Parents of preschool kids will have their voices heard at long last
The role of the National Parents Council is being expanded so parents will have a say in shaping policy
In European terms, Ireland has come very late to investing in the care and education of children under four.
Step through the door of your local creche or pre-school centre and you are walking into an uneasy relationship between the private sector and the State.
In the middle are parents who, in theory, have all the power of consumers in using a private service.
In practice, it’s a lot more complicated than that when the best interests of children are at stake.
Many providers also feel caught between a State system that most of them sign up to deliver at least parts of, despite not receiving what they believe is adequate recompense, and parents who resent paying high childcare bills so that they can go out to work.
In this fraught scenario, it’s good news that parents with children in early childhood care and education are going to have a collective voice for the first time through an expansion of the role of the National Parents Council (Primary). A focus for this kind of dedicated support and advocacy has been sorely lacking in what is a rapidly evolving sector.
In European terms, Ireland has come very late to investing in the care and education of children under four. There is a lot of change going on and it’s important that parents have a say in shaping policy and giving feedback.
From this September, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) is extending the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme, known as the free pre-school programme, to two years. So far it has a take-up of more than 117,000 children.
Meanwhile, the “More Affordable Childcare Scheme” (MACS) was introduced last September but that is only an interim measure until the IT system and necessary legislation can be sorted out to implement the “Affordable Childcare Scheme”. That’s expected to be launched by September 2019 but the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone, is yet to confirm a timeline.
The DCYA is funding the expansion of the National Parents’ Council (NPC) into early years education. This “key new partnership”, says the Minister, “will provide a clear pathway for parents with children in pre-schools, creches and with childminders to have their voices heard at the highest level. I feel it represents a significant, progressive step forward.”
A spokesman for the Minister points out that the Early Years Forum, which she set up in October 2016 “for discussion on the progression of her agenda to achieve a high quality, accessible, affordable childcare system in Ireland”, has included “organisations that come into contact with parents or represent particular groups of parents such as lone parents”. However, “it was felt that it would be beneficial to establish a strong partnership with an organisation that could reach out to parents and put forward their views as part of progressing this agenda”.
The initial focus will be on parents using the ECCE scheme, says the NPC’s chief executive, Áine Lynch. Straight away the council is to run parents’ workshops around the country this summer on managing the transition between pre-school and primary school.
“There is a lot of evidence to show that when transitions are managed well, children do much better.”
The NPC helpline will start dealing with queries on pre-school issues from September. Lynch is also keen to establish a network of parents within the early years sector and would encourage people to get in touch and register.
“If you are going to represent their voice, you have to start hearing what they have to say,” she points out.
The NPC has a primary school database of about 9,500 “which is very useful to us in terms of trying to do surveys, consult and get a sense of what parents are experiencing”. She hopes to do something similar with early years.
Parents’ voices are important because they have a very different perspective to the providers. “We need to hear not just how it is to provide the service but how it is to experience it. The [More] Affordable Childcare Scheme is an example of this but I think there are lots of other examples.”
The high level of engagement and influence the NPC has at primary school level has been built up over 35 years, so it is not going to be able to mirror that in this sector right away, she cautions.
Teresa Heeney, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland, which represents 3,800 members providing childcare, welcomes the NPC’s new role. “Any endeavour to bring parents into the realm of policy makers is a good thing.
“I think it’s important that the initiative has very clear terms of reference and is evaluated in order to learn from it as we go along,” she continues, pointing out that it is a very different sector to that of primary school education, with nearly all providers being non-statutory.
Operators of pre-school services also probably spend far more time with parents than in primary school or secondary school. This needs to be a very positive relationship, recognising their shared roles around the care and education of these young children, Heeney says.
That relationship takes time – time that a lot of operators and parents may not have. But it is a key indicator of quality in early childhood education, she explains. “It is something we need to build in more time for.”
Lynch knows that many providers talk to parents daily and, in many cases, build up excellent relationships.
“I wouldn’t dispute that; it’s really important that we as the NPC work closely with them as well, as we do with teachers.
“It is not that they don’t hear what parents are saying, they do, but there is a different way you might talk to somebody who is independently listening to you, just to get your perspective, rather than the nuanced relationship between a provider and a user.”
While acknowledging the differences between early childhood and primary education structures, Lynch also sees parallels.
“They are private providers but now, with two years of the ECCE scheme, they are State-funded. When we look at primary schools, there’s the patron system and then they are State-funded.”
It was the private sector which responded first to the need for early years care and education, and services are so entrenched there, it is difficult, she says, to change that system. The State, not unlike in the school sector decades ago, is developing funding of the system rather than owning it.
As to whether DCYA funding might compromise the independence of NPC’s advocacy, Lynch points out that, on the primary school side, it is a partnership with the Department of Education.
“Our role is to bring the parents’ voice into policy making – that’s what we’re funded to do, that’s what it’s accepted we do. It hasn’t affected us in the past.” While that voice may not always support policy, there is professionalism and mutual respect in the way the partnership works.
“There will,” she adds, “always be things we agree on and we don’t agree on.”