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Opinion: We can't afford NOT to invest in childcare and early education

Crèche fees in Ireland are among the highest in Europe – but that is no guarantee children are being well cared for.

Ciairín de Buis

PARENTS IN IRELAND pay some of the highest costs for crèches in the world. But the high costs are no guarantee of quality.

Parents in Ireland pay huge childcare costs – amounts that equate to a second mortgage. In fact, crèche fees in Ireland are among the highest in Europe, costing an average of over €750 per child per month, according to the latest report from Eurostat. Many parents are paying even more. It’s unsustainable.

At the same time, the high costs are no guarantee for parents that their child is being well looked-after. Anyone who saw the RTE Prime Time expose of standards in crèches last year, would have been shocked by the scenes of children being mistreated and manhandled. A year on and not much has been done to improve the situation and ensure that no child is in a poor quality service.

Why quality matters

Those of us interested in children’s early years often point to the value of a good early education. Not only does it give a child a great start in life, it can help a child get on better in school and later in life.

Research confirms that it makes it makes complete sense for the Government to invest in early year care and education. Not only does it benefit the child but also the economy and society. Research studies have found that the overall returns to society can be as high as 16:1. Just think, the government could ‘make’ as much as €16 for every €1 they spend on early education. But that can only happen where early education is high-quality.

Subsidies

We need to start subsidising early care and education a lot more than we currently do and in a way that makes sure that children benefit from it.

According to the OECD, Ireland invests only 0.4% of GDP annually in early care and education services. This can be compared to an international OECD average of 0.7%. Clearly we need to invest more to bring us up to at least the average.

Of course, when spending public money we need to know that our money is working hard for us and, in this case, making a real difference to young children’s lives. Public money should mean high quality. No child should be in a poor quality service. Parents shouldn’t have to worry about whether their child is in a ‘good service’. All childcare services should be ‘good services’. Neither should they have to worry about whether they can afford a ‘good service’.

Tax credits for childcare?

The idea of a tax credit for childcare is one that has been bandied about recently. It’s easy to see why it grabbed attention – tax credits are easy to grasp and understand, they’re a concept we’re familiar with and they could be introduced in time for the next general election.

But we need to stand back and look at what’s good for children. Tax credits have been used in other countries, and they don’t do anything to ensure quality standards in crèches. In fact, countries which have childcare tax credits tend to be ones where the quality is very mixed or poor.

It’s time we started looking at children’s early care and education in the same way we do other important public services. Despite our ambitions towards a world-class education system, we have a very different attitude towards early care and education. We wouldn’t expect our schools system, for example, to provide high-quality education if funded primarily through tax credits.

High quality early care

We need to invest public money by directly subsidising places for our young children in crèches and pre-schools. In return, services need to provide high quality early care and education. Where it’s not high-quality, they shouldn’t get public money. We need to start linking public-funding with high-quality.

We need to start seeing and treating those who care for and educate our young children as professionals, with all the expectations and responsibilities that go with that professional role.

We should be looking for the ‘double-dividend’ for our young children – high-quality early education for our children, which is affordable for their parents. We only have one childhood, those early years pass very quickly and every child should get the best possible start in life.

Ciairín de Buis is Director of Start Strong, an advocacy organisation campaigning to improve children’s early care and education in Ireland.

Read Start Strong’s latest policy brief: The Double Dividend: childcare that’s affordable and high quality.

Read: Irish parents shell out for some of the highest childcare fees in Europe

Opinion: One year on from the Prime Time childcare exposé – what have we learned?

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Ciairín de Buis

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