Lack of coherent early years plan for 5,300 children in Mayo needs to be addressed

THE ongoing issues facing Mayo’s early years and school age care settings can only be addressed with a coherent five-year plan if Ireland is going to catch up with other countries, according to Early Childhood Ireland.

While 2023 saw unprecedented investment, Budget 2024 was a big disappointment and failed to build on gains announced the previous year.

The lack of proper planning is failing providers, parents, and, most importantly, the estimated 5,339 children who attend settings in Mayo. As a result, the issues facing the sector continue to go unaddressed, the organisation said.

“There are serious issues that need to be resolved if we are to have an early years and school age care system that ranks among the best in the world,” Frances Byrne, Early Childhood Ireland’s director of policy, said.

“Staff recruitment and retention is undoubtedly the number one challenge our 89 member settings in Mayo are currently grappling with,” Ms. Byrne outlined.

“Staffing pressures are caused by factors such as low pay and a lack of pensions. It is vital that government addresses this so that the sector’s 30,000-strong workforce is not left at the mercy of an annual wage negotiation process, which is moving at a frustratingly slow pace.

She added: “Our members are also concerned about the amount of time they spend on administering the various government funding programmes, as it is taking educators away from quality contact time with children.

“Many providers are also dismayed by the attendance requirements. These lead to a lack of flexibility for families and are not centred, as they should be, on the lives and needs of children.

“We are proposing a unification of the existing funding programmes: National Childcare Scheme (NCS), Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) and Core Funding, to allow settings to use capacity, not children’s attendance, as is the case with one of the programmes now. This would offer improved flexibility with no financial consequences for providers or for parents.”

Further investment and the need for a coherent medium to long-term plan for the sector are essential, according to Ms. Byrne.

“Significantly more investment is needed to provide an early years and school age care sector that is of high quality, adequate capacity, and that is inclusive of all children. It is vital for the interim sustainability and certainty - which children, families, providers, educators, and communities need -that a new funding target and a coherent plan to achieve it is published.

“We have repeatedly called on the current Minister for Children and his Cabinet colleagues to do this. It will require more than one government to agree and implement this plan, so political leadership from all sides is needed.

“Encouragingly, we have heard members of the Oireachtas Children’s Committee voice their support for our proposals. What we need now is action so that we can have an early years and school age care sector in this country that works for all concerned. Ireland’s children and families deserve nothing less.”