Childcare budget focus ‘remains on low-income families’

Katherine Zappone says benefits for ‘squeezed middle’ depend on level of investment

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone, has said she makes no apology for focusing on low-income families when considering childcare subsidies in the upcoming budget.

She said it was key to ensuring “children who are poor are lifted out of those conditions and have a similar chance to other children and other families”.

There had been suggestions of Government division over the subsidised childcare package, flagged for inclusion in Budget 2017, and concerns it should do more to help the "squeezed middle", those earning between €32,800 and €70,000.

Ms Zappone said it was not necessarily the case that it would not help the “squeezed middle”; it depended on the amount of investment she received from her colleagues, she said, and that was the subject of “intensifying” negotiations.

The Minister was speaking in advance of the launch of a report from Early Childhood Ireland on the cost of providing childcare, entitled Doing the Sums.

Breakeven basis

The report, carried out for the organisation by consultants Meehan Tully & Associates, looked at the financial models of more than 400 private and community childcare facilities. It found 70 per cent of their costs was made up of wages and on average, they operated on a breakeven basis.

It also found there were difficulties in finding and retaining staff, who were low paid. While the introduction of the free preschool Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme, was a positive development, it meant providers were being pulled away from other forms of childcare.

Ms Zappone said while a lot of focus has been on the costs of childcare for families, it was also really important to ensure there was enough State investment for those who provide the service.

“It also has to do with ensuring that the concerns around sustainability and also part-time contracts and low wages in the profession begin to be addressed,” she said.

Teresa Heeney, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland, said the childcare sector in Ireland was in real crisis in terms of recruiting staff and keeping them.

“We are seeing this as a direct result of low pay, low morale and an even higher administrative burden,” she said.

“As a result, we are losing great people from the sector and this will have a negative effect on the quality experience for children and the sustainability of services, which are at breaking point.”

She said low pay in the sector could not be addressed without the proper funding models, that also support sustainable business models for childcare provision.

“Ultimately, there can be no positive progression in any of these areas without significant investment by Government,” she said.

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist