Lessons in early education from New Zealand
“And the environments were better resourced – the equipment and the spaces for children were better and relationships with parents became much stronger.”
However, it was noticeable, she adds, that centres where management did not allow staff to take up training opportunities offered by the strategy did not improve in their quality ratings.
Linking in health and social services
A vision of early childhood centres serving as hubs for health and social services was the one thing on which the strategy failed to deliver.
Mitchell envisaged professionals such as public health nurses, speech therapists, psychologists, etc coming to early childhood centres instead of parents having to take their children to them.
But it didn’t happen; mainly, she believes, because there were no policy actions set in place.
“What we saw with health and social services was an aspirational statement and then it was just left to the services to do it. Nothing changed.”
PLANS FOR PRE-SCHOOL
A second free pre-school year for all children would certainly be on the wish list of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald. But her department was not willing to be any more specific when contacted by The Irish Times.
Proposals for an extension of the scheme are likely to be included in the first National Early Years Strategy, which the department is currently preparing.
However, a spokeswoman said, “Noting the current financial constraints, any such extension at this time is not likely.”
A second free pre-school year is being called for by Start Strong, an alliance of organisations that advocates higher quality care and education for young children in Ireland.
“It is not about children spending necessarily long hours in a service but having daily access to a service. And that is crucially important – particularly from the age of two onwards,” says the director of Start Strong, Ciairín de Buis.
The introduction of the free pre-school year in January 2010 was a big step forward and it is a huge success, as reflected in the fact that parents are voting with their feet on this one, she says.
“It will have an enormous impact – anecdotally it already is, you have teachers talking about the difference it is already making.”
About 65,000 children – approximately 95 per cent of children in the year before school – are availing of the free pre-school hours, the Minister told the Dáil in July.
Last year the scheme cost approximately €166 million and that is expected to rise to €175 million in 2012, due to increased numbers of children in the relevant age group.
According to the review of expenditure published by her department before the last budget, a second free pre-school year for all children would cost in the region of €60 million in the first full year, although, it adds, that could vary depending on how the proposal was implemented.
HIGHER QUALIFIED STAFF ARE NEEDED IN THE PRE-SCHOOL YEAR
There is concern that children under the age of three are being overlooked as the focus of developing early childhood education has been on the free pre-school year.
The minimum qualification requirements that were introduced in 2010 apply only to leaders of groups operating under the free pre-school year scheme, which also offers increased funding for higher qualified staff.
“Unfortunately, a knock-on effect of that is the higher qualified staff can be pulled into the pre-school year, so those working with the under-threes can tend to have lower, if any, qualifications,” says the director of Start Strong, Ciairín de Buis. “What we are pushing for is that there needs to be minimal qualifications for all staff.”
Meanwhile, the cost of childcare in Ireland for the under-threes remains a huge issue. Unlike in many other European countries, there is no subsidised, high-quality childcare available after paid maternity leave is over. Parents receive no State assistance for the care and education of their child (other than child benefit and with the exception of those who qualify to use subsidised community creches) until the free pre-school year kicks in – and that is only for 15 hours a week, 38 weeks a year.