Oonagh Smyth, reporter on RTE’s “Breach of Trust” programme, which looked into standards in crèches, blogs after the launch of ‘Right From the Start’, the Report of the Expert Advisory Group on the Early Years Strategy.
The main highlight is the need for a massive increase in investment in Early Years (ie the 0-6s) almost doubling our current spend from .4% of GDP to .7% within in five years to bring us up to the OECD average. The Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald who was there to launch the report (with Toby Young, Start Strong and Fergus Finlay, Barnardos) did not indicate how this would be achieved. It all depends on how are our national finances go. The report which acknowledges the public concern about standards in the wake of the RTÉ Investigations Unit “Breach of Trust” programme says that we must extend and enhance quality early childhood care and education services. The Minister made clear that the much heralded extension, i.e. the second free pre-school year will not happen until at least 2015, after there has been an attempt to nationally roll out Aistear and Siolta, the existing Early Years curriculum and quality frameworks. She also mentioned the need for a quality audit of current childcare provision – as per a recommendation of the report - before the second free year could be introduced. This means there could be a considerable delay in seeing the much anticipated second free pre-school year. Parents will be disappointed.
No one on the panel there to launch the report could directly answer why the report did not tackle the problem of the existing high cost of childcare in this state. Toby Wolfe acknowledged that Irish parents pay the highest childcare crèche fees in Europe and stated that the report makes clear that there should be no further cost burden put upon them. The Minister said that we had one of the highest direct cash payments in Europe (the fourth highest) and that we cannot be a state that does both, ie has a high level of subsidisation and a high level of direct payment. She mentioned that the introduction of the Free Pre-school year has helped parents to date (roughly 3000 Euro per year) and its extension in the future will bring greater relief. However, the issue of tax relief to parents by way of tax credits was a thorny one and there was certainly no consensus on this at cabinet level.
The report also recommends the extension of paid parental leave, one year for maternity and two weeks for paternity. On the News@One prior to the launch the Minister made clear that she was behind this recommendation but added that the existing 26 weeks was hard won and there would have to be widespread consultation with business leaders before it would move to 52 weeks. This is something which would require huge political will to pull off. Another ‘wait and see.’