Second year of free preschool education will be of little real value

WHATEVER the new Cabinet dredges up to present as the buried treasure for which it is worth staying in Government, I hope it’s not a second year of free preschool education.

Second year of free preschool education will be of little real value

This is what is being bandied about by media commentators and there’s a ring of truth to it because it might satisfy both Labour’s need to look socially progressive and Fine Gael’s need to cut costs.

The rationale for the second year of free preschool was laid out in the Government’s recent document, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, and a commitment was made to bring it in before 2020. Despite the popularity of the free preschool year, which is availed of by over 90% of preschoolers, I cannot see the case for bringing in the second year now.

The one year’s free preschool education put in place in 2010 was essentially franchised out to private providers who were permitted to lower their staff ratios fro the sessional rate of one carer to 10 kids to one carer to 11 kids. With numbers from 12 to 22 there must be an assistant with the preschool leader and she or he must have a FETAC Level 5 qualification if there are 22 kids.

These are hardly impressive regulations and quality varies wildly. The creches which were the subject of the shocking Prime Time investigation last year are all providers of the free preschool year.

The reasons for bringing in a second year now would be political. It would be a quick-fix social benefit to which the Government parties could pint if they were asked what had changed. And it could save money and make money. As is pointed out in the Better Outcomes document, the free preschool year costs a third of the Early Childhood payment of €1,000 a year for every child under six which it replaced. And as then-Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, told the Seanad, “Childcare not only supports parents’ labour force participation, but it is in itself a labour activation measure. A second free preschool year would likely generate 4,000 to 5,000 new posts.”

What’s not to like? Let’s look at this from a child’s point of view. Where is the evidence that a second year of preschool is what our kids need right now? When are they to avail of the year? They will have to be two years old if they are to go to school at four, and the jury is out on whether this is too young for preschool or not, with child psychologist Penelope Leach coming down in favour of three years-plus. Kids’ rate of social development varies hugely. But one things’s for sure, two-year-olds need a different child to adult ratio than three-year-olds and even our skimpy regulations stipulate one carer to five kids under two and a half.

Or are our kids to go to school at five, not four? This might benefit kids because the ratios in the infants’ classes are appallingly high. But that does beg the question whether we should be looking to tackle those pupil-teacher ratios in the infants’ classes rather than introducing a year of schooling with far less qualified teachers for kids who may not be ready for it.

Understandably, lots of working parents are more than ready for it. Three hours in term time may not turn your career around but it may lower the cost of your childcare. But hang on a moment. We’re trying to escape from a history of building cheaply and badly, especially when the building blocks are people. When we consider early years education we should have nothing in mind except our children’s welfare; childcare, a substitute for parental care, is a very important subject too, but it is a different one.

Deliberately or not, the Government confuses the two. “Quality early years interventions” have become, in the mouths of ministers, years of preschool education, instead of multi-faceted supports to families starting long before children are even born. It’s as if the Government thinks they have to “intervene” between parents and their children.

And the economic benefits which are meant to accrue from taking young children out of their families and into preschool settings are simplified and exaggerated to a shocking degree. Better Outcomes quotes several sources for its claims of the multiplier effect of spending on preschool services, failing to point out that by far the greatest advantage is to disadvantaged children because the preschool service provides some of what has been wanting at home. And that home needs support. Even the OECD report which is cited in Better Outcomes cites, in turn, the Perry Preschool Project, which provided superb services to seriously disadvantaged kids and their families in the US from the 1960s.

What this makes clear is that the most important preschool service providers in any country are parents. Children’s lives will only be better and brighter if parents are supported. Our own National Economic and Social Forum report on early childhood education (2005), also cited in Better Outcomes, says that the benefits of preschool to relatively advantaged children were “likely to be modest, if any” because “the quality of childcare in the home is closer to the quality of childcare they receive in preschool.”

So home matters, then, and determines how much preschool matters. The very OECD report quoted on the importance of preschool services actually shows “the home learning environment” to be about twice as important to academic outcomes as preschool. And that is why the other programmes which Better Outcomes cites as examples of the astonishing multiplier effect of preschool services turn out to be multi-pronged attempts to support families, when you go past the footnotes.

The research from the UK which is quoted as showing that for every 1 (pound sterling) invested in “targeted interventions to catch problems early” between £7.60 and £9.20 worth of social value is generated refer to sophisticated family support projects, the East Dunbartonshire Family Service and the Caerphilly Family Intervention Team. And the benefit cited was the “social value” of “improved family relationships.”

Its authors will argue that far more than out-of-home preschool services are discussed, but this is where the emphasis lies.

This Government has already cut Child Benefit, cut pension entitlements for parents in the home and benefits for childminders and Frances Fitzgerald, who was the minister over-seeing this report, has suggested scrapping Child Benefit in favour of childcare services.

This would get more women into the workforce, some of them to mind other peoples’ children in free preschool classes. Maybe that would add up on a balance sheet, but it would not necessarily add up to better outcomes or brighter futures for our kids.

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