Staff shortages and a lack of State funding is forcing childcare facilities and crèches to reduce their intake of babies and toddlers under two years of age, new research indicates.
Seas Suas, the independent childcare and early education provider, has warned that more parents are turning to “unqualified, unregulated childcare options” because of the falling number of available crèche facilities.
This lack of space for young children is directly connected to insufficient funding and staff shortages in centres, says the education provider.
In a survey of 200 childcare centres across Ireland carried out earlier this year, the group found more than four out of ten centres had vacancies to fill, while two out of three providers said staff shortages were impacting on their services.
One trained adult is needed to care for every three babies, while both care and cot rooms are needed to meet the varied sleep and rest patterns of babies, says Seas Suas.
Minister for Children Katherine Zappone, meanwhile, has welcomed the recommendations of a working group which recommends regulating the childminding sector on a mandatory basis for the first time.
The Irish Times reported on Monday that the report proposed introducing mandatory regulations for childminders who are providing paid-for care in their home for more than two hours a day for children up to 15-years-old.
It excludes relatives - such as grandparents - who provide “kindship care” in the home and recommends that au pairs and nannies should also remain outside a child-minding regulatory system.
At the publication of the report on Monday night, Ms Zappone said childcare regulations have introduced a strong focus on centre-based care and have done much to assure parents of the quality of services.
“In establishing this expert group on childminding, I sought to start a similar journey with the childminding sector,” she said.
“I hoped that the working group could come up with proposals that would, in time, support a move towards an appropriate level of regulation of childminders and with the accompanying supports required. I am delighted that this is what has been achieved,” she added.
Ms Zappone’s department has committed to putting in place an action plan for implementation of the report by the end of the year with short, medium and long-term goals.
It is also envisaged that registered childminders would be eligible to deliver State-funded affordable childcare schemes, such as the universal support of €20 per week for children under three.
A spokesman said the move, along with schemes to boost the quality of pre-school education, were part of the Minister’s aim to transform Ireland’s childcare sector from “being one of the most expensive in the world to one of the best”.
Sean Suas, however, says some of these schemes have placed a heavy burden on staff members in childcare centres who often spend 10-20 hours per month on unpaid administration work.
While all children between the ages of three and five-and-half years of age receive pre-school services free of charge for a number of hours each week, babies and toddlers do not receive the same level of State support.
An estimated 114,000 children are expected to benefit from the free pre-school system. However, childcare workers have expressed concerns that it will place extra strain on their working hours.
Seas Suas chairperson Regina Bushell says the Government must invest further in childcare if it is serious about increasing female participation in the Irish labour market. "If mothers returning to work after maternity leave struggle to find childcare places for their babies, this creates a further barrier for them.
“Ultimately, any reduction in services impacts on families, employers and our wider economy because available, affordable childcare services is crucial for parents to get to work. It will also impact on services for vulnerable children and parents returning to education.
More than two-thirds of those surveyed supported the introduction of a State subsidy to pay higher wages for staff, while 16 per cent say an apprenticeship scheme with on-the-job training would help more workers to secure their full qualifications.
“It’s clear that a long-term Strategy for our sector is now long overdue,” said Ms Bushell. “This Strategy must map how the sector must develop for the coming decades, how this will be funded and above all places our children at its heart”,