Creche crisis: the staff speak

Childcare work is hugely demanding and highly important, but it’s undervalued and underpaid. Why?

Childcare matters: Part of the reason the work is so undervalued is because of the ad-hoc way it grew up, almost overnight. Photograph: Thinkstock

Childcare matters: Part of the reason the work is so undervalued is because of the ad-hoc way it grew up, almost overnight. Photograph: Thinkstock


It is demanding work that requires rare skill and reservoirs of compassion. It can provide children with lifelong skills to succeed at school during the most important stage of their development. Yet childcare workers’ wages are poor, their career prospects are dismal and their status is lowly. We expect so much of our childcare system, but this week a grim picture of a poorly regulated, deeply flawed and occasionally dangerous child-minding service emerged.

The shocking images shown on RTÉ’s Prime Time documentary Breach of Trust on Tuesday showed children in creches being manhandled, neglected and pushed on to mattresses. The staff appeared stressed, badly trained and poorly managed.

Nobody claimed this week that abuse or mistreatment was endemic across creches and preschools. A great many are of very high quality and staffed by caring and highly skilled professionals who play crucial roles in helping children reach their potential.

But the fact that JobBridge, the State’s internship programme, is littered with dozens of examples of childcare providers seeking staff, often with no need for qualification, to work for €50 on top of their dole payments seems to speak volumes about the dysfunction at the heart of the service.

How did it come to this? After all, this is a country that recently endorsed a referendum to strengthen children’s rights and has expressed revulsion at the historic abuse of young people. So how could the same country tolerate a childcare system notable for its underpaid staff, weak enforcement of standards and light-touch inspection regime?

Invisible profession
Tim Moran, a childcare worker with 20 years’ experience, went to work at the Wallaroo Playschool in Cork this week asking himself some of these questions. “Part of the problem, I think, is that we’re an invisible profession,” says Moran. “It’s not really seen as a skilled profession by many people, even some childcare workers themselves. It’s still regarded as child-minding.”

The system is backwards, he says: teachers at third level are paid the most while many in childcare scrape by on pay packets that are close to the minimum wage of €8.65 an hour. For the best qualified, even those with degrees, pay typically rises to about €14 or €15 an hour.

“You have to make your peace with the low pay. Everyone who works in childcare makes sacrifices so they can stay in a job they love. Many good people don’t stay in childcare, and we’re hemorrhaging a lot of skills as a result,” says Moran.

“I’ve been lucky to work in places where the commitment to in-house training and continuous professional development has been very strong,” says Moran. “I think that’s why I’m still in this undersupported, under-respected and underpaid field now that I’m well into my 50s.”

He says the conditions that created the behaviour by the childcare workers seen in the RTÉ programme could exist in centres all over the country. But Moran also says many childcare providers are of a high quality and have a culture of consultation, reflection and openness.

Although he is happy to work in the sector, it simply doesn’t pay for others with high qualifications. Many end up going into the primary sector, which at least has a career path and a pay scale. As a result, staff turnover is high in many creches.

Jennifer, who declines to give her full name, left the sector recently. She had extensive experience as a Montessori teacher and ran her own nursery, as well as having worked in creches in the UK.

After a break of more than a decade and a half, during which she raised her children, she recently went back to work at a childcare centre. She didn’t last long. “I was spending hours on the laptop the evening beforehand, preparing for tuition – unpaid, of course. Then I was working from very early in the morning until the afternoon. All of that was for €10 an hour. It just didn’t pay.”

Evelyn Reilly, a childcare worker, runs Kids@Play in Maynooth and Kilcock, and prides herself on the quality of the service she provides. She says she would love to be able to pay her childcare workers higher wages, but profits are minimal.

As a result, Reilly says wages of between €9 and €14 an hour are the going rate. Most income goes on staff costs, she says, with little left over at the end of the day.

“There’s no funding provided in the free preschool year for holidays or bank holidays, so I have to let my qualified staff go in the summer,” she says. “Then I hope I can rehire them in September. It’s very hard to professionalise an industry in that kind of environment.”

She says staff often end up paying for their own qualifications or degrees – frequently at a cost of thousands of euro – with no guarantee of a significant pay increase or career path at the end of it. Government support would help to make it an attractive profession, but she has seen few meaningful signs of this.

Georga Dowling, who set up Child’s Play, an early-education centre in Newbridge, Co Kildare, believes part of the reason the work is so undervalued is because of the ad-hoc way it grew up, almost overnight.

All the staff at her facility, which provides services for babies, wobblers, toddlers and after-schoolers, are qualified, and some have degrees. This is the exception rather than the rule with childcare providers. One in four childcare workers doesn’t have a basic qualification.

“Childcare services are still in their infancy here,” says Dowling. “They started off in people’s living rooms, then moved into purpose-built accommodation. People ended up setting up training courses themselves, because no one else was going to do it.”

When the Government got interested, she says, it was in bricks and mortar rather than in placing any meaningful emphasis on quality. Even recently, the free preschool year hasn’t necessarily had the intended effect of stimulating quality services.

“It’s a fantastic idea, the free preschool year, because it provides services to children in families at all income levels. But the focus has been on free childcare places rather than on quality. The sector has mushroomed, even during the downturn, but the Government doesn’t have the systems in place to ensure it is a quality system.”

Although most criticism of standards has been targeted at for-profit childcare chains, she says there are question marks over many new small-scale services that have sprung up. “Some people are saying, ‘Well, I have two children [of my own]. If I get eight more, I can just set up a service here in my living room’.”

Eight years have passed since a State think tank issued a landmark report on childcare services. At the time women were joining the workforce, the economy was booming and the government was awash with money. Millions of euro was being poured into capital grants and tax incentives to provide tens of thousands of badly needed childcare places. Almost overnight the sector doubled in size.

Given the vital social and economic role of childcare, the National Economic and Social Forum set out a framework for the development of high-quality early-childhood care and education. It drew on the findings of a long-term US study that followed children who participated in quality preschools from the 1960s onwards.

The conclusions were impressive: it found that quality preschool programmes for young children living in poverty contributed hugely to their intellectual and social development in childhood. It also helped lead to success at school, better economic performance and reduced levels of crime in adulthood.

A cost-benefit analysis of the study estimated that if similar services were rolled out across Ireland every €1 invested in early-childhood education would yield a return of more than €7.

“I would say, hand on heart, it was one of the best reports I have seen on childcare, before or since. I’m still proud of it,” says Dr Maureen Gaffney, the psychologist, who was chairwoman of the National Economic and Social Forum at the time. “We had all the relevant partners involved and made a tight list of well-argued, evidence-based recommendations.”

They included establishing minimum standards for all childcare workers, a system of registration for creches, a national pay scale for qualified tutors and free quality preschool places.

Gaffney was invited to speak at a Fianna Fáil think-in in Cavan a few months after the report was published. She recalls delivering a passionate argument to convince ministers and TDs to implement the findings. It received a rapturous response.

Shortly after the address she spoke with a senior member of the government. “He said to me, ‘It’s really fantastic. But, you know, we’d love to do it, but we have to remember the stay-at-home lobby.’ ”

For Gaffney the response went to the heart of why there has been such government inaction on the issue over the years. “It comes down to that clause in the Constitution about the mother’s role,” she says. “There’s still a mindset that when it comes to children it’s just a women’s issue. It’s their responsibility. It’s up to them to make other arrangements; don’t ask us to do anything. If we have to, we’ll help build a few creches that you can park your children in.

“Governments come in – and remember all the main political parties are to blame – with their own narrow agenda. There isn’t a culture of long-term, sustainable policymaking . . . There is no excuse for inaction on these issues. None. It’s not as if successive governments didn’t know about the importance of these issues. The country was awash with money at the time.”

In the end the government introduced a €1,000 monthly “childcare supplement” to be paid to all parents of under-fives. It was a popular quick-fix solution, but most experts regarded it as wasted expenditure. When the economic downturn hit, a few years later, the supplement was axed and replaced with a free preschool year that, ironically, was much cheaper to provide.

Gaffney says the current Coalition partners can’t be spared criticism simply because of the dire financial straits they face. “How much does it cost to put in a registration system for childcare services rather than just to inform the HSE that you’re setting up a creche? How much does it cost to have minimum qualifications for childcare workers? The excuse beforehand was that we were a rapidily developing economy. Now it’s because of austerity. We have only ourselves to blame.”

John Byrne, a social-policy lecturer and former childcare worker, agrees, for the most part. He believes we have missed an opportunity to build a State-run preschool service that parents could have real confidence in. Big business and childcare don’t mix well, he says.

“We live in a right-wing culture that overwhelmingly elected a centre-right party. What we saw on RTÉ during the week is arguably a quality of care that was compromised in the name of profit, and that is the problem with the privatisation of care.”

Not everyone agrees. Regina Bushell is the founder of Grovelands Childcare, a private operator that provides early-years education to about 500 children at three centres, in Athlone, Mullingar and Tullamore. She argues that private operators are able to provide high-quality services but that it requires strong management and a culture of high standards.

“We were horrified to see those images. It tough for those of us who really care about what we do. Morale has been low this week. We have full compliance with all the regulations and received awards for our quality of care for eight years in a row . . . If something positive comes out of this, it will be that this is a catalyst for proper provision of childcare.”

Care scandals
If we have learned anything from care scandals in areas such as nursing-home care, it’s that where there’s an absence of trained staff, a lack of enforcement of standards and a weak inspection regime, mistreatment can flourish.

This week, as a media storm raged over the childcare issue, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald announced a flurry of measures to plug gaps in standards and inspection. She pledged new laws to strengthen sanctions against poor care providers, as well as to make inspection reports publicly available within weeks, and said that contracts for State funding could be terminated for serious noncompliance with childcare standards.

But Fitzgerald’s reform plans don’t even touch even on the most common form of childcare: child-minding. Childminders are indviduals who mind up to four children in their own home, without being subject to any regulation, mandatory training or Garda clearance. Yet an estimated 80,000 children are placed with childminders every working day.

Early Childhood Ireland, the main representative group for the sector, welcomes the promises but says much more concrete action and State support are needed. “This all makes sense and is well overdue,” says Irene Gunning, the organisation’s chief executive.

“However, the reality is that quality costs, and these key actions require investment. The focus must now switch to targets, timelines and investment to ignite this preschool-quality agenda.”

She says most people working in the sector still have little access to training and are paid only for the hours they spend working with children. There is no funding for the kind of planning needed for quality services.

“Quality is a system-wide, collective responsibility at the policy and practice levels. Services for children and families are dependent on systems that are robust, responsive and open,” she says.

“If we really believe as a society that childcare is the most important job in the world, we’ve got to put our money where our mouth is and start paying those working in the sector properly.”

Care workers: The staff we don’t care about

Poor pay isn’t confined to creches or preschools. Care workers who support vulnerable people such as children, people with disabilities and older people tend to be poorly paid, with salaries close to the minimum wage.

Paul Bell, Siptu’s health-division
organiser, says this is often due to light-touch or nonexistent regulations regarding minimum qualifications and standards for employees.

“We have advocated the creation of a registry for any trained professional who is working with children, older people or those with disabilities,” he says.

“We have this in nursing and it’s being established for social workers. In the absence of this, many employers will simply pay whatever they can get away with.”

In the area of disability, for example, care workers in private companies who help vulnerable people live independently, or assist with basic care needs, are often on wages of between €8.65 and €10 an hour. Part of the reason, according to those in the sector, is the lack of any enforceable regulations or minimum qualifications required to work in the private sector.

In the larger disability organisations, it is a different story. Care staff tend to nurses trained in psychiatry or intellectual disability. A HSE report indicates that before public-sector pay cuts nurses were earning about €54,000, on average, compared with about €22,000 in the UK.

In nursing homes there is a similar pattern. Many care staff in private nursing homes earn little more than the minimum wage, according to employees, often without extra pay for unsocial hours. Staff nurses, however, can expect to earn anything from €20,000.

There are minimum qualifications required of all staff, although this often isn’t the case in related areas such as home-help services.

In public nursing homes, nursing-home assistants are unionised and tend to earn between €28,000 and €32,000 a year.

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