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 Speech by Ms Frances Fitzgerald T.D., Minister for Children and Youth Affairs at the Launch of National Association of Childhood Professionals

(Check against delivery)

The Clock Tower, Marlborough Street

Friday 7th June 2013

I am delighted to be here with you today at the official launch of the National Association of Childhood Professionals.

It is always a good thing when a group of professionals create a peer network that will help share knowledge and foster and reinforces standards of practice, whatever the context. But in the current context of childcare in this country, to set up your organization is most appropriate.

For more than a decade, childcare policy in this country has been about bricks and mortar, not training and development. Since the boom more attention has been dedicated to building facilities than building children’s futures.

Despite that, across the country, childcare professionals like you have delivered thoughtful, caring, expert and excellent care. Children across the country have had fulfilling and rewarding experiences in their early-years, and have built an enviable foundation on which to progress their lives.

This Government wanted to create a full ministry for children, and that is why I, as the first Minister for Children, put a particular emphasis on early-years intervention and education; because we all know that no positive experience can be as important as those had in the early years, and no negative experience can be as damaging.

There is no better evidence of the need for the changes we are bringing about than the Primetime programme last week.

The footage shown will have disturbed every parent in the country. And I have no doubt that you, as dedicated childcare professionals will have found it extremely upsetting and disturbing to watch.

And I have no doubt that you know that it is not the norm for your profession.

The programme-makers made clear that they found instances of excellent care, even in some of the crèches about which complaints had been made. I have little doubt that the people in this room could site litanies of examples of care, empathy, consideration and kindness in crèches, family homes and child-minders around Ireland.

Our challenge is making that the cultural norm in every institution. We will never achieve a situation where bad things do not happen. Just as the medical profession accepts that there will always be doctors who fall below the required standards, we can never achieve perfection.

But we can try.

That’s why your organization is so important- because it is a fundamental part of making clear that childcare is a vocation for professionals. It’s a calling. Not a cash-cow.

The association of childhood professionals dovetails well with the other changes we are making in early years intervention, which together will start to make the cultural shift that has been so desperately needed.

The changes we are seeking to bring about are:

 An increase in the required qualification standards of childcare staff. I think it only fair at this point to dispel the myth that anyone can work with children. This is patently not the case and there is a duty of care on service providers to ensure that those providing care and attention to our youngest citizens have the capacity to do so. As a society we must collectively reject the notion that those working in the early years sector can do so without the aptitude, qualifications, skills and support necessary to deliver the best for our children. For this reason we are working to increase the required qualification standards of childcare staff. This will be phased-in over a 2 year period, starting in September 2014 when the Department enters into its next contractual cycle with funded services. We are currently examining how we could best support upskilling.

We will bring about the implementation of Síolta and Aistear, including examining the establishment of nationwide mentoring supports

We are working to implement new National Pre-School Standards. New day-care standards were previously completed but have not yet been implemented. Later this years it is intended to launch these standards alongside further standards on sessional care and childminding which are currently being finalised. These standards will replace all current guidelines and will be implemented and inspected in line with the new registration system and improved inspection systems

We are working to introduce registration of all childcare providers. This will commence later this year; moving away from the current system of ‘notification' where childcare providers only need notify the HSE of their intention to set up.

We are working on developing a more robust, consistent and regular inspection system  There has been a significant programme of work underway in the HSE over the past year to develop a single, consistent national inspection service (as opposed to 37 different local systems). 

In each of 2011 and 2012, over 2,600 childcare providers were subject to inspections by the HSE – an inspection rate of over 60% of all providers in each year. This compares very favourably with comparable jurisdictions such as England where Ofsted operates a policy of inspecting childcare providers on a 3-4 year cycle.

However we propose moving to a position where there is consistent and assured national target rate for the frequency of inspection of pre-school services; while ensuring capacity for prioritisation based on risk assessment.   The HSE is currently reviewing the regional spread of inspectors with a view to identifying whether either additional resources or redeployment of existing inspectors is required to achieve this.

Building on this work, officials of my Department and the Department of Education and Skills have been examining options to incrementally develop a more comprehensive and broader-based inspection regime for pre-schools; moving away from a narrow focus on compliance, and leading to a greater focus on children's outcomes, including educational development and child wellbeing.  This work is being informed by the finding of a recent Joint Pilot Inspection carried out in a small number of settings by Inspectors from the Health Service Executive and the Department of Education and Skills.

We are working to publish Inspection Reports. Parents will rightly demand and expect the highest standards and this will be a key factor in driving change in the sector.  Parents are entitled to ask their service provider to see a copy of their latest HSE inspection report.  Publishing inspection reports is an essential step in ensuring high standards and accountability.  The latest Reports arising from inspections carried out by the Pre-School Inspectorate will be published on-line in the coming weeks 2014.

We are working to ensure action is taken in response to findings of non-compliance. There must be a follow-through on inspections.  Clearly, services which are found to be in serious breach of the Regulations will face closure and prosecution.   It is proposed to develop a protocol with the Pre-School Inspectorate which will take a calibrated approach and which will enable more decisive action to be taken in response to non-compliance.

We are working to increase sanctions for non-compliant childcare providers It proposed to increase penalties, on prosecution, under Section 57 of the Child Care Act 1991; to include real and meaningful deterrents to non-compliance.

Last week’s broadcast highlighted practices on the part of individual staff members which were of very serious concern.  The responsibility of management must also be the subject of questioning.  Management is responsible for the selection and training of staff, the development of operational policies and practices and the management of day to day service delivery.  Most of all management is responsible for the culture and ethos of the pre-school – they set the tone through their example, their interaction with children and parents and their guidance of staff. 

This pre-school quality agenda represents an essential building block towards the future extension of universal pre-school provision; including the objective which I have previously spoken of in relation to introducing a second free-pre-school year.

There is a wealth of international (and emerging Irish) research which highlights the economic benefits of investing in the early years and which demonstrates how quality pre-school provision can greatly contribute to improved educational and developmental outcomes for children, including school-readiness. A second free-pre-school year would also represent an equivalent saving of approximately €2,500 - €3,000 in childcare costs for parents;

However in discussing the possible extension of the free pre-school year, I have also always been clear that ensuring quality provision is critical.

I see my pre-school quality agenda; and measures to be considered in the context of Budget 2014, as a first step in a multi-annual approach which could  lead to the introduction of a second year. A second year remains an important objective.

And let me stress the multi-annual aspect of this work… Just like the ambitious and comprehensive reform programme underway in child protection, let us be clear: a sustained effort is required for a significant period ahead; and this will not be done overnight.

But we will get there… and I would ask for your support.

At times like these the positives that have been achieved to date invariably remain forgotten. The many services whose care and education of our children is excellent, the staff who commit their own time and resources to improving their skills, and of a sector overall responding flexibly to additional needs in the best interests of children. I wish to express my thanks to all for this and seek your support in partnership for the transition to an early years sector that is truly the best it can be.

I mentioned earlier how timely it is that the Association is being launched today. I am confident that, with your expertise, insight and experience the role of this new professional body will be key in building the standards, ensuring qualification and growing the professionalism of the sector to the benefit of all sections of Irish society.

The prize of a quality early years sector with its multiple associated potential benefits, for the present and future generations of the State’s children, is too critical a goal to let slip.

I’d like to finish by wishing the Association of Childhood Professionals the very best and look forward to working with you to further enhance and develop our early years services into those from which we can take great pride.