Early years educators Edel O’Callaghan and Clare Casey briefed members of Clare County Council recently on SIPTU’s Big Start campaign which is bringing together people in a bid to win recognition and better resources for the childcare sector.

According to SIPTU, the early years sector is in crisis. Parents are paying too much for childcare while workers are paid too little to make ends meet. Meanwhile providers struggle to break even and everyone is getting a raw deal. The ‘Big Start’ campaign is advocating €15 per hour under the slogan ‘professional workers deserve professional pay’. The union says it want quality and affordable services for children and their parents.

Addressing councillors, Clare Casey said she works with 11 pre-school children and said 25,000 people work in the childcare sector nationally in over 4,000 service centres, 74% of which are privately owned. Edel O’Callaghan said the Government spends €2,500 on each child attending a pre-school service, compared to a spend of €11,500 per child on primary school pupils.

Ms O’Callaghan said Ireland spends 0.5% of GDP on childcare, which is lower than the OECD average of 0.7%, SIPTU’s goal is to achieve a spend of 1% GDP on childcare services through its Big Start campaign. Edel said the funding available to providers is not enough to sustain the childcare sector and claimed staff are under-paid even though they are expected to have attained a high level of education.

Clare Casey said that working in the childcare sector is not worth it financially, although it has its own rewards. She claimed many highly qualified people are leaving the sector to find better paid employment. The average rate of pay for early education workers is €10.27 per hour, some staff are only paid for 15 hours per week which is less than €6,000 per annum. “You just can’t make a living out of that, never mind paying a mortgage,” said Clare.

Clare said it is ironic that, “those of us with families can’t afford to pay for childcare ourselves.” Edel O’Callaghan insisted that levels of childcare pay would not be tolerated in any other sector. During the presentation other pre-school workers occupied the council’s public gallery. Edel said that one of the women ran a pre-school for 20 years but had to seek work elsewhere to be able to contribute towards her pension.

Both women said they joined the Big Start campaign to achieve recognition for all those working in the childcare sector who deliver a quality and a necessary service. According to Edel, professionals like herself, have been forgotten about. She said sustainable issues in the sector are being ignored by Government. This is why Big Start brings together providers, educators and parents, to campaign on issues “affecting all of us”.

The pair urged members of Clare County Council to make representations on their behalf to Government ministers and members of the Oireachtas to call for increased investment in the early years sector so that they can continue to deliver quality services to children.

Councillors present offered their support for the campaign. Fianna Fáil councillor Clare Colleran Molloy said that we would be fooling ourselves in Ireland if we didn’t acknowledge that early years education is under-funded. Fine Gael councillor Mary Howard said the presentation had opened her eyes to the reality being faced by childcare workers and stated that weaknesses in the system were made very clear. Independent councillor PJ Ryan praised Edel O’Callaghan and Clare Casey for doing an essential job and said the least they can expect is to be adequately paid.

Under the present law, a group of people working in a particular sector, such as cleaners, electricians or early years educators, may apply for a Sectoral Employment Order (SEO). This guarantees levels of pay and conditions for all those working in that sector. The Big Start campaign aims to unite all early years professionals into a national union to achieve that aim.