'It's the early years that will decide your child's future – not university'
Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald tells John Drennan exactly how crucial intelligent investment in childcare is
It is a measure of the task faced by the supposedly peripheral Frances Fitzgerald that despite all of the controversies and the recently passed Children's Referendum that the Minister for Children believes that up to a fifth of the nation's children are still "failing to thrive''.
The minister, of course, dismisses claims that hers is a tokenistic post, noting: "To have children represented at Cabinet by a permanent minister, rather than occasionally by a Minister of State, is the most solid statement of intent that any Taoiseach could make''.
She is acutely aware too that being in charge of the nation's children isn't the political equivalent of sugar and spice and all things nice.
In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Fitzgerald notes: "Children isn't a soft ministry. Every week poses the possibility you will wake up to another Prime Time expose. I would like, for example, to say a child known to the HSE will never disappear again, but that will not happen."
Her ministry is not just about creches but about hard realities – such as how to reverse the effects on the capacity of the 'coping classes' to deal with all of the massive politically and fiscally wounded cuts in child benefit and the massive 2009 cut of €300m in the early child-care supplement.
Ms Fitzgerald's warning that the 'coping classes' need some form of fiscal break, be it in taxation or improved child services offers an early indication of the political pressures Finance Minister Michael Noonan will face in the run-up to the budget.
Speaking about the ongoing difficulties her ministry poses, the minister said that "we are data rich for the first time about children, we know a lot about their lived experience'.'
And in a clear warning about what this data tells us, she said: "We have a lot of work to do. Up to 80 per cent of Irish children are doing well, but between 15 per cent and 20 per cent are in serious difficulty."
You have, she said, "a cohort of a fifth of children who are always more vulnerable, but we have to deal with the unpalatable truth that 20 per cent of our children are failing to thrive''.
Ms Fitzgerald also said the recession had a real impact on the lives of children to the extent where "children who we study talk about how the recession means people do not have as much money as they used to, and are not happy. Parents are worried about losing their job''.
The minister also warned that serious fiscal investment was needed to deal with the difficulties and inequalities faced by the coping classes in childcare.
Parents feel when they come to childcare that "they can't pay any more; it is a challenge to them. It is a major budgetary challenge for us too''.
Ms Fitzgerald admitted that a major factor in this was that having "put money into parents' pockets via the childcare supplement to deal with the difficulties they face, some €300m was taken away from parents in 2009''.
The minister noted: "Replacing this high-quality support to parents with children is going to be the challenge of our times; the coping classes need the support of that."
Ms Fitzgerald also admitted the perception was growing that a major divide was evolving between the public and private sector over childcare rights.
She admitted: "Private sector employers are not going to take kindly to a year of maternity leave'' and noted "we have to deal with the inequity between private and public sector, as you describe via a second free pre-school year''.
There is no €300m lying around, she said, "but you have to build on the current services if you don't want to run the risk of a nightmare scenario".
The minister added: "It is a very difficult time to pull back that €300m.
"There are no soft resources available. But with jobs coming on stream, we have to extend high-class quality childcare to the coping classes. That is the best way to extend a break to them.''
Ms Fitzgerald claimed "parents determine the quality of children's lives – not the State'' but she also conceded "the State can play a role too".
Parents do their very best, she said. But they are also constrained by circumstances.
In particular, Ms Fitzgerald warned: "The economic circumstances for parents include income tax. Financial pressures for parents impact upon the lives of children.''
Irish childcare, she claimed has also still to deal with the scenario where "we have very fine buildings, but we have put in very poorly paid, often not well-trained people to run those services".
The Children's Minister added: "People used to think university decided their children's future. In fact it is the age of around three, their experience in family life or the creche or the childminder that is critical.''
Ms Fitzgerald also noted we are still only getting used to "the child being seen as a very unique individual for whom there has to be strict standards to which all children should respond''. Before then she noted childhood was "sadly nasty, brutish and, in many cases, grievously short where no one recognised childhood was a uniquely fragile and delicate period''.
Commenting on the rise of phenomena such as beauty pageants, Ms Fitzgerald claimed: "The distinct space between childhood and adulthood has become increasingly blurred."
She warned that: "The sexualisation of children is a dangerous form of theft. There is growing concern that the space of childhood is shrinking; little girls and boys are being catapulted into a sexuality for which they are neither physically nor cognitively ready.'
Ms Fitzgerald said the voluntary code of practice Irish retailers had adopted in this area under the leadership of Retail Ireland had been critical in combating a culture where even Irish dancing had become sexualised.
Ms Fitzgerald displayed even greater concern over the growth of the "beauty pageant where, for financial gain, little children, we are talking about two-, three-, four- and five-year-olds, are judged''.
She noted that in this regard we need to recognise "playgrounds are political; people mightn't know that, but once there were more golf-courses than playgrounds in Ireland. Our job is to change that".