Afterschool: parents piece together the jigsaw of care

Parents are pretty much left to their own devices in trying to find places for their children to go after school

Janet Mahon: ‘It is important to us that she [Abigail Kate] is in a warm environment with an equal focus on play and learning.’

Janet Mahon: ‘It is important to us that she [Abigail Kate] is in a warm environment with an equal focus on play and learning.’

 

Working parents often believe their child’s first day at school will bring an end to their childcare burden. Bless their innocence. People who have been through it haven’t the heart to tell them organising non-parental care is likely to get more difficult from then on, possibly for eight more years. Granted it should be a little cheaper but, due to the nature of school hours and the lack of structures or regulation for afterschool care, it is much more complex.

“I don’t know why more people aren’t complaining: there is no support at all,” says one parent, Deirdre Casey, who, when her daughter started junior infants in a Dublin city-centre school, initially ended up spending her lunchbreaks collecting her from school to take her to the creche she had attended previously.

When that creche decided to bus all its afterschool children to another centre it owned, she decided all this ferrying in traffic was not what her daughter needed.

Such logistical nightmares are not uncommon. Parents are pretty much left on their own to piece together a jigsaw of care, once the education system dismisses their children at what is only halfway through the working day of many.

Afterschool care – or, more broadly, out-of-school care, because mornings and holidays bring their own challenges – is “undervalued, under-recognised and in dire need”, says June Tinsley, the acting head of advocacy with Barnardos.

The children’s charity has been trying to put afterschool care on the political agenda, she explains, because the current situation is so unsatisfactory for children and working parents.

“When people discuss childcare, they assume it’s preschool, but your child still needs care at seven, eight, nine, 10,” she says. This point seems often to be overlooked at policy level, which is more focused on preschool care.

Currently, it is “such a juggle” for parents and there can be multiple layers of cost, she says. They may not only have to pay for the afterschool service but also pay somebody to transport the child there.

Training requirements

The previous minister for children, Frances Fitzgerald, “totally got the need for investment in this sector but it didn’t translate into much action”, says Tinsley, who is concerned by how little it is acknowledged in the Government’s framework policy for children up to 2020, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures.

Afterschool care in Ireland is “an unregulated maze for parents”, says Teresa Heeney, the chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland, which represents providers of early childhood care and education.

It is also a service that is “often unsustainable for our members, the majority of whom can’t afford to and won’t get involved with Government-funded programmes”, she says.

The current rate of €55 per week per child for providing afterschool care just isn’t enough, argues Heeney.

It was no surprise to her that much of the €14 million allocated in the 2013 budget to roll out 6,000 afterschool care places to support low-income parents wishing to return to employment was never spent.

“Early childhood education services decided it was impossible to provide the service for the capitation offered,” she says.

The take-up of this afterschool childcare scheme (ASCC) in 2013 was very low, a spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs tells The Irish Times. Just 15 individuals availed of it that year – a statistic that vindicates the argument that the conditions attached to the scheme and the lack of availability meant it was of little use.

An “enhanced” version of the scheme was announced in July. It expanded eligibility and provided a pick-up service for primary-school children at no extra cost to the parent.

It also reduced the parent’s contribution from €20 to €15 per week, with the programme providing €40.

Community Employment (CE) participants were initially excluded from the scheme but, due to the low take-up, some of the budget was redirected to a childcare programme (including afterschool care) for parents in this category.

Currently, there are approximately 160 children of up to 110 parents being catered for under the ASCC and 529 in the CE afterschool care programme, with that figure set to rise this month, according to the department.

Meanwhile, the new Minister, James Reilly, “is committed to developing appropriate national standards and regulations” for afterschool care, the spokeswoman says.

However, due to the “huge reform” ongoing in the preschool sector, and the fact that school-age childcare is delivered by a range of organisations not covered by the Child Care Act, “it is likely to be mid-2015 before it will be possible to commence engagement with stakeholders”.

Best-practice guidance

In the interest of quality and safety, the lack of regulation “is something we must address sooner rather than later”, says Heeney. Until then, parents must rely on a commonsense approach to finding the right setting for their child.

“What many end up doing,” she adds, “is asking a neighbour or a family member to mind their children after school, or they ask for shorter working hours.”

Childminders are the most common form of afterschool care and, in the continuing absence of regulation, Childminding Ireland is asking all its members, whose average rate nationally is €5.50 an hour, to be Garda vetted by January 1st, 2015.

Extending the Child Care Act to childminders is “a massive political undertaking”, the manager of Childminding Ireland, Bernie Griffiths, acknowledges.

“We just have to keep reminding them that children attending childminding services have parity of esteem.”

The availability and cost of afterschool care is a big concern for the 39,000 lone parents who are due to move from the one-parent family payment to the jobseeker’s allowance transition payment next July, once their youngest child is seven years old, and this requires them to look for at least part-time work.

“If paid work is a way out of poverty, then there must be services in place that recognise the caring needs of lone parents when they go out to work,” says Stuart Duffin, director of policy and programmes at One Family.

“There are very few jobs that are part-time work from 10am until 2pm.”

Afterschool care is not just about doing homework, he stresses. “This is about a young person’s developmental issues as well: it needs to be stimulating and regulated.”

Affordable and accessible out-of-school care is needed, he adds, to avoid raising a nation of ‘latch-key kids’.

swayman@irishtimes.com

Parents piece together the out-of-hours puzzle

Paula, a multilinguist and lone parent, works part-time and pays a childminder for afterschool care for her eight-year-old daughter.

She was delighted when she got a promotion at the beginning of the summer. It helped to offset her increased childcare costs during the school holidays. But little did she know that the pay rise was going to cost her dearly.

Having informed social welfare, her one-parent family payment was reduced, which she understood, but then her rent allowance was cut completely. The net result being that while she had gained €400 a month at work, she had lost €600 a month in support payments.

“I refused to believe it at the start,” she says. “Right now I would be better off quitting my job” – or even asking her employer to take the pay rise back. But it’s a matter of pride: she loves her job and feels she earned the promotion.

“Not even couples on two incomes can afford childcare,” she adds. “How is anybody ever supposed to fund it on one small income?”

Deirdre Casey is very frustrated that she has just spent the summer paying €25 a day for a three-day-a-week afterschool place that she didn’t use during the holidays, merely to hold it for September.

As this crèche is near her daughter’s school, in Dublin city centre – and previously she had been through a “nightmare” of doing the school pickup and driving her to another aftercare centre during the lunch break at work. She didn’t want to risk losing the slot.

Due to a lack of communication, she was unaware the crèche had summer camps, so had booked her daughter into some elsewhere. They were also going on holidays for three weeks.

It was Casey’s first year using afterschool care and she presumed that it would operate on a term-time basis, having had no “terms and conditions” given to her, she says, that suggested otherwise. This situation is symptomatic of the lack of regulation of this area.

Now, with a younger child in a naionra and another crèche, money is “going out all directions”. With a third baby on the way, she is going to have to re-examine the cost and complexity of the family’s childcare arrangements.

Stephen and Janet Mahon, who both work full-time, had hoped that the crèche their daughter had very happily attended since she was nine months old would be able to take her into its afterschool programme when she started school this month.

Unfortunately, Janet explains, the location of their local Church of Ireland school, Springdale National School in Raheny, made it impossible for the Drumcondra crèche to do the pick-up. So they had to search for an alternative arrangement for four-year-old Abigail Kate.

“We initially considered having a childminder in our house or in theirs but, given that Abigail is an only child, we felt she would be lonely at home with just one grown-up for company every afternoon,” she says.

They wanted a centre that operates around the children, rather than purely as a business.

“As Abigail will be there for a significant portion of her day it is important to us that she is in a warm environment with an equal focus on play and learning,” says Janet. “We might not be there to offer a cuddle when she gets in from school ,but it’s important to us that there is someone there who can.”

Knowing that their daughter will also be there during mid-term and some holidays, they looked for a broad range of activities.

Having phoned seven centres and shortlisted three to visit, they settled on one within walking distance of her school. Abigail is attending four afternoons a week, at a cost of €145, while on the other day, Janet’s mother picks her up from school and takes her to a gymnastics class.

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