Childcare industry needs to raise its game

Vast majority of providers put children first but there is still a need for improvement

This morning is like so many others. I am up at 6am preparing for the day ahead. There is porridge to be made and fruit to be cut, floors to be swept and washed, notebooks prepared and toys unpacked. Each morning is the same - there is a flurry of activity, unseen activity, before the tiny feet appear across the threshold. I’ve run my creche and Montessori school for 20 years like this. It is all I now know.

This environment didn’t happen by chance. There has been careful preparation on my part and ongoing evaluations on the Government’s part every day of every year to ensure the children are welcomed into a safe and protecting centre.

My business has been a part of my life here in rural Longford for a long time. It employs 10 people and has seen hundreds of children come through its door in the years it has been here.

We in the industry are as shocked as the general public because we would never let this happen in our own businesses or to our own children

This week after the RTÉ Primetime Investigates programme revealed disturbing practices at a chain of Hyde and Seek creches our actions are being scrutinised.

This is, of course, natural but we, the vast majority of childcare providers, want the nation to know that we always put the children first. They are the reason we are in this business; because we want to empower them, nurture them and provide them with a caring environment while their parents and caregivers are out at work.

We cannot allow one bad apple to cause the box to be thrown out. There are more than 4,000 childcare facilities throughout Ireland and I know that we are doing an excellent job, that we are following the code and regulations, and most importantly, that children - not profits - come first.

Serious non-compliance

Critical risks have been identified in 37 creches across the country where serious non-compliance with regulations were identified. It is clear now that some providers have skirted under the radar of Tusla and other regulatory bodies and for that we need action.

There needs to be more cross-compliance and uniformity between inspection bodies

We need to ensure that this can never happen again. We in the industry are as shocked as the general public because we would never let this happen in our own businesses or to our own children.

The childcare community have worked long and hard to achieve a model that caters for all the children of our society including the Aim model and the free pre-school initiative to name but a few. We have built the bedrock of this industry on good programmes at achieving good outcomes.

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone has supported our industry as a whole in these efforts and helped us to achieve great success and for that we thank her. The Minister’s shock at the programmes’s revelations was right and justified and we stand with her on this too.

But as the programme showed there are problems in our industry. Some operators are breaking rules and codes and putting the welfare of children at risk.

As a provider, I can see that there is a long road ahead that we need to do more to ensure that this never happens again.

It is clear that there needs to be a cap on the number of children in any one centre. Currently some buildings can take up to 150 children - in this we lose the close contact with children when they need it most.

Closer scrutiny of multiple childcare facilities is needed to ensure all their businesses are following the code. And there needs to be more cross-compliance and uniformity between inspection bodies.

The children are the future and although I am sad, I think perhaps some good can come from the terrible facts we were faced with

It is not all a one-way street. We, the industry, need to act ourselves, not just Government. We need to ensure that new graduates and entrants into the industry have more practical experience and training and that we the providers ourselves continue in our own life’s work to stay abreast of developments, new training and educational methods and business practices to ensure that we are the best providers we can be.

For those who propose to enter the industry, whether it be as a provider, teacher, carer or staff member, we must ensure that the central message of the child comes first.

It is a bright and clear morning today before the first children arrive. As I prepare the garden and the sensory walk, I want them to enjoy this bountiful weather. They are the future and although I am sad, I think perhaps some good can come from the terrible facts we were faced with this week and that no parent should have to wonder about the safety and the wellbeing of their child while in day care.

Margaret Connell is the owner of Teach Leanbh Montessori School and Day Care Centre in Ballinalee, Co Longford