Lack of staff will hit plans for an extra free pre-school year
There will be a lack of educators to carry out the Government's plan of extending the free pre-school programme by an extra year, according to experts.
Academic professionals fear the Coalition is not investing enough in the pre-school workforce, which will ultimately result in a brain drain from the sector.
Speakers at Trinity College Dublin's (TCD) early childhood education symposium yesterday also acknowledged that capacity will be an issue in the Government's plan, which will see the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme being extended to children up to the age of five-and-a-half from next September.
Professor Nóirín Hayes, from TCD, who organised the event, warned that one of the main problems with extending the ECCE by a year is that there "aren't enough" professionals to handle the task.
"There are problems with just running a second year. The first of these is that there has been very little investment actually training and upskilling sufficient professionals to work in and provide the early free pre-school year," Prof Hayes said.
"I think the reality is that we have tended in Ireland to put money into making more places available without giving any thought or consideration into what is going to happen to our youngest children in those places.
"There is a whole layer of trained early childcare professionals, increasing numbers coming through with degree- level training ready to take on work in this sector and wanting to work in early childcare.
"[But] there aren't enough of them, so the issue of actually investing and supporting further training is necessary," she added.
The scheme provides 15 hours a week of free, pre-school education for 38 weeks of the year. The extension will provide extra entry windows for parents to enrol children in January and April, as well as the current slot in September.
Yesterday, the Irish Independent revealed that childcare providers were concerned the sector would not have the capacity to cope with the additional children. There are up to 68,000 children now enrolled in the scheme, which is about 95pc of all eligible children, according to one body.
Dr Mary Moloney, from Mary Immaculate College, believes there are "lots of very highly qualified people" interested in working in the sector but that there is "no incentive" for them.
"There is increased accountability and increased demand. But we are asking the sector to do that for €9.15 an hour. That is inequality at its best. Those already in the sector are on €9.15, are you telling me that they are not going to disappear to Lidl, who are now paying the Living Wage? Something is going to have to give," Dr Moloney said.
She believes Children's Minister James Reilly should "evaluate" the first ECCE year and "get it right" before introducing an extension.
"This isn't being introduced until September 2016; there is time for dialogue and consultation," she added.