State finally admits that children under five do better at home

Minister of State at the Department of Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone, and Eira Visoka at the launch of ‘First 5’, Ireland’s first 10-year strategy for babies and children up to the age of five. Picture: Gareth Chaney

We’ve had two decades of relentless government propaganda for centre-based care from as early an age as possible, writes Victoria White.

This was not grounded in any research on possible benefits to children, but was about turbo-charging the workforce with mothers.

First Five, A Whole of Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and Their Families, which was published this week, is a sudden and radical shift. It may signal an important new beginning in the State’s relationship with children under the age of five.

It is based on research, some of it our own. What’s more, this research records what children themselves say about their own lives.

What young children value most, apparently, is time with their families.

‘First Five’ is the first Irish government policy document I have read which cites research that cautions against long hours in centre-based care for under-threes.

This research finding has been around for over 20 years now and has been replicated in the UK, the US, and in many other countries.

‘First Five’ admits that over 32 hours a week in centre-based care “has been linked to poor outcomes in language and cognitive development for children under three.” When I have made similar suggestions in print and on the broadcast media, I have reaped a whirlwind of accusations: I don’t want mammies to work outside the home, I think only mammies can mind children, I am to the right of Atilla the Hun, and on and on it goes.

That all ends with ‘First Five’. It suggests some very important policy shifts, which may begin the process of giving Irish children the best possible start.

The strategy is grounded in the knowledge that parental leave and flexible working are necessary, if small children are going to have the largely home-based early years they need.

This is a very significant change of direction, even if, in practice, the suggestions fall laughably short of what is necessary.

The document promises seven weeks of paid parental leave per parent by 2021. Coupled with 26 weeks’ paid maternity leave, it means 40 weeks of paid leave per couple, or 33 for a mother. In addition, a father can take two weeks’ paid paternity leave. This mish-mash of necessity, social engineering, and good intentions doesn’t even deliver a year’s paid leave.

I’d start with six months’ paid mother-only leave, and six months’ paid parental leave to be taken by either parent.

A mother can take 16 weeks’ unpaid maternity leave, which would bring a baby over the one-year line, but even if it were paid, it would not be enough. Babies don’t know when a year is up. Their crucial early development lasts three years, as is mentioned many times in ‘First Five’.

Ideally, they need predominantly home-based care for the first three years. This is why three years’ parental leave is granted in European countries as diverse as Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Finland, and Poland. Flexible working and reduced hours are a statutory right in many countries, such as Sweden, the Netherlands, and the UK. In Poland, parents of children with special needs have the right to part-time or flexible work.

In Ireland, you have a right to request a change in your work schedule when you return from parental leave, which is hardly a right at all. All your employer has to do is turn you down and you’re back at square one, except you may be minus square one in your employer’s eyes.

You could just about make a case for shaving parental leave down to two years.

When the UK government did an audit of international research into childcare in 2004, hoping to find that banging mothers into work was best for children, the research emphatically cautioned against centre-based care for under-twos.

So, why are we funding centre-based care for babies from six months? Well, you can argue parents are desperate for help. What’s causing that desperation?

Low pay and horrendous accommodation costs, for a start, as well as the lack of other reasonable options for the care of their babies.

‘First Five’ contains policy changes that will give parents better options.

They will be able to stay home for longer, though in half of all cases, the employers do not top up parental-leave pay and many parents can’t afford to take the leave. After that, they will, it seems have the option of a registered childminder.

‘First Five’ marks an important policy shift, which will require all minders of children to whom they are not related to register with Tusla.

This is fantastic news for the nation’s children. Parents in Ireland are fonder of childminders than they are of creches and research bears out their preference.

Childminders are also by far the best option for after-school care. The Government’s Action Plan on School-Age Childcare clearly records children’s own preference for going home to a minder than going to a centre-based service, which was preferred by only 1% of children.

It was the personality of the childminder that most attracted them to the service.

These older children are putting their finger here on the most essential element of any childcare service, be it provided by parent, minder, or creche: consistency.

Smallies need to see the same face day after day after day. That face has to respond to them with recognition and warmth.

This is not a luxury. It is the single most important thing, apart from food and shelter, that they need for their development.

As ‘First Five’ says, the parts of the baby’s brain concerned with emotions are developing in the first 18 months and that development may suffer if caregivers are not sufficiently “consistent or responsive.”

‘First Five’ has great recommendations on levels of training for care-givers in creches and pre-schools, saying the work-force should be graduate-led.

Training is not as important to my mind, however, as consistency, and no new rules are proposed here to provide that.

The preposterous child-to-staff ratios — 1:5 for under-twos, 1:6 for under threes, 1:8 for under sixes — are not improved. There is no requirement to appoint a ‘key worker’ for each child.

There are creches that provide this and more, but with pay low and staff turn-over running at 25% annually, we should be alarmed that the State could be funding creches in which babies and toddlers have too little time with beloved carers and lose them all the time.

We should be ashamed that, today, the State is still prepared to fund care situations which the research says will damage some babies and toddlers.

‘First Five’ lets in a shaft of light, but we must be prepared to see what the light shows.

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