The report, by an Inter-Departmental Group, outlines how best to invest in childcare services over the coming years, focusing on ways to enhance affordability for parents, improve services and outcomes for children, as well as promote greater accessibility in the sector.
‘Future Investment in Early Years and School Age Care and Education Services’ proposes extending the ECCE scheme, also known as the free pre-school year, up to the point at which primary school starts.
Under the current ECCE scheme, all three-year-olds receive three hours of childcare per day over 38 weeks.
The extension of the scheme would see children receive the free hours up to the age of five and a half years. In Ireland, children do not have to start formal schooling until they are six.
The Inter-Departmental Group also recommends a new, single income-based subsidy scheme be introduced for pre-school and ‘school-going’ children with simplified eligibility to replace the existing schemes.
It would cover all settings rather than the community sector alone as it does at present.
To improve the quality of early years services in Ireland, the report also proposes a number of measures, including:
- An audit of early years settings to be undertaken every three years;
- Enhancing the Child and Family Agency inspection regime to enable timely inspection and registration of new services and regular re-inspection;
- Increasing the number of inspectors from 10 to 20 over the next three years to expand coverage;
- Moving away from voluntary to mandatory requirements for childminders and other parts of the non-formal sector;
- Extending the Learner Fund to support continuous professional development and enable staff to up-skill.
The Inter-Departmental Group also recommends increasing the supply of childcare facilities over a greater geographical spread.
The minister for children and youth affairs, Dr James Reilly, said, ‘I am delighted to publish this report with its important options for future investment. I believe that it provides the basis for real improvements in affordability, quality and accessibility in the sector. It gives the Government a clear evidence base when we are making decisions for Budget 2016 and in the years beyond.
‘As the economy improves, we now have opportunities for strategic investment that will help achieve better outcomes for children, offer greater supports to parents, improve quality, and up-skill the sector.
Ciairín de Buis, director of Start Strong, a coalition of organisations and individuals in Ireland concerned with early care and education, said, ’The working group report sets out a framework for early years policy in Ireland, and has some very welcome recommendations around extending the free pre-school year and reforming and extending the existing schemes so that childcare becomes more affordable.
‘The report has a strong focus on quality - recommending a "quality audit" of services, as well as referring to the need to move towards regulation of childminders.
'However, there are some gaps – issues such as paternity leave and the low pay of those working in the sector aren’t addressed – and the timeframe for implementation is not clear, but overall the direction is the right one.
‘What we need now is political leadership and Government action, backed by public funding. It's time for the Government to show they are serious about investing in our young children.’