In May 2013 a Prime Time special investigation caused widespread shock and revulsion when it exposed substandard and abusive practices at childcare facilities run by three separate childcare chains. At the time Giraffe, Links and Little Harvard, were daily entrusted with the care of hundreds of children at a total of thirty locations across Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow.
RTE’s undercover reporters recorded incidents of distressed children being left in high chairs for prolonged periods of time; of children being shouted at; of children in cots having blankets draped over their faces; of children being force-fed and of children being manhandled by staff.
These individual abuses occurred within a general environment where staff to child ratios were routinely breached and some staff seemed unwilling or unable to provide appropriate care to the children in their trust.
The seriousness of the recorded abuse can be measured in the compensation payments that were made by the creches to their victims.
A total of 22 children were awarded payments of between €40,000 and €75,000 each by the Links chain.
Giraffe paid €48,000 to two brothers who attended their Stepaside facility. Another girl received €17,500 in compensation. Another offer of €15,000 compensation to a different two-year old girl who attended the same creche was rejected by a District Court Judge who deemed it too low.
All of the victims in these cases were under three years of age and the creches made the payments without admitting liability.
Fast forward six years to 2019 and the country is again appalled by a Prime Time special investigation into malpractice and abuse at the privately-owned Hyde and Seek chain of creches.
Once again viewers were shown secret footage of distressed children being left for long periods in high chairs; of children having their faces pushed into the mattresses of cots; of children being fed cheap processed food; of children being shouted at and of children being manhandled by staff.
As in 2013 the quality of care provided to the children routinely suffered because there was simply not enough staff to cope with the number of children under their supervision. On one occasion a single member of staff is secretly recorded minding seventeen babies and toddlers.
In another clip the owner of Hyde and Seek, Anne Davy, berates a staff member by telling them “This is a business. It’s not a babysitting (facility)”.
In this one unguarded comment Davy spoke an undeniable truth about the private childcare sector. It exists, first and foremost, to generate profit. The provision of care to children is a side effect of the generation of profit.
Profits in any business are kept high by keeping costs low. In the childcare business this means keeping staff, rent, food and other costs as low as possible.
In other words you employ as few staff as possible and pay them as little as possible, in return for them minding as many children as possible, in as small a space as possible, while feeding them as cheaply as possible.
Anne Davy has clearly developed an effective business model to keep her costs low and profits high. Over the last five years Hyde and Seek has declared profits of €2.75m. Over the same period the chain was paid €1.25m of public money via the Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme.
In 2017 alone the company declared profits of over €800,000. That’s about €15,000 profit per week.
Of course the children in her care pay another cost - the human cost - of her successful business model, as RTE so powerfully exposed earlier this week.
Over the last twenty years the shift from one income to two income families, increased working hours and extended commutes have dramatically increased the demand for childcare for children of all ages.
There has been precious little public debate about the social impact of this dramatic shift in how the needs of the children of the nation are catered for. Or about how that demand should be dealt with by our society collectively.
Instead the political establishment has blindly applied the standard free market ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of childcare. Hyde and Seek, Little Harvard, Giraffe and Links are just four of the thousands of companies that have emerged because successive governments have chosen to abdicate their responsibility to directly provide early education and childcare for families that want or need it.
While the vast majority of these companies strive to provide high quality childcare, they do so within a marketplace the provides a competitive advantage to those companies which deploy the most ruthless strategies to keep their costs down.
Those businesses that have tried to provide a higher quality of service have found themselves unable to match the prices of their less-principled competitors. Market forces have created the conditions for a race to the bottom, where some businesses will win but all children will lose.
At the other end of the equation parents on lower incomes will invariably be forced into choosing childcare facilities with lower fees as they attempt to balance their household budgets. In the Ireland of 2019, even babies must learn the hard lessons of the free market.
Éirígí For A New Republic is calling for an entirely different approach to the provision of early education and childcare services than the current profit-driven model. We believe that the private provision of pre-school education and other childcare services should be incrementally replaced by state-run services.
The current network of primary schools should be expanded to include co-located pre-schools that will deliver standardised early learning for all children whose parents which to avail of it.
The state would take full responsibility for ensuring that all staff are trained and paid to a level befitting their role as educators, in the same manner that the state already does for the primary school sector.
This new network of state-run pre-schools would replace the Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme and other similar programmes through which the state pays over €300m per year to the private sector.
The same physical facilities, co-located within existing primary schools, should also be used to provide ‘breakfast club’, ‘after-school’ and other childcare services for all children whose parents wish to avail of them.
It’s time for new thinking when it comes to the provision of early-learning and childcare services. The private sector is simply not fit for purpose. No amount of additional regulations, training or monitoring will change the fundamental contradiction that exists between the market’s need for maximum profit and the child’s need for love, encouragement, time and patience.