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'Childcare' - Business or Profession?

December 16, 2014

Childcare - Business or Profession‘Child care is a profession.... I do not like to see this referred to as a business, a sector or an industry. Unfortunately for some, that is what it has turned into.’

An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, Speaking in the Dáil on 29 May 2013, the day after the Prime Time investigation, A Breach of Trust.

On 3 December, Start Strong held a conference called 'Childcare' - Business or Profession? The conference, which also saw the launch of a major report, asked how we can ensure high quality in Ireland's early years services. The conclusion was clear: we need to see 'childcare' as a public service, not as a business or a 'market'.

The conference was addressed by two Government Ministers: the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr James Reilly TD, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O'Sullivan TD. With responsibility for early care and education spread across both Departments, the involvement of both Ministers was very welcome. Both Ministers spoke of the importance of investing in the quality of early care and education.

The keynote speech was delivered by Prof. Helen Penn, of the International Centre for the Study of the Mixed Economy of Childcare, and co-author of the report, who spoke on the lessons from other countries that - like Ireland - have a market system of early years provision. In response to Prof. Penn, Prof. Nóirín Hayes spoke about Ireland's early years provision, both past and future.

The afternoon of the conference looked at new developments in supports for quality: changes in the Tusla Pre-School Inspectorate (with an address by Brian Lee); the new Dept of Education early years inspectors (with an address by Gary Ó Donnchadha); and the new Better Start national quality support service (with an address by Margaret Rogers).


The report - and the conference - arose out of our concern at the variable quality of early years services, and the lack of assurance of quality. We wanted to know: what actions must the Government take if it is to ensure the quality of all early years services in Ireland?

The report's main conclusion is that the market approach to 'childcare' provision leads to ‘variable quality and inequitable access’, with no guarantee that all children benefit. It is a description that characterises Ireland, just as it characterises other countries that have followed the market approach.

And if we retain the market approach, we will only ensure quality through stronger public involvement, with a reformed and robust regulation and inspection system, a much higher level of public investment, and a professionalised workforce.

Just as our national school system is privately owned but is in effect publicly provided, so too we need to move to a position where our early years services, while they may be owned by a mix of private and community providers, are nonetheless delivering a public service.

A new Irish model

In short, we need a new Irish model of early years provision – one that builds on our legacy of private and community provision and childminding, but significantly enhances public investment and public involvement – to ensure quality for all children.

The new model of early years service that we propose in the report is focused on quality, and is accessible and affordable to families. It is a model that uses public funding as a lever to improve quality, with supply-side funding of early years services, not tax-based solutions. As the report from Helen Penn and Eva Lloyd makes clear, tax credits fail to address either the quality of services or equality in access to them.

The report's recommendations include:

  • Public funding for early years services, linked to the cost of delivering quality services, including: higher salaries for graduate staff on agreed salary scales; higher rates of funding when a service needs additional support for a child with special needs or language difficulties; and higher rates of funding to services in disadvantaged communities.
  • A new Early Years Inspectorate, with inspectors who are qualified and experienced in early care and education, and located in an agency that focuses specifically on regulation and inspection, such as HIQA.
  • Graduate-led provision, with timelines set for further increases in qualification levels.
  • Regulation and support of childminders.
  • Expansion of the Learner Fund, to provide financial support for current workers who wish to progress to Level 7 and 8 qualifications.
  • Ceilings on fees, so that the costs of professionalisation and higher quality are paid through public subsidy, not passed on to parents.
  • Making subsidised places available in all areas of the country, through reforming the CCS and extending it to all services which meet quality requirements.

Read the report, 'Childcare' - Business or Profession? here.

See presentations made at the conference, as well as the press release, here.