Who’s going to foot the bill? That’s the issue around which battle lines are being drawn as regulations come in for the first time for care of children outside school hours.
While the Department of Children and Youth Affairs stresses "we are at the very early stages of development in relation to school-age childcare in Ireland", it's the stipulation that there must be staffing of one adult to 12 children that is fanning the row over costs.
Some argue that this will mean increased bills for higher-income parents who are not eligible for subsidies under the National Childcare Scheme, which comes into effect in October, and that it could also lead to a reduction in available spaces.
More than 300 stand-alone school-age services applied for registration with Tusla by the mid-May deadline, according to the Department. Early years centres, which also take in school-age children, have until August 18th to apply to register.
Registration means eligible parents using that service will be able apply for subsidies under the National Childcare Scheme. However, detailed policies governing the operation of school-age care, and inspections to oversee these, are not expected to be phased in for another couple of years.
What children need at school-age services, along with some reality about what’s affordable for providers and parents alike in an under-resourced childcare system, will be discussed at an “open policy debate” at the Department’s offices in Baggot Street, Dublin this Thursday, June 20th.
“It is vital that we gain the views of key stakeholders in order to find out what works best for children and families,” says a spokesman for the Department, which is also inviting online submissions.
The Department estimates that the families of more than 21,000 school-going children, aged up to 15, will benefit from subsidies through the new scheme. It also says that €3.45 million in capital funding has been invested since 2017 to created an additional 6,131 school-age childcare places.
Karen Clince, managing director of Tigers Childcare, started her business in 2003 by offering afterschool care on school premises in north Dublin. It now has 12 centres, five of which are full day care and the other seven are in school settings, or in community centres attached to a school.
One of the advantages of afterschool care in a community centre or in the school itself, she says, is that children can attend all their extra-curricular activities, which otherwise they would miss out on if they were going back to a nursery and couldn’t be dropped back.
The demand for such a service is indicated by the fact that there are 200 children on the waiting list for the Tigers centre at St Patrick’s National School in Carpenterstown, Dublin 15, which caters for 80 children. Generally, Clince’s centres offers a breakfast club from 7.30am until school starts at 9am and then care from the end of the school day to latest pick-up time of 6.30pm.
The majority of parents opt for all-round care, which includes full days during school holidays, and is billed in equal monthly payments of about €550. Three of the Tigers school-age centres will be open during the summer holidays to provide care from 7am to 6.30pm on weekdays.
The optimum is for an afterschool service to operate in its own separate space at a school as children "don't want to go into anything that looks like school", says Clince, who is a member of the Working Group to draw up standards for school-age childcare. "They want to go into an environment that looks like they could be at home – sofas, toys and materials they can use. They want their own choice in things they can do in the afternoons. They don't want a room with tables and chairs and to be told what their programme is."
A hot meal, with a choice of dishes, is provided. Tigers also offers an hour-long homework club that parents can opt their children in or out of but “parents have to be responsible for the checking of the homework”.
Clince, who operates a ratio of one staff to 11 school-age children, notes the “pushback” against the 1:12 ratio in the new regulations, and also acknowledges there will always be a few opposed to any kind of regulation.
“If you have Government spending going into it, you have to be able to stand over the quality of it,” she points out. “I understand providers are concerned about the cost implications of the changes that are going to take place but we also have to be focused on what is the best interests of children.”
Those arguing against the 1:12 ratio point out that often children are coming from a classroom where there is just one adult for 30 pupils. However, that is hardly the best situation, she comments, neither is afterschool care an extension of teaching.
“It’s all about social and emotional development and part of that is being able to have good strong relationships with the adults who care for them,” says Clince. “They need to have one-on-one time with adults.”
She acknowledges this costs money and would encourage the Government to ensure the burden doesn’t fall onto the parents. “But it doesn’t mean we should drop the quality of our care to just meet a cost basis, it’s about children.” And many school-age children still spend more hours in centre-based care every day than they do in the classroom.
“Where we have an opportunity for change and can do something right – we should probably do it right first time around,” says Clince.
“When we shook up our early years, deciding people should be better qualified and have a proper curriculum, it did increase the cost of childcare because, if you provide quality, there is a cost to it. But what we have to do is, rather than fight where the quality bar should be, fight how to pay for it – and to give pushback in that respect.”
The 10-14 age group is not well catered for in afterschool services, concluded a study carried out for the Kildare County Childcare Committee (KCCC) earlier this year. The whole area of afterschool needs to be developed, not just in terms of availability but also in the type of service offered.
Afterschool providers noted that older children really want to be outdoors and having adequate outdoor space for them to play games like football is important, but not always possible in current locations. Being able to provide separate areas indoors for different age groups is also a challenge.
“Older children (10-14) did not want to attend a childcare service, nor necessarily be with younger children, and a different model of afterschool service based elsewhere needed to be developed,” is what staff told researcher Ann Clarke, who conducted the analysis of childcare needs in Kildare.
Some 35 children in school-age care were also surveyed. Of the nine who attended both before and after school, five said they didn’t like having to get up to go there in the mornings.
Centres are going to have to reduce spaces when the ratio comes into effect in September
There was a lot more positivity about afterschool, with 89 per cent saying they liked attending, mainly for “friends”, “playing” and “activities/things to do”. Two young people who do not like it said it was boring, while another two said they “sometimes” didn’t like it because of their mood at the time.
The CEO of KCCC, Julie McNamara, says she hopes to be able to do more research specific to school-age care and welcomes the introduction of regulations. “Hopefully everything will come behind that now, such as appropriate training, different management and behaviour policies and that the children will be consulted much more.”
The diverse nature of school-age care is also highlighted by Early Childhood Ireland (ECI), which has been consulting those of its members currently providing it. In a statement to The Irish Times, the ECI welcomes regulation “as a significant aspect of ensuring quality for children”. However, issues raised by members include:
- Provision of hot food and the consequent cost and regulation of this;
- Need for transport to bring children to and from a number of schools and costs involved in doing this – particularly spiralling insurance costs;
- Need to introduce new types of qualifications to both diversify the expertise and improve the gender balance of staff;
- Differing needs of children aged seven versus those aged 11;
- Provision of supports in afterschool for children with additional needs.
While welcoming the introduction of regulations, the chairperson of the Association of Childhood Professionals, Marian Quinn, says: "The difficulty is that stuff was imposed without consultation and negotiation."
The Department has also been accused of being misleading in the media about school-age care, when it says that low-income parents who are working or studying
As a result, centres are going to have to reduce spaces when the ratio comes into effect in September, she says, or some may close. While some school-age providers may already be operating staffing levels akin to those required in early years, there was no real research into what the existing practice was, she suggests, and a phasing in of the new ratio would have been preferable.
The challenge for parents, she contends, is that services which were running on, say, a ratio of 1:18, will have to raise costs because they will need to hire more staff and/or reduce capacity. She acknowledges the basic regulations had to be pushed through quite quickly so parents could benefit from subsidies under the National Childcare Scheme. “Ultimately it will be positive, it just wasn’t managed very well.”
The Department has also been accused of being misleading in the media about school-age care, when it says that low-income parents who are working or studying will qualify for an enhanced-hours subsidy, up to a maximum of 40 hours per week.
"During term time, 23 hours are deducted from this entitlement because children are attending school so working parents will only be entitled to 17 hours," points out Mick Kenny, the manager of two community childcare services in Co Kilkenny. This will also account for the standard 15 hours subsidy entitlement for a child of a parent who is not working or studying, so during term time they will have no entitlement to care outside school.
“Essentially the Government are using a ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ approach, taking money from ‘targeted schemes’ for children from disadvantaged/marginalised backgrounds to fund working parents, who also need support.”
He reiterates: “The real problem to everything in childcare in Ireland is chronic underfunding. Ireland spends five times less on childcare than the UNICEF target of 1 per cent GDP. Instead they shift this burden onto families and services.”
One of the main sources of school-age childcare – the country’s estimated 35,000 childminders – can only watch these latest regulatory developments and wait.
I have 200 pages of policies – it's madness
Just an estimated 110 childminders have sufficient numbers to qualify for early years registration and only those with three or more school-age children from different families – or who have more than six mixed-age children at any one time – are required to sign up now.
This means that the majority of parents who use childminders will not benefit from subsidies available under the National Childcare Scheme when it comes into operation in October, as it only covers registered providers.
Childminding Ireland accepts that without registration, public money in the form of childcare subsidies cannot be channelled through childminders, but it is pressing hard for the introduction of an “appropriate and proportionate” system of registration to reflect the reality of childminding in the home.
Childminders are vital for families in terms of access to work... so it would not be in anybody's interest to have them forced out of the childcare sector.
There is a lot of uncertainty among childminders, says Bernadette Orbinski Burke, chief executive of Childminding Ireland, as it waits for the Department to publish an action plan for the regulation of these childcare providers working in their own homes.
“Childminders are vital for families in terms of access to work,” says Orbinski Burke, so it would not be in anybody’s interest to have them forced out of the childcare sector. And it could be argued that they are particularly suited to school-age children, offering flexibility and freedom that centre-based care can’t.
Spontaneity is what Ida Lane, a childminder in Wicklow town, singles out as one of the advantages she can offer, one she fears will go if excessive regulations are introduced. For instance, if the weather forecast is good, she can ring the parents of her three school-age mindees the night before and suggest they put swimming togs in their bags so they can head off to the beach the next afternoon. Or take a picnic to the woods.
“Try and do things that the parents might have done with them if they were off,” she says. Likewise, she can drop and collect children doing afterschool activities, just as parents would if they were at home. There is also more scope to follow individual children’s interests.
Full, written risk assessments on any such outings might be required in a regulatory framework. As one of the small minority of childminders who is registered with Tusla for pre-school children in the mornings, Lane is all too familiar with the “onerous” paperwork that goes with it and which, in many respects, is not suited to a family home setting.
“I have 200 pages of policies – it’s madness.” She totally understands the need for children’s safety but putting childminders in the same box as creches doesn’t work.
She cites being asked to remove a table from the playroom – which she used to put a rug over so the children could “camp” underneath – because they might bang their heads on it.
“I am spending more time on paperwork and ticking certain boxes,” she adds, asking herself, “is it worth all that hassle?”
Tell the Minister what you want for school-age childcare…
Parents and children are invited by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) to have their say in the shaping of care for children outside school hours.
Do you want it to be more widely available in primary schools? Should physical exercise be a compulsory element for the programmes offered? Is a relaxed but supervised café-type setting the optimum? What’s a realistic cost for a parent to pay?
You can send a submission and/or complete an online survey consisting of 18 questions about topics ranging from policies and principles to food and outdoor space. The closing date for both is 5pm on July 5th.
Further information and links can be found on the DCYA website dcya.gov.ie