A follow-up to the RTE's Prime Time 'Breach of Trust' programme, aired in June 2013, has revealed that despite promises by the Irish government to radically reform the country's pre-school services, change is slow and on a small scale.
Last year, the then-minister for children and youth affairs Frances Fitzgerald announced plans to introduce a Pre-School Quality Agenda covering registration, regulation and enforcement for settings following the television expose.
A small number of the reforms have been introduced, including the requirement for all nurseries and creches to undergo an inspection in advance of opening, and publishing inspection reports online. A total of 4,037 inspection reports have been published to date. Two more reforms are being brought in this autumn.
Ireland's first National Early Years Strategy for children from birth to six, which Ms Fitzgerald heralded in January 2012, is due to be published later this year.
Standard of creches
According to the RTE follow-up programme, which aired this June, quality standards in some creches are still not being met.
A Freedom of Information request by the channel showed that complaints about creches to the Child and Family Agency, which took over early years inspections in January, were up by a third last year to 359 from 243 complaints in 2012.
Complaints included a child locked in a toilet for a long period of time, a staff member cutting a child's hair and four cases of children walking out of creches unnoticed with parents not being notified until weeks later.
Start Strong, a coalition of organisations and individuals in Ireland concerned with early care and education, says that inspection reports - which from last summer began to be published online - also reveal a series of failures, such as creches employing staff without references or not suited to working with children, failing to meet adult:child ratios, staff shouting at children and poor hygiene and sleeping conditions.
In Ireland, fulland part-time daycare providers must work to a ratio of one adult to three children for children up to one, 1:5 for children aged one to two, 1:6 for two- to three-year-olds, and 1:8 for three- to six-year-olds. Ratios vary for 'sessional services'.
At present, pre-school settings in Ireland are required to have a minimum of 50 per cent of staff with a qualification appropriate to the care and development of children under the Childcare Regulations (Pre-School Services) 2006.
From next month (September), all staff at newly registered pre-school services must hold an Irish Level 5 qualification in early childhood care and education (equivalent to a UK Level 3). The same rule will apply to existing services from September 2015.
Settings providing Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) funded places must employ pre-school leaders with an Irish Level 5. From September 2015 this will change to a Level 6.
However, Start Strong has argued that by international standards, Level 5 and 6 qualifications are low for early years practitioners.
Stronger sanctions for non-compliant nurseries and creches are also due to be introduced by the Irish Government. The sanctions, which include increasing fines for pre-school services that fail to meet standards and the removal of a service from the childcare register, have been legislated but are yet to be put into practice.
Currently, pre-school services that fail to meet any of the 33 regulations during an inspection may receive advice, follow-up inspections or be offered support through their County Childcare Committee. Creches may be fined or in extreme cases prosecuted.
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has said the new sanctions will come into effect when regulations under the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 are approved.
A National Early Years Quality Support Service will also be launched in the autumn, which will provide mentoring support for early years services. Graduates in early childhood care and education will be recruited as early years experts to work with services on a one-to-one basis to improve quality and help them implement Ireland's Siolta Quality Framework and the Aistear Curriculum for children from birth to six.
Another concern of Start Strong is that creches can claim Government funding for the free pre-school year regardless of their quality or inspection reports, something the organisation says needs to be addressed.
Under Ireland's ECCE scheme, three-year-olds receive three hours of childcare per day over 38 weeks. Most creches across Ireland offer ECCE places.
The RTE programme also revealed that the number of inspections of pre-school services has fallen since last year, with some settings not having been inspected for five years. Nurseries and creches are meant to be inspected once a year.
According to the channel's investigation, the reason for the decline in inspections is a lack of inspectors in several counties. In some areas there are no inspectors at all.
This is despite an additional EUR500,000 in funding made available in Budget 2014 for the recruitment of more early years inspectors.
Toby Wolfe, research and policy officer at Start Strong, said, 'The Government's plans to improve the quality of pre-school services are only partial remedies. We need substantial reform.
'The problems with early years services lie much deeper than the creches shown on the RTE programme. Staff are working in poor conditions and on low pay.'
Mr Wolfe said that Start Strong is still waiting for Dr James Reilly, the new children's minister who took over the post in July, to respond to the advisory group's recommendations for the National Early Years Strategy, and publish the framework, which will outline longer-term solutions.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs said, 'The department is committed to supporting services and driving the early childhood care and education quality agenda through workforce development and quality assurance via a number of measures.
'The context within which quality improvement in the delivery of early years services is being promoted reflects the late development of the sector in Ireland compared to leading countries internationally where services, expertise and practice have developed over many decades. In Ireland during the noughties there was a significant expansion of childcare places and development of facilities driven, to a considerable degree, by developments in the labour market. This is now a sector with nearly 5,000 services and more than 22,000 staff.
'However, the focus on service quality and outcomes for children, while receiving growing recognition and support, is a further critical component of the developmental agenda for the sector. Improved and consistent service quality will require sustained commitment from all those involved in service provision, financing and regulation, and continued parental and community awareness of its importance for development and learning.'
PROVIDER VIEW: BRIGHT HORIZONS
Martina Murphy, director of operations at Bright Horizons Ireland, said, 'Overall Bright Horizons is very supportive of the changes to minimum staff qualifications. We have focused on staff development in line with our strong belief that the level of training has an impact on the quality of our service.
'However, the Government needs to resource this upskilling of our workforce for early years professionals to be appropriately valued and remunerated.
'At our nurseries in Ireland we have achieved a rate of 95 per cent of staff with a FETAC Level 5. In January we introduced the requirement that any new members of staff hold a minimum Level 5. A number of our staff are also qualified to Level 6 and some hold early years degrees.'
Ms Murphy went on to say the sector experiences a lack of Government support. 'This is a journey. There is a lot of work to be done. If the Government is serious about reforming childcare, it can't leave it to the sector and providers to do it alone.'