Seanad Éireann - Volume 196 - 17 June, 2009

Early Childhood Education.

  Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I compliment Senator Norris on raising the issue of domestic abuse and making a valid case for protecting women who are at risk of domestic violence. I am worried about how prevalent the circumstances he describes may be across all counties.

I welcome the Minister of State. It seems every issue I raise falls into his lap. When one considers that he is responsible for the issues of child protection, child abuse, adoption and the issue of pre-school education which I propose to discuss, he is clearly busy and has an explosive portfolio. I ask him to outline how he plans to address the current shortcomings in the pre-school education scheme planned to commence in January 2010. I refer specifically to the availability of places in the light of the funding cap; the availability of appropriate specialist teaching personnel, given that such personnel have not yet been trained in the curriculum; the proposed pupil-teacher ratio; and training in the pre-school curriculum which needs to be associated with the provision of quality pre-school education.

[160]The proposed scheme has considerable merit. As Senator Keaveney will be aware from the deliberations of the Joint Committee on Education and Science, I am involved in a robust research project on early school leaving and drop-out rates. One of the best services we can provide is quality pre-school education. I refer, for instance, to one such scheme which has been in operation in the United States for many years. Empirical evidence shows that quality pre-school education with proper monitoring and qualified pre-school teachers give the best return on investment. One such scheme, the Perry programme in the United States, is associated with a low pupil-teacher ratio, group meetings with parents, specialised training for teachers and a specifically designed curriculum. According to conservative estimates, the scheme yields a return of $2.30 on every dollar invested by the time participants are aged 20 years. By the time they were aged 40 years, this return had increased to an estimated $12.90 for every dollar invested, giving a ratio of almost 13:1. Moreover, it resulted in sustained increases in achievement, higher graduation rates at upper secondary level, higher earnings and lower rates of arrest. The savings arise from increased tax revenue, health and welfare savings and reductions in costs associated with crime rates. This type of programme is of particular benefit to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We must aim to achieve these long-term outcomes. The Minister of State will be aware that one in six children in the State drops out of education before the leaving certificate. The pre-school scheme provides a wonderful opportunity to address this problem, but, based on the shortcomings of the proposals, I fear it is likely to fail. I respectfully propose to highlight these shortcomings as I know the Minister of State has an important meeting tomorrow with private pre-school providers who are also concerned about the scheme.

I understand that, on the basis of age, 81,000 children will qualify for the new pre-school scheme from next January. Based on a pupil-teacher ratio of 8:1, we will need 10,000 qualified teachers. I understand the Minister of State wishes pre-school teachers to attend training in Síolta and its associated curriculum, Aistear. However, I learned in the past 24 hours that this training is to be provided in 2010, whereas the scheme is due to commence in January. I ask the Minister of State to enlighten me as to how those who have FETAC level 6 qualifications and above will receive the appropriate training in the curriculum framework the Department wishes them to deliver if it does not provide this training in advance of the date of the start of the scheme.

Other concerns about the pre-school scheme include the cap of €64.50 the Department proposes to apply for five days pre-school education a week.

The first one is that due to the high cost base that these providers are already experiencing, they cannot afford to subsidise the scheme. They are operating within tight margins with, effectively, fixed labour and premises costs that they have little capacity to reduce. They are restricted by the size of the premises and the pupil-teacher ratio regulations. This scheme caps their fees at a level which does not cover their costs.

I am thinking of the children and the availability of places needed. I ask the Minister of State to allow these providers to top up their fees so that they can be financially viable for the sake of the provision of places.

  An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Senator has one minute.

  Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: For example, there are providers in Galway alone who explained to me that, based on the Department paying them for 38 weeks and the fact that they need to operate for 52 weeks or, at worst, 42 weeks, giving the parents ten weeks off, they will lose between €13,980 and €34,180 a year. That is a great deal of money.

[161]This scheme will result in a large loss in child care places. A five-day service requirement will result in places not being fully utilised. Parents will not use the five days, leaving classes partially occupied. Parents should be allowed the choice of a shorter week on a sessional basis for their children legitimately within the scheme and I ask the Minister of State to look carefully at the model in the UK of a daily subsidy-based scheme.

  An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Senator has gone way over her time.

  Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I also point out that the scheme will result in job losses in the system, will do lasting damage to the quality of child care and, critically, will take choice from parents. The scheme was implemented without consultation with the providers. I ask the Minister of State to seriously consider reviewing the scheme at this point so that it works to provide for the outcomes for which it has the potential to provide. I compliment the Minister of State on bringing it in, but there is no point in bringing in one that will not deliver on quality outcomes.

I look forward to hearing the Minister of State’s answers based on the questions I asked in this debate.

  Deputy Barry Andrews: I have responsibility for the implementation of the new scheme to provide a free pre-school year of early childhood care and education, to be introduced from January next. This scheme’s introduction is one of the most significant developments in early childhood care and education which has taken place in Ireland to date. Building on the progress made over the past decade, we are now taking a major step in providing universal pre-school education for all children.

Children will be eligible where they are aged between three and a quarter and four and a half on 1 September of each year. Flexibility exists where a child has special needs, or to accommodate children due to the enrolment policy of a local primary school. Where children attend a sessional playschool, they will receive three hours per day each week over 38 weeks. A number of alternative options exist which amount to an equivalent level of provision over the course of the year.

An annual capitation fee of over €2,400 will be paid to participating services. This is equivalent to €64.50 per week where a service is participating for 38 weeks. Services will be paid in advance at the start of each term. Services may charge parents for additional services, provided these are clearly optional. These include additional hours and additional services in the form of activities or services such as outings, birthday parties, dance classes or food. However, these must be optional and appropriate programme-based activities must be provided for children not participating in an optional activity.

The precise number of children who will avail of the scheme in a given year will vary, with the birth rate approximately four years before enrolment. Children in the scheme in January 2010 will generally have been born between March 2005 and June 2006. While there are more than 70,000 children in the age range eligible under the scheme and provision has been made for this level of attendance, it is anticipated that 64,000 are likely to avail of their pre-school year in January 2010.

A sufficient number of places are expected to be available, based on capacity in the sector, and it will be open to almost 5,000 services to participate. Services started applying last week and the indications are that there will be a very high level of take-up. While some have argued for a higher capitation rate, most services have expressed strong support for the scheme. The level of capitation exceeds that proposed under the NESF’s free pre-school year proposal and is far higher than the £30 per week paid under the equivalent scheme in Northern Ireland. For [162]most services, this will see an increase in their income, allowing them to meet the higher standards required, relative to the existing requirements under the child care regulations.

The scheme was debated last month in Dáil Éireann. While some opposition Deputies acknowledged the great step forward it represents, there were also contributions from others, who while trying to claim that they supported a free pre-school year, simultaneously argued that services should be allowed charge fees from parents. If services could charge fees, many would do so, and the scheme could quickly become inaccessible for disadvantaged families. Given that research shows these are the children who benefit most from pre-school, this is not an outcome that I could stand over.

The same debate saw Deputies argue that there was too little detail available at the announcement of the scheme, yet too many of the details were set in stone. Of course, the budget announcement outlined the main details of the scheme and the following weeks allowed me and my officials to meet stakeholders to ensure that the operation of the scheme is fair and effective. I have endeavoured to respond to concerns raised in a flexible way.

The required staffing ratios are those provided for under the child care regulations, that is, 1:8 in full day-care settings and 1:10 in sessional services. The scheme will be delivered by qualified pre-school leaders and assistants.

In recognition of the complexity of the educational attainment of staff within the sector, in the first two full years of the scheme, where pre-school leaders have an appropriate award in early childhood care and education and have at least two years appropriate experience, they will meet the qualification requirement. Thereafter, all lead staff will be required to have achieved a major award in early childhood care and education.

Practitioners who currently cannot achieve this status will be facilitated by the workforce development plan, which will address issues such as access to education and training. A national consultation process on the plan was launched last week and will conclude this autumn, and the plan is to commence in early 2010.

There have been queries regarding curriculum. There is a variety of approaches to early learning, such as Montessori, Steiner-Waldorf and High/Scope. All these will be accommodated within the national frameworks for early education developed under Síolta and Aistear, both of which guide the scheme and the programme based activities which will be provided.

I am delighted that the Government has made the far-sighted decision to introduce this scheme. It will give equal opportunities to all children, particularly the most marginalised who would not otherwise be able to attend pre-school, as well as helping parents who up to now had to meet the cost of pre-school provision themselves. It will also benefit services which will gain certainty and sustainability in what are, for most, trying times.

Time and effort will be involved to ensure the greatest possible levels of participation in the scheme and to reach the highest standards of early years care and education provision. However, I am confident that the scheme provides the framework to achieve this ambition.

  Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The marginalised benefit from community child care provision. I am speaking about the fall-out from the private providers. The aim of this, I understand, is to reduce the cost of child care. However, the focus should be on reducing the cost in a controlled manner that avoids massive reductions in the availability of child care places or an unacceptable reduction in the living standards of those who work in the industry. Will the Minister of State allow for providers that qualify for the scheme based on reasonable limits to top up the fees so that they can remain viable because he will need them to provide the amount of places?

[163]  Deputy Barry Andrews: As I stated, I do not believe that would achieve the goals that the Government is seeking to achieve. It is clear from all the statistics that well-off people put their children through pre-school and it is the disadvantaged who do not benefit from it.

As Senator Healy Eames stated, the return for each unit invested in early childhood care and education is significant. She quoted $12 from an American study. I have seen figures of over £7 for every £1 invested in the UK, for example.

There is still time to create as much flexibility for providers as possible. However, we cannot depart from the simple principle that it needs to be free pre-primary school education and, therefore, there will be equal access and children will be properly motivated and will have personal development at an equal level when they present at junior infants. Any junior infants teacher will tell you that he or she can almost tell a child’s life plan when the child arrives in junior infants. We need to ensure that we take this crucial opportunity to provide universal free pre-school for every child in this country.

  Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I welcome the point on flexibility. I thank the Minister of State.