State is ignoring early childcare at its peril

We must allocate a greater part of GDP to create affordable, high-quality childcare

The last few days have been crucial for thousands of parents, and for many of them stressful, as they entrust their children to a creche or pre-school for the first time. They want to know that their children are being looked after by trained professionals, and that they can afford to pay the fees.

They are not alone. In a rare case of consensus, parents, workers, employers, government and children-focused non-governmental organisations all agree that early childhood education and care should be affordable and high-quality. However, our current model of childcare is not only failing to deliver on these goals, it is setting them against each other.

First, let’s look at affordability – or the lack of it. The most recent report by Pobal, the not-for-profit company that manages social programmes for the Government, found that average childcare fees stand at €697 per month, but this rises to over €1,000 per month in Dublin.

Unsurprisingly, this makes early childhood education and care in Ireland the second most expensive of all OECD countries for couples, and the highest for single parents.

High fees have serious consequences. As The Irish Times reported in August, high childcare costs are pushing people out of the workforce.

At a time when money can be at its tightest, young families can be forced to choose which parent will give up work because is it financially unsustainable for both parents to work and pay childcare fees. Businesses are losing out on talented workers and many (mostly young women) are losing out on a career.

Economic damage

High childcare fees are bad for families, the economy and for gender equality, so much so that both the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have called for action to lower them.

High fees are also forcing parents to make hard choices when it comes to quality.

Evidence shows that high-quality, early-childhood education and care has benefits for children in terms of their cognitive and social development, improving school readiness and life outcomes. The impact is even greater for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

High childcare fees are bad for families, the economy and for gender equality

Even the World Bank is convinced and has stated that the benefits of investments “in children’s early years are substantial, particularly when compared to equivalent investments made later in life”.

High-quality, affordable childcare has the potential to play a central role in breaking the cycle of disadvantage and promoting social mobility.

However, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ Who Cares report into childcare costs showed that parents are often forced to compromise on quality over concerns about costs. The study found that affordability was the highest priority when choosing childcare for 62 per cent of lone parents and 59 per cent of households where one of two adults work.

Staffing challenges

Second, to deliver quality to childcare, we need to attract and retain qualified staff into the early childhood education and care sector.

Qualified early childhood educators are earning on average just €10.88 per hour with thousands on precarious 15-hours-a-week/38-weeks-a-year contacts. Despite qualifications and ongoing professional training, educators rightly feel undervalued and under-recognised for their contribution.

Unsurprisingly this has led to a crisis in staff turnover, with the early childhood education and care providers group Early Childhood Ireland reporting that 86 per cent of members are concerned that problems recruiting and retaining staff will impact on the viability of their service.

A crisis in staff turnover is evident as Early Childhood Ireland reports 86 per cent of members are concerned with problems recruiting and retaining staff

Childcare is in the middle of an affordability and staffing crisis. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Most parents in Europe will tell you a different story of high-quality childcare that is also affordable. The main reasons behind the difference in experiences of most parents in Ireland and their European counterparts is the amount of money the state spends on early childhood education and care and how it is spent.

Below average

Ireland currently invests just 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product in childcare. This is far behind the OECD average of 0.7 per cent and the Unicef target of 1 per cent. Ireland needs to triple its investment in childcare just to reach the OECD average.

Without Government investment we cannot deliver affordable or quality childcare. It is, however, necessary to ensure increased spending addresses those issues of quality and affordability. The current funding model sets these aims against each other.

If a provider wants to increase pay to improve quality, they have to increase fees. If a provider wants to reduce fees, they have to reduce wages, and this impacts on quality.

This funding system has providers, educators and parents caught in a vicious circle– we need to change the system.

Thankfully the current Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, recognises this contradiction and stated earlier this year that she intended to “radically reform the funding model for early childhood care and education” as part of the Government’s upcoming early years strategy.

Children, parents, educators and providers need a funding system that works. Government will have to make a choice about childcare: continue with patchwork policymaking that fails everyone or make a real investment to establish the childcare model that Ireland needs.

Darragh O’Connor is the co-ordinator of the Siptu Big Start campaign which seeks to organise workers, providers and parents to effectively lobby for improved childcare services