Last week, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O’Gorman addressed members of Seanad Éireann, making a statement about Early Learning and Care and School Age Childcare.
The Minister began by welcoming the opportunity to discuss and acknowledged the crucial importance of early learning and school-age childcare to society, the economy, parents, and most importantly, to children. He outlined that although progress has been made in developing the sector, significant challenges remain, including insufficient state investment by international standards, low levels of pay and conditions in the sector that don’t reflect the value of the professionals therein, and unaffordable fees for parents.
While reiterating the Government’s commitments to address these challenges set out in the various policy documents for the sector, he affirmed that these commitments have been backed up with the introduction of the €221 million core funding scheme and the pledge to reach an annual investment target of at least €1 billion by 2028.
Low Pay and the Joint Labour Committee
Specifically, in relation to the challenge of poor pay and conditions, the 2020/21 Annual Sector Profile revealed that the average hourly pay in this sector was €12.60, he made mention of the Joint Labour Committee, JLC, established in December 2020 to improve the rates of pay across the sector. This process has so far yielded a Labour Court recommendation for an early years’ educators and School Age Childcare practitioners’ minimum pay rate of €13 per hour and a draft Employment Regulation Order, ERO, was published on 11 May 2022. There is now an opportunity for anyone interested to make representations by 31 May 2022 which will be considered as part of the deliberations. The JLC must now decide whether proposals for an ERO based on the Labour Court recommendation can be drawn up, the next steps regarding other roles in the sector and whether consensus can be reached as regards pay rates for these roles and graduate uplifts. The Labour Court sat last week in relation to a further ERO for other roles in the sector and its recommendation is awaited. The JLC will continue to meet with a view to formulating and potentially adopting proposals for one or more EROs in the sector.
The Minister added that in addition to supporting the JLC, Core Funding will give providers a stable income source based on the nature of the service they deliver. As it is primarily based on capacity, services will have an allocation each year that will not fluctuate in line with children’s attendance. He restated his commitment to the funding guarantee under which no service that signs up to Core Funding will face a reduction. He acknowledged the concerns of some small services and services which only provide the ECCE programme, that they will lose out and reported that having examined the evidence, is satisfied that Core Funding does not create sustainability problems for services. He welcomed that 92% of services have agreed to freeze fees by signing up for the transition fund and that 83% of providers have also completed the sector profile survey, a requirement for the coming contract for Core Funding.
The Minister shared that the Department will not be accepting proposals to extend the scope for additional optional extras or voluntary contributions to be charged to parents whose children are participating in the ECCE programme, citing that it risks parents incurring additional charges for a universal service designed to be free and available to all families, regardless of ability to pay.
The ECCE programme was noted as central to the new funding model for the sector. The Minister will shortly award a contract for a review of the ECCE programme, which will prepare the ground for putting ECCE on a statutory footing, demonstrating the commitment to fully funded preschool provision.
There was a consensus among the members of the Seanad on the importance of the Early Learning and School Age Care Sector and they both welcomed and commended the Minister on his commitment to the development of the sector. Senator Erin McGreehan called for a reimagining of ‘childcare’ as early education and the people working in the sector are professionals, stating that a healthy early years’ service is a healthy child. In response to questions and comments posed by Senators, the Minister, in relation to the professionalisation of the sector, spoke of the Nurturing Skills report and linking it to the rates of pay for staff. Senator Seery-Kearney raised the issue of planning to which the Minister spoke of recent meetings with Fingal County Council, South Dublin County Council and Dublin City Council in relation to housing that will be built in the coming years. He stated that the rule stipulating a childcare facility must be installed if there are 75 units is not delivering. He stated that it is a matter of determining how we can design the planning system to allow more appropriately designed childcare facilities as we expand the number of houses. In relation to the issue of supply, the Minister noted that the Department has €70 million under the National Development Plan for supporting capital investment in childcare. Next year an application programme for existing services that are seeking to upgrade or expand will be introduced, and the following year there will a capital programme for brand new services.
We will continue to engage with Oireachtas members on these important developments for our sector. Please email us if you have any questions.