Pre-school scheme gets an F from parents

The Early Childhood Care and Education scheme begins this week amid criticism that it doesn’t provide enough support for parents or educators.

Early Childhood Ireland, a lobby group, said that the government-funded pre-school scheme that runs for three hours each weekday was a “letdown” for educators, whose managers struggle to pay their wages.

The criticism threatens to overshadow today’s scheduled announcement by Katherine Zappone, the children’s minister, that 400 children with disabilities will be able to participate in the ECCE scheme, thanks to a new initiative. Under the Access Inclusion Model (AIM), childcare providers will be given access to a team of 50 early years inclusion experts as well as equipment, aids, appliances and additional classroom support.

Parent groups have criticised the ECCE scheme for only partly meeting childcare needs.

Becky Durnin, 28, who runs a doula agency and also has a two-year-old daughter, said the three hours in which her daughter was away left her little time to do any work.

Three hours was not enough and was hard to manage with work and a baby, Ms Durnin said. “The term time is extremely short which often left us having to source alternative childcare because my work year doesn’t end simply as a result of the pre-school term being out,” she added. “We need a better solution. The childcare situation particularly marginalises self-employed, married women who have children.”

Linnea Dunne, a mother-of-two who works outside the home, said that it does not provide enough support to working parents.

“While it could be argued that the scheme sets kids up well for school, I don’t believe that this is necessary at such a young age. Research shows again and again that all young children need is time outside and free play. I don’t think the ECCE programme really caters to such a view of education,” Ms Dunne, who lives with her husband and two sons in north Dublin, said.

“As such, for me, the benefit that remains is the free childcare, which in a lot of ways it doesn’t quite deliver on. It provides a welcome break for stay-at-home parents, but for working parents it unfortunately mainly adds to the already difficult mapping out of collections, drop-offs and matching schedules, especially for those in full-time work or work with unsociable hours and those with children in school or on other schedules.”

Ms Dunne said that there was some confusion about the purpose of the scheme, and argued that if the government truly wanted to support parents it would provide greater parental leave for both mothers and fathers.

“The pressure from parents and women’s rights groups to provide more free childcare is mounting, and as such the programme has been used to tick that box,” Ms Dunne said. “At the same time it subscribes to an idea of early-years education that has little to do with supporting families with free childcare. So which is it? If its purpose is to support families, the hours are ridiculous. If it’s meant to be a part of our national education programme I guess it should be compulsory and we’ll have to consider what that means for our view on education.”

A spokesman for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs told The Times yesterday that Ms Zappone acknowledges parents still face many challenges. “Minister Zappone is committed to working with children, parents and providers to achieve the goal of accessible, affordable, quality childcare for all,” the spokesman said. “While huge progress has been made in recent years the minister acknowledges challenges remain and in order to start addressing them she will host the first meeting of a national early years forum in the coming weeks.”

Early Childhood Ireland also said that the scheme presents financial issues for providers with some early education teachers forced to collect the dole during summer months.

“For the early years educators who are so central in delivering the pre-school curriculum, the ECCE scheme is still a letdown. The scheme does not pay enough to cover fair salaries; it only runs for 38 weeks a year, forcing them onto the dole over the summer months; or in the case of owners, no income at all,” Teresa Heeney, the chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland, said.

“It is very demanding on the administration side and yet pays for zero time input from pre-school managers in this regard. The new rolling enrolment approach is experimental and as such untested. While it sounds good in theory, the reality of holding spaces open for the children who are due to start next January 2017 or April 2017, based on their birth date, is not sustainable from a staff salary perspective.”