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Opinion: The government is beginning to recognise that the first five years of a child's life are the most crucial

Adults need to step away and put children back at the centre of childcare, writes Tanya Ward.

Tanya Ward Children's Rights Alliance

ANY DISCUSSION CENTRED on how to raise children is going to be fraught, and this week has been no exception.

The cost of childcare in Ireland is one of the highest in Europe, yet as the government makes important first steps to support parents’ choices by offering a childcare package that is both universal but also offers targeted supports to those most in need, the rhetoric has been about pitting ‘squeezed middle’ parents against low-income parents.

Now we hear that the government is ‘forcing’ parents to use childcare centres rather than recognising and supporting parents caring for their children in their home.  Suddenly, the idea that all parents would get some financial help with the high cost of childcare has turned into an argument between stay-at-home versus working parents.

We all know what can happen when adults fight – children can get caught in the middle; become invisible; lose out. Adults need to step back and put children at the core of this debate. Currently, professional childcare in Ireland is extremely variable; lack of regulation and support means that the standard of childcare is extremely dependant on the family’s location, financial situation and lifestyle.

What children need

The government needs to set up a structure that facilitates quality of care for children who are at home, in childcare and in school. Encouraging childcare providers to register will enable a structure where those working in childcare will be Garda vetted and know how to look after a child’s health and safety needs.

Children develop and learn best with a variety of experiences. They need to play and explore, have structure and flexibility. There are many ways to provide this, but giving children access to affordable, high-quality childcare opens a door not just for them, but also for their parents to decide how to balance the way children spend their days. The new childcare system being introduced is adaptable. It offers subsidies for up to 40 hours per week, because that is the level of support many families need. However, this isn’t a requirement and nor is it pushing parents to spend less time with their children.

The government has already committed to bringing in paid parental leave for the first year of a child’s life, in recognition that children do best with access to parents at these earliest stages. This would bring us into line with our European neighbours, and when implemented will give parents even more options for how they care for their children in these crucial early years. Beyond this, we need flexible employment that allows mothers and fathers to balance time at home and in work without always having to make difficult choices. The introduction of paid paternity leave was an important first step but we can’t stop there. Paid parental leave has proven benefits for both children and parents alike.

The future

The addition of a second free preschool year is a reflection of its success to date. There was a 95% uptake on the free year in 2015 – so both working and stay-at-home parents are seeing the benefit of the scheme, and we know that access to quality early years education helps with a child’s brain development and social skills. This is something that all parents should be able to access, yet previously low income had been a barrier.

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We know that the first five years of a child’s life are the most critical, and the government is beginning to recognise this. If promises are kept, in a small number of years we could have parents able to stay at home for the first year of their child’s life, with an option for childcare from six months. Two free preschool years will give parents the option to be in employment, and help set children up to progress into Junior Infants.

As these doors are opened, it is crucial that decisions are made about investment. Without adequate resourcing, services won’t be good quality. Whether children are with parents, family or in professional childcare, if those looking after children are overstretched, under-resourced and stressed, the children will lose out. Quality care and education for young children helps make society fairer through reducing social and economic disadvantage and strengthening equality.

Ultimately, the government must ensure the best for our children in their early years whether they are cared for at home or in a childcare setting. Parents must be adequately supported to make the best choice for their child and their family. Let’s put children back at the centre of childcare.

Tanya Ward is the chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, an umbrella organisation of 100 organisations working together to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child.

Read: Creches may have to publish their fees under new childcare package

Read: Zappone exploring ways to bring unregistered childminders into new subsidy fold 

About the author:

Tanya Ward  / Children's Rights Alliance

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