The importance of public investment in early years
Early Childhood Care and Education
The most striking feature of investment in education in Ireland relative to other OECD countries is its under-investment in early childhood education.
Early childhood education and care has a profound and long-lasting impact on individual lives and on societies. It means that later learning is more effective and more likely to continue throughout life, lessening the risk of early school-leaving, increasing the equity of educational outcomes, and reducing costs for society in terms of lost talent and of public spending on social, health and even justice systems.
In consecutive studies, Ireland has spent just 0.1 per cent of GDP on pre-primary education compared to an OECD average which increased from 0.5 to 0.8 per cent. The introduction of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme in 2010 represented a positive first step in addressing this. ECCE, also known as the ‘free pre-school’ package, is designed as an educational measure to better integrate the educational experience of young children. It is not to be confused with providing families with quality and affordable childcare which is a separate public investment issue.
Early childhood is the stage where education can most effectively influence the development of children and help reverse disadvantage. Pupils who had access to quality early childhood education perform better on PISA testing than those who did not attend pre-primary education, even allowing for differences in their socio-economic backgrounds.
Ireland does not have a well-developed system of public provision of early education and early childhood education and care are almost exclusively provided by private settings, although it is mainly financed by public sources. A review of Early Years Education published by the Department of Education and Skills found that while almost all services provide warm and welcoming environments and strong evidence of positive relations was found between the staff, the children and their families, there remained many challenges. Among those raised in the review are:
- the ability to provide rich outdoor learning opportunities for children, which is vitally important to development
- the need to ensure all families and children are fully represented
- the need to provide ongoing training and professional development for staff, and
- the need to improve working conditions for staff in the sector.
A well-resourced and integrated policy is required to address the issues raised in the review and to deliver high quality early years learning provision for children and their families. ‘First 5: A Whole of Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families’ contains welcome high-level policy commitments and strategic actions. In order to deliver on the commitment of all children having access to safe, high-quality, developmentally appropriate early childhood education, long-term planning and sufficient resourcing are vital to embed quality and deliver on this commitment. As early education providers often provide childcare for children under 3 this sector is impacted by the challenges facing that sector in terms of providing sufficient places, concerns regarding wage levels and staff turnover, and quality of service provided. While the ECCE scheme has proved very successful, consideration must be given as to what resourcing is required to ensure a quality and flexible services is provided where parents, children and service providers have certainty and confidence in the support model for this sector. It is clear that there is a role for increased State funding in this area.
High quality educational experiences in early childhood contribute significantly to life-long learning success. This sector needs to be supported by Government, financially and through policy, to ensure that all children have equal access to this success and all of the benefits of quality education.
The Educational Research Centre found that tackling inequality at pre-school level before a child attends primary school was found to have a significant impact on educational disadvantage if certain conditions are met. These conditions are that the pre-school is of a high quality, are adequately funded, have low adult-child ratios, highly qualified staff with quality continued professional development, positive adult-child interactions, effective collaboration with parents, appropriate curricula, adequate oversight, monitoring and evaluation, and inclusivity and diversity. Government must ensure that all early years settings meet these conditions by 2022.
In addition, the recommendations of the Inter-Departmental Working Group on Future Investment in Early Years and School-Age Care which are: i) incremental investment in fee subsidisation through existing and new programmes; (ii) ensuring adequate supply to meet future demand; and (iii) embedding quality in the sector, must be implemented. In order to implement these recommendations expenditure on childcare and early education will have to increase to meet the OECD average of 0.8 per cent GDP. Investment should increase by a minimum of 0.1 per cent GDP annually to meet the OECD average.
The Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs has recommended that an urgent cost-review of the sector be conducted so as to accurately calculate the necessary finances to ensure the sustainability of the sector. This review should be undertaken in 2020 and the findings presented to the Committee. Social Justice Ireland further recommends that this Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs be tasked with monitoring the implementation of the First 5 Early Years Strategy so as to ensure end to end governance of both quality and cost.
 The ECCE scheme provides every child with three hours of pre-school care for thirty-eight weeks in each year free of charge from the age of three years until they start primary school.
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