Some pre-schools not inspected for six years due to staff shortages
HUNDREDS of young children start their free pre-school year next Monday in facilities which may have not been inspected for up to six years.
A shortage of inspectors in Dublin in particular is leaving pre-schools operating without adequate monitoring of safety and quality standards.
Figures obtained by Independent TD Roisin Shortall show major regional variations in early childcare inspections with many areas of large child populations languishing with overstretched staff.
She said: "Dublin north east, comprising north Dublin and the north-east of the country, has the lowest number of inspectors - only five in total. This is despite having one of the highest child populations.
"The ratio of inspectors to children in the area is one per 21,052. By comparison, the western area has a ratio of one per 6,893."
The figures from Tusla, the child and family agency, showed there were 42 pre-school inspectors last year and 2,432 inspections although there are 4,600 facilities.
There are 19 inspectors in the west but just five in the HSE Dublin North-East area covering Dublin north-west, Dublin north, Dublin north-central, Meath and Cavan- Monaghan.
There are eight inspectors to cover Kildare, west Wicklow, Dublin west, south-west, and south-east, Dun Laoghaire and parts of the Midlands.
The figures show nine inspectors to cover Kerry, Cork, Wexford, Waterford and south Tipperary.
She expressed major concern at the regional variations in the wake of revelations about poor standards in some pre-schools in an undercover television expose more than a year ago.
Commenting on the figures Teresa Heeney, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland, said she knows of pre-schools which have not been visited for six years.
"We need regular and consistent inspections across the country and this cannot be done when the numbers of inspectors are not enough," she stressed.
"We also need inspectors who have specialised early childhood training rather than leaving it to public health nurses."
Gordon Jeyes, chief executive of Tusla, said vacancies have been filled and a full complement of 42 inspectors will be enhanced with another six posts.
"Currently there are approximately 4,600 early years service providers and therefore the target ratio will be one inspector to every 100 services," he said.
The workforce will operate nationally under the scrutiny of four senior inspectors whose posts are advertised and a national manager whose job will be advertised shortly. They will in turn report to a Director of Quality Assurance.
Once a new system of registration is in place - where pre-schools cannot operate without meeting certain standards - more rigorous forms of inspection will be possible, he said.
"All services will be inspected every three years," he said.
Ms Shortall asked Tusla for the specific cost of inspections but she could not get the information. She said Tusla should know how much the State is paying for the service. Children's Minister James Reily must find the funds, she added.