Even before the pandemic, childcare was one of the biggest challenges facing young families. "It cripples families financially," says Lucia Ryan, a school principal and parent of three-year-old twins.
Covid-19 has intensified the pressure on parents and providers, launching them into a new world of regulations, “play pods” and resulting staffing pressures.
"Our creche couldn't find staff. So they reduced their hours to finish at 4pm," Ryan, the principal of Hartstown Community School in Dublin, tells The Irish Times.
She was left trying to “run a school from home in the afternoons” and look after two-year-old twins, Matilda and John, though they are now enrolled in the State’s Early Childhood and Childcare Scheme, along with an afternoon childminder.
But she worries about the pressure facing parents and the “absolute heroes” who are the country’s childcare workers. Her third child is due in three weeks. She’s trying not to think about what happens when her maternity leave ends. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”
For many, the complications of the post-pandemic world of work and childcare are only beginning. A new era of flexibility is supposed to free people but, in practice, things could get worse, not better.
Up to 200,000 children are in early years services, with parents paying €800 per month for a creche place, and up to €1,200 a month in some areas. Now, some are discovering that their needs do not always align with either a childcare provider or their employer.
Michelle Walsh, who works with the Health Service Executive, recently returned to work after maternity leave with her second child, and considered herself lucky to get a place for the baby in the only creche in her rural town, where her three year old already attends. "On my first day back at work, the creche called to say they had to cut hours for my one year old and could only provide childcare until 1pm."
The three year old could still stay full days. Walsh runs clinics in primary care four days a week, so “it is impossible to change hours to facilitate this. I’ve now had to find a childminder for the afternoons and start settling in again. To say the situation has been stressful is an understatement.”
The combination of a creche in the mornings and childminder in the afternoons is proving more expensive than full days in the creche would be. But it is her last option and she may have to take a career break if arrangements falter.
Other parents have similar stories, telling of the difficulty of juggling the same hours at work with reduced hours in childcare, the fees which haven’t changed and the dread felt that a child could be sent home with a sniffle.
“Our creche has reduced its hours. They haven’t reduced fees,” says Olivia, who doesn’t want to use her real name because she does not want to be perceived as critical of her creche or her employer, when she’s just frustrated by the system. “It used to be 7.30am to 6pm. Now it’s 8.00am to 5.30pm, which can be challenging . . . I know management are keen not to raise fees, but they say with the pod system, it’s impossible to have the staff for longer hours.”
Consequently, she has to finish work at 5pm. “Right now I’m still WFH [working from home] but it will be even more challenging once I go back to the office in a couple of weeks. In the old days, I used to drop three kids to creche for 7.45am, where they got breakfast and two were brought to school from there. Then I could work from 8am to 5.30pm. Now, we need to split drop-off for school and creche, make it to work for 9am and rush out of work at 5pm for pick-up.”
Her employer is understanding, but the hours have to be made up. “It’s just back to the same old juggling – logging in early morning or after kids go to bed.”
So what exactly is going on to put Ireland's already-struggling childcare infrastructure under such additional strain? "The pre-Covid pressures are back with a bang," says Frances Byrne, policy director with Early Childcare Ireland, which represents 3,900 childcare providers providing care for 120,000 children.
Irish parents already pay the third-highest proportion of their income on childcare of OECD countries, due, provider say, to the lack of spending over generations by successive governments.
According to the OECD, Ireland was spending just 0.1 per cent of gross domestic product on early years prior to Covid, the lowest investment of any developed country. During Covid, additional government funding “kept the show on the road” and meant that creches were able to keep staff employed and stay open, Byrne says. But as the world returns to normal, there’s no certainty over how long that funding will be available.
Meanwhile, although the pod system is supposed to offer some flexibility – allowing staff to move between pods to cover breaks for each other for example – in practice many creches feel they've been left with a choice of hiring more staff or reducing hours. Regina Bushell, who is the managing director of Grovelands, which operates six childcare centres in the midlands and runs the Seas Suas group representing independent childcare providers, explains how it has reduced the places available to babies.
“The regulations require a ratio of three [babies] to one [staff member]. But realistically for governance, I need a three to two ratio, because that one person has to have annual leave, lunch breaks, their comfort breaks, they may go out sick. I require those three babies to be in on a full-time basis to cover the cost.”
“Service providers would love to be able to provide as much flexibility as required. But there is a sustainability problem if parents only want to do five hours, but there are staff there who need to be paid for 10 hours.”
One mother in a different part of the country, Sinead, said her daughter used to attend after-school care from 2.30pm to 5.30pm five days a week. She had been hoping to use the care for two days, not five because of Covid-prompted changes to her work, but the provider can only do all or nothing.
Sinead is understandably annoyed, but, explains Byrne, “It’s not an inflexibility by choice; it’s an inflexibility imposed by the funding models.”
Funding is tied to attendance, says Byrne. So the National Childcare Scheme is the most flexible, but it can only offer flexibility “for up to eight weeks”, says Byrne. “If someone is saying I’m not going to need care on a Wednesday because I’m working from home or I reduced my hours, it’s really difficult for providers to offer that flexibility. Over time, their public funding will be withdrawn.”
The answer, believes Early Childhood Ireland, is more money and more flexibility. The Government has committed to doubling spending by 2028, but a five-year budget is needed, says Byrne.
And the models must adapt to post-Covid working. In Scandinavian counties, the provider is not “punished” if a parent is in a position to reduce their child’s hours. “We need to move to a Scandinavian model, where everybody pays something, but the richest pay more – but even the richest only pay up to a certain amount.”
As things stand, says Olivia, Ireland is no country for working parents and “definitely no country for working mothers.”