Pre-school Inspection Services
The purpose of this note is to explain how the regulatory system for early years services has changed and will continue to change over the coming two or three years.
Pre-school inspections began in 1997, following the introduction of the Pre-School Regulations in 1996. In the past two decades the Early Years sector has grown and developed placing changing demands on the regulatory system and this is a continuing process. The long term aim of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) and HSE Children and Families is to ensure the development of a ‘fit for purpose’ early years regulatory service that contributes to building high standards and is based on our internationally respected quality and curriculum standards as described in Síolta, the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Aistear, the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework.
Achieving this ambition will require change, not just on the part of the inspection service, but also of early years services, who will need support to help them build their capacity to deliver this challenging quality vision in practice. The DCYA, the Department of Education and Skills (DES) and HSE Children and Families have been considering the best future for regulation, including how to assess educational outcomes, the regulatory process and systems and how best to move forward.
One of the difficulties that had been identified by the HSE was the absence of a coherent national approach to regulation which was challenging both for services and for inspectors. Work on the creation of the new Children and Family Agency has provided an opportunity to address this and since 2011, HSE Children and Families has been working towards developing Pre-school Inspection as a nationally coordinated service. A practical outcome of this work has been the introduction of Standard Operating Procedures in early 2013 which should address inconsistencies and provide clarity and transparency to early years services. As part of that work, HSE were also developing a system of registration of services.
Number of Inspectors and Gaps
The present (October 2013) complement of pre-school inspectors is 27 (Whole Time Equivalent) Inspectors from a Public Health Nursing background and 11 (Whole Time Equivalent) Inspectors from other professional backgrounds including Teaching, Health Education, Social Care; Paediatric Nursing; Intellectual Disability Nursing and Childcare.
Over recent years a number of areas of the country have had no inspector or an inadequate number of inspectors. HSE Children and Families are recruiting 5 new inspectors, to cover gaps in Louth, DublinSouth/East Wicklow, Cavan/Monaghan and Sligo/Leitrim/West Cavan. In addition, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has received approval from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to increase the new Child and Family Agency staffing numbers to provide for extra posts to further strengthen the Inspectorate. Some funding for this was provided for in Budget 2013.
While inspection reports were always given to the early years service and were available to parents, they were not originally designed for publication. In light of the Minister’s commitment to publication of inspection reports into the future, a number of necessary revision to the existing reporting templates were identified by inspectors and by services. These included
• The focus of the report on deficits, no matter how small scale, that were then interpreted as non-compliance with no provision for a more coherent view of the overall quality of the service
• a layout and content that were not consumer friendly (particularly for parents)
• a lack of consistency in language and approach
Work was ongoing within the HSE Children and Families to address these issues by developing a new format for reports and introducing an editorial process, which would be best practice in regulatory bodies, when following the Prime Time programme in May 2013 a decision was taken to publish reports on line. Since early July existing reports have been placed on line for public viewing. The reports are hosted by Pobal and linked to Pobal maps. Reports will continue to be uploaded. Preparing reports for publication is a time consuming task. The reports are mainly in paper format and each one has to be taken from its file, separated from any irrelevant papers (eg personal comments) given a reference number and scanned. Relevant papers, such as replies by services are attached, where they are available. All reports go through a data protection review so that areas which require redaction (anything that might identify a person) are removed.
The report of any inspection that took place after 1 July 2013 uses an amended but similar format of report, and has to go through an editorial process. As this is a new process, it is proving slow to complete reports, but the first reports under this system went on at the end of October.
HSE Children and Families is continuing to work on improving the reports. During 2014 a new style of report aimed at being clearer and more user friendly will be introduced and as soon as that is available all reports will use that format. This will not be a static process and if further improvements are possible, the format will continue to improve. For these reasons, over the next 12 months there will be reports which may differ slightly as improvements are implemented.
In the longer term, further national policy development relating to the promotion of high quality early years services may continue to stimulate change and development to statutory inspection systems and processes. However the ultimate goal will be to promote consistency, clarity and transparency for all those who wish to ensure high quality early childhood experiences for children and their families.
New National Standards
The 2006 Child Care (Pre-School services No. 2) Regulations are accompanied by guidelines which provide detail in relation to how the regulations will be interpreted. To replace these guidelines, new National Pre-School Standards, designed to support early years service providers in delivering a high quality service and parents in choosing the childcare best suited to their needs have been developed. These standards, which have been developed in consultation with the Early Years sector, will replace all current guidelines and will be implemented and inspected against with the new registration system and improved inspection systems, from 1 January 2014.
A key weakness inthe regulatory system that has been identified by all stakeholders is the fact that under the Child Care Act 1991 anyone may open a childcare service subject to notifying the HSE. The only recourse the HSE has had to deal with unsuitable services has been prosecution. To address this unsatisfactory situation a robust system of registration that would ensure that services cannot open until they meet at least minimum standards is required. The HSE had been working on developing a system of registration, which it was originally intended to introduce in connection with DCYA funding for Early Years services. However, with the passage of the Children and Family Agency Bill through the Houses of the Oireachtas, it was possible to place registration on a statutory footing so that it could be applied to all services. Statutory registration is due to be introduced from 1 January 2014, subject to the legislation being passed. All existing notified services will be deemed to be registered. There will be a need for training of inspectors in the new registration system as well as in inspecting against the new standards.
The Children and Family Agency will be implementing the new system of registration over 2014, and systems will be developed and revised on the basis of what works well. The Agency will consult with services and representative bodies as the system is implemented to ensure that the system is robust, transparent and effective.