Irish childcare fails to care for working mothers
Policy analysis shows reluctance since 1970s to development of the working mother
Research shows that as mothers delay having children they are keen on having the best of both worlds: work and motherhood. It does not have to be one or the other
Childcare provision has been on the agenda since the report of the Second Commission on the Status of Women (1993). The Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme (2000-2006), helped by European Union funding, spent €560 million on childcare – 40 per cent of which was spent on infrastructure. While in 2010 the government met the Barcelona target of making childcare available to 90 per cent of children aged three through its preschool (ECCE) scheme, publicly sponsored childcare was put on the long finger.
In response to persistent demands from the EU, employers and working parents, former minister for children James Reilly set up an interdepartmental group whose report Future Investment in Childcare in Ireland, published in July 2015, formed the basis of the childcare policy in the recent budget.
The group had a number of aims: to develop quality childcare to reduce the attainment gap between children from different backgrounds; to enable parents to return to paid employment, education and training; to help to make “work pay” for parents; and to help bring about a reduction in the poverty levels of families.
That report formally acknowledged the way in which a lack of quality, affordable childcare obstructs women’s participation in the labour force. In 2015, for instance, 38,900 people were unable to return to work because childcare was unavailable or unaffordable. While affordability of childcare is a factor in many other states it is highest in Ireland, cited by 85 per cent of women as a factor in explaining why they do not return to the labour force or can take on only part time work.
The labour force participation of women in Ireland has declined since 2007 to a rate of 57 per cent, still below the Lisbon agenda target of 60 per cent. Irish research shows that many mothers would like to work if they could afford childcare, so there is a cohort of parents who must greatly welcome the recent budget.
The report also confirms that currently their parents care for 50 per cent of young children. A survey of Dublin city working mothers showed that since the recession 50 per cent of them relied on fathers to care for their children, so many fathers may welcome this budget too.
Currently, only 26 per cent of children attend centre-based childcare. This sector is composed of community, not-for-profit and private providers. Many of these providers operate out of purpose-built creches funded by earlier European Investment in Ireland’s childcare infrastructure. They are now major stakeholders in the expansion of childcare provision and form a distinctive lobby group. The State relied on many of these providers to get sufficient places to accommodate all eligible three-year-olds in the ECCE. In turn the per capita State grant per child has helped them to remain financially viable. From a State policy perspective it is important to maintain their services to ensure the future of childcare provision.
However there is no need to limit childcare investment to these centre-based providers for a variety of reasons. Centre-based care works effectively in towns and cities – ideally if they are located near schools. But many parents without access to centres rely on childminders and in rural and suburban areas there are many excellent childminders – in general women who raised their own families and delight in minding other children. Many of these with tacit approval from the State are paid in cash and can earn a certain amount tax-free for minding a small number of children in their own homes. The parents who pay them and the childminders themselves may decide to continue as they are and remain out of the tax-based regulated system. Alternatively they can register and avail of the new arrangements.
There is one obvious need for new services – childcare for parents who work unsocial hours such as evenings, night shifts and weekends. Many low-income earners currently have to juggle a lot – and are reliant on relatives for childcare. All current provision is designed primarily for those who work 9-5 so current provision needs to be extended.
Employers too have a major role to play in helping parents to reconcile work and family lives. The recent paid-paternity leave offers them a great opportunity to recognise fathers. The public sector has a good record in facilitating jobsharing, three- or four-day week and flexitime for mothers. However mothers in higher levels in the private sector in Dublin revealed in research that they were refused reductions in working hours or days and had to leave their jobs.
It would be good if the Department of Enterprise raised this issue and promoted “family friendly” working hours. Research shows that as mothers delay having children they are keen on having the best of both worlds: work and motherhood. It does not have to be one or the other. They should be supported in their wish to be working mothers.
Evelyn Mahon is fellow emerita of the school of social work and social policy at TCD