The Irish example: Towards high quality, affordable early childhood education and care

Young children painting with their palms at table indoors

By Stéphanie Jamet

Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– An OECD Country Review has informed Ireland’s new early learning childcare funding model and workforce plan.
– Ireland wants to attract and retain a high-quality workforce while also making services as affordable as possible for parents.
– As highlighted in the review, professional development, funding and quality assurance are central to ensuring affordability and quality in early childhood education and care.

Getting early childhood education and care policy right is critical to ensuring the best start for young children; and guaranteeing the engagement of strong professionals in the sector is a vital part of the formula. But how do you go about attracting and retaining a high-quality workforce while making services more affordable for parents? This key question is being tackled head on by the Irish government in its recent announcement of major sector reforms. ‘Nurturing skills: The Workforce Plan for Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare (2022-2028)’, as well as a reform of the funding model were unveiled last week by the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. They have been informed by recommendations from an OECD Country Policy Review of the sector.

Over the last decade, Ireland has already made significant progress in supporting the country’s youngest citizens, with the introduction of a free pre-school programme and a National Childcare Scheme that provides universal and targeted subsidies for families depending on parents’ income. The country currently has some of the highest enrolment rates in education and care for three- to five-year-olds among OECD countries. The whole-of-government strategy for babies, young children and their families, known as “First 5”, aims to further improve access, affordability and quality.

However, Ireland still has one of the highest levels of childcare costs for parents in the world. Wages for staff have also remained relatively low and staff turnover rates are often high. Co‑ordination and governance across the sector remain disjointed, and public funding to date has not been enough to meet the country’s ambitious reform agenda.

Building on OECD recommendations, below are some of the ways Ireland plans to address these challenges over the next six years.  

Creating transformational funding

Through ‘First 5’ the government committed to increase state funding to the sector by approximately one billion Euros by 2028. New funding in the government’s 2022 budget includes the creation of a Core Fund worth 69 million Euros starting in September 2022 and an estimated 207 million Euros for 2023.

The new funding will particularly prioritise ways to improve the pay and working conditions of the workforce and to better align them with qualifications and competencies. It will also aim to tackle disadvantage in communities and improve affordability for parents.

Putting professional development front and centre

In addition to improved working conditions, one way to help strengthen and retain the workforce is through professional development. The Irish government has already made strides in improving professional qualifications. However, this has largely concentrated on those working in pre-primary, rather than those working with toddlers and babies.

Our review highlights the importance of creating both formal and informal opportunities for professional development and incorporating the needs of all workforce staff, including those who work with the youngest children.

Our review highlights the importance of creating both formal and informal opportunities for professional development and incorporating the needs of all workforce staff

In the new plan, the government is committing to measures such as achieving a graduate‑led workforce by 2028, building a national infrastructure for continued professional development, and developing a career framework with a particular emphasis on how to best support leadership.

Strengthening quality assurance throughout the sector

Our review also recommended that quality assurance and monitoring be an integral part of the Irish government’s new plan to ensure that higher public funding translates into higher quality. There are already a range of quality assurance arrangements in place for the sector. However, to date, Ireland has not consistently monitored the quality of professional development. With the new plan, the government is committed to change this by developing targeted structures and processes.

Childminders are one group that are often left out of the quality assurance system. In the new government reforms, this will also be addressed. As stressed in our review, regulation of childminders is needed, but it will be important to minimise administrative burdens for them and for parents.

The OECD review also emphasises the need for better governance and co-ordination between the multiple institutions who assess quality of education and care, which also forms part of the government’s reform agenda for the future. We recommend building one single body to bring together integrated care and inspections.

Finally, managing and sharing data should be strengthened to monitor performance and provide learning for future changes. The data also need to be easily accessible and user friendly for the public.

Ireland has already shown how much it values the first years of a child’s life. The new reforms are a crucial step in a long-term policy plan, particularly at a time when the COVID pandemic is putting extra pressure on early childhood education and care systems around the world.

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