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Better Start 13 January 21

Pathways to better prospects

December 7, 2020

On December 1, Early Childhood Ireland launched a new research report on pay and working conditions in the early years sector. The report was funded by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and produced by the Department of Work and Employment Studies at the University of Limerick.

Dr Michelle O’Sullivan, lead author of the report, and Toby Wolfe, Principal Officer at the Early Years Quality Division in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY) were the guest speakers at the online launch event, which was chaired by Teresa Heeney, CEO of Early Childhood Ireland.

The report compares pay and conditions for early years care and education workers with those for workers in a range of other sectors in Ireland, including healthcare support assistants, special needs assistants, social care workers, physical therapists, teachers, and nurses. It also looks at international models of good practice for professionalising the early years workforce, with comparisons made between Ireland and Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Finland, Denmark and Norway. Based on those two analytical frameworks, it draws recommendations to the Irish situation.

Dr O’Sullivan remarked on the complexity of the early years area, which has received significant policy attention in recent years, but which did not translate into improvements in pay and work conditions. She characterised the situation as a “policy roundabout” – on the one hand, early years employers have the legal authority but not the financial capacity to improve pay and conditions, and on the other hand, the state has the potential financial capacity but not the legal authority of an employer. She also highlighted that pay and conditions are a critical element of professionalisation, but they are not the only part. Professionalisation concerns other issues such as professional identity and the level of influence practitioners wish to have over the development of their professions.

Commenting on the Irish case, Mr Wolfe said that, although significant change has happened, big challenges still remain. On the one hand, significant growth in the number of people working in the sector has happened over the years, along with a significant increase in the proportion of staff with relevant degrees. On the other hand, the concentration of qualified workers in certain age groups, high turnover rates and low wages in the international comparison are key problems to be addressed. Regarding those points, he made the caveat that 59% of services retained all staff in 2018/2019 and that other countries face similar problems regarding low wages, such as England and Canada.

Ms Heeney stressed that “Over the past decade, the Government has given significant attention to professionalising the early years workforce. For the most part, they have been concerned with increasing the qualifications profile of early years workers – and this has been successful, in that there has been substantial upskilling of the workforce. However, this upskilling has not been met with the increased investment needed to ensure highly qualified professionals receive appropriate pay and secure working conditions.”

The research was featured on The Hard Shoulder on Newstalk, as well as on local radio stations, and was covered by both The Irish Examiner and the Irish Times.

If you missed all or part of the online event, the full seminar is available here. A subsequent members-only evening event which will reflect on workforce issues and provide a space for debate will also take place. We will let members know about this soon.

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