The draft legislation forms part of major reform to the country's pre-school services, sparked by a television exposé, which revealed below-standard care and mistreatment of children at some of the country’s nurseries.
The proposed Pre-School Quality Agenda, brought forward by the children’s minister Frances Fitzgerald, covers registration, regulation and enforcement of early years settings.
Under the new measures, all nurseries and crèches will be required to register with the HSE, the body responsible for providing health and social care in Ireland and currently inspecting services.
At present, providers only need to notify the inspectorate of their intention to open a setting.
Inspectors will also be granted new enforcement powers, allowing them to threaten the removal of registration.
To improve the quality of care provided by pre-school services in Ireland, the draft legislation outlines plans to set minimum qualifications levels for the first time for the early years sector.
From 1 September 2014, all staff at newly registered pre-school services must hold an Irish Level 5 qualification in early childhood care and education (equivalent to a Level 3). The same rule will apply to staff at existing services from September 2015. Team leaders will have to hold a Level 6 qualification (Level 4 in England).
Currently, pre-school settings in Ireland are required to have a minimum of 50 per cent of staff with a qualifications appropriate to the care and development of children under the Childcare Regulations (Pre-School Services) 2006.
A report from Growing up in Ireland, the national longitudinal study of children, published in July, found that only one in five nursery employees have Level 3 or HETAC, a nationally recognised qualification.
The findings were based on interviews with more than 11,000 families of nine-month-olds and survey responses of those providing childcare.
Other proposals include regulating before and after school clubs, which the Department of Children and Youth affairs says is a ‘growing area of provision’, and sees as essential that it is brought within the regulatory framework.
Minister for children and youth affairs Frances Fitzgerald will bring the draft amendments before the Irish national Parliament’s (Oireachtas) committee on Health and Childcare next week.
Early Childhood Ireland, which represents more than 3,300 childcare professionals, has said that the legislation must be backed up by the ‘appropriate level of investment’.
Chief executive Irene Gunning, said, ‘While the announcement regarding legislation is a move in the right direction, it must be backed up by real investment. The most important building block, the cornerstone, is investment if we are to really deliver on minimum qualifications, nationwide mentoring supports and a more robust and consistent national inspection system to ensure compliance.
‘The stark reality today is that Irish investment in early childhood lags way behind our European partners at only 0.4% of GDP, which includes expenditure for the early years of primary school. We’ve got to make Budget 2014 (15 October) a child-friendly one.
‘Increasing levels of qualifications, as outlined in the draft legislation, can only be sustained and retained within the sector if pay and conditions are commensurate.
‘We need a training transformation fund to support childcare professionals in attaining the minimum qualification levels which will now be set for the first time with this draft legislation. Such a fund would subsidise recognised and accredited training programmes and incentivise the workforce to achieve higher qualifications.
‘The burden on parents in terms of payment for early childhood care and education must also be addressed.’