So, this brilliant RTÉ Investigates programme reveals frightening and cruel things happening to children in creches. We’re all horrified, and rightly so. We all thank goodness that RTÉ still produces programmes of such calibre, even if they’re telling us things we don’t want to know.
We’re not just horrified; we demand action. Ministers are door-stepped for their views. An emergency Oireachtas committee is convened. Tusla, the child protection agency, is summoned. The press gallery reports everything faithfully. Furrowed brows and highly experienced heads are deployed. What can we do about these terrible things that are happening to our children?
And after the great and the good, the wise and the wonderful, have cogitated for a day or two, the answer emerges. Finally, we have the solution for what we have suddenly realised must be a broken early years childcare system.
CCTV. Yep. Closed circuit television. It’s in all the headlines. Parents are interviewed about their experiences with the technology. The issue of privacy is pondered. And everyone agrees: CCTV is what we need.
Not to keep the premises safe from intruders.
Not to protect the valuable assets — high-quality toys and child-safe furniture, and all that stuff. No. We need CCTV to keep the children safe from the staff. I’m sorry, but I need to repeat that. We need CCTV to keep the children safe from the staff.
Even our Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, thinks it has to be considered (although I’m guessing he doesn’t want to be landed with the cost of it). But everyone else nods. That’s fixed, then. Let’s just install CCTV in all of Ireland’s creches, and that’s the problem sorted.
What? Really? Are we bonkers? Has it occurred to anyone to stop for a minute and think? If we have really built an early years education system, and a child care network, that needs a camera in every room to keep the children safe, what kind of a system is that?
We’re employing people to care for and develop our children when our children are at their most fragile, and we decide that we can only trust those people if we spy on them? How have we arrived at such a point of craziness? Is there any other childcare system in the world that is so distrusted by the people it’s supposed to serve?
It’s true, of course, that our system — and I’m going to oversimplify a bit, but not much — is unique. That’s because most countries in the OECD started developing early years education after the Second World War, and some of them even earlier. Not us. We believed that there was no such thing.
In Ireland, until children were ready to go to national school, they stayed with their mothers. At home. Where they belonged. And, more to the point, their mothers stayed with them. We were the last country in Europe to allow women to stay at work after they were married, and the last country in Europe to allow for equal pay for women when they were at work.
The Celtic Tiger changed all that — and changed it overnight. Mr Celtic Tiger himself, Charlie McCreevy, changed the tax code to ensure that women who stayed at home were penalised. That was because we needed them in the workplace. And into the workplace they went, in their tens of thousands.
But what to do with the children? That’s when we started to develop an early years system in a hurry. We started providing grants to thousands of childcare providers; some of them within the community, many in the private sector.
Now, there are about 4,000 different providers (and that’s not counting the childminders who do it from home). It may be the case that there are as many different providers of childcare in Ireland as there are in the rest of Europe put together (because in most other countries, it’s a local authority function, not a private sector function).
We gave them grants, but not a lot more, because our attitude could hardly have been more grudging. In the Celtic Tiger years, we set up a tiny State agency to develop standards and a curriculum. It was abolished the moment the economy turned sour. The Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education, as it was known, left behind a significant body of work, but early childhood development still doesn’t work to a mandatory curriculum.
What we did in Ireland was we set up a system that wasn’t designed to meet the needs of children at all (it doesn’t even pay lip service to their needs). It’s an education system that’s not run by the Department of Education: They want as little to do with it as possible. It’s a child development system that has to be constantly inspected by the child protection system.
In fact, it’s a system designed primarily, perhaps exclusively, to meet the needs of working parents. And the greatest irony of all is that it’s nearly bankrupting the parents it’s supposed to be for. If you set out to create a system doomed to fail, this would be it.
It’s vastly over-regulated and still standards are poor. It’s hugely inspected (if you don’t believe me, go to the Tusla website and count the number of inspections in your area), but we still don’t feel it’s safe for our children.
Some people make considerable profits from it (the numbers revealed on Prime Time for the Hyde and Seek company were eye-watering), but that’s achieved by paying the people who work in the system buttons.
And yet. The vast majority of people who work in this system are decent, committed, and hard working. The vast majority of them go into it because they love working with children. The vast majority of them are paid the minimum wage. The vast majority can have no expectation of building a career in early childhood development.
None of that is true in any other area of the education and development of our children and young people. Whatever people might say, teaching is a rewarding and often life-long career.
But those who teach our youngest children — at the age when their minds are expanding most rapidly and their emotional and social development has its greatest potential (and risk) — are treated like unskilled and untrained servants.
Here's the truth. If anyone really thinks that by spending €10m or €12m on CCTV cameras (because that’s what it would cost), and millions more on hiring people to watch the output of those cameras, we’re going to get a system that meets the needs of our children, they’re kidding themselves. I can’t think of a greater waste of money than putting all those cameras into all those rooms.
If we were serious about having a safe and rewarding system, we’d go back to the beginning. But if we feel that’s not possible, then the money has to go into training and education and into career development for the good people who work in the system.
We really have to stop fooling ourselves that we can have decent early childhood services by mistreating the people who work in the system and by then spying on them. The vast majority of early years staff are decent, hard-working... and paid the minimum wage