Creches and pre-schools in some parts of the country have not been inspected by authorities for up to four years, despite hundreds of complaints from parents regarding standards across the sector.
Official regulations advise that all pre-school services should be inspected at least once a year, or more frequently in the case of creches where there are concerns over care or education.
The Health Service Executive, which is responsible for inspecting pre-school services, has confirmed that up to last month there had been no inspectors in five of its local health office areas.
Concern over the quality of pre-school services has grown following the airing of RTÉ's Prime Time programme last night, which highlighted the apparent mistreatment of children in three creches.
This included secretly filmed footage of children being man-handled or treated aggressively at nap-time; the strapping of children into their chairs outside for up to two hours at a time without stimulation; and the fabrication of diaries relating to children’s activities.
The three creches featured in the footage have either suspended some staff members or have launched internal investigations.
Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald – speaking prior to the broadcast – said that while footage of alleged mistreatment will cause concern for parents, the emphasis of policy makers was on providing a high-quality, early years education service.
“These allegations will throw doubt into every parent’s mind about whether quality is good enough . . . it is a terrible position for parents to be in,” she said.
“But there is more and more training, more and more emphasis on quality in the sector.”
Ms Fitzgerald said there would be scope to reform the inspection process once it is transferred to the new Child and Family Support Agency.
This new body will take over responsibility for children’s services from the HSE.
The HSE, meanwhile, defended its inspection regime and said about 60 per cent of all creches were inspected last year.
“Creches receive a visit from an inspector on average every 18 to 24 months,” it said in a statement.
“This compares favourably with other jurisdictions where visits take place, in the UK for example, every three to four years.”
But new figures released by the executive show that up until last month there were no inspectors in several parts of the country.
They include local health offices in Dublin south city, Sligo, Leitrim, Louth, Cavan and north Monaghan.
Latest official figures show there were a total of 243 investigations by inspectors into standards in creches due to concerns aired by parents or staff members last year.
The HSE said that the vast majority of the services inspected were found to have dedicated staff who were committed to providing a safe and nurturing environment for young children.