At the start of June, the Children’s Rights Alliance released the 2023 Child Poverty Monitor. This is an annual publication that analyses and reports on child poverty in Ireland. The report tracks Government progress in reducing the number of children in poverty. It also points out possible solutions and areas of concern in issues such as food poverty, income adequacy, education inequality, and the high cost of living.
Access to Affordable Early Years Education and Care
The Monitor points out that up to a few years ago, Irish public spending in the Early Years sector was the second lowest in the OECD. In October 2019, the Government pledged to increase investment and in Budget 2023, it committed to investing €1 billion in the sector. However, despite the increased spending, parents in Ireland are paying amongst the highest monthly fees in Europe. The Monitor also notes that there is a great regional disparity among the weekly fees in Europe.
The high fees have been accompanied by a low rate of pay for staff in the sector, the average hourly wage being €12.60. Some 49% of staff in the sector consist of Early Years assistants and earn an hourly wage of €12.33 for those working with children in the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme, but just €11.77 for those working with non-ECCE children. The Monitor notes that critical steps have been taken to improve pay in the sector with an Employment Regulation Order being introduced to the sector in September 2022.
Supporting families on low incomes
The Monitor states there is a need to “poverty proof” the Early Years system. It argues that improving access to affordable Early Years care is the single most important measure in addressing child poverty. The evidence shows that providing quality employment alongside quality Early Years care is what works.
The Monitor also highlights the need to provide practical supports to marginalised families to access Early Years care. These families include families from the Traveller Community, who are often unaware of the subsidies available to them for Early Years care or how to apply for them. The Monitor also argues that consideration should be given to using the available European Social funds for the implementation of the Child Guarantee to invest in community workers on the ground to support families in the Traveller Community.
The Monitor puts forward other short to medium-term solutions that use existing mechanisms and available data while the new DEIS type-model is being developed. These include adopting a new eligibility criterion to access higher levels of subsidisation under the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) such as qualifying for the Medical Card.
New Model to tackle disadvantage
The Monitor recognises that work on the development of a targeted model for Early Years is currently underway. The new strand of funding, called the Equal Participation Model, will provide a mix of universal and targeted supports through services accessed by children and families experiencing disadvantage. Traveller and Roma children are important cohorts of this model.
A pilot scheme to provide hot meals to Early Years services was announced in November 2022. This will help deal with food poverty in a similar way to the provision of school meals. The Monitor notes that there is a need for a new model that provides a range of wraparound services. These could include access to transport, additional wrap-around supports such as family and parenting programmes.
The Monitor makes a number of recommendations for Budget 2024, the medium-term and the long-term. For Budget 2024, the report recommends building on the investment of €1 billion made in the previous budget. Budget 2024 should invest another 0.15% of GDP in the sector and commit to increasing this investment by the same rate in the next two budgets. The report also suggests that NCS subsidies be increased by €1 per hour.
In the medium term, the Monitor argues that all stakeholders, employers, unions and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY) should all continue to engage in the Joint Labour Committee (JLC) process of setting pay for the sector. It also suggests that the review of the NCS should consider whether it delivers the best outcomes for children and takes their best interests into account.
In the long-term, the Monitor suggests commissioning a further review to explore the further steps needed to define what a public funding model means. This would also review what steps would be needed to enhance provision. It also argues to continue to increase public investment in Early Years care and implement the recommendations of the Expert Group on the Funding Model.
If you have any questions regarding this report or you would like to engage with us, please contact our Policy team at firstname.lastname@example.org.