Cherishing childhood every step of the way

It is only through professionalisation that childcare quality and standards will be progressed, says Marian Quinn

CHILDREN are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future, John F Kennedy said on Jul 25, 1963.

Quality childcare is about meeting the holistic needs of every child. These needs are emotional and social as much as physical and intellectual. In this country, the main focus has been on the physical care of children.

While this is vital, our responsibility to parents and children should not be limited to this. Parents have the right to feel secure in the knowledge that every aspect of their child’s development is being supported when they are left in the care of practitioners, whether in home or in centre-based care.

Both Irish and International research has indicated that investment in quality childcare yields significant returns, some estimating a €7 return on every €1 invested. Other estimates are even higher than this.

Viviane Reding, the EU’s commissioner for justice, fundamental rights, and citizenship, has said: “Childcare provision should not be seen as a cost, but as an investment in tomorrow.”

Returns include reduced need for intervention services later in life, increased earning capacity in adulthood, and reduction in child poverty. These results will only ensue if the provision is of quality care.

In recent weeks, many have been shocked to hear that while the majority of practitioners do hold a relevant Fetac level 5 or above, this is not a statutory requirement.

In 2010, the Government published the workforce development plan for the early childhood care and education sector. This plan outlined its vision for the workforce but without an implementation timetable and adequate resources to fund it, this policy is gathering dust.

Quality practice frameworks, Síolta (2006) and Aistear (2009), were developed to ensure that children and parents received quality supports. To date, funding for the implementation of these frameworks has been severely limited and as a result, they are also gathering dust rather than improving the lives of children.

The lack of action in implementing and resourcing these policies is a major indicator of the values and priorities of our Government. In the past 12 years, the demand for childcare has grown substantially. We have seen the growth of large full-day services catering for the needs of young parents working long hours.

There were huge investments in the physical infrastructure and grants and tax breaks were given to developers to build large childcare facilitates. Further investment in the sector came when the late Brian Lenihan announced the introduction of the free pre-school year.

While all this investment was welcome and necessary, the essential role of the childhood professional was forgotten. The quality of care a child receives has less to do with the physical environment and much more to do with the quality of the relationship between the carer and the child.

In this State, few resources have been put in place to support the continuing professional development of the childhood professional. This again indicates a lack of understanding of the requirements for quality childcare.

In this profession, you are required to engage in mandatory training such as first aid, manual handling, and food safety, and generally this has to be self-financed even though average pay is little more than minimum wage.

Dedicated staff engage in continuous professional development training which is generally undertaken at personal cost in terms of finances and time.

In pre-schools, childhood professionals have to sign on for the summer as the funding is only provided for 38 weeks. This means staff are effectively low-paid seasonal workers who can’t get a car loan or a mortgage.

Permanent contracts are required to ensure that qualified, experienced practitioners are not lost to the sector as the result is a high staff turnover which affects quality relationships between the carer, the children and the parents.

IT IS only through the professionalisation of childhood care and education that quality and standards will be progressed.

A registration system would ensure that only those childhood professionals with the minimum qualification and a commitment to supplementary continuous professional development can actually be considered professional.

The sector also needs a proper career path and remuneration structure, it is difficult to expect people to continue to strive in a professional capacity without these basic norms.

The emergence of the Association of Childhood Professionals is an indicator of the increasing commitment of the childcare workforce to professional standards of practice and the drive towards a qualified status for practitioners. This is a voluntary association which began a journey nearly a decade ago to advocate for the rights of the practitioner and indirectly for the rights of children and parents. As a national association, we recognise that there is strength in numbers and we will be advocating for the Government to prioritise the children of this country by recognising that central to quality care, is the relationship that the children and parents have with the childhood professional.

Our children may be burdened with our financial debts but hopefully this is the only legacy we will leave them.

As JFK said in Oct 24, 1963: “We can say with some assurance that, although children may be the victims of fate, they will not be the victims of our neglect.”

*Marian Quinn is chairwoman of the Association of Childhood Professionals

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