Breda O’Brien: Zappone has got it wrong on childcare

Incentivising people to send children to a crèche ignores many other options

According to a recent ICTU (Irish Congress of Trade Unions) study of its members, just under 30 per cent of parents rely on relatives for childcare, about 30 per cent on childminders in their own or the parents’ home, and about 32 per cent on professional crèches, with 8 per cent using community crèches.

So at the moment, only 40 per cent of parents opt for crèche-based childcare. Yet Dr Katherine Zappone is proposing to subsidise only one model of childcare – crèches.

Of course, some people may be relying on relatives because they cannot afford anything else, but many families prefer to have their children minded in a non-institutional setting. Grandparents, relatives and neighbours have an emotional investment in children that is hard to replicate.

There has also been a lot of talk about subsidising childcare for the “squeezed middle who pay for everything”.


I am strongly in favour of subsidising the poorest families who need the most support, and I also think the Government should help all families do what is best for their children.

That is not the same as incentivising parents to put their children into childcare centres. The Government should adopt a neutral stance when it comes to options that parents choose.

Childcare costs are very high, and people find them hard to afford, but the answer is not to make direct payments to childcare providers.

Enabling parents to mind children

Our economy has evolved to demand two incomes even for a basic standard of living. Mortgage and living costs are exorbitant. It is very difficult for people to make a real choice between say, full and part-time work, because if you wish to own a home, you need two incomes.

If childcare costs are paid directly to providers, it immediately reinforces the dual-income model and reduces choice still further. Caring for children involves costs no matter what you do, but the trouble is, some costs are far less visible.

Take opportunity costs. If one parent decides to work fewer hours in order to mind children, there is an immediate cost because of lower income, reduced promotion prospects and it even affects pension provision. It is not as visible as having to pay the crèche every month, but it is a significant cost, nonetheless.

Michael Noonan and Department of Finance boffins are very well aware of the basic economic concept of opportunity costs but they often choose to ignore it.

Why should the Government subsidise childcare costs, and ignore opportunity costs? Unless they have an ideological commitment to having everyone in the paid workforce, a commitment that has nothing to do with the welfare of children?

Dr Katherine Zappone’s proposal to pay part of families’ bills for childcare directly to childcare providers is well-intentioned but short-sighted, and will have predictable negative consequences.

Dr Zappone has always had an interest in childcare. The organisation that she co-founded with her wife, Ann Louise Gilligan, An Cosán, is involved in childcare in three different ways, including Rainbow House, Fledglings childcare centres, and running training courses for childcare workers.

According to a video on the An Cosán website, at any one time 10 per cent of children in Rainbow House are there because of health services referrals, because the families are undergoing a time of crisis or need extra support.

Fledglings is another not-for-profit service, which An Cosán advocates rolling out as a model across the country.

Disadvantaged children

An Cosán is in a disadvantaged area, and children who grow up in poverty benefit most from early childhood education. The Fledglings childcare centres are based on Irish guidelines but also on a US programme called HighScope, or the Perry Preschool model, a successful, high-cost, intensive intervention with poor children that also works with parents.

While there is a strong argument for subsidising targeted early childhood education for severely disadvantaged children, there is little or no evidence that children from advantaged backgrounds receive the same benefits. James Heckman, the US Nobel Laureate and economist, has researched this question extensively, and his conclusions are blunt.

“It is foolish to try to substitute [with childcare] what the middle-class and upper-middle-class parents are already doing.”

In other words, children in middle-class families are being educated by their families in a way that is easier to accomplish if you have benefited from education and greater opportunities yourself.

This is not a battle between stay-at-home parents and those who choose, or are forced, to go out to work. The world of work is changing. People move in and out of the workforce much more often than in the past, or work reduced hours, or work from home.

So in Dr Zappone’s model, everyone pays higher taxes to facilitate crèche childcare, which many people do not want. If you incentivise a one-size-fits-all model such as crèches, you reduce people’s choices, and you make workplace flexibility much more difficult for people who want to work reduced hours.

The only fair option is to give the money directly to parents to use as they see fit, whether that be to pay for a crèche, to pay Granny, to help one parent stay at home, or to reduce their working hours.