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Opinion This government needs to prioritise childcare after a decade of underfunding

Early Childhood Ireland’s Frances Byrne says years of inadequate funding have crippled our childcare system.

FOR TOO LONG, families in Ireland have waited for the quality childcare system we deserve

All eyes will be on the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform when they announce Budget 2022 on 12 October. After a decade of chronic underfunding for the childcare sector, surely this must be the date when families with young children finally get good news.

Childcare was a huge and immediate focus of political and public attention when the pandemic hit last year. But it was barely a footnote in the Budget 2021 announcement with no increase in funding despite the pandemic having shown just how essential our sector is.

The previous Government increased funding in childcare by more than 100%. Despite this, Ireland remains at the bottom of the OECD table for public investment in early years and school-age childcare.

Decades of underfunding have meant parents, providers and staff have been left to step up and fill the gaps because successive governments have failed to do so. We have the highest childcare fees from parents’ take-home pay in the European Union.

Meanwhile, average pay and conditions of employment in the sector are poor, leading to serious challenges in staff recruitment and retention. Providers operate precariously in a highly complex funding system that does not put the needs of families at its centre.

Pandemic focus

All of this was brought into sharp focus by Covid-19. For years, Early Childhood Ireland had been told by the Government that it was impossible to pay wages in the sector.

But, faced with unprecedented challenges, the government implemented a reliable bespoke Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme for childcare settings, which to date is covering up to 80% of wages.

This has been a lifeline for our members, allowing them to retain staff and put in place proper public health requirements. It has also been a lifeline for families, and the economy, as our sector, unlike any other part of the education system, was able to safely reopen and has remained open, since June 2020.

Perhaps most critically, the security of the wage scheme has enabled many providers to invest in measures that have improved quality, ensuring better experiences for children during this terrible global crisis.

Having properly qualified and appropriately compensated staff is a critical marker of a high-quality care and education system. In other countries, paying wages is simply part of the system. And in the much-lauded Nordic countries, staff have terms and conditions similar to school teachers.

Good intentions

The Government here knows this – the challenges which the childcare sector has faced for years are not unprecedented. That is why they have a national strategy, First 5, which commits to a graduate-led workforce by 2028 and to at least doubling investment in childcare by the same year.

But the truth is, none of us can afford to wait as providers’ costs soar, parental fees increase and, with wages and working conditions stagnated, staff continue to seek out better opportunities in other sectors. Unless the commitments outlined in First 5 are urgently prioritised, Ireland will continue to remain bottom of the class and our children will suffer.

Today, anyone planning a family has very limited certainty about what lies between birth and primary school. There is welcome, if long overdue, increased maternity leave and paternity leave during the first year of a child’s life, but without complementary supports from employers, dads, in particular, may be reluctant to avail of it.

New parents cannot afford a drop in income, during what is the most expensive time for any family. When it comes to childcare, the demand for places can see parents joining a waiting list before they’ve even settled on a name for their child.

When school begins, limited choices continue for many in terms of after-school provision and childminders. Omitting the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme (which offers free, part-time childcare for children approaching their third birthday), fees for childcare vary hugely depending on where families live.

Irish parents deserve certainty, particularly as we face more permanent remote or hybrid working patterns. Childcare providers want to support families, but the current funding model relies so greatly on attendance patterns that they cannot afford to offer the flexibility that our European neighbours can.

More importantly, children deserve high-quality early years and school-age care, whether that is provided in childcare settings or childminders’ homes. This is a fundamental public good in any decent society and it has been lacking in Ireland for too long.

Processes have been put in place, promises have been made, drastic measures have been taken to keep the sector from buckling under the initial pressures of Covid-19, and providers have risen to meet every challenge.

Now, it is time for our political leaders to act. Budget 2022 must include a plan for a fit-for-purpose childcare system that makes high quality, affordable and publicly funded childcare accessible for all. Irish families have waited long enough.

Frances Byrne, the Director of Policy and Advocacy for Early Childhood Ireland, the leading organisation in the childcare sector.

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