Childcare services in Ireland have come a long way as the sector was historically underinvested in “for decades”, Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman has said as he defended the Government’s record on the issue ahead of a protest at Leinster House on Tuesday.
“We’re playing catch up, but we’ve made really important strides over the last three years – €400 million increase; that’s 60 per cent growth in State investment. I don’t know any other area of State funding that has grown so much so quickly,” he said as members of the Federation of Early Childhood Providers prepared to protest outside the Dáil.
There was considerable uncertainty on Monday among those involved in the sector as to how many service providers might shut their doors for the day with the Department of Children having stated last week that just 56 of roughly 4,800 service providers had informed it of their intention to close. The Oireachtas creche will be one of the childcare providers closing its doors today.
Federation chair Elaine Dunne said the department will “be surprised” at the scale of the turnout, with buses due to bring owners and staff from as far away as Cork and Donegal to protest at the Dáil on Tuesday.
With the Federation claiming to represent around a quarter of service providers and industry sources suggesting they expected many of those to operate normally, the majority of providers are set to remain open.
Of those that are closing a number are, like the one in the Oireachtas, expected to do so for just Tuesday rather than the three days called for by the FECP.
In a letter to parents, including some politicians, the company behind the Oireachtas creche, Oakview Early Years, said it was participating in the closure in order to highlight continued underfunding of the sector by the Government.
“Our team working with children do amazing work every day, yet due to increasing costs and limited funding, they are leaving the sector that they love due to burnout and low salary.
“This is having huge implications on all services as we continue to try to maintain high standards and child:staff ratios.”
The Federation says many providers are closing their doors permanently due to the financial strain but the Department of Children disputes this, pointing to Tusla figures which, it says, shows declining rates of closures and the fact that only a handful of providers seek to avail of particular supports available to those in financial difficulty.
Staff pay is highlighted by all parties, however, along with the availability of places, which the department acknowledges remains a big issue in some locations.
The Labour Court recommended increases of around 5 per cent. The union is seeking 15 per cent while the employers had offered around 3.5 cent. Pay in the sector currently starts at €13 per hour although many providers already pay above this.
Representatives of employers, led by Ibec but including the Federation, met on Monday afternoon at the Early Years Joint Labour Committee with Siptu, which represents around 6,000 workers in the sector, as part of the process of establishing new minimum pay rates in the sector.
The Labour Court recommendation was endorsed by the meeting despite the opposition of the union representatives and will now be the subject of a public consultation before a final version is sent for Government approval.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland, Mr O’Gorman said he had met the federation seven times since he took on the portfolio. He has also met with Early Childhood Ireland, Childhood Services Ireland, and last week met with the Early Years Forum, which represents employers, unions, parents, all of whom, he maintained, recognised the “really significant investment” over the last three years.
“I am looking to continue that in this year’s Budget. I am looking to continue investment into services. We’re coming from a long way behind. Ireland, historically underinvested in child care for decades.”
Mr O’Gorman said he would be pushing, in Budget negotiations, to continue to decrease fees for parents. “I’ll be looking to invest in schemes like AIM, the Access and Inclusion Model that helps children with a disability. I’ll also be looking to continue to grow core funding so we can support providers.”
Mr O’Gorman said he wanted to continue to support childcare providers, but he also wanted to cut fees for parents. The Federation had called for the removal of the pay freeze in the sector, but if that was scrapped, it would remove the ability to secure cuts in costs for parents.