EARLY years educators, providers and parents from Kildare marched with thousands of their compatriots in Dublin on Wednesday 5 February to protest the crisis in the childcare sector.
Organised by the Early Years Alliance, the major protest called for the incoming government to increase funding so that fees are reduced for parents, pay is increased for educators, and the sustainability of services is supported. Among those who travelled to the capital were staff from Tir na nÓg in Athy, and proprietor Kathleen Cash described it as a very historic day for Ireland’s early years sector.
“I have been an early years provider for 24 years and I have never seen the sector as united and determined for change. [Last Wednesday] was the beginning of something monumental,” she said. “Providers, educators, students, parents and children from all around Ireland united together to demand change within our sector. We need more investment in the early years and recognition and respect for the important job we do.
“Quality early childhood experiences have a profound impact on a child’s development and there is an abundance of research to support this. However, there is a big gap in funding. Affordable but high quality standards are placed in opposition to each other. A new funding model will greatly increase wages for the dedicated educators, reduce fees for parents and ensure sustainability of high quality services for our young children.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Tara Dunne of The Beehive Montessori Preschool just outside Prosperous, another service which took part in the protest. She said that things were brought to a head by a lot of services having to re-register with Tusla alongside the insurance crisis which hit the sector – their own insurance tripled.
Tara, who noted that the parents are “fully behind” them, explained that there are many factors involved – issues like government not consulting the sector, a living wage for every member of staff, the need to streamline the inspection process, and payment for non-contact time.
On the latter point, she said that they do a lot of work outside of the 15 hours for which they’re not funded, like planning that has to be linked in with the Aistear curriculum framework – they don’t just turn up in the morning and decide to do some colouring or playing with playdough, every activity planned has a developmental focus which supports each child’s learning journey. They also have to observe the children and their development, flag any issues with parents, and apply to external agency Better Start if any extra resources or staffing are required.
“All these things we do outside the 15 hours… we’re funded for 15 hours, but as the manager here I would say I probably do 40 hours a week,” she said. “And the staff themselves do at least an extra hour every day that they don’t get paid for. I do pay them non-contact time but I know they do more than that anyway.”
She also warned about the availability of quality childcare providers in the future, explaining that there are so many people she’s spoken to with an exit plan in place, like retraining in social care or becoming teachers.
While Rainbow Brite School in Piercetown, Newbridge was open on the day of the protest (the Department had said it couldn’t fund an alternative day to make up time lost but subsequently reversed that decision) parents took a stand and didn’t send their children in, while staff were on-site with banners and placards, playing their part in highlighting the major issues faced by the sector.
Owner Niamh Larkin said that the biggest issue is funding. As they’re a sessional service, they’re solely funded by the government (they have no fees coming in) through the ECCE scheme. That funding is for 38 weeks, so they’re not paid for Halloween, Christmas, Easter, bank holidays or public holidays.
“I pay my staff… it’s up to the service provider, so I do actually pay my staff the holiday pay, but you have to balance that out with the funding that you only get for 38 weeks,” she said. The school is closed for the summer break, so staff must sign onto social welfare or take up jobs such as childminding.
Niamh highlighted what services provide in terms of early intervention, nurturing and caring for children, education, building their confidence and social skills – the stepping stones for school.
“We just don’t get the recognition for it, unfortunately,” she said, later adding that while there’s a lot of stress they do it because they love it. “I have to thank the parents and the staff here in Rainbow Brite… they’re wonderful, absolutely… that’s what keeps us going.”