State subsidies for childcare must deliver for children not just employers

Care must be taken in drawing lessons from Quebec study linking subsidised childcare to crime rates

Good outcome: Sinead Mulhall reading with Marie Byrne, (right) to children as part of Chatter Matters at the Larkin Childcare Facility, Ballybough Preschool, Ballybough, Dublin. May 2014. Photograph; Dara Mac Donaill.

Good outcome: Sinead Mulhall reading with Marie Byrne, (right) to children as part of Chatter Matters at the Larkin Childcare Facility, Ballybough Preschool, Ballybough, Dublin. May 2014. Photograph; Dara Mac Donaill.

 

The Government is considering how it might best invest in childcare provision in 2016 and beyond and a call for significant increased investment is being made by many sectors including employers, child rights organisation and economic think tanks. We know that the investment choices must deliver good outcomes for children.

There has been considerable attention paid recently - including a column by Breda O’Brien last Saturday - to a study undertaken in Quebec which found that subsidised childcare was linked to increased crime rates and other adverse outcomes. The scheme met its objective in terms of getting mothers back to work, but failed in terms of outcomes for children.

The study has generated considerable comment, but before we draw lessons from Ireland we must first consider a number of factors.

Firstly the Quebec system was introduced too fast and not enough attention was paid to the infrastructure required and quality standards.

In addition the study itself is problematic because it looked at all children in Quebec who were eligible for day-care, rather than those who actually took up their place.

The study did not attempt to evaluate engagement by children, such as whether they attended or did not attend. Did those who attend go to centre based care or home based care? Was it in a private or not for profit setting?

It offered no insight into the number of hours children spent in a childcare setting. And most importantly it had no information about the quality of the settings that the children attended.

So the study drew conclusions based on exposure to a system of childcare rather than use of childcare by children and families, and the quality of those settings.

We absolutely need to understand how participation in childcare impacts on children. We need to learn about this in order to repeat good practices that deliver good outcomes and change practices which do not.

But, we will only learn this if we engage in longitudinal research about actual children attending childcare settings.

Other research indicates that the Quebec survey goes against a body of available research that proves the value of investing in children’s early childhood care and education, where only quality matters.

For example, we have a lot to learn from the Reggio Emilia model. This is a small town in northern Italy which is internationally recognised for its approach to and investment in early childhood education. A beacon town where, for over 50 years now, their early childhood educators, together with parents and the community have built a public system of early childhood education which has been recognised as a centre of innovation in Europe and as a point of reference, resource and inspiration to educators around the world. This system costs 14per cent of the municipal education budget annually. A political choice is made to maintain this investment over other choices.

In the Finnish system, if parents want their child to attend childcare, the municipality in which they live is obliged to provide them with a place irrespective of the parents’ situation. The system is heavily publicly funded, with maximum monthly parent fees based on income and family size and is typically around 14per cent of the cost.

Finnish parents view early childhood programmes as a place for the child to play, to learn social skills and make friends. They have the reassurance that their children are happy, engaged and cared for by well qualified professional staff. Early childhood teachers in Finland have bachelor’s degrees related to early childhood education and autonomy over the curriculum. Staff qualifications, not surprisingly, are widely acknowledged as the key indicator of quality in early childhood education.

Finally, parents can also choose to remain at home and 88per cent of families use a home care allowance, to some extent. The allowance is provided until the youngest child in the family turns 3 and the amount is related to income. It is most commonly used for about 7 months, with 16per cent of families using it for more than 24 months.

Or we can study earlier longitudinal studies, such as the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education in Europe, the Early Head Start Project in the U.S. and the Sydney Family Development Project in Australia?

From all the evidence, what we can see very clearly is that an effective system of early childhood education is one which must be constructed to afford choices for families but which is always of a sufficient quality to deliver good outcomes for children.

So let’s focus on what we do know, namely what characterises a quality childcare system. We can see clearly from the Scandinavian and Italian models that a quality system:

- Employs well trained educators, and pays them appropriately, recognising the importance of their work. In Ireland, that means that we must build a graduate led workforce in this sector

- Has good leadership, management and is well governed, ensuring that the system is focused on delivering good outcomes for children and has well known and understood standards

- Provides for Continuing Professional Development for all of the staff in the sector;

- Has a robust inspection and monitoring system, that is trusted by parents and by the professionals working in the system;

- Engages families and recognises their critical role as the primary educators of their children;

- Ensures that families have the opportunity to look after a child at home for at least the first year of life.

Budget 2016 must plot the path towards this high quality system which offers families support and choice. Most importantly it must allow children an opportunity to thrive and achieve their potential in a high quality setting. They deserve nothing less. They only get one childhood.

Teresa Heeney is CEO of Early Childhood Ireland

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