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As a creche owner, I had butterflies on Monday, but we're getting there

One childcare provider shares her thoughts on reopening in the ‘new normal’ and thanks former minister Katherine Zappone for the work she’s done.

THIS WEEK HAS been a big week in childcare as we finally reopened on Monday. After so long my Montessori and daycare centre in rural Ireland welcomed back the pitter-patter of children’s feet again.

We have spent weeks preparing for the doors to open again. This was no easy task and involved setting up the school for social distancing with the installation of signs, sanitisers and the creation of isolation rooms. Childcare in Ireland has now changed entirely.

I had butterflies in my stomach on Monday as I greeted the children and their parents at the front door and introduced them to their key worker. 

Parents told me how they had worried that I would not re-open, that the business might go the way of so many rural enterprises in this time of Covid-19 and shut its doors forever. Already I have two new customers and three more enquirers for places. The country wants to get back to work and childcare is needed for that to happen.

The children, though first a little daunted by all the new rules quickly relaxed when they saw their school friends and their key workers.

Things are different in the school now as each child is part of a pod. This pod model incorporates a small group of children and two staff members that look after them. We have four pods in the school and the groups do not mix.

We are lucky at our premises because each pod has a room with its own independent doorway which has meant that our distancing measures are a lot easier to implement. The children are getting used to the new way of doing things above all now we like them to play in the outdoor garden and green areas providing what we call seamless provision.

I tell myself now that things are going to be ok. For that, I have to be honest, I think of the outgoing Minister for Children Katherine Zappone. We have a new government and new people in the role now but it was her work that has laid the foundations of where our industry is at the moment. I’m grateful to her for the work she has done for our sector.

From her appointment in May 2016 she has run the race with us, providing leadership, insight and above all a voice for the children of this country. The life of the last two governments has seen tremendous wins for the childcare sector.

How things have improved

One of the highs in the past few years was the formation of the Access and Inclusion model which supported children with additional needs allowing for their inclusion and education in our sector.

AIM is a child-centred model and allowed all children to participate in the ECCE programme which consisted of seven levels of progressive support.

The introduction of the free pre-school model for two years allowed every child to have access to pre-school before primary school. This has fundamentally changed the landscape of childcare in Ireland and parents and fellow business operators have all said as much to me. I’m mindful too of the recent affordable childcare scheme introduced last year which has allowed an additional 7,500 children to benefit. 

pjimage(15) Outgoing minister for children Katherine Zappone and incoming minister Roderic O’Gorman. Rolling News Rolling News

We do not know what the future of childcare will look like under the new government there have been many calls for changes and the introduction of a new State-led model of childcare in Ireland based on European models. As private providers, we are unsure how we will fit into this scheme.

Issues yet to be addressed

Childcare has not been a top priority in the new government formation talks but Covid-19 has shown us that our sector is an integral part of modern Irish society. We did not want to close during the lockdown, that was a decision that came from above and we as providers are aware of how much pressure that placed not just on parents but frontline staff. We hope that in our reopening we can play our part in getting the nation back to work.

Childcare still has problems. In urban areas it is expensive due to excessive rates, crippling insurances costs and high rents and we know that funding model must change in order to provide for the children and staff that provide our children’s education.

The issue of proper financial support for our early years’ teachers and support staff has still not been resolved for in most cases those teachers are not employed for the 14 week period of non-government supported schemes. The ECCE scheme only provides 38 weeks of education per year and follows the same timeframe as the country’s primary schools.

There is still work to be done, issues that need to be remedied and a new Government that has to prove to us that they are serious about childcare and child-centred education. For us and for our new minister we need our schools to be supported financially to continue the new measures of social distancing and the pod model.

Right now the pod system can run because of the wage subsidy scheme which allows me to provide two staff to every pod. When the wage subsidy goes our industry may not be able to provide this ratio. We need financial support to allow this pod system to continue well into the future.

Insurance is also a key area, right now there are only a small number of childcare insurers in the country, many of whom were unwilling to provide insurance at the beginning of the Covid outbreak. We need government intervention to create a fairer marketplace for providers to access insurance and have the faith that if an outbreak does occur in their business they will be able to weather the storm.

As I walked through my school on Monday evening I stopped in our sensory garden and green space and thought about the joy of the children when they are in nature. Perhaps Covid-19 has been a teacher too and can provide us with new ideas on how best to cater to the child’s needs. Children come first and I believe Katherine Zappone taught us that as minster. I hope her successor does the same.

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy are proposing to investigate how a new childcare system can be built in post-pandemic Ireland. See how you can support this project here>

Margaret Connell is a childcare provider of over 20 years in County Longford. She runs the award-winning Teach Leanbh, Montessori and daycare centre.

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