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Early Years Strategy and the Economic Benefits of Early Intervention

Statement to Seanad Éireann by Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs

6th March 2013

I am delighted to be given this opportunity to address the House this afternoon to discuss the importance, significance and benefit of key areas of activity within my Department focused on early intervention. I believe this debate is an important follow-up to previous discussions we have held in this chamber on child & family services; and most recently on youth work.


Early Years Research

As you are all no doubt aware a substantial volume of valuable research now exists in relation to the benefit of early years interventions. While much of the first research emanated from the US and Europe, I am pleased that in more recent times, we have seen a number comprehensive child-centred research projects underway in Ireland, not least my own Department’s ‘Growing up in Ireland’ longitudinal survey and evaluations of numerous pilot projects.

This international research environment has involved diverse disciplines such as neuroscience, genomics, sociology and economics coming together to provide a more complete and complex picture of childhood development.
Neuroscientists armed with new technologies have created startling insights into how the brain works and what inputs are needed to optimise its development. We now know from the pioneering work of experts such as Prof. Michael Rutter & Prof. Sophie Scott in the UK, or Dr. Bruce Perry in the US, how the human brain is at its most sensitive in the first three years after birth and we are learning of how lack of stimulation, lack of stable emotional attachment or the presence of chronic stress or neglect can have a lasting effect on the new brain and on cognitive capacity and emotional and behavioural development

Experts have begun to quantify the costs associated with such early problems. For example, Prof Sophie Scott of London University has calculated that for a child with a conduct disorder the cost to the economy is 10 times more than that a child without.


Economic Return

But similarly, economists can also now estimate in financial terms the short-term economic contributions of quality early years interventions and the longer-term returns on investment; and there are now several long-term studies that have documented significant savings in the areas of remedial education, school drop out rates, welfare and crime.

In the US, the Perry Preschool Project followed 123 children until the age of 27 years, who attended roughly two years of preschool for 2.5 hours/day, and received home visits from the teacher once a week.  For every one dollar invested in the Perry Preschool Project the benefit was determined as being over 16 dollars.

More recently, analyses by Columbia University has found medium-term cost-savings to the state of New York from investment in early care and education ranging from over $2,500 to nearly $10,000 per child. The medium-term cost savings to the state from universal preschool programs range from $555 million to $828 million over the period from pre-school to the age of 12.

In Ireland, we also have some similar findings from the former National Economic and Social Forum who had made the case for state funding for universal pre-school stating: “it can be readily justified as the longer-term societal benefits that would accrue on the basis of this investment are at a ratio of 1:7.

The return on early year’s investment can be further viewed in the well-known graph produced by James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences from the University of Chicago.  Heckman makes a strong case for a higher return on human capital.

He concludes: “the returns to human capital investments are greatest for the young for two reasons: (a) skill begets skills, and b) younger persons have a longer horizon over which to recoup the fruits of their investments.”


 Educational & Developmental Return

It is important of course to look at the return on early year’s investment not just in economic terms; and we have much research in Ireland and the UK which reflects this. Along with an Taoiseach, I recently attend a British-Irish Council summit in Cardiff on the early years where much of this emerging research was discussed.

The EPPE study (‘Effective Provision of Pre-School Education’) in the UK and Northern Ireland has found that children who had little or no preschool experience) show poorer cognitive and social/behavioural outcomes at entry to school and at the end of Year 1 than those who attended pre-school.

Northern Ireland is particularly benefitting from recent developments in early education. Two recent global surveys have indicated that Northern Irish primary pupils performed better in reading and numeracy than in any other English speaking country in the world. A radical restructuring of the Foundation Stage (their equivalent of our Junior and Senior Infants), backed by an accompanying investment in training and professional development, has been indentified as one key factor contributing to this success. 

In this state, research on ‘Children’s Profile at School Entry’ conducted by the Geary Institute at University College Dublin has found that “children who spent any amount of time in centre-based childcare prior to school entry were rated higher than children who did not experience any centre-based childcare in the domains of social competence, language and cognitive development, and communication and general knowledge.”

In addition my Department along with Atlantic Philanthropy has funded three Prevention and Early Intervention programme sites at Tallaght, Ballymun and Darndale. Evaluations coming to date from these three sites have demonstrated significant improvements in outcomes for children in a number of domains.  Initial findings have shown that:

  • parenting programmes have a positive impact in tackling the early onset of behavioural and emotional problems among children as well as reducing parental  stress and improving parental wellbeing;
  • programmes to support pro-social skills, emotion understanding, social problem have shown significant improvements in school attendance and improvements in children’s’ behaviour towards each other; and
  • locating therapeutic services in schools support children’s development and active parental engagement.

These studies underscore an important realisation about the lasting effects of early care and education - the real benefits are not just from making children smarter, but from giving children a love of learning can help improve outcomes and support life-long learning. The development of positive learning dispositions, such as curiosity, playfulness, reciprocity and resilience, are key to engaging our citizens in lifelong learning – the fundamental purpose of education in the 21st century.


Context & Challenges

So how can all these research findings guide our plans for the future early year’s service provision?

Well first it’s important to take a moment and benchmark where we’re currently at and to name the challenges that exist at present

Ireland has regrettably lagged behind many other developed countries when it comes to our Early Years sector.   However this has begun to change in recent years.

Ireland has introduced a universal free pre-school year which has proven a phenomenal success with 94 % of all qualifying-age pre-school children now participating. This pre-school year provides important opportunities to support children’s early learning and development, mainly as a result of the requirement for practitioners to use Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework developed by NCCA. Aistear provides a shared vision for helping our youngest citizens grow up with a strong sense of well-being, identity and belonging and to develop as strong communicators and creative thinkers. 

My Department also operates the Community Childcare Subvention (CCS) scheme which supports disadvantaged and low-income parents by providing subventions to community childcare services; and the Childcare Education and Training Support (CETS) scheme which supports parents attending training and educational programmes. In Budget 2013, I announced a new Afterschool Childcare Scheme with 6,000 places for children in primary school, targeted at supporting low-income families and parents taking up a job activation opportunity.

However, we have a long way to go and there remain many challenges:

  • We still have major issues with both the affordability and accessibility of childcare; to better support working families;
  • We need to decide how to best support and regulate childminding;
  • We need to reassess what’s the best form of  childcare for under-ones;
  • We need to continue to improve quality standards and workforce capacity in all sectors of childcare and early years services; and
  • We need to build greater linkages between services - across early years care and education services; child health and parental support.

These are challenges which must not; and quite simply cannot, be dismissed.


Investing in Early Years

Because doing what’s right for Ireland means doing what’s right for our children; especially now, at a time when we have more children than ever. In 2010 we had the highest number of births ever recorded.  Our preschool population has increased, according to our 2011 Census, by nearly 18% since 2006.  This is a massive resource, a national treasure; offering immense potential; but which of course, a huge impact in our planning for the future.

This brings us back to the key point I wish to make here today; and which all the research justifies… we should be investing more on early year’s interventions.  As I said in a speech last week: “early intervention must become part of our national psyche”.

Indeed, quoting Dr. Anne Buchanan of Oxford University from her address to last month’s COFACE EU Presidency Conference in Dublin Castle (which was facilitated by both the ICA & my Department): “investing in children’s early years should be an ‘economic imperative’.”

The OECD agrees. In its 2011 Economic Survey of Ireland recognised the importance of investing in Early Years, emphasizing that in order for Ireland ‘to preserve its strengths in human capital’ we should recognize the importance of pre-school education in having ‘both a positive impact on later educational performance and an equity-enhancing effect’.

Investing in the early years also brings important benefits for young children themselves. The Aistear framework highlights the significance of the early years in laying important foundations for later learning and supporting children to become confident and competent learners throughout their lives. 

But investing in early years is not just about looking to the future.  Childcare not only supports parents’ labour force participation, but is itself a direct activation measure. The free pre-school year in Ireland, funded by my Department, currently supports approximately 7,000 jobs… and for every 10 or 11 additional childcare places we provide we will create one new job. A second free pre-school year could likely generate 4,000-5,000 new positions.

But in the current climate of fiscal constraint, is it realistic to be talking about the potential of investing more in early intervention service?

Senators may be aware that in an interview in the Irish Times over the New Year period, I questioned the level of public spending of universal services for children and families, in particular early intervention services

I pointed out that compared to Ireland; Nordic countries spend significantly more on child services, supports for families with young children, well paid parental leave and a high proportion of childcare; while these Nordic countries have much lower child poverty rates.

I also referred to the reality that, in Ireland, we have had a legacy of providing direct cash payments, instead of investing of services.

In 2013 my Department will spend just over €260 million on service provision in areas of early intervention and childcare. This is in stark contrast to the billions spent by Government on cash payments.

I think there is a growing acceptance that the spend on direct services represents too small a proportion of the state’s overall spend; a proportion which I believe needs be increased.

In light of the publication last month of the Report of Tax & Welfare Advisory Group, what I am asking is: whether we should reassess our overall levels of spending on service provision, in particular on early intervention and childcare services – services which improve children’s outcomes while also supporting parents?


Early Years Strategy

In this context, it is timely that work is now at an advanced stage on Ireland first-ever National Early Years Strategy and I hope the discussion here today; and Senators’ contributions, will further inform this work

I have appointed an Expert Advisory Group to advise on the preparation of the Strategy, chaired by Dr. Eilis Hennessy of UCD; and it is expected that this strategy will be completed in the first half of 2013.

I want this strategy to be a dynamic, integrated and innovative blueprint for the future of Ireland’s early years sector, addressing a range of polices and programme areas from early childhood care and education, to health and well-being to parent and family support. 

But most importantly, I want this strategy to address the big questions about:

  • the scale of national investment in the early years;
  • the future design of early years and childcare programmes
  • the further development of associated parental support and child health services; building on proven best practice.

With respect to the future programme design, I would like to see more comprehensive system of supports for working families and enhanced early years interventions to support children most at-risk.

However I have also been clear and consistent in my aspiration, subject to increased funding, and putting in place the necessary training and workforce supports, to introduce a second universal free pre-school year. This would cost an additional €200million per annum, but could be introduced on a phased basis. Is this an investment worth making? That’s the debate I want to have. It’s a debate, I believe, is worth having; and I look forward to your engagement in this debate.


Area-based poverty initiative

On this final point, Senators will be aware that in the recent budget I announced €2.5m in 2013, which will rise to over €4.5m in subsequent years, for a new area-based poverty initiative; as committed to in the Programme for Government. We’re talking here about the provision of effective community based–services in the areas of literacy, speech and language, parenting, health and pro-social behaviour.
Evaluation of existing projects has indicated decisions-making on early intervention programmes should be evidence-based so as to ensure the best fit to local need and services. Therefore this new initiative will take the learning and proven successes of the three PEIP projects in Tallaght, Ballymun & Darndale and extend this to three further sites.

But I believe it is vital that we go further; and seek to mainstream this learning at a broader systemic level through changing the way we deliver services; through the work of the new Child & Family Support Agency.


Child & Family Support Agency

Following the report of the Taskforce published last July, much work has been undertaken to establish the new Agency including identifying and disaggregating the budgets and staffing from the HSE; recruiting a senior management team; negotiations with staff unions and preparations of legislation in conjunction with the Attorney General’s office. I look forward to the Agency being legally-established and up-and-running in coming months.

While improving child protection has rightly been an issue of much focus in recent times; and will be a key objective of the new Agency, as I said to last week’s Symposium arranged by the Children’s Rights Alliance and Prevention & Early Intervention Network, I also want the message to go out that prevention, early intervention and family support are equally, if not more important goals for the Agency.

Factors such as poverty and deprivation, early-school leaving, mental health and substance misuse are very real and can impact significantly on children’s well-being.  For example an assessment of Irish child care datasets indicates that the primary reason for 14% of children being taken into state care was “a family member abusing drugs/alcohol”

Too often it is the interplay of numerous risk factors that act to expose children to serious risk. Too often these risk factors exist within the family setting. The purpose of prevention, early intervention and family support must be to identify and intervene as early as possible, to address such risk factors and ultimately prevent children from having to be taken into care.

At the heart of the new Agency will be new Service Delivery Framework which will differentiate child welfare and protection cases and underpin new multi-agency, community-based models for early intervention and family support.

From an early year’s viewpoint, nursing and home visitation services have a valuable contribution to offer. Latest statistics indicate that in 2011, 83.6% of newborn babies were visited by a Public Health Nurse within 48 hours of discharge from hospital, up from 73.2% in 2007. This is a fantastic resource and the emerging research on service innovations will help us further develop the potential of this resource while also informing the inclusion of additional services in the next phases of the Agency’s development.


Youth Work

Before I conclude I wish to touch briefly on the role of youth work services in early intervention. At the end of last year we held a very constructive debate in this chamber on a private members motion on the Indecon economic assessment of youth work. This cost-benefit analysis, commissioned by the National Youth Council of Ireland, found that youth work contributes an economic benefit of €2.21 for every €1 invested.

This relates to the accrual to young people of benefits across a range of fronts and the disruption of negative or damaging behavioural trends by young people. For example youth work can support efforts to reduce early school leaving and substance misuse as well as helping young people to gain practical skills and to become job-ready. Youth work can also aide efforts to prevent youth offending; and I would like to think that Irish youth work played a part in the 41.6% decreased in recent years in the number of children referred to the Garda Juvenile Diversion Programme.

However; and notwithstanding recent funding reductions, I am equally convinced of the further ‘untapped potential’ which youth work has to offer, both in term of early intervention and in supporting youth employment initiatives, in particular in relation to young people who are otherwise marginalised from traditional services such as those who are not in education, employment or training, the so-called NEETs.

The European Foundation, based in Loughlinstown, has led EU research and policy development on this group; and in one of their most recent reports Eurofound estimate that the economic loss due to the disengagement of the NEET’s cohort from the EU labour market was €153 billion per annum, corresponding to 1.2% of European GDP.

Responding to; and if possible preventing disengagement is an objective which youth work services are well placed to support. Many Irish youth work services already provide a significant level of engagement with this cohort and have the potential to provide a value-added not readily available from other activation programmes, through outreach and intervention services and bridging programmes focused on developing skill-sets and job-readiness.

This is a key theme of my Presidency of the EU Council of Youth Ministers; and will be subject to both council of ministers conclusions and a high-level roundtable I will host in Ireland in June. On the domestic front I am working with Cabinet colleagues on opportunism for collaboration, embedding youth work as key part of the continuum of activation supports.



As Senators can see, there is a significant body of important work underway in my Department. We are shifting to a new focus on early intervention. But this is only the start. We can do so much more. This will require further investment, but all the research available justifies this.

One of the most popular proverbs in Ireland is of course ‘Tús maith, leath na hoibre’. My vision is that these wise words become everyday practice – through early intervention for children and young people.

I look forward to the debate and Senators’ contributions.


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