Early-years childcare survey exposes shortage of places

Biggest mismatch between supply and demand is for children under three

The biggest threat to sustainable growth of services would appear to be staff recruitment. Photograph Frank Perry/AFP/Getty Images

The biggest threat to sustainable growth of services would appear to be staff recruitment. Photograph Frank Perry/AFP/Getty Images

 

Substantial growth in formalised, centre-based childcare is reflected in the latest profile report of the early-years sector, with a 9 per cent rise in the number of children attending and an 8 per cent increase in childcare workers.

The high cost of childcare in Ireland has long been recognised as a barrier to women returning to the workplace, and fees continue to rise. But Government investment in three subsidy programmes, totalling €365 million last year, is now benefiting nine out of 10 children in early-years services.

This represents a 24 per cent increase in the past year, which can be mainly attributed to the introduction in September 2017 of universal funding up to a maximum of €20 a week for children younger than three. The erosion of that by fee increases is maybe not as big as had been speculated, with the average fee for a full-time place up almost €4 a week (2.2 per cent) to €178, while the average part-time fee rose 3.3 per cent to €102.

With the expansion of services slower than the growth in demand, the report, produced by Pobal for the Department of Children, examines the question of capacity.

On the basis of figures supplied by 3,928 services (88 per cent of all facilities), it estimates that overall there are places for 213,654 children, with 202,633 currently enrolled.

However, while there are still more than 11,000 vacant places, they are not necessarily where and when families need them.

The estimated waiting lists of almost 16,500 nationally would indicate a gap in supply, although parents do put children on more than one list.

Parents may also put their names down early to try to ensure they get their centre of choice for the two-year, free Early Childhood Care and Education scheme, which is available at 93 per cent of services and covers 59 per cent of all children enrolled.

Supply and demand

The issue of supply and demand in childcare is complex. It hinges not only on the labour market and age profile of the population but also on government support for both services and parents to offset costs, as well as a wide variation in families’ needs and wants.

“Early years” includes breakfast clubs and burgeoning after-school care, with a 20 per cent increase in children aged five-plus enrolled over the past year.

The report finds that the biggest mismatch between supply and demand is for children under three. Only 19 per cent of services have baby places, and the number of infants (1,799) on waiting lists is more than half the total number enrolled (3,109).

For every four children aged one to two in centre-based childcare, there is another waiting to get in.

The biggest threat to sustainable growth of services would appear to be staff recruitment, with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone acknowledging “the ongoing issue of staff wages”. While the early-years workforce grew by 8 per cent, to an estimated 29,555 staff, turnover is 24.7 per cent. Almost half of departing employees were said to have left the early-years sector altogether.

The 26,000 staff who work directly with children earn, on average, €12.17 an hour. More than one in four services said they had at least one vacancy, and 57 per cent had found recruiting staff “challenging”.

The Government’s policy to incentivise higher-qualified staff with increased capitation rates for the Early Childhood Care and Education scheme seems to be having the desired effect, with 2 per cent increases in staff with at least a Level 5 qualification and also in those having attained at least Level 6.

However, the pay-off for staff is less clear, as newer staff are likely to have higher qualifications but position and length of time working in the sector are still bigger determinants of wage rates.

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