The Importance of the Early Years
There is a very significant body of evidence that the early years matter. Some key points are:
- The portions of the brain that control vision, hearing and language development all start developing at birth and peak before child reaches 18 months
- Language and literacy skills begin to develop before a child uses its first words; by the age of three, 50% of our language is in place with 85% by the age of five
- Early experiences shape how the brain develops
- Interactions between a child and parent directly affect the architecture of the brain
- Prolonged stress in the absence of protective relationships is damaging to the developing brain and can result in problems in learning and development.
In brief, development in the early years is a key determinant of the child's future learning capacity, the ability to choose right from wrong, the ability to interact with others, the ability to develop trust and respect for other people. The evidence provides unequivocal support for the economic benefit of investment in early childhood and shows that the benefit accrues not only to the individual child and family, but to all citizens. Early childhood services provide essential support for children's cognitive, social and emotional development: they also enable parents to participate in the workforce and they provide valuable employment for skilled workers. In addition to these universal benefits, evidence demonstrates that more intensive and targeted early childhood services have the potential to significantly enhance the life chances of more vulnerable children.
In recognition of the above, State investment in early childhood care and education has been a key focus of recent years, and despite economic difficulties, every effort has been made to maintain a high level of investment.
Prior to 2000, there was very limited capacity in the childcare sector. However, over the decade 2000 to 2010, the State, initially in partnership with the EU, invested €425 million capital funding to create childcare places throughout Ireland. About 65,000 extra places were created. Due to this investment Ireland has a good infrastructure for childcare which can provide the basis for quality services that meet the needs of children and families
Free pre-school year
In January 2010 a universally available preschool year was introduced. All children aged more than 3 years 2 months and less than 4 years 7 months at 1 September in the relevant pre-school year are eligible for this scheme, which provides 3 hours a day for 38 weeks a year. The programme is provided in both community and private crèches and about 4,500 settings participate.
The free preschool year has been phenomenally successful from the beginning. About 95% of eligible children participate and have done so from the outset. This participation rate is envied by other countries, and is a testament to the importance that Irish parents attach to education. The State invests about €175 million each year in the scheme.
The 2011/2012 school year is the first in which the vast majority of Irish children have entered primary school having completed a full year in preschool. We are collecting data on the impact of this. However, anecdotally schools have reported higher levels of school readiness which is one positive outcome of the scheme.
While the participation rate is very high there is work still to be done on building the quality of the pre school year. The backgrounds, level of education and experience of staff in the sector varies considerably and this has an impact on consistency of quality. Frameworks for quality and for curriculum have been developed and are being rolled out throughout the sector and this will be the focus of the work of both DCYA and Department of Education and Skills over the next few years.
Community Childcare Subvention Programme (CCS)
Participation in the CCS programme is restricted to community/not-for-profit childcare services. The CCS Programme supports disadvantaged parents and provides support for parents in low paid employment and training or education by enabling qualifying parents to avail of reduced childcare costs at participating community childcare services. The 3 bands are A, AJ and B:
- To receive band A subvention a parent would have to be in receipt of one of the main DSP benefits, including OFP or FIS, and have a medical card. The payment from September 2012 on band A is €95 for those availing of a full day, five days per week, with pro rata payments for shorter days.
- Band AJ, which is a €50 subvention for a full day, is for parents who are in receipt of Job seeker’s benefit or allowance, supplementary welfare allowance, Tús and the Part-time job incentive programmes and have a medical card, with pro rata payments for shorter days
- Band B, which is also €50 for a full day, but has considerably lower subvention for shorter days, is open to parents on medical cards or GP visit cards.
About 27,000 children participate in the CCS.
Childcare Education and Training Support (CETS)
The CETS programme was introduced in September 2010, replacing earlier childcare support schemes operated by FAS and the VECs. The schemes operated by FAS and the VECs, prior to CETS, contributed €63.50 p.w. to qualifying FAS and VEC students and trainees. Where parents did not avail of centre-based childcare, it was difficult to confirm how the payments were used. There was also inequity between parents availing of childcare in a community service, where they could also qualify for a CCS subvention, and those using a commercial service, where they could not. The CETS programme provides qualifying FAS and VEC students with childcare places for the duration of their course. A parental contribution of up to €25 per week will have to be made from September, 2012. Like the CCS, the CETS programme supports labour activation and the Jobs Initiative policy.
There are currently 2,800 CETS places which benefit some 7,000 children. (This reflects the fact that many courses are of relatively short duration so places are used by more than one child over the year.)
Early Years Strategy
Irelands first Early Years Strategy (EYS) is being developed during 2012. It will focus on the lives of our youngest children and how we as a society can improve them, particularly through the provision of universal services. The Strategy will be written in the context of the Children and Young Peoples Policy Framework which will set out objectives, principles and outcomes that will underpin the age cohort or other strategies that are developed in relation to children. While we know from the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal study and other research that in general Irish children are happy, are engaged in society and have friends, there are things that we can do to improve their experiences, helping them to become resilient, self confident and engaged adults and citizens. We can also support parents to help their children learn and develop. There are also children whose lives are not happy and who grow up in circumstances that disadvantage them throughout their lives. The Early Years Strategy will, therefore, set out plans to address a range of issues that affect young children.
The Minister has appointed an Expert Advisory Group to advise on the development of the Strategy. The Group is as follows:
Dr. Eilis Hennessy, School of Psychology, UCD (Chair)
Catherine Byrne, Atlantic Philanthropies
Ciarín de Buis, Start Strong
Siobhan Feehan, Deansrath Family Resource Centre, Clondalkin
Fergus Finlay, Barnardos
Irene Gunning, Early Childhood Ireland
Prof. Noirín Hayes, DIT
Roisin McGlone, Sligo IT
Breda McKenna, Monaghan County Childcare Committee
Patricia Murray, Childminding Ireland
Prof. Alf Nicholson, Children’s University Hospital, Temple Street
Fr. Gerard O’Connor, St. Ultan’s, Cherry Orchard
Patricia O’Dwyer, Public Health Nursing Consultant
Kathryn O’Riordan, Cork CCC