Wednesday, 9th May 2018
It is fitting that we gather today as campaigners who are passionate about children and their rights.
Our gathering is both relevant and timely – coming as it does as Ministers and officials across Government are working hard to deliver our first ever National Early Years Strategy.
My own office is providing leadership on this and I am anxious to hear the views of as many people as possible on how we as a country and a society can deliver for all children up to the age of five.
The Strategy will be a ten-year cross Government approach focussed on the important early days of child-hood.
As we all know it is a time of excitement, discovery and learning – during which children develop key skills and talents which will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
Our aim is to examine how we can make this early experiences and development better.
The Strategy will have three goals:
All the experts agree – including children themselves – that families have the most significant influence on young lives. This is particularly true during the early years when our children are so vulnerable and dependent.
Through the strategy we will enhance supports and services that strengthen families.
We will seek to balance work and caring responsibilities, ensure greater economic security and access to basic necessities.
More broadly the Strategy aims to equip parents with the skills they need to foster positive families environments – so children can develop and thrive.
Ensuring good health of our youngest citizens is another goal of this Strategy. Good health begins in (and even before) pregnancy. It relies on positive health behaviours by families in the home.
The commitments we make, and steps we take, to support parents through this Strategy will be critical to achieving this goal.
Moreover, high-quality, comprehensive pre-conceptive, prenatal, and postnatal care coupled with primary, preventive and acute healthcare, including immunisation, screening and surveillance, will be essential to promoting and protecting the health of all children.
The Strategy will recognise the very significant developments in relation these areas in recent years, through for example, Healthy Ireland, the National Maternity Strategy, the Breastfeeding Action Plan, the Obesity Policy and Action Plan and the National Physical Activity Plan.
And, while reaffirming existing commitments, the Strategy will identify additional actions to support good health among young children, including actions to tackle food poverty and improve nutrition which, I understand, have been the subject of much discussion today.
The final goal is positive early learning experiences.
You will be aware of the progress that has been made.
An 80% increase in investment in three years, over 74,000 children and their families benefitting from extra supports since last September and a full two-years of free pre-school for every three-year old from this coming September.
There are other ground-breaking initiatives.
Our Access Inclusion Model to ensure every child can get childcare represents best practice. One small part of the model, resource packs with sensory toys are currently the source of great excitement in 6,000 pre-school settings across the country.
All of this as we continue the intense preparations for the Affordable Childcare Scheme. We are working very hard to ensure this will be supported by a highly modern IT system, which will meet every legal and data requirement.
So – yes childcare in this country has changed.
But we need to do more.
Still we are below the international norm and that is not right.
Transforming one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world into the best was never going to happen over 1, 2 or even three budgets.
We need long term planning. The 10-year strategy will give us that.
Key to this goal, of course, is the quality of the workforce and this Strategy will set out concrete actions to incrementally continue on the professionalisation journey early childhood educators are now on.
Even when young children spend most of their waking hours in early childhood care and education or primary education however, it is again parents who remain the most influential adults in their lives.
A family environment that encourages early learning grounds children’s success in early learning.
In the Strategy, a range of actions to assist parents (and families) to support early learning will be proposed, including for example, supports for parents and toddler groups, supports for early literacy and actions to improve parental engagement with pre-schools and primary schools.
To reach these three inter-related goals, the Strategy will adopt a systems approach.
This will demand a new and better way of working within and across services are supports that strengthen families, that promote good health and that create positive early learning experiences for all children and those who are most vulnerable and in need.
Stronger governance and leadership, regulation and standards, increased investment and a qualified child-serving workforce whose initial and continuing training and working conditions enables them to fulfil their professional role and work more collaboratively, will be critical.
Indeed, it is the opportunities we create through this Strategy to build and enhance greater collaboration across public health nurses, early childhood educators, social workers, family support workers and social workers among others, that will support our vision – that Ireland’s youngest children and their families have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Over the coming weeks and months, Officials from my Department and across other Government Departments will finalise this Strategy. Engagement thus far has been positive.
Underpinning these deliberations is a wealth of national and international research evidence, the views of young children themselves, the wider consultations that have taken place with a range of stakeholders in recent years and the recommendations that were set out in Right from the Start, the Report of the Expert Advisory Group on the Early Years Strategy back in 2013.
Our current position, however delayed, is a good one.
Already, a significant number of recommendations in Right from the Start have been implemented, including for example free GP for children under 6, paid paternity leave, the Access and Inclusion Model and extensions to free pre-school education.
Our much improved financial position also provides us with far greater opportunities to invest in and transform supports and services for young children and their families than would previously have been the case.
And critically, the irrefutable research evidence that has accumulated in recent years on the substantial societal benefits of investing in early intervention provides us with a case for investment that is so easily defended and so well accepted across Government.
It is for these reasons that I have great optimism about what this Strategy will deliver for young children and their families.
I would like to conclude by, once again, thanking you for hosting this important event today.As we move to now finalise this Strategy, the views shared by you all will be very much to the forefront of our mind.
An Open Policy Debate will also take place on 7 June. This provide further opportunities for us to come together to agree priorities for the Strategy ahead of its publication in Autumn.