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.
Parents are constantly looking for new ideas and activity-based classes, says Darling, who encourages staff with particular expertise to share it with the children. One specialises in children’s yoga and another, who used to tour with Lord of the Dance, is teaching Irish dancing. They have also all trained in Buntús Start, a physical activity programme for children aged two to five, provided by the Irish Sports Council.
“The yoga and the Buntús went down very well with parents because they feel we are encouraging healthy living.”
On any given day, Little Feat has about 20 children in the playgroup and 20 in the Montessori section. While the ECCE scheme is a great service for kids, says Darling, Little Feat’s Montessori session has always run longer than the three hours covered. She feels children miss out if they go home then but most parents pay extra so they can benefit from the whole morning.
Heartened by the return of “non-essential” childcare in the past year or so, Darling is hoping, subject to planning permission, to extend into a cottage next door. She would not be looking to expand, she adds, if she was not confident of filling the places.
There’s talk too of expansion at Little Harvard Creche and Montessori, which operates seven centres in the Kildare/Dublin/
Wicklow region. Activities offered to children aged two to five include karate and drama, as well as the fitness franchises Playball and Stretch ’n’ Grow.
Buying in expertise creates a dilemma for creches, as only a minority can absorb the cost. When an activity is offered as an optional extra, parents feel under pressure to pay to ensure their child does not miss out on what their peers are enjoying.
However, the demand for Gymboree, which operates in more than 100 creches around the State, comes from the parents, according to its director in Ireland, Susan Gilmore. “In 95 of them, it is the parents who pay for it directly.”
They get the music programme at a discount, she points out. For instance in the Gymboree centre in Spawell, Tallaght, it costs €35 a month, while in the creches it is only €20 a month.
Playball is the one “bought in” activity at Tiernan’s Nursery in Rathmines, Dublin. While most parents are willing to pay extra for the sports coaching programme, manager Denise Collins says they are careful to organise it in such a way that any children not enrolled do not feel left out.
Acknowledging that parents are under increased financial pressure, the centre continues to offer it only because the feedback has been so positive and most of them are very happy to pay the €7 extra for a weekly session, Collins explains.
She gets lots of approaches from outside providers of other activities but she feels one is enough. “I don’t want parents being made to feel guilty, because they are the ones who have to say no.”
Thirty years in business, Tiernan’s primarily catered for parents needing full-time childcare until about four years ago, says Collins, when it began to get more requests for part-time care. It introduced flexible options to meet parents’ needs and this, she believes, has helped to keep them going. There are currently 60 families on the books, with about 50 children attending on any given day.
Grovelands Childcare, which looks after 600 children in its four centres – two in Athlone, one in Mullingar and one in Tullamore – has seen a complete turnaround from five years ago when nearly all its charges were attending five days a week. A minority do that now.
Its founder and managing director, Regina Bushell, who has been involved in childcare for more than 30 years and started Grovelands 20 years ago, is grateful for the ECCE scheme but is not the only provider to point out the limitations it imposes.
Centres receive €62.50 per week for each child (or €73 a week where staff are more highly qualified), for which they provide three hours a day, 38 weeks a year. But the costs of optional added-on time and activities must all be outlined in a fees policy, which has to be sent to the local childcare committee for approval.
“There are loads of things I would love to provide but because of the extra cost that might be incurred, I can’t do it.” For instance, the cost of occasional outings would have to be stipulated in a fees policy, rather than parents paying for them in what, she suggests, would be a “logical way” when they arise.
Grovelands has a strong focus on drama, with children putting on stage shows. Before the ECCE scheme, children attending on mornings only would have been included and parents contributed towards extra overheads if necessary. Now only children attending full-time participate. “When you are passionate about what you do and the outcomes for children,” Bushell adds, “there is so much more you could provide if we had funding to provide it.”
Parental guidance: what to look for in a creche
Location is the first deciding factor for most parents seeking a creche, as they need it close to home or work.
After that, opening hours, word of mouth, gut instinct about the feel of a place and price come into play, along with policies on matters such as eating, access to outdoor space and activities.
When secondary school teacher Annicke Ní Gadhra was looking for a creche in 2011 for her then eight-month-old daughter, Arwen, in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, her options soon narrowed because some places did not open early enough or take babies as young, and others were full.
But she is delighted with her choice of Farney Community Creche and Playschool. She recalls how a staffroom colleague living in Drogheda nearly fell off his chair when she remarked that her creche fees had gone down, from €150 to€110 a week for a full-time place, after it moved into a purpose-built facility and passed on savings on heating and other overheads.
(Parents who pay up to three times that amount in the most affluent areas of the country can only read with envy.)
Another mother visited two creches in Co Kildare before choosing the more “homely” one for her seven-month-old son, which cost €100 a month less than one operated in Celbridge by the Giraffe chain. At the time she felt the latter was big and “school-like”.
However, she soon became unhappy with the way her first-choice creche was run and transferred him to the more structured Giraffe creche where, she says, he thrives on its “amazing routine”.
He is learning so much and making friends, she adds, and the only cons are when staff move on.
Another mother, currently looking for a creche place for her 10-month-old son on the northside of Dublin, says the most important factor so far affecting their decision is the reputation of a creche – primarily word of mouth.
Not originally from the area they are now living in, they find it difficult to get reviews of creches. After that, their main considerations are “first impressions, regarding cleanliness, facilities, staff, convenience of location to where we live, opening hours, food policy, staff-to-child ratios and cost”.