IMPACT has unveiled plans to work with employers in the early years sector to seek improved state funding, and to professionalise the industry so that staff providing quality services can be properly rewarded. Speaking at the union’s annual Education Conference in Dublin today (Thursday), IMPACT’s deputy general secretary Kevin Callinan accused politicians of abandoning the childcare issue less than a month after the election. He said his union would work with early years providers to keep pre-school services on the political agenda.
Mr Callinan said the additional free pre-school year, announced by the outgoing Government in its last budget, was applauded by parents and providers alike. But he said the programme’s inadequate capitation payment was driving down wages because employers were being asked to provide services ‘below cost’. A recent ICTU survey found that, although Irish parents pay dearly for pre-school care, early years staff – including well-qualified workers – could earn as little as €5,150 a year in increasingly-casualised sector. Meanwhile, Ireland spends just 0.2% of GDP on childcare, compared to an OECD average of 0.8%.
Speaking to over 100 delegates at the event, called A Good Start: Professionalising Early Years Services, he said low pay, poor career prospects, and long periods off-payroll during the summer months, were damaging service quality by driving staff out of the sector, with turnover rates for childcare professionals at 22%.
Mr Callinan said: “The cost and quality of childcare was one of the biggest issues in February’s General Election. A month later, it already seems to have fallen off the political agenda. The issue has barely appeared on the priority lists drawn up by the mainly middle-aged men involved in discussions on the make-up of a Government. Meanwhile, Ireland lags behind most European countries when it comes to investment in early care and education. That’s why Irish parents face among the highest childcare costs in Europe, while staff in the sector – including well-qualified professionals– are among the lowest paid in our economy.
“All the evidence shows that investment in early years services delivers huge benefits for children – particularly those from lower-income backgrounds – and for society and the economy more generally. Whatever its shape, the incoming Government needs to commit to sustained investment in early years to at least bring Ireland up to the OECD average. That investment must be linked to top quality service provision which, in turn, requires the professionalisation of all early years staff. We want to work with employers to deliver the range and quality of services that children need and parents demand, and to ensure that the people who provide quality services are properly rewarded with decent pay, regular working hours, and a modern career structure.”
Gina O’Brien, Chairperson of IMPACT’s Education Division, said the union had delivered better working conditions and “a new and deserved degree of respect” for similar groups of workers. “Most staff in the early years sector are experiencing the same problems as special needs assistants, school secretaries and others – groups that IMPACT has successfully organised and represented. Right now, the sector is largely characterised by low paid staff and struggling employers. This is not a foundation for excellence. That’s why we want to see staff and employers – mostly small business owners – working together to force the pace, and make the case, for first-class early years provision,” she said.
In recent weeks, IMPACT has worked with the Association of Childhood Professionals to organise 20 meetings, attended by hundreds of early years professionals.
The IMPACT conference also heard from Helen Penn, Professor Emerita of Early Childhood at the University of East London, who is an internationally-renowned authority on the professionalisation of early years services. She said that the EU recommended that early years staff should be well qualified staff with initial and continuing training that enables them to fulfil their professional role.
“They should be recognised as professionals and there should be common education and training for all staff working in early childhood education and care and they should expect supportive working conditions including professional leadership,” she said. Helen said workers in the sector needed a voice if they were to achieve improved working conditions. “In New Zealand, Canada and Denmark unions have taken lead role in articulating the concerns of childcare workers,” she said.
Other speakers included David Coleman (clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author), Tom Healy (Nevin Institute), Teresa Heeney (CEO, Early Childhood Ireland), Bernie McNally (assistant secretary general, Department of Children and Youth Affairs), Marian Quinn (chairperson, Association of Childhood Professionals.
With over 10,000 members, IMPACT’s Education Division is the biggest representative voice for non-teaching education staff including special needs assistants, school secretaries, school completion staff, early years staff, and clerical and administrative staff in National Education and Training Board and institutes of technology.
All photography by Conor Healy