First 5 is a whole-of-Government strategy to improve the lives of babies, young children and their families. It is a ten-year plan to help make sure all children have positive early experiences and get a great start in life.
The First 5 Strategy uses evidence to identify goals, objectives and the specific actions required from across Government to support children (and their families) in the early years of life. First 5 commits to major initiatives on family leave, children’s health services, parenting supports, child-friendly communities and Early Learning and Care services among a broad range of actions. The Strategy will significantly enhance early childhood and make a huge contribution to the lives of young children, society and the economy over the short, medium and long term.
All babies’ and young children’s early years will be valued as a critical and distinct period which should be enjoyed. Families will be assisted and enabled to nurture babies and young children and support their development, with additional support for those who need it. Those providing services for babies, young children and their families will be equipped to contribute to their learning, development, health and wellbeing. Community contexts will help babies and young children make the most of their early years and fulfil their potential.
In order to ensure children can 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. This scheme will be accompanied by a range of measures to develop greater family-friendly flexible working arrangements.
First 5 will streamline and improve 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. A new Parenting Unit will be established by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to lead this important work.
A key action will be the development of a dedicated child health workforce, focussed initially in areas of high population density and disadvantage. The Strategy also 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. The delivery of these measures will be led by the recently established Healthy Ireland Office in the Department of Health in partnership with other key Government Departments and State Agencies.
First 5 builds on the very significant developments in Early Learning and Care (and school-age childcare) 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, the extension of regulations and supports to all paid childminders and school-age childcare services, and the introduction of a new funding model for ELC. Under this model, employers will be supported to provide more favourable working conditions that will attract and retain staff. These reforms will be underpinned by a strengthened governance structure at a national and local level.
First 5 identifies new measures that will address poverty in early childhood. These will include expanded access to free and subsidised Early Learning and Care, extension to the Warmth and Well-Being and Warmer Homes Schemes, Community Cooking Programmes and the introduction of a meals programme to some ELC settings. In addition, the introduction of a DEIS-type model for ELC settings will create further opportunities to narrow the gap for disadvantaged children.