Photo by Zuzia Whelan

In her 10 years working in early-years education, Rachel Galvin says she has seen many good people leave the sector, mostly for one simple reason. “They can’t afford to live,” she says.

The average wage across the sector is €11.93 per hour, a survey by Pobal found in 2016/17.

A room leader, the educator in charge of a room of children, earned €12.20 and assistant staff earned €10.88 on average across the sector, the report found.

Average staff turnover – the percentage who leave during a given period – across Ireland is 28.2 per cent. But Dublin-Fingal, South Dublin and Dublin City hit above 30 percent in the 12 months up to May 2017, the same survey found.

Staff are leaving the sector because of low wages and a lack of a pay-scale, says Dave Curran, an organiser for the trade union SIPTU, which has been running a campaign called “Big Start” since 2016 that highlights these issues.

Campaigners have sought more government investment and proportional pay-scales. “Many are leaving the sector because it’s so badly paid,” Curran says.

Drifting Away

Even when you add fees paid by parents onto government subsidies, it doesn’t bring in enough to pay higher wages, says Paula Donoghue.

There needs to be more investment from the state, says Donoghue, who has worked in the sector for 30 years and has owned her own preschool since 2009.

Donoghue encourages her staff to join the union, she says. “Otherwise, I can’t see us getting over the line.”

Galvin has worked in both private and public centres, and currently manages an early-education centre in Dublin.

In her experience, staff in private facilities – which rely on parent fees – are usually paid less than community educators, who get most of their funding from the government via Pobal, she says.

Currently, Ireland spends less on “pre-primary education” than any other EU country, at 0.10 per cent of GDP, according to the 2017 report “Social Justice in the EU”, by Bertelsmann Stiftung.

Centres that provide the government’s Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme for children aged three to five and a half are paid a fee per child for only 38 weeks of the year, so the rest comes out of fees paid by parents.

Higher Standards

In December 2016, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs brought in new rules, and now anyone working directly with children must have at least a level 5 QQI qualification in early-childhood care and education. Room leaders must have a level 6 qualification.

That was welcome, says Donoghue. “But as they pushed up the requirements, they didn’t put funding in to match that,” she says, which could help cover the extra hours spent on paperwork.

A lot more administration work came with the new regulations, says Galvin, and businesses can often go under because staff are burned out from paperwork, while there are still kids to take care of – all at just above minimum wage.

“It’s very difficult to hire staff. There aren’t many people coming into the sector,” she says. People will come in as students, and look at the sector as “training” before they move on to primary school, where the pay is better, says Galvin.

“A lot of people are working 30 hours a week, [and] you only have funding for 38 weeks of the year on ECCE,” she says. So you can’t get a mortgage, or make ends meet.

A Pay-Scale

Claire Casey has a level 8 qualification, and has worked in both community and private facilities. Both settings have the same problems, she says.

When she was growing up, women were expected to stay home and care for the children, Casey says. “Because of that it was paid less, and I think that’s a throwback,” she says.

Now people work for 20 years or more and don’t see their wages increase because there’s no pay-scale, she says. “You’d be lucky to get €10 or €10.50.”

A pay-scale is a system determining how much an employee is paid based on experience, rank, and other factors. Without one, there’s no structure for an increase in wages or salary over time, so wages will tend to remain low.

Currently, the early-years educators’ section in SIPTU has just over 2,000 of the 5,500 members it needs in order to secure a “sectoral employment order”, which could set pay, sick pay, and pension schemes for workers, and is binding across the sector, if recommended by the Labour Court to the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation.

In a few weeks, Casey is done working for the year – off for the summer. Like many in the sector, she’ll be signing on, she says.

Changing Policy

At this month’s meeting of the council’s South Central Area Committee, People Before Profit Councillor Hazel De Nortúin proposed a motion to call on Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone to increase investment in the sector, which De Nortúin says is “understaffed” due to a lack of funding.

Early-years educators need more recognition for their work, and more support, De Nortúin says. The motion was agreed by the councillors on the committee.

A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs said by email that, while it’s true that Ireland has been among the lowest-ranked countries in terms of investment in the sector, the department has taken measures recently to address this.

“Over the past three budgets, investment in early-years care and education has increased by an unprecedented 80 percent,” said the spokesperson.

However, “Minister […] Zappone has called for continuous, sustained investment at a similar level over the coming years to bring Ireland in line with its European counterparts,” the spokesperson says.

The per child in the ECCE scheme is set to rise by 7 percent from September 2018, said the spokesperson, and the minister has commissioned “the first independent Review of the Cost of Delivery of Early Childcare”, which will inform future policy.

Zappone has encouraged those working in the sector to “examine the possibility of a Sectoral Employment Order in order to agree a pay scale for the sector”, said the spokesperson.

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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