What are providers saying about the new early-childhood funding scheme?

Concerns include fee-freeze requirement and that smaller operators could be squeezed out

A €221 million Core Funding scheme – the Government’s latest vehicle for increased State investment in early childhood care and education – is due to be introduced this September.

"Philosophically", the introduction of core funding is a very good move because it breaks the link between funding and attendance, says Early Childhood Ireland (ECI), the largest childcare providers' representative organisation.

However, the ECI is concerned about inflation, since accepting core funding requires a fees freeze. If the bottom-line rate doesn't increase, "that may turn out to be problematic", warns its director of policy and advocacy, Frances Byrne.

She also acknowledges the fears of smaller centres about being squeezed out as larger centres reap the lion’s share. Almost one third of services operate 15 hours a week or less during term time, although that includes stand-alone after-school services as well those offering just the free pre-school programme (ECCE).

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'Lack of a vision has rattled people and allowed a very divisive discourse to emerge, which is very unfortunate'

Is the Government saying, she muses, that small providers’ ECCE-only contribution is less worthy? Would it prefer everybody to be offering at least five hours daily, or to be open all day? “Lack of a vision has rattled people and allowed a very divisive discourse to emerge, which is very unfortunate,” says Byrne, who doesn’t put all the blame for that on the Government. “The diversity of creches is a very challenging thing, but it is also wonderful,” she adds. “It is a very child-centred and family friendly way of meeting needs.”

The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, in a response to queries from The Irish Times, says as allocation of payments is designed to be closely related to delivery costs incurred by services, those that operate for longer hours or over a longer number of weeks per year, and those that offer services to younger children, will receive greater levels of funding.

It “has undertaken extensive analysis of the impact of Core Funding and is satisfied that the sustainability of services, including ECCE-only services, is not compromised by this new funding stream”.

However, its analysis of the impact of core funding on ECCE-only services does show that those on higher capitation rates, with between 20 and 22 children, would lose out and so will have their funding matched. But all such services with fewer children, or on standard capitation, will have some sort of gain.

To the argument that the scheme doesn’t take inflation into account, the department points out that €20 million is included in the package as a contribution to non-staff overhead costs, which are estimated to be 30 per cent of services’ outgoings, and this is the first time that sort of funding has been allocated.

‘Wriggle room’

Rachel Prouse, owner-manager of Missus Tatty's Nursery in Clonee, Co Meath, is "wary but hopeful" about the core funding. She thinks it will enable her to give pay rises of 9-12 per cent to her 22 staff, leaving a "bit of wriggle room" for inflation. The service offers full daycare, part-time and sessional, i.e. ECCE only, with an age range of babies to after-school children. The capacity is for 99 children at any one time and currently there are 113 on the books, coming and going at different times.

Although she agrees with the fees freeze required for core funding, “it is a bit daunting because everything else is going up”.

Recruiting has always been the most difficult aspect of the business, so she hopes increased pay levels will attract graduates into hands-on jobs in creches. She worries, though, that by encouraging a graduate workforce “you are losing out on a huge section of society that are made for childcare”. Apprenticeships, she suggests, should be on par with the graduate system.

Prouse knows there is a lot of opposition to core funding among fellow providers but to her mind, “it is a good step forward”.

Sessional service

Lynda Priestley doesn't see it like that for her south Co Dublin sessional service, providing three hours of ECCE with an optional extra half hour paid for by parents. Her ready reckoner calculations indicated core funding might mean an extra €969.20 a year for her. "But my rent has gone up way more than that" – it was increased by 10 per cent a few weeks ago.

The department is giving with one hand and taking with the other, she says. Not only are the higher capitation rates for ECCE children being absorbed into core funding, but so is an annual payment for the administration of funding schemes.

“For all the promises that have been presented to us, this is a let-down,” she says.

'The feeling we're getting in sessional services is that we are being pushed out. The big focus is on creches and on part-time'

The ethos of her Little Star Preschool, in Tullow Church Hall and garden, is to provide a "real homely service" in the heart of the community. It normally operates at full capacity of 22 but has 21 children currently, for which she employs two other women alongside her each morning, while a third comes in a couple of days a week. A higher staff ratio than the minimum requirement of 1:11 is essential, she believes, for high-quality care.

“The feeling we’re getting in sessional services is that we are being pushed out. The big focus is on creches and on part-time. I understand that the focus has to be on providing childcare for parents who are working full-time and it is really important to have that there. But I think we have a place.”

They don’t have all the information yet and being told not to depend on the ready reckoner makes it “too airy fairy”, she adds. “It is this time of the year that I need to know where I am with re-opening in September and I don’t.”

Core funding contracts are due to be published in June and must be signed by August.

Another owner of a service that offers ECCE in both the mornings and afternoons says she is very disheartened and fears she is going to lose good staff as core funding won’t enable her to give pay rises.

Pay rises

The Urlingford and Johnstown Community Childcare Centres in Co Kilkenny are among the many providers that will benefit financially from September, says its manager Mick Kenny, "but I can see how some of the smaller services could be a little upset". He will be able to give staff – and himself, as an employee – pay rises, whereas the sessional services may not.

The capacity of the non-profit Urlingford centre is 54 places but in its two pre-school rooms they only take 16 as opposed to the 22 permitted. “We go with quality,” he says. “I much prefer to having two staff to 16 kids as opposed to two staff to 22 kids.”

As core funding is linked to capacity, does that mean providers will be paid for “ghost” children (in his case for the 12 places they don’t fill)?

“It depends on the type of service,” he replies. If it’s a large chain and there’s room for 22 children, “they will get 22 children into that room”, he suggests, whereas other services, such as his,  will decide for sake of quality not to take the maximum allowed.

Whether they have 22 or 16 children in the room, there are still two wages to pay, he points out. And by going for quality, “I am throwing €30,000 into the skip” by forgoing payments that apply per head. “But I’m not profit-driven so I am happy to do that for the sake of the children – also for the sake of staff.”

Core funding will guarantee a level of income for staffing, whereas the National Childcare Scheme is budgeted on the basis that “when you go quiet, you reduce staff”. But you can’t send staff home without pay just because some children leave early, points out Kenny, who is a member of the national committee of the Association of Childhood Professionals. He believes the new funding will help keep their smaller Johnstown centre open.

While places do not have to be filled in order for core funding to be allocated, the necessary levels of staff to match capacity must be in place, says the department.

Ready reckoner

Tusla-registered childminder Anne Ryan of Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, found the ready reckoner does not seem to take childminders into account, so she can't say yet whether or not she will be signing a core funding contract.

With capacity for five children at any one time and seven of varying ages on her books, putting one day’s snapshot into the ready reckoner indicated she would get be getting €1,500 a month, “which sounds very positive”, she laughs, but she doesn’t for a moment believe that would happen.

“The ready reckoner is not designed for use by childminders, given that they have different regulatory requirements to centre-based provision,” confirms the department, adding that city and county childcare committee can assist them in estimating the likely value of core funding.

Read: State to inject extra funds into childcare system