Parents' great expectations drive changes in childcare
Like everything else, the economic turbulence of recent years has had a profound effect on early childhood care and education.
During the boom times there was a race, spurred on by State grants, to provide sufficient places in childcare centres to meet the demands of the labour market. Creches, built on a scale unseen here, had no problems filling their places as children were handed over for full-time daycare.
It was a seller’s market and parents complained about high prices and the inflexibility of some childcare providers if reduced time was required. But after the financial crisis hit in 2008, centres saw an exodus of children as one or both parents lost their jobs.
On the up side, the introduction of the free pre-school year from January 2010 meant an unprecedented number of parents were availing of centre-based early childhood education in a country with the highest birth rate in Europe – peaking at 16.8 per 1,000 population in 2008.
Initially some predominantly full-time daycare centres were not interested in running the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme, as the subvention rate was less than their hourly rate and no top-up fees were allowed. However, non-participation soon proved unviable.
For a start, parents in jobs were prepared to move their children rather than forgo a year of significant discount on costly childcare bills. Equally, in the downturn, having a steady stream of children for at least three hours a day, whether or not their parents were working, proved to be a lifeline for many creches.
The start of the ECCE scheme coincided not only with a time of fragmentation in working lives but also rising parental anxiety about doing the right thing by their children. And it is the childcare centres which have best adapted to meet not only the needs but also the expectations of parents that are thriving.
“When the recession came it hit us like a bang. Whole families pulled out,” says Nikki Darling, the owner of Little Feat in Clonskeagh, Dublin. “And like everybody else we had to shed staff.”
But as a relatively small, family-focused centre it was able to tailor its operation to the changing dynamics.
Parents expect centre-based childcare to provide much more than a “minding” service. They look to providers to help give their children the best possible start in educational, emotional, physical and social development – basically do everything they like to think they would do with their children if they had the time and/or patience and know-how. After price, nutrition and range of activities are high on the list of parents’ concerns in choosing a centre.
Darling has seen a big change in what parents are looking for since she opened Little Feat 20 years ago. Initially parents brought their children in so they could go to work.
“Some people use us now because they want to go to work and some people use us because they want their children to socialise and they don’t necessarily have the time or the skills to do some of the things we do here.” The emphasis there is on education through fun learning and encouraging a healthy approach to life.
Parents are definitely more particular about nutritional matters, says Darling. “They come in and ask what food we serve. We don’t do any what I call ‘plastic’ food – processed food – everything is cooked here from scratch and nutritionally balanced.”
Staff also do cookery with the children, as “kids need to know that not everything comes out of a packet”, and Gymboree, the US franchise, comes in once a month to lead music sessions.