Many of our childcare services are characterised by underpaid staff, weak enforcement of standards and a poor focus on quality education. Yet we’re saddled with one of the most expensive systems in Europe.
Irish people pay almost twice as much as the EU average for childcare. The cost of a creche or preschool amounts to about one-third of the net income of a typical two-income family with young children.
Our costly system is a barrier to employment for many women – particularly lone parents. With average costs of €185 per week for a young child, it can make more financial sense for some to give up work rather than see all their income swallowed up in childcare fees.
Why is it so expensive? Childcare is heavily subsidised by the state in most European countries. In Ireland, most Government funding on children goes to parents in the form of child-benefit payments. Money also goes toward the provision of free preschool in the year before primary school. Some childcare places are subsidised, though these are few and mostly in disadvantaged areas.
So does the answer lie in a subsidised, costly, Scandinavian-type system? Or should we give parents more cash payments and leave them to make their own choices?
The Irish Times Women at Work poll shows that many parents are attached to child-benefit payments, but they like the idea of making childcare costs tax-deductible and making companies play a greater role in providing early-years education. (The poll was conducted last month, before the airing of the Prime Time documentary that revealed shocking lapses in care in creches.)
Its main finding in relation to childcare is: the Government should do more for preschool children, but shouldn’t ask parents to sacrifice their child benefit payments in exchange for it.
The poll shows just 35 per cent of parents agreed that child benefit should be used to provide State-funded childcare rather than being paid directly to parents. By contrast, some 61 per cent of parents were opposed to such a move.
Among the general population, support for diverting child benefit was greater (41 per cent), but a majority were opposed to the idea (54 per cent). Women, who often receive child benefit directly, were more hostile than men to seeing the payments reduced.
Parents are much keener on the idea of making childcare fees tax-deductible. Some 78 per cent of parents were in favour of it. Parents and non-parents overwhelmingly support such a move.
There was also significant support for companies above a certain size to be obliged to provide free childcare for preschool children. Two out of three parents (66 per cent) favoured this.
The idea of making paternity leave equivalent to maternity leave is similarly popular. A gender-neutral parental leave could allow men to play a more direct role in the childcare right from the start. (There is no statutory paternity leave at present).
So where does all this leave a comprehensive, State-funded childcare system? Well, most parents would like that too.
A majority of the population (69 per cent) liked the idea of the Government providing free childcare for all preschoolers. Support was even higher among parents (73 per cent).
Despite all the talk by politicians and policymakers of funding a Scandinavian-type childcare system, parents seemed cool on the idea.
Free after-school and school holiday childcare for primary school children is an element of the oft-lauded Scandinavian model. Less than half of the population (48 per cent) supports such a move. Even parents (50 per cent) aren’t so keen on it.
The views of parents will be especially relevant as the Government draws up its early years strategy this summer, which will guide the development of childcare and education services for pre-school children over the coming years.
The future of child-benefit payments may well be centre stage. Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has publicly backed the idea of spending more on direct services rather than direct payments.
For example, her department will spend €260 million this year on services such as the free preschool year and other supports. By contrast, about €2 billion will go on child benefit.
“I think there is a growing acceptance that the spend on direct services represents too small a proportion of the State’s overall spend; a proportion which I believe needs be increased,” Fitzgerald told Senators recently.
The debate, it seems, has just begun. We know that quality, early years education can deliver hugely impressive results.
Based on these poll results, parents have yet to be convinced that parting with their child benefit to build such a system will be in their, or their children’s, interests.