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Opinion: The new childcare ‘Core Funding’ is positive news but more is needed in the budget

Regina Bushell of Seas Suas childcare group says recent changes are to be welcomed, but Budget 2023 must not forget the sector.

Regina Bushell

Updated Sep 22nd 2022, 9:30 AM

THE INTRODUCTION OF Core Funding for the childcare and early education sector by the Government, and the associated Employment Regulation Order (ERO), is really good news for children, parents, staff and childcare providers.

This is something I have been calling for and working towards for many years as a childcare provider in the midlands and Chair of Seas Suas, the national, representative body for full day childcare providers.

The new Core Funding model – ‘Together for Better’ – will bring improved pay and conditions for staff, career progression opportunities and help to attract and retain staff in the sector – a key challenge for many services currently.

As an employer of 130 staff, each of whom give their all, day in day out to care for and nurture the youngest and most vulnerable in society, I am thrilled that the State has recognised the importance of this work. It is critical to the viability of the sector, as well as morally right, that staff are remunerated fairly for this crucial work. However, this alone won’t solve the staffing issues facing many childcare services across the country.

Needs haven’t changed

The sector has come a long way since I opened my first childcare business 30 years ago. Since then, we have campaigned long and hard for Government investment to improve three key pillars:

- Affordability for parents
- Better pay and conditions for staff
- Sustainability for providers

Now, at long last, I feel we are on the right track, certainly for the first two areas outlined above; core funding will ensure improved pay for staff and Minister O’Gorman has committed to further support for parents’ childcare costs in Budget 2023.

The third area, sustainability for childcare services, still needs focus. There are two aspects to this challenge – staffing and operating costs.

By signing up to the Core Funding scheme providers have agreed to freeze their fees at 2021 rates. It is completely understandable, particularly in light of inflation and significant cost of living challenges, that parents need assurance that childcare costs will remain static.

At the same time, service providers will need Government support in the face of spiralling running costs – heat, electricity and fuel (the latter for services that also offer collection/drop off for families). The Government is considering support for schools; it makes sense that the early education and childcare sector is included in this.

Services need the Government to increase capitation for all providers delivering the Early Child Care and Education (ECCE) scheme. Capitation has only increased once, very marginally, since the introduction of the ECCE scheme 12 years ago in 2010.

This was a €4.50 per week per child increase in 2017 to bring the rate to €69 per week (€4.60 per hour) This equates to a fee increase of approximately half a per cent per annum over 12 years. While the overall costs of delivering a quality service continue to rise each year, capitation for the ECCE scheme has not kept pace with this. It is crucial that capitation for ECCE and other childcare schemes are kept in line with inflation and the cost of running a childcare service to ensure the sustainability of the sector.

Retaining staff

Another key concern for childcare services is staff recruitment and retention. The Irish economy has been growing at a phenomenal rate over the past number of years and thankfully, despite the pandemic, unemployment rates have reduced to an all-time low.

In this environment, it is challenging to recruit staff for any sector but particularly staff in the early years’ sector where all staff working with children are required to have a higher education qualification.

Turnover in the sector is high and many services find that newly qualified staff undergo training and then decide that working in the early years’ sector is not for them. Many decide instead to move into the primary school sector.

Before now, pay levels for graduates who qualified after three or four years in third level were particularly low compared to other career options. The new core funding scheme will, hopefully, make the sector more attractive to those considering a career working with young children. We also need to improve accessibility to childcare qualifications – currently, there are very limited pathways to achieving the required academic grades. This is another significant barrier to recruitment and retention.

Apprenticeship

Seas Suas is calling for an ‘earn and you learn’ style apprentice scheme where those considering childcare, with the right temperament and characteristics, work alongside a fully qualified staff member.

This gives people the chance to experience first-hand if a career in the sector is really for them before they, and the State, invest time and resources in achieving a degree in childcare.

The requirement to have highly qualified staff working at very low child-to-staff ratios means that service or room closures could be imminent if the recruitment and retention challenge isn’t overcome.

We have come a long way since 1992 when I opened my childcare service in Athlone and the Core Funding model is a significant, positive step on the road to improving the quality, affordability, accessibility and sustainability of our childcare sector.

Working together I believe that our children, parents, staff and employers will have childcare and early education service that works for everyone, in the very near future.

Regina Bushell is Chair of ‘Seas Suas’, the organisation representing independent early learning and child care providers, and Founder & MD of Grovelands Childcare which celebrates 30 years in operation this year.

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Regina Bushell

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