Opinion: Ireland's early childhood education and care sector could benefit from a significant change in how it is operated

In 2013, an entire nation were left outraged following the RTÉ Investigates revelations of malpractice in the childcare sector. In the ensuing upheaval, assurances came from across the political spectrum that appropriate measures would have to be put in place to ensure consistent quality standards.

But six years on, the country has again been left in a state of shock and fury after another Investigations exposé by RTÉ into inappropriate and failing standards. In hindsight, there is abundant opportunity to point fingers and raise questions about the actions of individuals. We should all query why underperforming services are allowed to operate in a sector that is set up to look after the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society.

Footage from RTÉ Investigates's Crèches: Behind Closed Doors

However, there are bigger and more fundamentally serious questions to be asked. While most European countries have decided on what purpose their early childhood education and care systems should serve, the Irish state never made deliberate decisions in this regard. It is perhaps not surprising then, that the Irish annual spend (GDP) on childcare ranks lowest in Europe at approx. 0.3% (after deducting the spend on infant classes in primary schools). This leaves the burden of the world's highest childcare fees almost entirely in the lap of the users of the system, working families.

There is a shared understanding within the sector that childcare in Ireland mainly exists as a means to allow women return to work in order to meet state workforce requirements. This in contrast to the Nordic countries where early education is clearly defined to be a first step in lifelong learning and a contributor to the creation of social justice for all children. Their decision is also backed up through investment to the tune of 1.2 to 1.4% of GDP, propelling childcare into one of the hottest political topics at every election.

Such a level of funding ensures affordable fees, a professional payment scale for staff and full implementation of policy and programme, all of which are seriously lacking in the Irish system. If Ireland was to follow suit, the investment levels would have to raised from the current €1.5 billion. to nearly €5 billion per annum.

From RTÉ News, Aoife Hegarty from RTÉ Investigates reports in November 2019 that a number of senior members of a new management team at Hyde & Seek Childcare have left the company

In Ireland, organised childcare has really only been in existence since the late 1990s and both delivery and oversight remains fragmented. Through its different departments, the State has rolled out new policy directives in a more or less random and reactive fashion without appropriate consultation and implementation supports. Often, the policies override or replace similar measurements implemented only a year or two earlier making it very difficult for frontline staff to grasp concepts and the meaning behind.

The introduction of internationally acclaimed sector frameworks for quality in 2006 and curriculum in 2009 should have leveraged high quality service delivery. However, a failure to allocate resources to implement the frameworks means that there are widespread inconsistencies in their impact on the sector.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs' response to the fallout from RTÉ Investigates' "Behind closed doors" programme was to increase the capacity of Tusla to carry out more frequent inspections to catch rogue providers. The inspectorate itself has long been under persistent criticism from service providers, who describe the Tusla approach as heavy handed and unfit for purpose.

From RTÉ News, concerns were raised by parents about the Hyde & Seek Childcare company to two government ministers a year before the RTÉ Investigates' broadcast

There is no doubt that the early childhood education and care sector could benefit from a significant change in the way it is operated and the appointment of an Expert Group to develop a new funding model for the sector is a step in the right direction. However, a potential new funding model (pending its implementation and extent) is only one piece of a multi faceted challenge. Currently, there is an apparent mistrust between the people managing the sector and those working on the ground and this situation does not seem to abate.

Whilst the various departments are keen to sell the reality as encouraging and on a positive trajectory, early years' educators feel completely abandoned by the lack of meaningful support. For example, the Department points to an increase of 117% in sectoral spend over the past four years. However, the figure is coming from an exceptionally low base and very little funding has actually reached the place where it could do most impact, namely the up-skilling and training of staff, improved payment structures and reduction of childcare fees. Another obvious solution that could be considered is the consolidation of the many inspection regimes, which would be certain to generate significant savings and result in more effective use of already existing funds.

It is arguably time for politicians to take control of this area and ensure a high quality and appropriately designed and funded early childhood sector

 A more radical issue is to look at the money we spend on infant classes. There is an overwhelming body of research and theory supporting the argument that the four year old particularly does not benefit from being situated in a classroom setting, but would benefit from a more play-rich environment and more physical activity. The money saved here could be redirected into the early years' sector and contribute to a total overhaul of the current childcare system, as well as generating sustainability with regards to fees structures and professionalisation. It is arguably time for politicians to take control of this area within our educational system and ensure high quality delivery through an appropriately designed and funded early childhood sector. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ