Grainne McKenna: Government must cherish and support all children equally

Investment in childhood education must remain a central priority in any programme for government negotiations, writes Grainne McKenna

Grainne McKenna: Government must cherish and support all children equally

As an Assistant Professor on the Bachelor of Early Childhood Education at DCU Institute of Education, I instil in our students, the far-reaching benefits of high-quality education and care for our youngest citizens.

Well educated, well-trained professionals are the critical factor in supporting favourable cognitive and social outcomes for children.

While our students are committed to enriching children’s earliest educational experiences, their enthusiasm, skills and expertise in working with children from birth up to six years old needs to be encouraged and sustained with continued investment, support and recognition of early childhood professionals.

Our students marched alongside an estimated 30,000 concerned early childhood educators, parents and citizens to highlight the need for continued government investment. This is essential in order to improve the affordability of early childhood education and care, while ensuring those entrusted with this responsibility are socially valued and paid fairly.

As one of the dominant issues this general election cycle, we are hopeful that investment in childhood education remains a central priority in the programme for government negotiations.

The Children’s Rights Alliance’s Report Card 2020, an annual publication that grades the Government’s performance on children’s rights is being published today. The report outlines specific actions the next Government must take to make this a programme for government that works for children and families. This must reflect the individual and societal benefits of high-quality early childhood experiences.

Ireland has one of the highest costs of childcare in all of Europe, along with the Netherlands and Switzerland. One thing we all have in common, is the fact that there is no regulation of fees paid by parents. In Norway, the monthly cost of childcare is capped at €280 for families, with the remainder of cost subsidised by the Government. In contrast, in urban areas of Ireland, parents can expect to pay a monthly fee in excess of €1,000 per month for full-day care for one child.

Despite these high costs, the rates of pay for early childhood educators remain low. The average hourly rate for an early childhood educator working with children is €11.46, significantly below the living wage.

Last year marked a significant development in the early childhood sector; the commencement of the National Childcare Scheme (NCS). The Scheme is intended to replace childcare subsidies currently in place and provide a streamlined, single-subsidy system to make things easier for parents and for providers.

It became immediately clear, however, that this would not be the case for all families, with lone parents facing increased costs of up to €350 per month to avail of childcare. In order to prevent this, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katharine Zappone secured additional funding to allow these families to avail of their current schemes until September 2021, but the impact of the NCS on lone-parent families and those experiencing unemployment remains uncertain.

The next Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the next Government have an opportunity to cherish all Ireland’s children equally by prioritising investment to strengthen the supports made available to families, particularly those most at risk of poverty.

The Children’s Rights Alliance is calling on the next Government to introduce a cap on fees to provide certainty and ensure affordability for parents.

The European Child Guarantee is another avenue the Irish Government can pursue to ensure that every child has access to supports they deserve. The Guarantee centres on free access to quality early childhood care and education, as well as adequate housing, healthcare and nutrition for every child in poverty.

With the European Commission in its final stages of establishing the Guarantee, the next Government should be poised to implement it as a means to address the heavy burden of childcare costs on families living in, and at risk, of poverty. The next government will need to bring focus back on the rights of children and to a quality early years education sector. The programme for government must recognise that the most important thing for children in early years’ education are the professionals working with them. Low pay and the lack of recognition have to be addressed in the next Programme for Government.

To this end, the next government needs to make sure that children have the option to attend programmes and centres throughout Ireland. The outgoing Government has laid the foundations for reform and for national programmes. The next Government must deliver them.

Grainne McKenna is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Care and Education at DCU Institute of Education. She is speaking at the launch of the Report Card 2020, prepared by the Children’s Rights Alliance, an umbrella organisation of over 100 members working together to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child. The Report Card 2020 is available on the Children’s Rights Alliance website, www.childrensrights.ie.

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