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Proper childcare is for the common good – not just something for parents to figure out

A long-term investment plan for childcare is good for children, good for society and good for the economy.

Image: Shutterstock/Syda Productions

THE COST OF childcare is one of the big election issues and, as such, is a favourite in the kite flying department of Leinster House.

Parents struggle with the cost of childcare in Ireland paying an average 34% of their income, double that of their European counterparts. Costs are driven by two things (i) the labour intensive nature of early childhood education and the ratios of staff to children and (ii) in contrast to most other European countries, the fact that virtually the entire cost of childcare must be paid for by parents out of after tax-income due to the very low levels of state investment.

When it comes to actual investment, Ireland lags way behind our European neighbours, with our 0.2% investment of GDP in early childhood education contrasting starkly with the European average of 0.7%.

A lack of decent recognition and reward

Despite the high cost of childcare for parents, sustainability is a key issue for childcare operators, as explained to us by our 3,500 members who support 100,000 children and their families through preschool, afterschool and full daycare provision nationwide.  The average preschool service loses about €12.50 per child place per week on the basis that the current standard ECCE (free preschool year) capitation rate is €62.50 where, pre the introduction of this scheme, €75 was the most commonly charged fee for a preschool place (with 20% of services charging that amount and a further 15% charging between €80 and €100).

In addition, the recognition and reward for the early childhood care and education workers in terms of pay and conditions, in a sector employing approximately 25,000 women, is far from where it should be, with an average pay rate of approximately €10 per hour. Given the part-time and seasonal nature of this sector, many people earn about €5,700 p.a. Over 3,000 early childhood education staff go on the dole over the summer. That’s not a living wage and we are losing highly qualified professionals from the sector as a result.

But hopefully change is in the air and it’s about time. The evidence of the importance and value of good quality early childhood education is compelling. Here in Ireland we have a high birth rate, the envy of our neighbours; the economy is on the turn and more people are returning to work; we know there will be an election within the next nine months and the EU have told the Irish Government that the affordability of childcare for parents must be addressed.

All roads lead to increasing our investment in early childhood care and education and having an Early Years Strategy that makes sense financially, morally, educationally and socially.

This is a question for all of society, not just for parents 

Also influencing this debate is Minister Reilly’s Interdepartmental Group (IDG) which is prioritising the areas for investment and is due to publish their report by the end of June.

So at last we seem to be switching the question from the cost of childcare to what is good for children and how should it be paid for, and making this a societal issue for the common good and not just something for parents to figure out. All the talking and analysis and policy documents must be backed up by real investment, if we are serious about this issue and if we are to build an early years care and education model to be proud of.

That big increase from 0.2% of GDP to 0.7% should happen over the next six years, starting in the next budget. Rather than tax credits, which don’t work, we need to see investment directly into settings for the provision of services for children which would be passed on directly to families. All families would benefit, not just those on higher salaries, while at the same time sustaining services. Capitation levels must be increased and linked to the creation of decent salary scales for the staff working in the sector.

Proper consideration must be given to after-school provision 

The recent discussion regarding after-school, while it’s welcome and timely, must build on, not displace, existing provision in the community and ensure quality standards are met. Funding streams are necessary and would be really welcomed by parents, of course. But unlike previous after-school funding streams, they must ensure sustainability and decent salaries for all the professionals involved.

Meanwhile, a dangerous assumption in the after-school debate is that using school buildings is the quick and easy solution, without giving proper consideration to the child’s experience. We must have a proper discussion about what is good for our children and what kind of childhood we want them to have, and to get the children themselves involved in the after-school debate.

Our early years strategy must be child-focused, ensuring that children attending settings have access to the supports they need. This includes children in services in our most disadvantaged areas; children with additional needs, who today have virtually no access to special needs support in their preschool and so often cannot access their entitlement to their free preschool year; children under the age of three, whose parents receive virtually no support when it comes to paying for the costs of their childcare; children in childminding settings, the vast bulk of whom are unregulated and therefore totally uninspected, as well as children in after school settings.

And it includes parents of all of these children who rightfully expect that they should not have to pay the full cost of childcare themselves as the State steps up in that role.

To conclude, I’d like to fly my own kite – a wise long-term investment plan is good for children, good for society and good for the economy.

Teresa Heeney is CEO of Early Childhood Ireland.

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