Shane Dunphy: 'Childcare' a recipe for disaster
The people to whom we entrust our children work long hours for low pay with little support.
THE childcare student sat before me, tears streaming down her face, clearly deeply distressed. The creche in which she was getting her work experience was, she insisted, not a safe place for children.
"One little fella," she sobbed, "has Down Syndrome. They strap him into a car seat and just leave him in the corner, and sometimes even outside the door in the hallway, for hours at a time. It's just not right."
Over the next hour, I jotted down two pages of notes detailing a litany of other abuses my student alleged were being carried out by the staff at this child 'care' facility.
Then I picked up the phone and rang social services. The creche was, eventually, closed down.
Restraining children over long periods of time is one of the many issues raised in the wake of an undercover Prime Time investigation due to be broadcast on RTE next week. The Prime Time crew alleges that a number of creches in the Dublin area have been mistreating the children entrusted to their care.
It is the latest in a long line of such scandals to hit Irish early-years provision. Even a cursory examination of the record books shows our childcare industry reeling from one disaster to next.
Which is a pity, because childcare is the most important job in the world.
In most countries in Europe, creches are state-funded and free to all. In Ireland, children now get one subsidised year. But at least this means that, regardless of social class and economic background, each child can, for a short time, access what should be a basic right.
I have been lucky enough to be involved in creches and early-years work throughout my career in childcare. I have worked with kids from the most loving, dedicated homes imaginable, children dropped off in the morning by dads dressed for the boardroom. These toddlers had the best of everything, but the playroom was still a hugely important sanctuary, something they looked forward to with unfettered pleasure.
Creches have to be about more than just play, though.
I have spent time with children whose only regular meals came from the community centre's kitchen, children who left on a Friday not knowing what awaited them over the weekend at home.
Such tots needed what we had to offer them with a hunger that was not only physical. I was a first-year student on a college placement when I realised for the first time that, for a particular child, I was the only positive adult relationship they had ever had – and I unwittingly bought this affection by reading Cinderella and making a sandwich for that child's lunch every day.
Childcare is crucial. It is a way of showing children how the world can be, how it should be.
So why do we accept shoddy half-measures? In Ireland, pre-schools are governed by the Childcare (Pre-school Services) Regulations 2006. These state that: "A person carrying on a pre-school service shall ensure that each child's learning, development and well-being is facilitated within the daily life of the service through the provision of the appropriate opportunities, experiences, activities, interaction, materials and equipment, having regard to the age and stage of development of the child and the child's cultural context."
The regulations go on to lay out details of ratios of staff to children, rules and guidelines for the physical environment, rules for record-keeping and parameters for enforcement and inspection.
And these are all very good and sensible. So why do we have such a problem?
The minimal qualification for a childcare worker is the Fetac Level 5 Certificate in Childcare. It is a one-year course that trains students in child development, early education, the physical care of the child from infancy and all the other skills one would expect a creche worker to possess. The vast majority of staff have this qualification, which is as it should be.
Many more are spending a second year in college and acquiring a Fetac Level 6 Certificate, which covers more advanced child psychology, the legal framework and history of childcare, some sociology and management and team supervision.
Still more are acquiring degrees in Early Childhood Studies, and I know many who have achieved Masters, specialising in various aspects of children's play or develop-ment and furthering our understanding of it.
A full-day creche opens, generally, at around 7.30am to facilitate commuting parents. Staff need to be on site at that time to take in children, many of whom will still be asleep, to get them settled, washed and give them their breakfast.
This same staff team will still be there when the place closes for the night 12 hours later. Some will stay on an extra hour to clean up – remember those regulations? They insist (correctly) on certain levels of hygiene, and toys and equipment – even down to the sand in the sand pit – don't sterilise themselves.
So your average childcare worker may not leave to go home until after 8pm. And how much does such a dedicated, highly trained worker get paid? Generally, not much above the minimum wage.
We have a group of professionals, then, struggling in what can often be a highly stressful job, working long, exhausting hours for a pathetically – insultingly – low wage. Support for overworked, emotionally drained staff comes in the form of the childcare committees – development and outreach services run by experienced childcare workers, but who have little power to change anything and are also understaffed.
Is it any wonder then that this pot boils over so regularly and with such dire consequences?
The answer is simple, though costly: pump more funds and resources into the industry so that those providing this essential service can do so with a decent support structure and a half-decent wage. Successive ministers have simply refused to act, on the grounds that it would push prices for childcare through the ceiling.
So perhaps the Scandinavian model of free childcare for all could be considered. Would it be such a bad aspiration?
Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert and author. His latest book, 'The Girl Who Couldn't Smile', about a year working in a creche with children with special educational needs, is published by Constable & Robinson.