What is the real crisis in childcare?

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In Ireland there is a recruitment crisis, but qualification requirements are not to blame - it's all about low pay, says Dr Moloney.

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Even though the childcare sector in Ireland has been regulated since 1996, it was not until, January 2017, that all staff working with young children were required to hold a minimum qualification requirement. This requirement was long overdue. In fact, as far back as 1998, the National Forum on Early Childhood Education recognised that teacher competence is crucial in the early years, and that the training and education of teachers is the first assurance of quality.

The introduction of a mandatory training requirement was not a sudden decision that was foisted upon the sector. It had been called for since 1996, and it was certainly mooted by the Irish Government in 2013, when, following an exposé of bad practice in childcare settings, the then Minster for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, identified eight key areas of action, including ‘increasing the qualification requirements for all staff working in pre-school services’ as a matter of urgency’. 

The need for qualifications was also driven by the introduction of the universal free pre-school year in 2010, and the desire by those working with young children to be recognised, valued, and respected as professionals. Indeed since 2010, many working in the sector have upskilled to the minimum requirement of a QQI Level 5 (Quality Qualifications Ireland), with others upskilling to QQI Level 6. Others have undertaken a QQI Level 7 or Level 8 Bachelor’s degree. To support staff to upskill to meet the minimum qualification requirements, the Government introduced a ‘Learner Fund’ in 2014, and subsequent years, to subside the cost of training for staff. In many instances, staff, especially those upskilling to QQI Level 7 and 8, paid for this training from their meagre earnings and, in their own time. 

It is important here to examine the issue of salaries in the sector. Generally in Ireland, regardless of qualifications or experience, staff earn little more than minimum wage. Overall salaries range from €9.25/hour (minimum wage) to €10.27/hour, and, it is no surprise that staff are unhappy with this situation. They feel undervalued, and underappreciated. The abysmal salaries are underpinned by insufficient investment by successive governments. Although the international benchmark for investment in childcare is 1 per cent of GDP, in Ireland, the Government invests 0.2 per cent. Parents pick up the childcare tab created by this chronic underinvestment. As a result, Ireland has one of the highest childcare costs in Europe with parents paying 35 per cent of income on childcare.

The Government is well aware of these issues: poor staff salaries, and exorbitant childcare costs, both of which are a direct result of government policies and lack of investment.  Recent policy developments are focused upon ‘affordable childcare’, and measures have been introduced to reduce the cost to parents, and rightly so. However, the issue of staff salaries has been largely ignored, and those working in the sector have reached breaking point.

They are voting with their feet. Highly qualified staff are exiting the sector in search of more prestigious, and better paid work elsewhere, while new graduates are not entering the sector. Rather, they are opting, in the main, to pursue primary school teaching, or other post-graduate training opportunities that lead to better employment opportunities, and career pathways. They are also opting to work abroad. Childcare providers are struggling to retain, and or attract staff. Because of this, there is a looming staffing crisis.  

Does this mean that we should call for a reduction in qualification levels? Imagine taking your sick child to the hospital, where you are told that 25 per cent of the doctors, and 25 per cent of the nurses are unqualified. Imagine being told that 25 per cent of teachers in your child’s school are unqualified? We would not countenance such a situation.

The call for 25 per cent of staff working in childcare to be unqualified has been met with derision and outrage.  Nobody wants to return to a situation where it is thought that anybody can work with young children. Nothing could be further from the truth. We know that 80 per cent of brain development happens before age five. Working with young children is highly complex, and multi-faceted. We need the best ‘teachers’ to work with our youngest children.

The consequences of placing children in the care of unqualified staff was all too apparent in 2013, when the horrific abuse of children in settings was broadcast on national television. Is this what we want? And what about staff that invested in their training because they believed in a child’s right to quality educational and care experiences? Is it any wonder that they are raging? This suggestion devalues their attempts to up-skill, as well as their commitment to the sector. Why would anyone bother to become qualified at any level, if 25 per cent of staff can be untrained, and earn the same as those who are highly qualified?

Calling for a reduction in qualification levels is a regressive, and damaging step. There is no shortage of qualified staff. Across the Higher Education Institutions offering degree level training, 1,000+ students graduate each year. Yet in a workforce of 25,000, only 18 per cent (i.e., 4,500) are qualified to degree level. The real issue here is inadequate investment, and a push towards cheap childcare. The concepts of cheap and quality are fundamentally incompatible without considerable government investment. Quality is dependent upon staff who have the necessary skills, knowledge and understanding to support, facilitate and, extend children’s learning and development. Unqualified staffing could only result in a race to the bottom. It is not in the best interests of children, staff or the sector. What is required is significant government investment that enables early childhood teachers to have pay parity with other comparable professionals, to have a strong professional identity, to take pride in their work, and to lead educational provision. 

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