have effective government strategy and regulation, high staff-to-child ratios, competitive salaries for educators, consistent data collection, and some decentralisation in decision-making and implementation.
Similarly, Early Childhood Ireland believes that the Covid-19 crisis has exposed how central childcare provision is to a functioning economy, and that the lack of appropriate public investment is the main barrier to the growth and quality of ECEC programmes in Ireland. Government and other policy makers now have an unprecedented opportunity to act to increase investment in the sector, as envisaged in the First 5 strategy. Early Childhood Ireland recommends that along with more investment, which brings Ireland from the bottom to the top of the EU investment plan, that the actions which are envisaged in First 5 to develop a new funding model are prioritised, without delay.