The Government has this week unveiled ‘First 5’, Ireland’s first ever cross-Departmental strategy to support babies, young children and their families.
The ambitious ten-year plan will deliver:
1. A broader range of options for parents to balance working and caring
2. A new model of parenting support
3. New developments in child health, including a dedicated child health workforce
4. Reform of the Early Learning and Care (ELC) system, including a new funding model
5. A package of measures to tackle early childhood poverty
The Strategy was jointly launched by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr. Katherine Zappone, Minister for Health, Simon Harris, TD, and Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Mary Mitchell O’Connor TD.
Also in attendance were representatives from the various Government Departments and State Agencies tasked with implementation. The launch coincided with a play morning at the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to mark the launch of First 5 and celebrate World Children’s Day.
Speaking at the launch, the Taoiseach said:
“The Government wants to make life easier for families, while also providing children with the best possible start. The first five years of a child’s life only happen once, but the impact of their experiences during this period can last a lifetime. For this reason, the Government has developed the ‘First 5’ Strategy.
“This is the first strategy of its kind in Ireland, setting out a road map for change and development over the coming decade. Building on the many positive developments for young children in recent years, including family leave, subsidised Early Learning and Care, free GP care and a new Children’s Hospital, First 5 will significantly enhance early childhood in Ireland.”
There are five major areas of action in which the Strategy will drive change – the First 5 Big Steps. These are:
1. Access to a broader range of options for parents to balance working and caring led by the Departments of Justice and Equality and Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
In order to support children to spend more time with their parents, especially in the first year, First 5 sets out plans to develop a new parental leave scheme. This will deliver extended entitlements to paid leave for both fathers and mothers. Minister Doherty will also develop a hot meals initiative for children in disadvantaged schools.
Speaking before today’s launch, Minister Doherty said:
“I was particularly pleased to recently introduce a new parental benefit scheme which will allow both parents to access an additional two weeks leave in the first year of their child’s life. Over the coming years, it the Government’s intention to extend this entitlement to 7 weeks per parent. This initiative allows us to respond to the vital need to support parents of young children and recognises the formative nature of the first year of a child’s life.
“Additionally, in the context of today’s Strategy, I will also be providing additional funding for a hot school meals pilot programme to commence next year. Research shows us the value of the provision of adequate and nutritious meals for a child’s health, learning, attention and educational achievement. I will be establishing a pilot programme for a hot meals scheme in DEIS primary schools to provide hot dinners for up to some 7,200 children. If successful, I would hope to work with the Department of Education and Skills (DES) in extending the scheme on a much wider basis in future years and establish the scheme on a permanent basis.”
2 New developments in child health
First 5 sets out new measures to promote positive health behaviours and the mental health of babies, young children and their families, and to enhance the National Healthy Childhood Programme.
“We know that good physical and mental health in the early years is essential for children’s experiences and for their later outcomes. Positive experiences in early childhood mean reduced incidence of heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease and depression. There is no doubt that investment in health promotion and health services in the early years pay dividends for children, families, and for the health service. This is a fundamental part of creating a Healthy Ireland, giving every child the best start in life.” Minister Harris said.
Minister Harris also announced plans to develop a dedicated child health workforce, focussed initially in areas of high population density and disadvantage. This, Minister Harris said:“will increase the capacity of the HSE to provide health promotion and prevention and early intervention services for the benefit all babies and young children”.
3. A new model of parenting support led by a new Parenting Unit established by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs
First 5 streamlines and improves existing parenting supports provided across a range of Government Departments and State Agencies. Accessible, high-quality information and guidance will be made available for parents to promote healthy behaviours, facilitate positive play-based early learning and create the conditions to form and maintain strong parent-child relationships. A continuum of parenting services – ranging from universal to targeted – including high-quality parenting programmes, will also be made available.
At the launch, Minister Zappone said:
“Experts, including children themselves, recognise the essential role played by families in nurturing healthy child development. That is why strengthening families is at the heart of this Strategy.
Alongside greater opportunities to balance work and home life through parental leave and flexible working, First 5 develop a new national model of parenting supports, ranging from universal to targeted – making parenting supports and high quality programmes more accessible to all families for the first time”.
4. Reform of the Early Learning and Care (ELC) system led by the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs and Education and Skills
First 5 builds on the very significant developments in ELC over recent years and seeks to further improve affordability, accessibility and quality. Measures include introducing the Affordable Childcare Scheme, moving progressively towards a graduate-led professional ELC workforce and the extension of regulations and supports to all paid childminders and school-age childcare services.
Under this, Minister Zappone announced her plans to at least double investment in ELC over the next decade building on the unprecedented 117% increase in investment in ELC that has been secured over the last four years.
“More funding, even if it reaches these record levels, is only part of the answer,” the Minister warned. “We must ensure public funding is allocated efficiently, fairly and that it is targeted in the correct manner to deliver the best results for children.
This additional investment will continue to reduce the out of pocket cost of ELC to parents. It will compensate providers so that they can deliver ELC on a sustainable and high-quality basis. Importantly, it will be used to attract and retain a well-qualified workforce, enabling continued professional development across their career and creating more supportive working conditions so that the workforce feel valued”.
This will be achieved through a radical reform of the funding model for ELC with work commencing on that model to commence in early 2019.
These measures will coincide with developments in the primary education sector. At the launch, Minister Mitchell O’Connor asserted a commitment to working with Minister Zappone on raising the quality of ELC and supporting children’s the transition to primary education.
“As an educator, having been a school principal in a previous life, I know only too well the importance of a smooth educational continuum for all children as they move from their pre-schools into school. It is imperative that we continue to work with professionals and agencies in both the early learning and care sector and the primary school sector to make absolutely sure this transition is supported.
The most important person in this equation is the child. Our role is to ensure that all children experience high quality, age appropriate learning opportunities wherever they are, in settings, schools or at home. Our experts in the NCCA and in the Inspectorate are a hugely important voice in articulating how very young children’s learning and development is supported through play based and emergent child-led curriculums.”
- A package of measures to tackle early childhood poverty
First 5 identifies new measures that will address poverty in early childhood, including expanded access to free and subsidised ELC, extensions to the Warmth and Well-Being and Warmer Homes Schemes and the introduction of a meals programme and DEIS-type model for ELC settings.
“Tackling inequalities that can emerge in early childhood are critical is if are to give all children the best start in life” Minister Zappone said. “Children deserve a happy and fulfilled childhood. By introducing measures to tackle early childhood poverty, we will give children a strong and equal start”.
The implementation of First 5 will be overseen by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. A detailed implementation plan will be published in the coming months.