Thousands of the State's poorest children face losing after-school places because of changes to the new National Childcare Scheme (NCS) which "effectively excludes them" in favour of the children of working parents, critics argue.
The National Childcare Service, spearheaded by former minister for children Katherine Zappone, entitles children of working or studying parents to up to 45 hours' subsidised childcare weekly.
However, children whose parent or parents are neither working, studying nor in training are entitled to just 20 hours under the scheme, which has been in operation since October 2019.
Given that hours in school are counted as part of their NCS entitlement, those in households where parents cannot, or will not, work are entitled to little or nothing after school.
And because the funding awarded in respect of a child is paid directly to providers, projects in the most disadvantaged areas face cuts of up to 70 per cent this year, they say.
Community after-school clubs for vulnerable children aged between about six and 12, provide homework supports, nutritious meals and positive relationships, thereby lessening the effects of disadvantage.
Austin Campbell, director of the Robert Emmet community development programme in Dublin's south inner-city, explains the effects the changes will have on the programme's operations.
Under the previous Community Childcare Subvention Programme (CCSP), its after-school project – which has 24 places – received about €2,300 per child per year, totalling about €52,000 per annum.
“About three-quarters of our kids, their parents would have medical cards and would be banded highly disadvantaged. So, under the NCP they will be entitled to zero. We could be getting as little as about €12,000 to €14,000 a year.
“The children already registered on CCSP will continue to be. So we are hoping as many as possible of them come back, but it’s impossible to know. We can’t turn around to parents and say, ‘We don’t want your child because we’ll get no funding for them.’ We can’t say that.”
In the NCS’s first year, projects such as the Robert Emmet CDP were able to avoid it as it was optional, and were able to remain operating under the rules of the CCSP programme. From now, however, change is unavoidable.
Last year, says Mr Campbell, Covid-19 subsidies like the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and sustainment grants "masked" its impact.
Asked about the possible effects, he said: “Well it’s either charge the parents, battle this, or close down. We’ll do anything we can to keep it going. None of us wants to think about closing.”
Tessa Meade’s 10-year-old son is in nearby St Enda’s national school after-school club. As a special needs assistant on rolling one-year contracts, she is “really scared” about affording the place if she loses her work and even more about what will happen if the project is forced to close.
“It is fantastic. The support and everything they give him is brilliant. He loves it and really benefits from it . . . Now we have to do the NCS and I have no idea what I will have to pay. It is a bit daunting.
“I can see the struggles parents have, so if the project has to charge them, they are not going to pay, say, €50 a week. I would be scared they would shut it down.”
Both St Enda's and the Robert Emmet CDP are members of the Dublin 8 After School Alliance, where up to 500 school-aged children are at risk of being excluded or marginalised from education.
“The NCS is designed as an activation model but the price we are paying is the educational and welfare of the most at-risk children who are effectively excluded from it,” says the alliance.
However, the Department of Children counters that children with “particular” needs can qualify for the full 45 hours by being sponsored by Tusla, but many parents are “reluctant” to invite Tusla into their lives, says Mr Campbell.
Senator Marie Sherlock, who has been in touch with services helping up to 5,000 "hugely vulnerable" children, has called for changes to the NCS to "ensure no child is excluded".
Early years and after-school services in the most disadvantaged areas should be designated as Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) services and given extra help, not less, she argues.
Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman is “committed to ensuring that the scheme functions in the best interests of families and children”, says a spokesperson.
The Minister had asked Tusla to take “a broad definition of need” in its sponsorship of vulnerable children in the NCS. Sustainability grants were available for providers facing cuts, he added.
An external consultant is reviewing the first year of the NCS, including examining the experience of poorer families and lessons will inform its future development.
A report on a new funding model for early learning and childcare is due later this year and will offer “specific and additional supports” for services dealing with high proportions of disadvantaged children, added the spokesperson.