No sign of a radical overhaul of creche standards

Opinion: A year on from ‘Prime Time’ programme, there has been no significant increase in inspections

‘Government has not dealt with the fundamental problems in the system that led to the shocking practices revealed by the Prime Time programme.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Government has not dealt with the fundamental problems in the system that led to the shocking practices revealed by the Prime Time programme.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Thu, Jul 3, 2014, 00:01

It is one year since the screening of the RTÉ Prime Time programme, A Breach of Trust, which raised concerns about the quality of care experienced by children in creches. With about 100,000 children attending preschool services in Ireland, can their parents now be confident they are being looked after properly? Is the State ensuring the highest-quality standards apply?

In response to the programme, the then minister for children and youth affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, outlined a number of changes to inspection and training as part of a quality-improvement agenda.

She promised inspection reports would be published on the web. While this is desirable, publishing old inspection reports has no direct impact on quality. She also promised to increase inspectors from the current 39 covering 4,500 services (an inadequate provision resulting in some areas having no inspections). There has been no significant increase in inspections.

Qualifications deficit

Pre-school inspectors are not qualified in early childhood care and education – they are primarily public health nurses. But there are no plans to change the qualifications of preschool inspectors to incorporate expertise in working in creches and with young children.

The inspection regime has failed to ensure quality of provision. The new Child and Family Agency (Tusla) has taken over responsibility for the inspection of preschool facilities from the Health Service Executive. It needs to reform the inspection service if there is to be any impact on quality.

The minister also committed to requiring all early years staff to have a level-five qualification in childcare. This is an advance over the disgraceful situation whereby many of the staff in early years settings have no qualifications. It is, however, setting the bar very low. While a level-five qualification may look reasonable on paper, it is currently delivered by multiple providers, of varying quality and limited accountability, with some programmes solely online.

Students submit written exercises and there is no guarantee the work is their own; there is no system of external evaluation; and there is no mandated supervised placement of students. People who may be unsuited to working with young children can get the basic qualification without observation of their direct practice.

Many European countries recognise early childhood care and education as the first stage of an integrated education system from babyhood through to secondary school. There is a need for Ireland to follow international best practice and move towards a graduate-led workforce. The education and training of those working in early childhood care and education need to be thoroughly reviewed, revised and upgraded by external experts. The promised investment of €3.9 million over 2013-2015 to upgrade the qualifications of existing staff to a minimum of level five is wholly insufficient.

While some State investment goes towards degree programmes, most graduates do not remain in the pre-school sector because the pay and prospects are abysmal. Adequate pay and recognition are essential planks in ensuring a good quality preschool service.

The high cost of childcare creates immense problems for all Irish parents. It causes financial stress, prevents parents from working and drives them into the unregulated world of paid childminders. The free preschool year is a step in the right direction – but it is not in fact a free year. It is a free 15 hours a week for 38 weeks where the staff are only paid for their contact time. How can one expect a quality service with such limited investment?

The State has no plans to subsidise creches so staff can be properly qualified, paid and motivated to provide compassionate care and skilled educational support.

The current model of early childhood care and education provision is not sustainable. We have been promised an early years strategy and there are moves to establish a national early years quality support service.

Investment required

However, the Government has not dealt with the fundamental problems that led to the practices revealed by Prime Time. Is the Government willing to bring about real improvement and investment? Early Childhood Ireland has called for an investment of €350 million, matching the money removed when the government withdrew the early childcare supplement in 2009. So far, the changes made by official bodies in response to the Prime Time revelations have been those that involve the easy gains.

Change is happening at a snail’s pace and, one year after Prime Time, there is no sign of the radical overhaul needed to ensure that children in Irish creches have the standard of care they need and deserve.

Sheila Greene is a fellow emeritus in Trinity College Dublin, and was professor of childhood research; Nóirín Hayes is a visiting professor at the school of education in TCD and was professor in DIT. They were both interviewed in the Prime Time programme

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