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Column: The cost of childcare is already forcing some parents to give up their jobs

Enda Kenny’s attempt to reassure women over the insolvency controversy does not go far enough, writes Irene Gunning, who says without any form of subsidy, supports or tax relief, childcare costs are borne fully by parents, limiting job options.

Irene Gunning

THE TAOISEACH’S CLARIFICATION that no guidelines contained in the personal insolvency arrangements would require any man or woman to give up work does not go far enough, with many more questions to be answered on behalf of families and childcare professionals struggling to make ends meet.

The key considerations for parents in weighing up their options between home and work come down to issues of cost, accessibility and quality of childcare. Of course, the cost of childcare limits options for families. Childcare is expensive in Ireland, with a full time place in daycare costing about 20 per cent of earnings compared to an EU average of 12 per cent.

Childcare is expensive in Ireland

However, these costs accrue, not because parents are being overcharged, but because it is a labour intensive sector, with salaries comprising approximately 70 per cent of costs. People must also understand that the childcare sector is subject to high levels of regulation, strict adult/child and space ratios, along with fixed rents and increasing commercial and water rate charges. Without any form of subsidy, supports or tax relief, these costs are borne by parents.  We believe that a more equitable system is possible and that fees should be capped or tiered for parents in accordance with income and their ability to pay.

When discussing the cost of childcare in Ireland, we’ve got to shift the focus onto how the childcare bill should be paid for and how the onus is firmly on the State for more investment to support families and children. For some time, we have been calling on the Government to undertake a full cost-benefit analysis on models of support for parents such as tax exemptions, tax credits, refundable credits thus ensuring that work pays for parents who combine work with formal childcare in Ireland.

Affordable options badly needed

We need real and affordable choices for families. This might mean for instance that a system of paid parental leave is available which provides options to suit individual families and allows for a balance of time to be shared between parents. A move towards a year’s paid parental leave would provide real choice for parents and is a good start for children.

Employers too have a role in facilitating a family-friendly work system that is flexible and provides some level of adaptability for working parents. We need a well-resourced childcare sector that delivers high quality service and provides positive outcomes for children. Parents must have confidence in the service where they leave their children.

Research tells us that quality counts and quality costs. Continued and increased investment is needed to improve quality in the early childhood sector and currently Ireland lags behind the UNICEF investment target of 1 per cent of GDP (we are at 0.25 per cent).

Investment needed

The Free Pre School Year was introduced in 2010 and it has been very successful, with almost 96 per cent of eligible children taking up their place this year. This scheme has begun to introduce some equity for children, providing them with a good learning platform and for parents it ensures that irrespective of their situation their child can enjoy the benefits of early learning. Investment should now focus on extending the Free Pre School Scheme to two years so that all children can learn and develop in the best way possible before making the transition into the more formal primary school system.

High quality services depend on well trained and qualified staff.  That means staff that can support children with special needs, that can foster literacy and numeracy, that can implement curriculum and that can enhance children’s learning and overall development.  The levels of qualification have risen over the past number of years but we must move towards a graduate led sector, which would support the roll out of national policies.

Childcare workers

Pay levels in the sector are low (average hourly rate for those with qualifications is approximately €10.50) and the cost of accredited training is high. The provision of a transformation training fund would incentivise and enable those working in the sector to engage in study at degree level and integrate new thinking into practice.

This latest discussion started with the issue of personal insolvency and the possible choices to be made.  In our current context we can choose to make do with our current systems or we can choose to support parents and invest in world class services that will foster creative and critical thinkers. The choice is ours.

Irene Gunning is CEO at Early Childhood Ireland. Early Childhood Ireland is the representative group for 3,330 childcare professionals who support over 100,000 children and their families through preschool, after school and full daycare (crèche) provision nationwide. For more articles by Irene for TheJournal.ie please click here.

Read: Taoiseach: No one will be forced to quit job if childcare exceeds salary>

Read: Childcare costs leave parents struggling to pay household bills>

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Irene Gunning

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