An Historic Day for Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland
As details of Budget 2022 emerged last weekend, I dared to hope. Hope that the budget would signal a new beginning for early childhood professionals, for parents, but most importantly young children. For decades, I have advocated for the rights of children to quality Early Childhood Education and Care, and the rights of early childhood professionals to a professional salary for professional work. Year after year, budget after budget, like others, I’ve waited for the Government to acknowledge the complexity of Early Childhood Education and Care, its critical importance as the first step on the educational continuum from early childhood to secondary school and beyond. Indeed, research supports this claim, e.g., Perry Pre-school project. For decades in Ireland, while quality has been a central feature of early childhood policy, investment has been overlooked, and the notion of expecting high quality on a shoestring budget became the norm. As a result, providers have struggled to pay professional salaries, struggled to recruit and retain early childhood professionals, struggled to keep their settings open.
Yesterday, marks a significant turning point in terms of how the sector is viewed and funded in Ireland. Minister Michael McGrath, the Minister for Public expenditure in his budget address, acknowledged that invaluable role played by early childhood professionals in children’s care and education. This is significant. He went on to acknowledge that these professionals should be paid appropriately for the responsibilities they carry. This is significant. Later last night, the Taoiseach, Michéal Martin, T.D acknowledged that early childhood professionals (teachers) are paid less than those in primary and secondary school. He further acknowledged that historically, Ireland has not invested in Early Childhood to the same level as other European countries. This is significant. These statements signify a shift in thinking about the importance of early childhood care and education beyond labour market activation. They signify government intent to address what Peter Moss once called the ‘wicked’ issues in early childhood, such as salaries.
Beyond words however significant, the Government yesterday, took action. Budget 2022 introduces a suite of measures for the sector, that will address: Quality for children, in particular, over time, they will ensure continuity of experiences for children as an Employment Regulation Order for early childhood professionals is introduced and stability for providers.
The Early Childhood Care and Education budget will increase from €638million in 2021 to €716million in 2022. The increase in funding comprises three core elements: 1. The Universal Subsidy payable through National Childcare Scheme will extend to all children under 15 years old. The practice of deducting hours spend in pre-school or school from entitlement to subsidised hours will cease, thus benefitting an estimated 5,000 children from low income families, 2. A new core funding stream of €69 million will be introduced in September 2022 to support providers to cover increased operating costs linked to quality improvement measures. In particular, this measure is intended to support staff recruitment and retention. This means that talks on the Joint Labour Commission on pay for the ECEC workforce can now commence. In return for this investment, provides must commit to not increase parental fees and 3. A once-off transition fund of €37million will be introduced from May to August 2022, to bridge the period from the closure of the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme at the end of April 2022 and the introduction of the new core funding stream
It is important to mention parents here. In return for the core funding stream, providers must not increase parent fees. In other words, this freezes parent fees. Yes, this is too little, and is anathema to parents who pay the equivalent of a second mortgage in fees. However, it is a very small step, that at least ensures parents will not face an increase in fees in next 12 months. Small comfort, but as mentioned yesterday, the measures introduced in budget 2022 are a statement of intent, and we must continue to advocate for affordable ECEC.
Today however, I am hopeful and positive. Hopeful that the sector is sustainable, hopeful that early childhood professionals earn a professional salary, that they see the sector as a profession and a career, that they enter and remain in the sector, and stem the unsustainable turnover that undermines the quality of children’s experiences. Hopeful, that children will reap the benefits, that they will enjoy continuity of care and education that is not marred by the uncertainty associated with current attrition rates.
Is the budget a panacea for all the wicked issues that beset the sector. Absolutely not. It is however a strong statement of intent that offers hope for children, providers, professionals and providers currently. It is a step in the right direction. There is no going back, and today, there is much to celebrate. A colleague this morning succinctly summarised the hope for the early childhood teachers of tomorrow. In relation to current first year students, she stated ‘by the time they qualify, conditions might be much better in the sector’. Let’s hope.
Author: Dr Mary Moloney, President of OMEP Ireland