Revealed: The childcare standards lottery
Reports show big variations in care levels around the country
Where you live can have a direct bearing on the standard of your local crèche, the Irish Independent can reveal.
Pre-school centres in the west of the country are reaching higher standards than in Dublin and Leinster due to better rates of inspection by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.
An analysis of inspection reports for recent years indicates big variations in standards around the country, with crèches in some counties enjoying a much cleaner bill of health than others.
It shows the west has generally had a higher level of compliance with childcare regulations than elsewhere.
Limerick in particular emerged as one of the better places in the country for childcare, with almost three-quarters of all crèches inspected by Tusla this year found to be fully compliant.
The revelation comes as concerns persist over standards in the sector two years on from an RTÉ programme which used secretly filmed footage in relation to the care of children in three créches in Dublin and Wicklow.
One of those, Links Créche and Montessori in Malahide, was fined yesterday after pleading guilty to eight charges of failing to take reasonable measures to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of a pre-school child attending the service.
Tusla has 49 inspectors to monitor more than 4,600 facilities nationwide, some 1,151 of which were inspected in the first six months of this year.
However, the agency admits that until recently there has not been an even spread of inspectors.
As a result, huge gaps still exist in many counties, with some premises going uninspected for up to five years.
And of the facilities that were inspected in recent months, a significant number failed to meet requirements on garda vetting, the validation of references and having sufficient staff levels for the number of children being looked after.
Tusla's director of quality assurance, Brian Lee, said an imbalance of inspection resources had contributed to certain areas having higher standards than others.
In an interview with the Irish Independent, he pledged that services which hadn't been visited in a number of years would be the subject of inspections by the end of the year.
"Historically, there has been a higher number of inspectors and a much higher inspection rate in the west of Ireland," he said.
"We found there is a correlation between improved outcomes from inspections when a region or an area has experienced a high number of inspections.
"The other thing that can have an impact on an area is that some counties have more proactive county childcare committees or might have other voluntary or supportive bodies that might be more involved in improving services."
Mr Lee said the staffing "imbalance" was not as pronounced as in the past, but the west still enjoys a higher rate of inspections. Currently, crèches are inspected, on average, every year-and-a-half.
New regulations coming into force in the coming months will see facilities inspected at least once every three years, with resources being diverted to target "problem" crèches on a more regular basis.
The new regulations mean that in theory a child could spend years at a crèche without an inspector ever coming through the door.
However, Mr Lee insisted that standards would still improve as a more "intelligence-led" approach was being adopted so that pre-school businesses with persistent issues can be identified and brought up to standard.
Although he believes there is "a very high level of compliance across the sector", a persistent "rump" of childcare businesses in need of improvement still exists.
Under the new model, crèches with higher standards and which are not the subject of complaints will be visited less often than others.
"We do come into services where the service providers do not take complying with regulations seriously. That is quite a serious thing for us," said Mr Lee.
"There is a rump of it there. These are the services we end up inspecting more frequently until they get their service to the required level."
However, professionals working in childcare have questioned whether the agency had enough resources to effectively regulate the area. Marian Quinn, the chairperson of the Association of Childhood Professionals, said that due to the intensive nature of inspections, each inspection team "would be doing well to get through two or three a week".
What the inspectors found
An inspection in February reported that "the dignity of the children was not maintained" in a crèche in Cork when children were observed using the toilet with the doors left open. This behaviour was rectified in a follow-up inspection in April.
An inspector reported that the staff of a crèche in the north-east were "disengaged" and that children "ran outside without any coats on despite it being a cold and frosty morning" while "the staff stood observing".
In one understaffed and overcrowded crèche in Cork, it was reported that there were "children wandering about aimlessly" and on several occasions "the toddlers lay on the floor, climbed on tables and looked for the attention of the inspection team".
In an understaffed crèche in the midlands, a staff member was left supervising 28 children during lunchtime as they played outdoors.
A crèche in Cork had an adult to child ratio of 1:14 on the day of inspection.
One inspector in a crèche in the south reported a choking hazard after witnessing a child under two with 'a large number of pegs in their mouth' who was then observed spitting them out.
A crèche in the midlands stored a kettle on an open countertop within reach of children.
An inspector in Limerick reported that the emergency exit in a crèche was too accessible, potentially allowing children direct access to a main road.
One crèche in Cork was reported as having no heating on the day of inspection, which took place in February. The inspector reported that the temperature in the pre-school room was recorded at 15C.
A crèche in Dublin had four staff members without completed Garda vetting.
A door to a kitchen in a crèche in Dublin was wedged open and the kitchen drawers had no locking devices, leaving children with potential access to knives, cleaning agents and dangerous equipment.
A crèche in Cork had no hot running water.
In a crèche in the south-east, blind cords were dangling, and a telegraph pole and wire were accessible to the children in the external area.