'It's a crisis': Here is why Irish Early Years educators are protesting today 3 months ago

'It's a crisis': Here is why Irish Early Years educators are protesting today

They provide one of the very most important and valuable jobs there is.

Yet when it comes to those working as early years educators in creches and sessional services across Ireland today, they are facing a situation that would tell you that the very opposite is true. Underpaid, undervalued and, right now, under an enormous amount of stress over a variety of issues facing the sector, including that of rising insurance costs, pay for workers and a chaotic and inconsistent inspection process from several different bodies.

These are just some of the reasons why the Early Years Alliance, an umbrella group made up of community and private childcare staff and providers, unions and parents — are staging a protest in Dublin city centre today, demanding a new model of childcare in Ireland to address issues like low wages, high fees for parents and a very uncertain future for anyone working in the childcare and early education sector.

Less than the living wage

"We have had an absolute crisis on our hands these past few months, explains Niamh McDonald, who runs Precious Days Montessori in Lusk, Co. Dublin, alongside her business partner, Louise Lawless.

"Many experienced and highly trained educators are leaving their jobs in childcare because they literally cannot afford to work in the sector they are trained to work in. We have have had staff leave to go for jobs in local supermarkets, like Aldi or Lidl, where they can just walk in and straight away be offered a salary higher than they were on as early childhood educators."

Today, 61 per cent of early years educators in Ireland are earning less than the current Living Wage of €12.30 per hour.

"Realistically, in our sector, our early years educators, who provide children with their very first education in the extremely important formative years, are earning an average of €11.46 per hour," McDonald explains.

"For myself and my business partner, as well as for so many other creches and sessional services, we cannot recruit and retain qualified and dedicated staff. And when asked, only a very few will answer that they intend staying working in this profession for any length of time if the situation remains what it is today."

The result? Most childcare facilities in Ireland today have a high staff turnover, which, needless to say, creates a lesser quality care for children and the parents, who constantly will have to get used to new staff and new teachers.

For Gema Martos, who runs Smarties Academy, a Montessori and Afterschool, in Churchtown, South County Dublin, the situation is the same.

"We have early years educators who have studied for their qualifications for years, but who are not even earning a living wage – at this stage, many working in the industry can't even apply for a mortgage, or are faced with having to take on an extra job just to be able to pay their rent and bills. Staff are leaving the sector in droves, going to work somewhere like supermarkets, jobs with better pay and with a lot less responsibility."

In a press release issued by Siptu, Association of Childhood Professionals Chairperson, Marian Quinn, said:

“High-quality services don't come cheap and we can't continue to subsidise the real cost of provision through low wages, unsustainable services and high fees for parents. The State must accept responsibility and significantly fund this vital public service. We cannot be in a position where impoverished staff are providing the foundation level in our education system. It is inequitable, unjust and immoral. Staff turnover is enormous because our profession is being exploited to meet political objectives. This has to stop.”

A broken system with little or no support

Study after study has proven just how important the formative years are for children, and how these pretty much lay the foundation for all that is to come. And early education can play a critical role during this vital developmental period. In other words, for a state to invest in their country's early years education just makes sense. In comparison, the Scandinavian countries, quality state-supported early childhood care and education is a core part of these country's welfare policies. Why? Because of the recognition that structured investment in children and childhood yields long-term benefits, both for the children themselves and also for society as a whole.

It is rather concerning, then, when you realise, according to figures from the EU Social Justice Index, that Ireland ranks bottom among 28 EU countries for investment in pre-primary education.

And it is this funding gap that has resulted in the extremely high fees for parents or caregivers, extremely low pay for staff and a complete lack of financial sustainability for service providers.

"The problem here is that the government do not see early years educators as teachers, and so even though our educators follow a national curriculum with the children, that there is planning going into how we teach and how we structure our day, the departments concerned with children and childcare do not see this is warranting a living or sustainable wage," McDonald explains.

"The problem is then three-fold: Wages below Living Wage for our staff, providers who have to meet the shortfall and increasing cost for parents."

Ultimately, she explains, the current model of ECEC funding does not work, and with today's protest, McDonald and thousands of others, both those working in the industry and also parents who are facing mounting costs of childcare, are hoping that the government will increase – even double – the funding into early childhood education – and bring Ireland a little bit closer to the EU average.

The ECCE scheme and why it needs to change

As it stands today, the ECCE programme, which many know as the free preschool programme, covers free preschool places for children from the age of two years and nine months of age, for two years.

To many children, this program is their first meeting with the education system and the ECCE program's national educational framework is governed by the Department of Education, and the teachers follow a curriculum with the children, in the same way, primary school teachers do.

The program provides free early years education for children for three hours per day for 38 weeks a year – in other words; the same as the school year for primary schools across the country.

What this means, is that childcare providers, whether they only operate a sessional service, or run a full-day childcare facility which also offers the ECCE program, must hire early childcare educators – teachers – who are well-trained, as well as support staff who are all college-educated.

"But here is the difference," explains McDonald. "Our staff, myself included, are not paid for the 14 weeks of the year when the scheme does not run (summer holidays, midterm, Christmas- and Easter break etc.). And so when you break it down over a year and including the weeks where there is no pay, I am making €4.60 per hour."

"When the ECCE grant was first introduced in 2007 the weekly standard capitation rate was €64.50," explains Martos. "And currently, it stands at €69. In the past 10 years, we have only seen an increase of €4.50, which puts it €15 under the rate of inflation."

This model means that childcare providers are left with the financial burden of paying their staff their wages. Or, in some cases, early childhood educators are forced to go on social welfare support for the 14 weeks of the year they are left without any pay. In stark contrast, it bears mentioning that our politicians are taking home a lot more money.

Another problem with the current ECCE model, McDonald explains, is the T&Cs that are set out, that often sees childcare providers lose out.

"If a child shows a pattern of non-attendance, for instance, if a child is out sick one day for four weeks in a row, the Pobal inspections could claim there is a pattern of absence and could require payment to be returned. This does not happen in primary schools."

The problem? This doesn’t allow for the myriad reasons a child may miss days or be late coming in or early leaving. This could be due to sickness, traffic in the local area, or even parents getting days off work or grandparents wanting to spend time with grandchildren."

As for the newly introduced National Childcare Scheme, Martos admits: "It is useless to most parents, and very few can even enrol in it. In our place, not one single family has enrolled, and the amount of paperwork to sign someone up is beyond ridiculous – it amounts for four months work for a single person, and if there is a tiny fault in the system we don’t get paid and they are including more and more unrealistic and not feasible regulations every day."

Mounting insurance costs

Insurance costs have been on the rise for everyone in the service business, but the childcare sector might just be the worst hit, with many having seen their insurance costs more tripled in the past year.

Recently, Ironshore Europe, by far the biggest insurers of the childcare sector, pulled out of the market, resulting in a situation where childcare providers are now being held over a barrel as they face a monopoly in the Irish insurance market.

"My insurance costs have not more than tripled," explains McDonald. "And this is making it extremely difficult to even manage to stay open, as we are stretch financially as it is. For most, increasing prices to try to make up for this is impossible, as parents are already paying the highest childcare costs in Europe, and simply cannot afford another price increase."

The recent payment given by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, to help childcare provider deal with extra insurance costs, was also somewhat wrongly presented in the media.

"It was made out to sound like every childcare provider would get €1500 to help cover the thousands more they were now paying insurance, but that was not the case at all," McDonald explains. Instead, most got far less.

"Smarties Academy received as little as €160, and so nowhere near the average of €1500 that we were told we would receive," says Martos.

"And so basically, the sector and most of us have been left to take the hit for this insurance monopoly ourselves, which is adding to the financial strain we are under."

Out-of-control inspections

Last year, the RTÉ Investigates programme revealed significant issues at the Hyde and Seek creche chain in Dublin, and as well as concerns raised about fire safety, food quality, and staff to child ratios, children were also filmed being roughly handled, and currently, two directors face prosecution, accused of alleged childcare failings, as a result of the programme.

"This naturally had an impact on the entire sector, and parents and childcare providers alike were shocked with the horrendous and callous behaviour inflicted on innocent children," Martos explains. "We condemn bad practise unequivocally. But a minority of individuals, however, should not be permitted to demonise the sector at large."

In a knee-jerk reaction to the RTÉ Investigates programme, inspections were amped up, and currently, childcare providers are being inspected by four different bodies, Tusla, DCYA, Pobal and Environmental Health and Safety. The inspections are frequent, inconsistent and extremely time-consuming, and many childcare providers are reporting having to take on extra staff that they can barely afford to pay, just in an attempt to deal with the added paperwork and time, this is causing.

"It is chaos," admits McDonald. "We want to do our jobs looking after the children, and being bombarded and in most cases bullied from the inspectors is not the answer, it should be done in a graded single inspection, in a scenario where all these different bodies came together to conduct what was a realistic, proper and important inspection."

Childcare providers have shared between them many of the now flat out crazy demands and regulations being put on them by Tusla, DCYA, Pobal and Environmental Health and Safety.

"We have heard of facilities that are being told they have too much artwork on the walls and have to change this, or, in one case, that the inspectors had found a spider web in the garden and that this was a health and safety issue," Martos explains. "It has become absolute chaos, and there are so many irregularities in these inspections."

McDonald agrees.

"The inspections are at times both intrusive and disrespecting. It is time-consuming, as we have all had to re-register with Tusla, and for some, this has ended up costing thousands, both in time and actual money."

What would work so much better, they agree, is a streamlined inspection process with a graded compliance system, a sector-specific Inspection & Compliance Agency, which works collaboratively with providers.

"Recognising that childcare providers and early years educators are conducting important work during some of what are children's most important years, that we work for the Government and that the absolute vast majority are doing their job correctly and well."

The Early Years Alliance protest will assemble at Parnell Square in Dublin on Wednesday 5 February at 11.30 am. The protest march will conclude in Merrion Square.