Second free pre-school year will only be introduced after quality of care is improved, says Minister

Report calls for regulation of childminders

Fergus Finlay, CEO of Barnardos, Dr Eilis Hennessy of UCD, chairwoman  of the expert advisory group on the early-years strategy, Frances Fitzgerald,  Minister for Children, and Toby Wolfe of Start Strong at the launch of Right from the Start.  Photograph: Alan Betson /THE IRISH TIMES

Fergus Finlay, CEO of Barnardos, Dr Eilis Hennessy of UCD, chairwoman of the expert advisory group on the early-years strategy, Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Children, and Toby Wolfe of Start Strong at the launch of Right from the Start. Photograph: Alan Betson /THE IRISH TIMES

Fri, Oct 11, 2013, 01:00



A second free pre-school year is on the way but not until at least 2015, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said yesterday.

She said the additional free year could only come after standards of quality in early-years care are improved.

“This year we will be making a start on that mentoring and training...and then we can move towards the establishment of a second year.

“I will be reviewing this time next year how we have done on the quality inputs over this coming year, and then obviously other decisions about the second year will follow from that.

“Well within the lifetime of the recommendations we should certainly have a second year.”

She was speaking at the launch of Right from the Start, an expert advisory group report drawn up to inform the Government’s new early-years strategy over the next five years or so.

Group member Toby Wolfe, of the Start Strong coalition of children’s groups, said the quality of early care and education services was “very variable and the lack of quality assurance is unacceptable”.

Professional qualifications
He said the group had particular concerns about training, professional qualifications and leadership in many early-care services.

“We’re concerned about the low wages and lack of career development opportunities for those working in the sector...that is why the expert advisory group argues that quality standards should be raised before the extension of free pre-school provision,” said Mr Wolfe.

As highlighted in this newspaper recently, the report calls for increased investment in early care and education, rising from the current 0.4 per cent of GDP to 0.7 per cent within five years, and 1 per cent within 10 years.

It says that within five years parents should be entitled to one year’s paid leave after the birth of each child, and fathers should receive two week’s paid paternity leave.

“Research evidence on children’s early development indicates that children do best in their first year with the care and attention of a loving adult,” Mr Wolfe said. “Paid parental leave is a way of making this possible.”

He said the advisory group was “particularly concerned about the almost complete absence of regulation and support for home-based childminders, even though childminding remains one of the most widespread forms of childcare in Ireland today”.

Only 1 per cent of non-relative childminders were regulated and subject to inspection.

“Childminding is regulated in other countries. We call on the Government to regulate it here.”

Public health nurses
The report calls for the reorganisation of the public health nursing service so that public health nurses form the core of a child health workforce.

Asked if she would have the budget to implement the recommendations, Ms Fitzgerald said it was a five-year programme and it was very important that investment continued in this age group.

“If you make the investment in the early year you are effectively saving money in the later years.”