Early years educators’ pay must be increased, inaugural childcare conference told

Minister commits to examining potential for establishing publicly-run early years education system

The salaries of early years educators must be increased, and specifically ring-fenced, to tackle recruitment and retention issues and to reflect the “fundamental importance” of childcare workers in Irish society, the Minister for Children has said.

Roderic O’Gorman also committed to examining the establishment of a publicly-run early years education system, based on the successes of public childcare models in other EU jurisdictions.

Speaking at the inaugural Siptu Early Years conference in Dublin’s Liberty Hall on Saturday, Mr O’Gorman acknowledged that early years educators continue to feel “undervalued” despite the sector’s “commitment to children and young people”.

He noted the pandemic had “shone a light” on the contribution of childcare workers and the fact that society cannot function without affordable and high-quality childcare.


“It’s very clear that the State needs to play a bigger role in the provision of childcare through new structures and for new funding,” the Minister told attendees at Saturday’s conference. “I absolutely recognise that pay in this sector remains low and that the pay does not reflect the level or the importance of the work that you’re doing. And I am committed to supporting further improvements.”

A series of motions, including a new campaign for a €15 minimum hourly rate for early years educators, and calls for the ring-fencing of State funds to ensure financing cannot be used for anything other than improving pay and conditions, were passed at Saturday’s event.

With most early years educators set to earn €13.65 per hour, and lead educators €14.70 per hour, under the proposed 5 per cent pay increase, workers in this sector will still earn less than the Irish living wage of €14.80 per hour, said Gráinne McKenna, assistant professor from DCU’s institute of education.

“This struck me as really depressing, that we’re debating paying these professionals, with whom we entrust the most important time of a child’s educational journey, slightly less than the living wage.

“Childcare and early years education is an essential component of our infrastructure,” said Ms McKenna, who spoke at Saturday’s conference. “If you do not have access to affordable childcare, families are crippled in terms of accessing work and the potential benefits for children experiencing disadvantage. We know it’s a really powerful tool in ending inequality.”

State investment must be “ring-fenced” to ensure workers receive pay increases rather than funds being spent on overheads and ending up in the pockets corporate childcare service providers, said Ms McKenna. She added that the increased presence of private equity firms and venture capital groups within the early childcare sector was “extremely alarming and demands political and policy attention”.

Motions on tackling stress and burnout, which reportedly affects 70 per cent of childcare workers, and calling for the public provision of high-quality, accessible and affordable childcare in Ireland, were also passed on Saturday.

Burnout, staff shortages and a lack of respect for childcare workers continue to negatively impact those working in the sector, said Avril Green, chairperson of the early years national committee. “A big thing in our sector is the lack of recognition and respect, we’re really not recognised as teachers even though we have the same qualifications,” she said. “Our pay scale is nowhere near the pay scale of a teacher. We’re the first step in the education system. Children learn more in the first five years than they do in the rest of their lives. Everything they learn follows them through adulthood.”

Reflecting on improvements in the sector, Mr O’Gorman cited the 74 per cent increase in State investment since 2020 – rising from €638 million in 2020 to €1.109 billion in 2024 – and noted that his department’s commitment to cut childcare costs by half, which will be realised in September 2024, was already having a “real positive impact for parents all around the country”. Phase one of the pilot Nurturing Skills Learner fund, which will assist early years educators to pursue new qualifications, will also open to 400 applicants in May, said the Minister.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast