Any further cuts to child benefit to fund an extra year of pre-schooling would not be welcome without wider reform of the benefit system and improved quality in current provision, says children’s charity Barnardos.
The organisation’s chief executive Fergus Finlay was responding to suggestions by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn that a second year of the free early childhood education scheme be rolled out, but that the €150m- plus cost be taken out of the child benefit budget.
The minister insists it would have long-term benefits particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. He is in discussions with Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Social Protection Minister Joan Burton, who have both said they favour an extension of the early childhood scheme.
However, the source of the funding could prove difficult, as Mr Quinn suggests it might be diverted from the child benefit budget.
“We could probably get better outcomes for the future children, who become future adults, if a portion of that resource currently being spent would be focused into a second year of quality pre-school education,” the minister told RTÉ News.
But Mr Finlay said, while Barnardos supports extending the free early education scheme, child benefit was cut by €10 a month in the budget last December when it also emerged that one in nine children live in consistent poverty, an unacceptable and frightening level.
“I don’t think we have got the quality high enough in the first year of free pre-school yet, in terms of educational standards. There are 2,500 different practitioners, but there are no minimum standards and the Síolta framework for early childhood education operates in less than 200 of them,” he said.
“If there needs to be a reform of child benefit, we shouldn’t be taking lumps out of it to do other things without having a proper discussion about how the money could be used, not just for education but also for health and other children’s services,” he said.
Mr Finlay said he believes everything the Government does is concerned to some degree by insistence of the Troika on saving money and that this issue is no different.
The free scheme in place since 2010 was funded by scrapping the early childcare supplement, effectively giving parents the option of an early education place instead of the €1,000 previously available. Around 68,000 children, or 95% of those who are eligible, currently avail of it at a cost of around €175m this year.
Mr Quinn said an extra €5m investment is also needed to improve the quality of existing services, by ensuring leaders and trainers in pre-school settings have minimum early childhood education qualifications.
The chair of an expert group that reported to Ms Burton in February on reform of child benefit payments, which accounts for almost €3bn of the €20bn social welfare budget, has said she believes any savings should go towards childcare and support services.
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