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Policy in Focus 28 November 2023

Policy in Focus 28 November 2023

“The Irish experience with a major Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) change process ought to contain valuable lessons and inspiration for current and future English ECEC policy development,” according to leading expert and Emeritus Professor of Early Childhood, Eva Lloyd OBE.

Professor Lloyd, served as a member of the expert group appointed to develop Ireland’s new Early Years (EY) and School Age Care (SAC), funding model. She is also a member of the Programme Board for the initial phase of the proposed Single Agency for EY and SAC.

In a new report, A Public Good Approach: Learning form Ireland’s Early Education and Childcare Reform, Professor Lloyd focusses on the development and implementation of a central part of Ireland’s new EY and SAC funding model, Core Funding, and she describes how successive governments in Ireland worked with EY and SAC stakeholders to develop and implement these fundamental reforms.

The need for reform of the Irish EY and SAC system

According to the report, Ireland’s EY and SAC system grew organically in response to demand and maternal labour market participation. In 2002, Ireland’s maternal labour market participation levels were the lowest among 23 OECD members states with only 23 per cent of women with two children in the labour market.

With Ireland lagging behind other OECD countries on EY and SAC service uptake, availability, accessibility, quality and level of public funding, major policy change was needed. Early Years and School Age Care policy accelerated following the launch, in 2018, of First 5, a whole-of-government strategy, for babies, young children and their families (2019-2028).

Key EY and SAC policy commitments in Ireland

Among First 5’s four main goals (Goals A-D), Goal D committed to “an effective early childhood system.” To achieve this goal, the strategy included significant policy commitments such as:

  • The development of a new funding model
  • The development of a comprehensive workforce plan with corresponding funding commitments
  • Doubling investment by 2028, resulting in a budget allocation of at least €970 million
New EY and SAC funding model

Following the work of an expert group and public consultation, a new funding model Together for Better, was launched in September 2022. The funding model was designed to ensure progress for each of the EY and SAC policy goals in First 5. It included:

  1. Core Funding – a new supply-side payment for providers designed to support quality, including improved staff pay, linked to a wage-setting mechanism, sustainability, and enhanced public management. Associated conditions included fee control and cost transparency, incorporating funding for administration, and support for the employment of graduate staff.
  2. Tackling disadvantage funding – new universal targeted supports to tackle disadvantage.
  3. The National Childcare Scheme (NCS) – universal supports to all families to help with the cost of childcare.
  4. Early Childhood Care and Education Programme (ECCE) – free two-year preschool programme available to all children within the eligible age range.
Ireland’s funding model in comparison to England’s policy developments.

Professor Lloyd offers seven characteristics of the design and roll-out of Ireland’s EY and SAC funding model that distinguishes it from the latest policy developments in England. These are:

  1. The view held across successive coalition governments of EY and SAC as a major contributor to the public good.
  2. Policies reflecting the social mobility and family economic wellbeing rationales underpinning First5 and the new funding model.
  3. The increased policy attention afforded to inclusion, with special reference to child and family poverty.
  4. The recognition of the crucial role of EY and SAC practitioners in ensuring service quality.
  5. The commitment to double the public funding for the EY and SAC system between 2019 and 2028.
  6. The recognition of the importance of supply-side funding separate from per-capita financing in maintaining service sustainability.
  7. The acknowledgement that both parents and providers would benefit from the parental childcare subsidy (NCS) being paid direct to providers.

These elements, Lloyd writes, may be seen as key enablers of the Irish reforms.

Challenges for the Core funding model

Professor Lloyd concludes that Core funding was “well received by the ECEC sector.” 95 per cent of EY and SAC providers signed individual Core Funding Partnership Agreements with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.

However, Lloyd acknowledges that challenges still exist for the sector:

  1. “The cost-of-living crisis [has] coincided with growing concern about the adequacy of funding levels, particularly for settings offering only ECCE,” and this has “caused by far the greatest upset to the planned implementation of the new funding model.”
  2. The parental fee freeze has caused some service providers to protest.
  3. After protracted Early Years Joint Labour Committee negotiations regarding a pay deal for 2023/24, the case was referred to the Labour Court in late August 2023. The Court will now issue a pay rateCore funding recommendation.
  4. The universal aspect of the existing Irish ECEC system is still quite young.
  5. There has been an increase in the administrative burden for EY and SAC settings.
  6. The ECEC system’s format and financing streams remain quite complex.
  7. The delay in the new EY and SAC Single Agency may perpetuate the administrative burden on EY and SAC settings.

Despite these challenges, Lloyd is of the view that policy makers in England could learn from the Irish EY and SAC policy experience, which has gone through considerable changes in a short space of time.

The report is being presented today at a webinar hosted by the Early Education and Childcare Coalition, a new coalition of early years providers and stakeholders who are advocating for improved early years education and care in England.

If you have any questions or would like to know more about our work, please contact policy@earlychildhoodireland.ie

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