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All the main political parties have now launched their manifestos for the General Election. It’s disappointing that none of the parties has yet committed to developing a national plan for the care and education of young children – even though it’s a commitment which would not in itself be costly. In fact, it’s a commitment that would in the long-term bring financial returns to the State. Politicians do not yet appear to be ambitious for our young children.

Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. Whichever parties form the Government after 25th February will negotiate a Programme for Government, and Start Strong will continue its efforts to make investment in young children an election issue and to get a commitment to a national plan for young children included in the Programme for Government. In the meantime, we need you to support our campaign. E-mail our manifesto to your candidate asking them to commit to the development of a national plan for the care and education of young children. Download our doorhanger and ask candidates when they call to your door whether they will make early childhood a Government priority. Share our general election video-message. Follow us on Twitter, and like our Facebook page.

One positive in the political parties’ election manifestos is that the future of the Free Pre-School Year seems to be secure. But the parties have given very few details on how they might build on the scheme, even though the scheme is only the first step in the development of quality, affordable and accessible care and education services and supports for all young children:

  • Fine Gael’s manifesto commits to maintaining the Free Pre-School Year “to promote the best outcomes for children and families”. It also commits to developing a new early childhood education programme called “First Steps” for disadvantaged children, building on existing pre-school supports targeted at disadvantaged families. In addition, the manifesto states that Fine Gael “will examine ways to reduce the cost of childcare to ease the burden on working families”, and “will review maternity leave to permit parents to share leave entitlements”.
  • Labour’s manifesto commits to build on the Free Pre-School Year to develop “a comprehensive, national pre-school service” when resources permit. In the shorter term, the party says that it will review the age structure of the existing scheme and that it will improve the quality of services through implementing Siolta standards and through ensuring sufficient training options for staff. Labour’s manifesto also commits to greater integration of services for young children to tackle child poverty, building on the youngballymun model – bringing together public health nurses, schools, childcare professionals and social workers in disadvantaged communities – with the support of philanthropic funding. In addition, the manifesto says Labour favours allowing parents to share paid leave, and introducing legal rights to career breaks and to part-time work.
  • Fianna Fáil’s manifesto makes no reference to policies for young children or their families. However, its Policy Statement on Health and Children, published as part of its election campaign, commits to protecting the Free Pre-School Year as introduced in 2010 and to expanding the Children’s Services Committees to one in every county.
  • Sinn Fein’s manifesto commits to ensuring the “public provision of comprehensive child-centred childcare services”. It says that these services would be developed “in consultation with parents and communities, reflecting the needs of children and families”. The manifesto also says that Sinn Fein would “create employment through the construction and delivery of childcare services”.
  • The Green Party’s manifesto commits to maintaining the Free Pre-School Year and also states that the Green Party would “introduce tax incentives for extended family members who are taking care of their grandchildren”. The party also states that it would examine the possibility of allowing fathers to share the existing unpaid leave of their partners.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King day. Given the political drama at the moment, it’s easy to forget the world outside of Ireland. And it’s easy to forget how to dream. Instead, we’re caught up in a nightmare of cutbacks and economic collapse, of IMF bailouts and EU interest rates.
These next few years could be our greatest chance to dream. That might seem strange, given the mess our country is in, but we are shortly about to elect a small group of people who will become our government. And over the next few years that small group of people have the opportunity to show ambition and leadership: ambition to build an Irish society that is about more than a repaired economy, and leadership to get us there. They have a wonderful opportunity to re-think at what is important for us both as a people and as an economy. They have the opportunity to dream about what we can become, and they will have been given a mandate to make radical changes.
Investing in and building a strong system of early childhood supports must be the start. A better stronger society for children is a better stronger society for all of us. And this is not at the cost of our economic recovery. It’s been shown that investment in early care and education is worth it, many times over. The problem is, it takes 30 years or more for the state to get the full return on that investment. But surely, our economic collapse shows that this time around we don’t need castles-in-the sky - we need to invest in things that are real? Real children, with real lives. What we need are politicians who can see beyond the short-term, to dream of what we can become and then have the leadership to make big changes.

UNICEF regards a ‘national plan for the organisation and financing of early childhood services’ as one of ten minimum standards for early care and education. Through Children 2020, we are campaigning for Ireland to meet that standard.

Our Children 2020 consultation process is nearing an end, and it’s been incredibly interesting. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to service-providers, organisations and individuals working in the area, parents, officials, and, of course, children. One of the common themes emerging from the consultation is the need for long-term planning. We need a 10-year plan for early childhood to drive positive change for young children, to build the foundations of a strong economy, and to help us reach international standards.

Interesting, then, that the day after our national consultation meeting on 24th June, the draft Early Years (0-6) Strategy was released for consultation in Northern Ireland (the consultation runs until 30th November). We very much welcome the release of a draft strategy in Northern Ireland - it shows the commitment of the Northern Ireland Executive to child development and to children’s early care and education. Equally, we look forward to being in a position where we can welcome a long-term plan for children’s early care and education in the Republic of Ireland, hopefully in the not-too-distant future...

I, like many others in Ireland, am watching the election-campaign in the UK with some fascination. The difference between politics in Ireland and politics in the UK is striking. From my perspective, what is most striking is how much early care and education is a political issue in the UK. 

A quick look at party manifestos shows that each of the three main parties has made commitments around early care and education. Some are very specific, some a bit more vague. Some are ones that might sit readily with what Start Strong would like to see in place in Ireland, some might not. Regardless, children’s early care and education is getting political attention and priority. Politicians are saying what, if they were in government, they would do about children’s early care and education. Imagine that happening here.

Today (1st March, 2010) is Work-Life Balance Day – and it is being promoted as a means of keeping people in work – flexible work patterns as a way of maintaining jobs. The Minister for Labour Affairs, Dara Calleary, TD said “Implementing more flexible working arrangements can be a means of averting the threat of redundancies and job losses”. And this may well be true (and in today’s recessionary times incredibly important), but surely this misses the point? Is it not meant to be about achieving a balance between our work and home lives? Work-Life Balance Day should be as much about the benefits work-life balance can bring to our home and family lives as the benefits it can bring to the workplace.

Work-Life Balance is of enormous benefit to children and families. It is not just about benefits to employers, and a reduction in hours for an employee, it is also about reconciling the responsibilities of our family and work lives. It is about living and enjoying our family life, not just working to live. And yes, there are many who would love to be in a position to be working to live rather than looking for work – we are in the midst of a recession that has had an enormous impact on children and families. And those who have lost their job have a different perspective on what work-life balance means, to those who are still working.

Work-life balance should work both ways. We need to start looking at work-life balance as something other than tweaking our working lives to make it easier to fit our family lives around them. It is about achieving a real balance in our lives. A balance that means we can meet all our responsibilities, not just our work ones. A balance that is good for children, good for the economy and good for society.

Yesterday my colleague and I attended the launch of 'Irish Childcare in Recession?', an analysis of the 2009 NCNA members' survey.

A key issue highlighted during the launch was the potential impact of the recession on the quality of services. Amongst those surveyed the recession has been making itself felt through an increased level of vacancies in services, cuts in the numbers of staff employed within services, a reduction in the fees that service providers charge, and a fall in the number of inspections of services. Some of the service providers who spoke during the meeting said that they were concerned that these changes could impact on the quality of services that children are accessing.

While making our way back to the office we started to talk about the challenges in balancing the delivery of a quality service to children while also maintaining a viable business - challenges which must be getting increasingly difficult for private service providers.

We have not yet had a significant debate in Ireland on the balancing act of providing what is essentially a public service through the private sector. Other countries manage to achieve that balancing act, and if we are to do so maybe we should start talking about what that involves.

Our consultation on a vision for Children 2020 will be starting shortly. Maybe this could be the arena in which we can have a debate about how we can provide quality sustainable services and supports for the children of Ireland?

Children’s issues are rarely in the media for positive reasons. But this week (weather permitting, of course!) should see tens of thousands of children aged 3 to 4 starting the free pre-school year which was announced in the supplementary budget last April. Start Strong welcomed the free pre-school year – at a time of cutbacks, it was important that the government chose to invest in a scheme that could benefit all young children. The scheme is universal (subject to availability of places), free to parents, directly supports services, and requires services to commit to quality standards.

Those children starting on the free pre-school year this week will have the chance to develop their social skills, learning skills such as how to compromise, respect others and problem-solve as well as building their confidence and helping them explore their world. The free pre-school year is about much more than children becoming ‘ready for school’ – it’s about children taking their first steps towards becoming ready for life.

The free pre-school year was a bold step forward by the government. Now, they need to continue that and move towards ‘Children 2020’.

But for the children taking their first steps into the world of pre-school, this week is an exciting one – full of possibilities and new opportunities. They are not concerned with government policy. They have much more important things on their mind: new friends to make, new things to learn, new ways to play. Important matters of the world to settle, such as who plays with what toys and when. Enjoy it!

International evidence indicates that there is a return of up to 16:1 for investment in early care and education. This means that every euro spent by the government on early care and education, is worth as much as €16 in the long-term. Less than a week before the budget, this is a figure worth remembering.

This budget provides the opportunity for the government to prioritise what is important in Ireland. And investing in young kids should be the most important. NESC describe early care and education as “a good long-term investment for the state and a sound basis for the move towards a knowledge-based economy.” (Well-being Matters: a Social Report for Ireland, 2009: vol 1, 160) Substantial cuts have already been made in early years expenditure – we can’t afford more cuts, we need to sustain the progress we have already made and then build on it.

High quality care and education in their early years allows children to start strong, giving them the solid foundations upon which they can build their lives. If we do not give young children the care, support and opportunities they need, we are wasting the chance to lay those solid foundations. Children do not have a second chance.

Quality early care and education should be a right for all children. But if that argument doesn’t sway the Minister, surely the numbers should?

ICPN has become Start Strong!

It would be remiss to have reached this stage and not recognise the huge work and commitment that went into establishing ICPN and developing it into the organisation we now are. Much of that work was done on a voluntary basis, by people and organisations who already had a huge workload and is a reflection on both the critical importance of early care and education and the commitment of the individuals involved. We all owe you a debt of gratitude.

Children’s early years are a fantastic opportunity. High quality care and education in their early years allows children to start strong, giving them solid foundations upon which they can build their lives. If we do not give young children the care, support and opportunities they need, we are wasting the chance to lay those solid foundations. Children do not have a second chance – there is only one childhood.

If, by 2020, we are to have a comprehensive and sustainable system of early care and education that meets the needs and rights of all our children, we need a national plan that is grounded in evidence of what is best for children and that reaches the highest international standards. As a first step towards this, Start Strong has published Children 2020 outlining why we need such a plan, and the priorities which should be central to that plan. In one way we have set ourselves very ambitious goals. On the other hand it should not be ambitious to plan that every child should have access to quality early care and education as a right.

But we are not forgetting where we are at the moment. We need to prioritise early care and education, sustaining the progress we have made as well as planning for the future. Early care and education needs to be a policy priority of the Government now, more than ever. The forthcoming Budget will probably be one of the most difficult we have seen in many years. Start Strong has outlined what we believe should be priorities in Budget December 2009. A copy of our analysis is available here.

Early care and education matters because it works. It works for children, the economy and society. We cannot afford not to be ambitious.

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