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Poor pay and conditions in the early childcare sector

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Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the progress to date in addressing the perceived poor pay and conditions in the early childcare sector; her views on whether in view of uncertainties and conditions of employment there is a lack of incentive for many to pursue careers in the sector or encouraging current staff to move from it; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

Deputy Katherine Zappone: The Pobal 2018 early years sector profile report indicates that more than 29,500 people now work in the childcare sector, an increase of 8% on the previous year. The proportion of staff with third-level qualifications is now 22%, up from 20% in 2017 and 18% in 2016. Some 94% of staff now have, at a minimum, a relevant qualification at level 5, an increase of 6% since 2015. The average wage in the sector has risen 2% in the past year to €12.17 per hour and the staff turnover rate has fallen from 28% to 25%. Although the Pobal data demonstrates a growing sector and some small progress on pay and turnover rates, much remains to be done to address the situation.
As the Deputy will be aware, I care passionately about this issue. My Department is not the employer and it does not pay the workers’ salaries. I cannot, therefore, set pay levels or determine working conditions. However, I have taken several measures to help the sector address how its workforce is valued. The Government has provided a 117% increase in investment in the sector over the past four budgets. I have used some of this funding to raise the early childhood care and education, ECCE, capitation rate by 7% this September, to make programme support payments in recognition of administrative work and to provide a higher rate of capitation payment for graduate-led preschool rooms. I hope that these measures, particularly the ECCE capitation increase, will have impacted on salaries when Pobal next reports in 2019.
Importantly in the medium and long term, First 5, a whole-of-Government ten-year strategy for babies, young children and their families which I recently published, sets out a number of critical commitments to address workforce conditions. These include a workforce development plan and a commitment to develop a new funding model that will leverage increased investment for improved quality. As I indicated in response to a previous question, I have called on the sector to use available State infrastructure to agree an appropriate salary scale through a sectoral employment order.

Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: I thank the Minister. We have previously discussed these issues and the Minister outlined the steps regarding services being encouraged to use the additional funding to support the pay and conditions of workers. The reality is that there are difficulties in sourcing staff. A turnover rate of 25% is quite high. We know how vital the staff are. I acknowledge the improvement in staff qualifications because that skill set is important in providing a service for children, which gives them a good grounding before they move to primary school.
A couple of months ago I met providers and staff in Buswell’s Hotel who outlined the difficulties and challenges they face. Their passion and care for their work was obvious. One factor highlighted was that many staff who improve their qualifications then undertake a graduate programmes in primary school teaching, leading to the loss of valuable skill sets in the early childhood care sector.
There is an underfunding of childcare which the Minister is trying to address. The spending on childcare in Ireland is 0.1% of GDP whereas the European average is 0.8%. The staff in the sector feel undervalued.

Deputy Katherine Zappone: It is important that these issues are raised. They are the basis of my motivation to continue to seek increases in the development of the infrastructure, particularly as regards the professionals who work in the sector. I have outlined in response to this and other questions that in the context of the operative funding model we only have a certain amount of power or potential to make those changes. My main suggestions towards achieving a quantum leap are the implementation of a sectoral employment order and the development of a new public funding model.
My Department has had several discussions with trade union representatives. We understand that the “Big Start” campaign has increased SIPTU membership but it remains significantly less than is required for it to be accepted as an organisation representative of employees. There has been much discussion on an employers’ representative group but nothing has been agreed. This needs to happen. It would be helpful. Such collective representation is why other professions are able to improve their pay and working conditions.
A subgroup of the early years forum addresses the issue of professionalisation. The members of the forum will continue to participate in work on the new vision for a public funding model laid out in First 5.

Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: The childcare barometer of public attitudes to early years care and education published in 2018 indicates that 75% of respondents agreed that those working in the early childcare profession are as important as educators of children aged over five. Some 56% of respondents thought them professionals. However, staff feel undervalued and they do not perceive that working in the sector is a good job.
I refer to the particular difficulties experienced by childcare services in north inner city Dublin in respect of the feuds, drug dealing and intimidation in the area. Some young children experience such issues every day, some within their families and others in their community.
The Minister previously stated that an independent review of the cost of delivering childcare was being carried out. When will it be available?

Deputy Katherine Zappone: I do not have an exact date for the publication of the review. A draft has been submitted which is being compared against independent data. I expect that it will be published early in the new year.
I hope that the new funding model we are trying to develop will address some of the questions and concerns of the professionals referred to by the Deputy. We want to develop an enhanced contract whereby settings are funded to meet certain quality indicators over and above the affordable childcare scheme or universal preschool programme contracts. Those may include minimum qualifications for room leaders and assistants for children of all ages. The model would also provide for maximum fee levels for parents, minimum qualification or experience levels for managers and a restatement of the role of managers including in regard to the staff-child ratio. Overall, it proposes that if more quality is delivered, more resources will be provided.

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