I welcome the Minister (Minster for Education Jan O’Sullivan TD) to the Seanad. She is particularly welcome as she is dealing with the issue of early years education. I know her personal commitment to and experience of the issue. The steps she made in the early days in terms of examining the early years and setting up the work she will do in this area are welcome. We have had many excellent debates in this House on the importance of the early years and I do not need to rehearse them. My colleagues have articulated the importance of early years education.
I should start with a declaration of interest. I am chair of Early Childhood Ireland, but it is a governance role. In speaking here today, I am not speaking in that role. I chair the board in the organisation in a governance role.
In her speech the Minister mentioned inspections and the importance of the inspectors she will appoint, which I welcome. It is an excellent decision. She said the inspectors will complement, not duplicate, the type of inspections carried out by the Child and Family Agency. At the moment early childhood care and education settings are inspected by Pobal and the Child and Family Agency, and will now be inspected by the Department of Education and Skills. I do not see why we need all of these inspections and different types of people doing the inspecting. It represents a mentality we have, namely, a silo effect of Government. We need to be much wider and broader.
I would welcome the Department of Education taking the lead in inspections. Would we accept multiple agencies and public health nurses inspecting the work being done in our primary and secondary schools? How many of us would say that makes sense? It does not make sense in terms of the use of public health nurses or the education and care of our children and young people.
In my experience, the Department of Education and Skills has built up a recognised and approved inspectorate. The Minister receives a lot of criticism, but it is rare that I hear criticism levelled at the inspection system. There is scope for us to examine how we develop an inspection system for early childhood care and education settings that is led by the Department of Education and Skills., and not have other Departments involved in the inspection process. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs can play an important part in the delivery and provision of settings, but we have to consider a much more co-ordinated approach. It is something I would urge the Government to reconsider.
I take the Minister at her word when she says this will complement inspections, but the reality is that I meet owners of child care settings who tell me two different inspectors will arrive, coincidentally, on the same day who are looking at slightly different things within their settings. They do not have extra staff to allocate to these inspectors. We need to be careful about what we are trying to achieve with the inspections. Are we really trying to ensure that the quality and standards improve? Are we trying to ensure that Síolta and Aistear are implemented in our child care settings or are we trying to make sure that a sink is in the right place? What are we trying to achieve with the inspections? What is the primary consideration for the inspections? I ask the Minister to go back to her colleagues in Government and ask whether we can re-examine this and find a better way.
I am greatly concerned about the investment by Government in child care settings. It is not adequate. We have to consider how we will increase it. Everybody agrees on the importance of the period from birth to six years of age, but early child care settings are only open for 39 weeks of the year. I would like to see the number of weeks provided for children in early child care and educations settings greatly extended. I would like to ensure that the staff are qualified. We will hear more in February about those who are on low and minimum wages, part-time contracts and go on the dole for the summer. One does not get paid for any non-access hours or child-free time. Teachers will get non-contact time, but those working in early child care settings do not, yet we are asking them to drive for quality while paying them the minimum wage or lower.
We have to examine how we can raise the quality bar and encourage teachers in early child care settings to get further education to be able to deliver the type of services we want to have. It is important that we build this up.
The other area of concern is children with special needs. This is not within the scope of the Minister’s Department, but the current system does not allow flexibility for children with special needs. Everybody agrees that we should extend the amount of time special needs children receive and that they would at least get a second year, as all children should get. The Department said it will have flexibility in regard to such children, but the ratios operate at a local level. A parent might know that a child with special needs can attend two or three days in a week. Nobody knows on a Monday the two or three days that will be used, so the setting has to provide the necessary staff. The State will only pay the service for the days the child attends. It does not compute.
We have to re-examine this issue because we need to ensure such children are in the system. We know early identification of special needs issues can often equip children to develop their full potential and be much more able to deal with and be part of life. We need to determine how to provide a facility whereby children with special needs and parents can feel they do not have to say they are fully in or out of the special needs early education system.
There is an issue in that the State is engaged in providing the free preschool year. I have had major debates on the issue of rates in this House, which the State sets in every county. I acknowledge that this does not come within the scope of the Minister’s Department, but it is a cost for child care facilities. In different services in different areas of the country, charges, be they rates, water charges or other charges, differ by area, yet the State decides how much a child care facility gets paid per child, the space required per child and the number of early years educators per child. It sets all these parameters and specifies that child care facilities cannot charge parents anything extra, which I support and with which I am in agreement. Different child care facilities, depending on where they are based in the country, are viable or not viable because of external costs such as rates or other charges related to the premises. This is an issue in that the State cannot say it is responsible for all these pieces, but it is responsible for the setting of rates. It is an area we need we need to revisit and in respect of which we need to look forward.
We need to ensure that we treat all children equally, and that is why I am a big supporter of the free preschool year. I would like it extended and for the State to invest more in services. As I said when we debated the Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Bill, at the start of the recession we were lectured, and I use that word wisely, to the effect that it was not about cash transfers and that the way we could improve outcomes for children was by investing directly in the services and in the infrastructure to support such better outcomes. I hope, as we see an upturn in the economy, that those words will be acted on and that we will start investing in children’s health care and education and not go back to a system of cash transfers, which we know do not necessarily deliver better outcomes for children. I would encourage the Minister to say that we need a co-ordinated approach and a single system of inspection in order that it is clear both to parents and to those running child care facilities that our intention is to improve outcomes for children. I encourage the Minister in what she is trying to do and I welcome this debate.