Childcare in NI: parents and providers are both working too hard

12 Apr 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Jun 2019

Northern Ireland is the UK’s poor cousin when it comes to childcare. Fixes to the sector’s struggling financial structure need legislation.

Northern Ireland’s childcare squeeze will almost certainly require a political solution.

For obvious reasons, that is not in view. However, setting aside the ongoing collapse of Stormont – a fix for which is unlikely until after Brexit reaches some resolution – now is still the time to think about solutions.

In simplistic terms, the problem is this: childcare is cripplingly expensive for parents but, at the same time, providers are barely making ends meet.

If either one of those two things were different, the pressure could be eased somewhat by a simple rebalancing. That is impossible.

Scope wrote recently about the unaffordability of what is – or should be – an essential service for parents. Here in NI the average family using childcare spends £133 per week on services, making it either the largest or second largest single monthly outgoing for two thirds of all families.

At the same time, there aren’t too many Ferraris in staff car parks at your local nursery.

The figures above came from the annual survey from Employers For Childcare – with the organisation also calling for a fundamental review of the structure and funding of provision in NI.

Here Scope speaks with Aoife Hamilton, Policy and Information Manager for the charity, about how things could be improved.

Poor relation

Ms Hamilton said the organisation is not focused on just the costs for parents of their childcare but on the overall affordability of services.

The current situation isn’t working and is teetering on the edge of sustainability.

“People would be equally speaking out if childcare providers stopped delivering services or had fewer staff or places. Childcare providers are telling us how difficult it is to be sustainable.

“How do we make it affordable? Either by providing support into providers which meets a certain amount of their costs, or by targeting help to the parents to assist them, or – ideally – by combining both.

“There needs to be support on both the supply and demand sides. At the minute there is not sufficient investment directly into childcare providers.”

At the same time, parents are looking enviously at the entitlement to 30-hours a week free childcare in England (subject to some conditions – although these are not too onerous, and means tested, and there is still free provision for those who do not qualify).

NI has some support for parents, such as the childcare voucher scheme administered by Employers For Childcare – however, this has now closed to new applications (despite a six-month reprieve gained by the organisation) and effectively replaced by the Government’s new Tax-Free childcare scheme. This scheme is the best option for around one third of the families who call Employers For Childcare’s advice helpline (parents can claim up to £2,000 per year, per child, but to benefit from the full £2,000 families need to incur childcare costs of £10,000 per child).

Both these schemes provide welcome relief for parents – and Employers For Childcare would prefer both to remain options, rather than just one – but they still fail to address the structural issues with childcare finance.

Insufficiency and inflexibility

Scotland and Wales are investigating similar schemes to the 30-hour initiative in England and, while these are far from perfect, they provide “a good model to look at in terms of how it could be applied in NI.”

Ms Hamilton continued: “We can look at how it can it be funded, and what eligibility criteria should be in place to make sure the people who need it most will benefit.

“Currently there’s no free childcare in Northern Ireland. While there is funded pre-school in the year immediately prior to primary school, priority is given to children who from socially disadvantaged circumstances.”

Moreover, some of the funded places offered actually result in no benefit for parents – and, in some cases, accepting free provision can increase costs for families.

If, for example, a child gets a place between 9am and 11.30 on weekdays, their parents might need to pay the full day rate at another provider to cover a full day’s care – 8am to 5.30pm, say – as well as paying for transport between the different settings.

“Pre school provision here can only be in certain settings – and this excludes childminders, for example. In England, the 30 hours is offered across a range of childcare providers. All providers are required to be registered, and meet minimum standards, so there’s a recognition in other parts of the UK that childcare and early education are linked, whereas here we think there’s a disconnect.”

This is a world away from the sort of flexibility that works for parents. Another issue, as an example, is that any good provision would need to cater both for parents who might both be in work but crippled by childcare costs, and also those who might be looking to get into work and so have few ongoing costs but where the ability to pay for childcare is a barrier to employment.

Statutory or legislative failures do not end there. Despite the well-known importance of early years in child development, there is an underappreciation of this from the state.

As it happens, a lot of childcare provision is very good and provides a lot of quality play, education and other aids to development – but this relies on the good intentions of providers (who are stretched thin as it is) rather than a curriculum being mandated.

“Even though childcare is within the remit of the Department of Education, there’s still a separation. There should be a recognition that the quality of childcare can also deliver educational benefits and enrichment.

“We need a system that meets the needs of children, that is flexible and robust, and that in tandem can develop and enrich children and also give parents flexibility they need.

“But this needs to have sufficient funding, otherwise we know that this will affect the sustainability of providers.”

Building futures

Employers For Childcare is an advice service as well as an advocate and the huge savings they have been able to make for local parents is a big tick for them – but also shows how there is a lack of clarity within the public about the range of support that is on offer.

In 2017/18, the organisation helped 13,600 people directly (a 31% increase on the year before). Much of their help involves listening to the personal circumstances of parents/guardians and carrying out a costs’ calculation.

Last year they performed 7,500 such calculations (up 15% on 2016/17) and identified total financial support of £13.2m for parents across the UK, representing an average £1,760 per calculation.

Moreover, 28% of their calculations were to clarify benefits entitlements – and, for these, the average level of support identified was over £3,500 per client.

Employers For Childcare is able to identify huge savings for parents in part because of a lack of awareness about existing entitlements.

Ms Hamilton said often people think their own circumstances will preclude them from help, such as through Universal Credit, but this is often not true.

“They might be married and working, so believe they won’t have any entitlements.

“Currently there are 900 parents in Northern Ireland using Tax-Free Childcare which is a very small number and we know that many of those who should be able to benefit aren’t aware that they could be accessing tax credits or Universal Credit. Every single parent in NI needs to know what they are entitled to.”

According to a recent HMRC bulletin, the take-up for tax-free childcare is only one in fourteen of those who are estimated to be eligible.

“Every single day we speak with parents who are entitled to financial support but don’t know that they are. There are very few families, if they are working, that won’t get any support. Income needs to be above £100k for single-parent families, or above £200k for two-parent families, or they need to be subject to immigration controls.

“So, typically, when we get calls there are very few families who are eligible for no support. If they are subject to immigration controls, we might be able to suggest to them other avenues.”

The organisation provides outreach sessions to employers, and also in services like Sure Start, and also helps HR departments at companies – as well as generally trying to build awareness in the business community that helping employees identify childcare support is of benefit to everyone.

What now

Employers For Childcare says childcare needs an overhaul. It's importance to parents should be recognised, as should the role it plays in early education, and there should be financial backing both for providers and presents.

There should also be far greater awareness of what support is available.

“These things are why we pay our taxes in NI.

“Tax-free childcare is the equivalent of a tax break. It’s really designed to support people to get into the workforce and contribute to the economy.

“We look at all these forms of support as an entitlement and part of the infrastructure, just as we have free education, roads, and other infrastructure designed to help us be productive members of society.

“It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s an essential. Quality formal childcare should not be inaccessible as a result of a lack of affordability.

“Childcare providers have told us they feel they are perceived as “babysitters” – this is not the case, they are not just there to make sure your child doesn’t put his or her finger in a plug socket. This is a sector that doesn’t get valued as highly as it should.

“People working in day nurseries and after-school settings are taking the initiative to develop children’s education and social skills.

“We believe there should be investment not just in sustainability of delivery but also developing the childcare workforce, investing further in training and upskilling.

“Parents tell us that they really value the service they are getting. They say the cost is a significant issue but they are aware that the people looking after their children are getting the minimum wage or not much more.”

Unfortunately, the massive barrier to progress – even if we have an idea what reform should look like – is the non-functionality of Stormont.

A childcare strategy was consulted upon in 2015 but never received a budget.

Again, in simplistic terms, childcare in Northern Ireland is good but the system as a whole isn’t working.

The system we have is tough for parents and for providers. Because it is tough for parents, it is tough for employers. Because it is tough for providers, their staff work for low pay. The whole picture is punishing for the local economy, for various reasons.

This could be so much better.

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