Early years provision is highly regulated and those working with children must be properly qualified
Parents can be reassured that early years provision in Ireland is highly regulated, with particular advances in the past year.
Every setting is required to have robust policies and procedures to nurture and protect the children in their care. The introduction of the minimum qualification requirement also acts as a safeguard and ensures that staff are fully qualified and trained in meeting the education and care needs of young children. High-quality early years settings are characterised by warm, respectful relationships and clear, open communication between staff, parents and children. We all share the responsibility to ensure that children enjoy a happy and life-enhancing childhood, wherever they are.
Regulations provide important safeguards. High-quality early childhood care and education settings that are really good for children ensure that regulations, well-trained and committed staff and healthy environments for children come together to create safe, inclusive childhood spaces for children and families.
In 2015, there were 4,465 registered early years services across the country and an estimated 171,200 children attended these services.
Over the past 20 years, the early years sector has evolved and, more than ever, services recognise their roles and responsibilities in ensuring the health, safety and welfare of young children attending.
The OECD (2012) outlines the enormous body of research pointing to the value of Early Childhood Care and Education settings in enhancing children's wellbeing and development.
Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, is the independent statutory regulator of early years services. It has the responsibility for inspecting pre-schools, playgroups, nurseries, crèches and day-care services.
In the past 12 months, they have significantly increased their presence and surveillance in the early childhood sector.
Their impact on the sector is very evident and we have seen a major improvement in settings meeting standards that ensure that children's needs are met, that children are protected against harmful practices and that their wellbeing is supported and enhanced on a daily basis.
Tusla's Annual Report for 2015 outlines that of the 4,700 services in the country, 2,302 services were inspected, and the overall level of compliance rate was 72pc.
It is now very clear within the sector that such serious breaches will no longer be tolerated.
The emphasis on child safety and garda vetting is reflected in the new regulations.
In June 2016, the Early Years Services Regulations (2016) were introduced. Some key changes included the legal requirement for all persons working directly with children to have a minimum NFQ Level Five in Early Childhood Care and Education.
Alongside this, through the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012, all persons working directly with children must have garda/police vetting in place prior to commencement of work.
In accordance with the Early Years Services Regulations (2016), childcare services are required to have a mandatory 21 policies in place to safeguard children.
Alongside this, each service is also required to review these policies annually, and to ensure that all persons working directly with the children have a thorough understanding of the policies.
All of these are in place to protect the health, safety and welfare of children attending early years services across the country.
Child protection continues to be an issue of paramount importance within the early years sector.
Government policy, along with Tusla, requires every service to adhere to the guiding principles of the Children's First National guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children 2011.
Specific training for child protection is developed by Tusla and delivered to the early years sector by county childcare committees regionally.
Other staff who are working with children should also receive training to allow them to understand and recognise any signs of abuse or neglect.
Dr Carmel Brennan is head of practice at Early Childhood Ireland