This week I was delighted to speak at the graduation of the Early Childhood Care and Education course of St. Josephs College, Summerhill, Athlone. Here is what was said:
Firstly, I would like to thank Principal Liam Nally and Course Co-ordinator Bernie Murray for inviting me to address graduates this afternoon. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate each and every one of you on achieving your level 5 or 6 qualification in early childhood care and education. I also want to wish you every success in your future endeavours whether that be in the workplace or further education. I think that it is also important to note that some of the graduates of this course have in the past gone on to do diplomas and degrees in other third level colleges and universities.
It is important because young people are lead to believe that the Leaving Cert is the be all and end all, that direct entry to an IT or University is the only way to get your degree or masters. This is not the case, level 5 and 6 FETAC awards offer fantastic opportunities and an alternative route to higher education, for people in a chosen profession. In many cases an area of study which they may not have had the opportunity to demonstrate their aptitude for, through the leaving certificate programme. I hope this dedication to education is something you will be able to impart of the children you will be caring for, as the effect you will have on young lives cannot be overstated.
The facts are that children who get a poor start to life are more likely to develop learning, behavioural or emotional problems with far-reaching consequences throughout their lives and for wider society. But a poor start can be turned around by intervening early with quality education and care programmes. Of course access to quality and affordable childcare plays a crucial role in enabling parents to avail of work opportunities or to return to education or participate in training programmes.
Today is all about economics – and the so called “gods of today”, namely the economists, say that the economic return for investment in childcare and early years education is between three and ten times the original investment. So a quality childcare system is vital for children to reach their true potential and to maximize the economic strength of our most important indigenous resource, human capital.
That is why the Government is committed in its 5 year programme to maintaining the universal free ECCE pre-school year. It must be acknowledged that this is not a simple objective, as there are about 3,000 additional places required p.a. or €10m p.a. to meet this commitment. Personally, from my own experience, from talking to other parents and meeting teachers, I believe that we should be working towards expanding the availability of free school education beyond 1 school year.
This is an exciting and challenging time to be in the childcare sector, whether it be in education, employment or as a member of the Dáil committee on Health, Children and Youth Affairs. In Leinster House we have already passed into law the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012, and presently, before the Dáil we have the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012.And we have planned legislation to establish a child and family support agency and legislation to implement the ‘Children First’ guidelines. These will all have implications for the childcare sector. The Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, as late as today, at the Dáil Committee stated that she intends to have the draft of Ireland’s first-ever National Early Years Strategy, early in the new year. This we are told will focus on areas such as-
o Improving educational outcomes including progressing the objectives of the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy;
o Enhancing the quality of early childhood care and education o Improving health and physical fitness o Increasing positive parental engagement.
And of course we have the Children’s Rights referendum which will take place on 10th November, and bring the need to consider the best interest of the child and the voice of the child, very much to the fore. This will, I believe, bring recognition in our constitution to what is actually happening in the vast majority of homes throughout Ireland today.
We are all afraid to turn on the radios today, because it is all doom and gloom. More cuts, more taxes and charges, more people emigrating. But there is positive news. For example exports in the manufacturing sector of the Irish economy continue to rise, and last June employment in that sector increased at its fastest rate in more than 12 years. The Economic and Social Research Institute believes that our economy has the potential to grow at around 3.75% a year when the current global economic slowdown ends, with appropriate policies the economy. That in plain English means that the Government could take in an extra €6,000m in income, each year, with the appropriate policies. The big growth areas in the future will be ICT, medical devices, the green economy, pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, and international financial services. These are all sectors which the job agencies are focused on, and putting investment into.
So as our preschool population increases and as employment grows, so too will the demand for high quality childcare places. And as I said already this is a rapidly changing sector and I hope that you will continue to engage with the education system, whether through the higher education sector or the further education and training system. Because, today education does not finish, but continues, sometimes using a far more innovative methods.