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‘Time to radically reform childcare and break the tension between fees and quality’

In the latest in our Childcare Voices series, Darragh O’Connor of SIPTU outlines why the trade union is calling for big changes in pay and affordability in the sector.

Darragh O’Connor

This is the second in a four-part series of letters addressed to new Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, Roderic O’Gorman, on the future of childcare in Ireland. This morning we hear from Siptu about professional pay in the sector.

DEAR MINISTER O’GORMAN,

Congratulations on your appointment as Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration. 

I am writing to you in relation to the current crisis in Early Childhood Education and Care (childcare). Poverty pay and high fees are symptoms of a dysfunctional system that are undermining your Department’s goals of high quality, affordability and accessibility.

You are now in a position to radically reform our childcare system and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, educators and parents. 

High quality childcare can have a positive impact on educational and life outcomes for children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Far from being a cost, it has been shown that high quality comprehensive childcare gives a 13% return on investment for the State.

This means improved life outcomes for children in terms of health, crime, income, IQ, schooling, and an increase in a mother’s income after returning to work due to childcare.

Affordable childcare also helps parents, particularly women, to participate in the labour market, reducing inequality and benefiting the economy as a whole.

However, these potential benefits are being critically undermined.

  • Read more here on how you can support a Noteworthy project to examine how we can construct a childcare system in post-pandemic Ireland that works for everyone.

Low pay and affordability crisis

Firstly, there is a crisis of low pay. Figures released by Pobal for 2018/19 show that the average hourly rate for Early Years Educators is just €11.44 per hour, over 60% of whom earn below the Living Wage of €12.30 per hour. Early Years managers earn on average just €15.44 per hour. 

SIPTU’s own research shows that 94% of educators struggle to make ends meet with 84% unable to cope with an unexpected expense like replacing a washing machine. The sector is 98% female and one of the lowest paid in the country. 

This level of poverty pay reflects the State’s systemic undervaluing of caring work, and significantly contributes to gender inequality.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to a staff turnover rate of 40% in full day care services, directly undermining quality for children. Many educators simply cannot afford to stay in their profession.  

Secondly, there is a crisis of affordability. Parents in Ireland pay the highest childcare fees in the EU. Pobal has found that parents pay on average €184.36 per week for a single full day care place, with parents in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown paying the highest fees with a single full day place costing €246.03 on average.

This is nearly three times the cost in some other EU countries. These are the reasons why 30,000 people protested through the streets of Dublin on the 5th February.

Measures such as the free preschool year, minimum qualifications and the Access and Inclusion Model have made a real and significant impact. Yet, there is still a need for radical change on pay, affordability and the wider funding structures. So, why isn’t the current system working?

Tweet by @Big Start Campaign Source: Big Start Campaign/Twitter

Investment and funding lagging behind

Despite a trebling of public investment in childcare programmes between 2011 and 2016, your department accepts that investment – at 0.3% of GNI* – lags far behind the OECD average of 0.8% of GDP and the UNICEF 1% benchmark. Poverty pay and high fees are subsidising low levels of state investment.

However, the amount of funding is only half the story. The funding system is the other side of the coin. Ireland uses a market model to deliver childcare rather than a public service model. Public investment into this market model can go in a few ways – reduction of fees for parents or improvements in quality (including pay). 

This inherent tension means that Ireland’s current ‘market model’ for childcare does not work. Indeed, we have seen from other sectors like housing that markets are not an effective or efficient way to deliver crucial public services.

The National Childcare Scheme – the previous government’s major flagship initiative to increase investment in the sector which began late last year – is designed to operate in the context of this market model but is highly flawed and simply will not be effective in supporting the sustainability of services or improving pay.  

Indeed, there is no guarantee that subsidies will significantly reduce the fees for all parents as fees are likely to chase the subsidies.

A new funding model will be necessary to ensure increased investment delivers high quality experiences for children, accessible and affordable services for parents, financially sustainable services and a decent wage for educators. So, what’s the solution?

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Breaking the tension

We need to radically reform the funding model by breaking the tension between fees and quality. This can be done by the state funding the pay of Early Years educators and managers, just like in primary and secondary schools.

This would allow for a dramatic reduction of fees for parents and improved quality for children by attracting and retaining qualified staff with decent pay.

The government did this during the pandemic with the Temporary Wage Subsidy Childcare Scheme. Making this scheme permanent is the radical, long-term change that we need.

The low pay crisis needs to be addressed immediately. Funding for the introduction of a Living Wage in 2020 would be a first step towards decent pay scales and recognising the work of Early Years Educators.

Darragh O’Connor is SIPTU’s Head of Strategic Organising and Campaigns and leads the trade union’s ‘Big Start’ childcare campaign for professional pay in the sector.

CHILDCARE CROSSROADS Investigation

Do you want to know the toll that the pandemic has taken on the childcare sector?

The Noteworthy team wants to do an in-depth investigation into this issue and examine how we can build a more resilient and reliable childcare system for Ireland’s future.

Here’s how to help support this proposal> 

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