Lack of investment in early years care will cost society dear

Opinion: Last night’s ‘Prime Time’ raises grave concerns over the quality of childcare in our ad hoc, poorly supported system of private provision

“Ireland’s investment in early childhood care and education continues to be low by international standards.” Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Ireland’s investment in early childhood care and education continues to be low by international standards.” Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

 

Last night’s RTÉ Prime Time programme showed instances of appalling practices in early years settings. The programme will raise grave concerns for families about the quality of early years services in Ireland and the potential impact on children’s wellbeing and development.

It is important to note that the clips used in last night’s programme were recordings from just three creches and that only examples of poor practice were shown. Nevertheless, the examples run contrary to all good practice and ought never to occur in any early years setting.

It is now well established that the periods of infancy and early childhood are critical for children’s future learning and development. Human relationships are the building blocks of healthy development and it is vital that young children are nurtured by warm, responsive carers with whom they can develop strong attachments. Numerous cost benefit analyses have shown that if we invest early and well in children, we maximise the potential of individuals and reap benefits for society.

Extensive childcare experience is a relatively new trend for children in Ireland, reflective of women’s increased participation in the workforce (though such participation trails behind many other European countries). Figures from the national longitudinal study of children Growing Up in Ireland show 38 per cent of nine-month-olds and 50 per cent of three-year-olds are in some form of regular non-parental childcare. Creches and centre-based care are the most popular option for three-year-olds and the second most popular for nine-month-olds.

The impact of childcare on children’s development has long been a source of debate and controversy. Research in other countries has shown the effects depend on different aspects of the experience: the quality of care, type of childcare, amount of time spent in childcare, stability of care arrangements, and the age-at-entry into childcare.

In addition, the effects of childcare can be mediated by other factors such as the child’s temperament, family income and the quality of parent-child relationships. However, it is the quality of care that matters most in determining whether childcare has a beneficial or detrimental impact on children’s development.

Childcare quality is typically assessed in two ways: the structural features of the setting – adult-to-child ratios, group size, and caregivers’ education level – and the actual day-to-day interactions the child experiences.

Eye contact
Concerned parents may get some sense of these interactions by considering the following questions: are caregivers generally in good spirits when interacting with my child? Do they smile often at my child and make frequent eye contact? Do they make positive physical contact by holding hands, giving pats on the back, giving cuddles? Do they respond to my child’s vocalisations? Do they take a positive approach even if my child is having trouble managing his/her emotions or behaviour?

Unfortunately many parents may be uncertain about the quality of interactions their children experience, as they have limited contact with staff at drop-off and pick-up times, or because of the movement and turnover of staff. Last night’s documentary showed staff members overwhelmed, stressed and ill-equipped in their role. However, it would be a mistake to attribute the problems witnessed solely to individual staff members.

The detrimental effects of stress on the ability to provide sensitive caregiving are well-documented. Quality childcare is dependent on qualified staff who have a good understanding of child development, are paid decent wages and enjoy good working conditions, including supports and resources. The problems shown on Prime Time are reflective of much broader failings in early years policy.

Ireland’s record in supporting and investing in children and their carers is poor. In 2008 a Unicef report placed Ireland joint bottom of the league out of 25 countries in relation to the quality and accessibility of early childhood care and education services.

Childcare provision in Ireland has developed on a supply and demand basis and is available mainly through private childcare centres or informal extended family member and community networks. Research shows that when childcare is only available through private providers the quality tends to be variable.

There have been some good developments over the past few years. In particular, the free preschool year represents a significant investment. However, as preschool provision is available for just three hours per day and only during school term time, it is not a solution for children whose parents are in paid employment.

Lack of investment
Ireland’s investment in early childhood care and education continues to be low by international standards. A recent analysis showed Scandinavian countries typically spend 1 per cent of GDP on early childhood care and education – Ireland’s investment is a fraction of this. Scandinavian parents have universal access to low cost, high quality childcare from the time maternity leave ends; Irish parents pay among the highest rates in the world for services of variable and often indeterminable quality.

The research evidence is unequivocal – we invest now in children or pay substantially more in the years to come for society’s failure to promote healthy early development. With increasing numbers of families availing of early years services, last night’s programme serves as a stark reminder there is a lot of work to be done.


Dr Catriona O’Toole is a psychologist at NUI Maynooth, specialising in children’s development. This year she will publish the first national investigation of the effects of childcare and family employment on the well-being of children in Ireland.

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