Addressing an Oireachtas children’s committee on the issue of affordable and quality childcare, Teresa Heeney, CEO of Early Childhood Ireland, said that if the scenario of day-long creche care for babies was “not what we want for our children” then “we need to be investing in one year of parental leave”.
Ciairín de Buis, director of Start Strong, an organisation which advocates for high-quality care as a right for children, said research showed that “for at least the first year of life, children do best when they are cared for at home by their parents”.
In this context, Ms de Buis said public money should support a parent to remain at home caring for a child, rather than subsidising childcare, for at least the first 12 months.
National Women’s Council of Ireland director Orla O’Connor said international evidence showed that providing leave from employment for parents in the first year of a child’s life “reaps benefits in the long term”.
Ms O’Connor said there was an opportunity in the forthcoming Family Leave Bill to provide statutory paid parental leave.
“Parental leave should be provided for six months on a paid basis through a social protection payment so that either parent can take it,” said Ms O’Connor. “We need to provide paid parental leave so that all parents can spend as much time as possible with their children in their first year of life.”
Ms O’Connor said the absence of paternity leave “sends a very strong message as to which parent should be the primary carer, reinforcing stereotypes”. She said two weeks’ paternity leave should be provided as separate entitlement for new fathers, rather than forcing them to use annual leave.
In addition to a system of paid leave which supports mothers and fathers to combine work and family life, Ms O’Connor said, there was a need for a publicly subsidised model of childcare “that is high-quality and universal”.
The committee heard that the free pre-school year, while welcome, was essentially introduced to help mothers return to the workplace, but the focus needed to shift to quality of care.
Ms de Buis said low investment in Ireland’s pre-school services was affecting quality. She said public spending in the area was “less than 0.2% GDP — well below the average OECD early years investment of 0.8% GDP”.
Ms de Buis was also critical of regulations used by HSE inspectors to examine early years services, saying they used “minimum standards” and are “focused on health and safety, rather than children’s learning and development”.
All the speakers called for greater public funding of early years childcare linked to quality of provision.
Maria Corbett, deputy chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, said the ongoing delay in the publication of the National Early Years Strategy, announced in 2012, was regrettable. She said it was also disappointing that the timeframe for introducing a second free pre-school year has been pushed out and could take until 2020 to be implemented.