The Government's plans to offer children a second year of free pre-school education should not go ahead before major problems with existing services are overcome, an Oireachtas inquiry has urged.
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin announced in October that the Early Childhood Care and Education scheme would be available to all children, between the ages of three and 5½, from September 2016.
Currently it is available for a 38-week period in one year to children aged between three years and two months and four years and seven months.
However, the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children said working conditions and quality issues in childcare centres must be addressed before such expansion.
Some centres offering the Government-backed care are only subsidised for the hours when children are present, which means that much of the planning and administration is being done on providers’ own time.
In addition, there is little scope for workers to increase their wages, even if they upskill. They are also paid only for the 38 weeks a year they work, meaning many resort to signing on the Live Register for the rest of the year.
Just 15 per cent of educators in the sector hold a Fetac level 7/8 qualification – much lower than the EU recommended 60 per cent, according to figures published in the report titled, “Affordable and Quality Childcare”.
“Once national standards are improved, extra services should be implemented incrementally based on a subsidised model linked to a parent’s ability to pay a maximum capped level.”
The report warns 50,000 children under the age of seven, are being cared for by 19,000 childminders who are unregulated and most of whom have not been Garda vetted.
The whole area of unregulated childcare needs to be “examined as a matter of priority”, says the report.
“A growing number of migrant women are working in the unregulated sector of childcare, in private homes [and] . . . there is also an increase in the pattern of exploitation and neglect experienced by au pairs.”
This is happening in a context where regulated childcare services are increasingly unaffordable, where
spends 0.2 per cent to 0.4 per cent of GDP on childcare services, compared with an EU average of 0.8 per cent and where the average couple spends 42 per cent of net income on childcare, compared with an EU average of 12.7 per cent of net income per couple.
Despite increased government investment in childcare since 2000 – some €425 million has been invested in the first decade of this century in creating more childcare places – the need for an affordable, quality childcare system is a “pressing social challenge”.
While childcare costs for parents in Ireland are typically about €800-€1,000 a month, in Norway government subsidies to providers ensure costs are capped at about €280 a month.
The report notes low enrolment rates among Traveller children in preschools “which suggest most Traveller children are entering primary school already at a great disadvantage”.
Some 16 recommendations are made, including the ECCE scheme run for 48 weeks a year to support families better, that State subsidies to providers increase and that low pay and conditions in the sector be addressed.