It’s time to plan a clear and coherent strategy for future public investment in childcare, writes Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Dr James Reilly
As organisations focused on childcare and early education plan to rally outside the Dáil today, I would like to state my appreciation for the immense value of the contribution of people who work in this sector. I also want to make it clear that I agree with them that investment is needed.
I use the word ‘investment’ deliberately. Because an investment in children really is an investment in all of our futures. When every child has a real chance of reaching their potential, we all benefit from the contribution they make to our collective wellbeing.
We get the best return from investment when children are young. For example, the OECD finds that children who attend quality pre-school reap the benefit across a range of areas — they do better in school, they have better health, and better civic and social engagement. This investment more than pays for itself — the National Economic and Social Forum estimated that every €1 invested in early childhood care and education yields a return of between €4 and €7.
While all children benefit from this kind of investment, children in poor households benefit most.
We know from the experience of other countries that investment in quality early childhood care and education is really important in breaking the inter-generational cycle of poverty.
We know, too, that child poverty is strongly concentrated in jobless households, so when affordable childcare helps parents get back to work, the impact on child poverty is even greater.
In 2015, direct public investment in childcare will amount to €260m. That €260m supports quality childcare for more than 100,000 children, delivered in around 4,300 childcare settings around the country.
That is a considerable investment on behalf of the State, particularly during a time of reduced public resources. But it does leave our investment in this area below the OECD average, and I believe that we need a focused plan to address that.
That’s why I’m establishing a new high level Inter-Departmental Group to undertake an intensive and focused programme of work on how best to channel our investment in childcare, and to make recommendations for a clear strategy to deliver the very best childcare for our kids.
The group has a number of tasks. Firstly, we need to be clear about the goals of this investment — for example: investing in children’s development, most particularly children with special needs, supporting parents in raising their children, enabling them to return to work, contributing to the fight against child poverty. When we are clear about our objectives, we have solid criteria against which to evaluate any programme of investment.
We then need to question whether the way our programmes are currently designed is a good fit for those goals.
Are there gaps? Is there duplication? Are there things we can do better?
What can we learn from the experience of other countries?
The final set of tasks is to identify and assess different investment options.
What are the costs and the benefits? How do they perform against the goals we want to achieve?
Taking all these factors into account, we will then identify priorities for future public investment in childcare, so that we can build a childcare infrastructure that works for all children, parents — and the staff who provide the service.
Parents make different choices about how to raise their families.
Some prefer to have one parent at home full-time when children are young. Others are trying to balance raising a family with going to work. Some families have just one parent who has to do it all.
Not every programme will suit every family — though some come very close. For example, 95% of eligible children are enrolled in the free pre-school year. We need to strike the right balance in the kind of supports we provide to enable all parents to make the best choices for their families.
Quality has to be at the centre of all we do.
Investment in early childhood care and education can yield enormous benefits — but only where the provision is of high quality.
I’m committed to working with childcare providers to continually build the quality of provision.
I’m proud to be part of a government that is committed to making Ireland the best small country in the world to grow up in and to raise a family in.
To achieve this goal, we do need to ensure that we’re making the best investment in quality education and care for our all our children, that’s a support to parents, particularly in helping families increase their income by getting back to work, and that creates a decent working environment for the staff in whose trust we place our children.