It is children who will suffer as pressure mounts on carers
Published 08/09/2015 | 02:30
Working as an early childhood practitioner has traditionally been seen as a vocation. People, usually women, choose to work in this field because they love children and find great satisfaction in supporting those in their care through their journey of discovery and exploration. Each day is so different and you are on a rollercoaster of highs and lows.
This job satisfaction has sustained the workforce for many decades, but now, with the increased cost of living, 'loving children' is no longer enough to support the current workforce or to attract new entrants.
Low pay and poor working conditions - combined with increased qualification requirements and responsibilities to the children, parents, numerous State agencies and multiple Government departments - are resulting in a crisis within the workforce which will ultimately end up compromising the quality of care and education.
Centres are struggling due to a lack of State investment. As a result of required adult-child ratios, salaries account for 60-80pc of the income received, either as fees from parents or as payment for services delivered on behalf of the Government, eg, the 'Free Pre-school Year'.
The remaining percentage pays for curriculum resources, insurance, rent/mortgage, rates, utilities, maintenance, investment in new materials and activities for the children, etc.
Additional costs are often accrued by the centre, due to lack of Government investment, when they are facilitating the inclusion of children with additional needs. Some providers increase their adult-child ratio to provide the required support because every child deserves a good start in life.
As the cost of early childhood education and care is so expensive to parents, it will come as a big surprise to many to hear that the majority of services are struggling to keep their doors open and indeed many are closing as the costs are too high.
High-quality care and education is expensive and if the Government continues to ignore its responsibility in terms of investing in this public service, then the high cost must be borne by the providers, practitioners and parents - and this cost is becoming more and more prohibitive.
Another difficulty that is experienced by the professionals working in this area is the issue of inspections.
Currently, they are carried out by inspectors from Tusla. This inspectorate comprises public health nurses and environmental officers who monitor compliance of regulations and the resulting inspection reports are published online.
The issue here is not the fact that inspections are occurring, but rather the focus of the inspections and the interpretation of the regulations. One service was found to be non-compliant because a tile was missing from the ceiling in the laundry room. It would be nice if all the tiles were in place, but given the fact that the children had no access to this room and it wasn't a health and safety issue, then one would question why it was identified as non-compliance at all.
The lack of Garda vetting is another issue of frequent non-compliance that can be misleading. Garda vetting must be applied for by your employer and may only be used in relation to that one service. If you work in one service in the morning and another in the afternoon, then you will need to be vetted twice.
If an early childhood practitioner is ill and unable to work, ratios still need to be maintained, so cover staff must be sourced who are vetted for your service or you will be deemed non-compliant. Having relief staff on call is impractical and cost-prohibitive so the provider is left with the choice of breaching regulations or closing their centre and requesting that parents keep their children at home. It really is a case of damned if you do and damned if you don't.
When viewing the inspection reports online, it is important that parents consider that their reading of the report can actually be removed from the reality of the situation. A 'dirty sink area' could be one that has paint splattered around it because the children were washing up and the staff are more focused on their interactions with the child than on thoroughly wiping down all surfaces.
Deep cleaning happens at the end of the day when the children are gone, but unfortunately, non-compliance could be looming if you are inspected before then. This is why parents need to discuss reports with services, rather than making judgements based on what they read. Media outlets also need to be mindful of this when reporting on non-compliance rates.
So, while working with young children is wonderful, there are many issues that cast a shadow over the joy. Unfortunately, this is not a career that will afford practitioners a living wage and this is something that needs to be resolved if we are to ever achieve high-quality care and education for all children.
Marian Quinn is chairperson of the Association of Childhood Professionals, a professional body representing practitioners in early years and school-age care and education. More: www.acpireland.com