Childcare needs support, and right now – for everyone’s benefit
For too long, childcare in Northern Ireland has been treated as an afterthought. As inflation hits its highest rate for over four decades, the pressure on both providers and parents is coming to a head.
Spiralling costs are forcing childcare providers to raise fees for parents or even to close their doors.
The childcare sector in Northern Ireland has lagged behind its equivalents in England, Scotland and Wales for years due to a lack of support from government – while the Republic of Ireland has recently committed €1 billion for early learning and childcare. Now the sector is taking a battering from inflation, and desperately needs support.
According to Employers For Childcare, working parents are at risk of being priced out of childcare, which could see many mums or dads quit their jobs because they are no longer tenable.
The organisation, which campaigns for better support for both parents and providers, says that different childcare settings are desperate to avoid price increases for families – who are also dealing with rising food, energy and now housing costs – but that many are now close to breaking point.
Childcare in Northern Ireland was already an under-resourced sector. Like everything else, it faced huge challenges during the height of Covid-19, and now it finds itself struggling with inflation.
Aoife Hamilton, Head of Charity Services at Employers For Childcare comments: “We have been warning about many of these issues for years, during which time the sector, and the parents and employers who rely on it, have done their best to carry on. But this is now very real and we are hearing about childcare providers being forced to close their doors in the face of rising costs.
“In 2021, the average cost of one full-time childcare place was already close to £10,000 per year and with childcare accounting for a greater proportion of household income for families here than elsewhere in these islands, it comes as no surprise that more parents are having to consider whether continuing to work is worth it.
“In the last year the percentage of women who are economically inactive due to ‘looking after family/home’ has increased. If parents are unable to participate in the workforce, then our economy as a whole is going to suffer – and that’s a problem for all of us.”
For parents and providers, these issues feel like they are coming to a head. The problem is, the actual crisis seems not to have peaked.
Just this week, UK inflation hit a 41-year high of 11.1% thanks to the rocketing cost of food and energy. Not only is the pressure on everyone increasing, it is doing so at its fastest rate for generations.
One woman, who didn’t want to be named, spoke with Scope about ongoing childcare struggles that mean 80% of her salary disappears every month – more than the cost of her mortgage.
The senior manager who works in communications has two children in primary school and a baby. Although she is able to work from home sometimes she is mainly office based, while her husband has a job that involves being out on the road regularly.
She said that provision is piecemeal, expensive and lacks flexibility. This is all despite the fact she lives in Belfast, which broadly has more options than a lot of rural areas.
And, of course, all this is taking place amid a cost-of-living crisis that is squeezing households and also pushing up costs for different childcare providers.
“It’s almost impossible for both me and my husband to keep working. That’s despite the fact we both have good jobs. Childcare has been ignored for so long and now it desperately needs government intervention.
“There needs to be a lot more support for parents – in particular for working parents who struggle to find appropriate help that allows them to keep working – and there needs to be a lot more done for all the different settings as well.
“We currently have a childminder come to our home, because that seemed to work out best given our two older children have different pick-up times from school while the youngest is still one year old.
“When you hear discussions about childcare, a lot of it is framed in terms of how much people are relying on grandparents to help out. We are not in that position. Both my husband and I help with caring for our remaining parents, as well as looking after our own children. We don’t have any family support with childcare.
“We have talked about whether it even makes sense for us both to work right now. There isn’t really a big financial reason to do so. However, we both want to work. I don’t want to be a stay-at-home mum.
“The pandemic obviously made things tougher, just as the cost-of-living crisis is making it tougher now, but to be honest it feels like childcare has been an afterthought in Northern Ireland for much longer than that.
“I know we don’t have a government at the minute but even when we do childcare seems very far down the list of priorities. That has to change. Childcare feeds in to so many other areas. It’s important for the economy because it allows people to work – and it’s a key part of child development, so it’s important for education and wellbeing and more. It needs more support.”
Childcare providers are acutely aware of both the rising pressures on their own finances, and the squeeze on parents.
That is the message from Maria McDonagh, of Adventures Day Nursery in Belfast. Her experiences outline how the current system is failing everyone involved.
“From last year to this year, our setting has seen a significant increase in outgoings. Our bills have gone up 45% for electricity, 20% for food and 28% for gas. Our salary bill – which is our largest outgoing – has gone up 13%, and that is even operating with three fewer staff…
“At this setting, our only source of income is fees from parents which has to be enough to cover our own bills. I’m holding off on things like painting our building – which we really need to do – because I’m trying to keep costs down as much as possible. Increasing our fees isn’t something I want to do, but what choice do we have?
“I’m deeply worried that if we do increase our fees, we will lose families – and parents will have to come out of work because they can’t afford the childcare they need. That not only impacts on the family by reducing their income – but also on the children, who benefit so much from the early education and care they receive in our setting. And of course – it impacts on our viability.
“That’s why Government investment is so critical – investment that supports providers, enabling us to invest in our workforce and in our provision, while also helping to reduce costs for families.
“I would love to be able to increase our staff salaries further. We have truly dedicated, experienced staff who invest so much in our children. They are early educators who make such a difference to children's lives by giving them the best possible start. Yet our sector is characterised by low wages – so it is no wonder we are struggling to recruit and retain the staff we need.
“It is really hard to see our staff leaving to go and work in retail or other sectors where there is less pressure and better pay. In other parts of the UK and Ireland we’ve seen Governments committing significant resources to the childcare sector, but this is still long overdue in Northern Ireland. What does that say about how our sector and our workforce are valued?”
Ms McDonagh said the pressures from the cost-of-living crisis feel worse than those caused by the pandemic, and that she knows providers who have shut their doors because of rising costs and struggles to recruit and retain staff – which she said “leaves a real hole in the heart of a community.”
She called for “real and meaningful” investment in the sector, both through a long-term Childcare Strategy and with immediate support for the current crisis.
She said that, without such measures, she is worried for the future of childcare in NI.
In the childcare sector, all stakeholders are saying the same things. Parents, providers and campaigners alike are calling for government help to make the system more flexible, robust and affordable.
Within the Department of Education, work is taking place on a new Childcare Strategy, with costed options due to be ready for Executive consideration by next March. However, with no minister or Executive in place, any progress risks further delays.
As things stand, there are no winners. Childcare costs mums and dads a fortune and is often not flexible enough to suit families where both parents work. Providers operate on tiny margins and are seeing costs go up. Staff are paid a pittance to look after young children and help with their social, emotional and educational development (note that the RoI subsidies will allow providers to pay staff more without increasing costs for parents, which will help staff retention in RoI – and could put pressure on NI providers in border areas, who risk losing staff to settings over the border).
The pandemic showed just how much our health service – indeed, our entire economy – depends on childcare. It needs more support.
Aoife Hamilton said further: “We need to see two things. Firstly urgent emergency financial support for the sector right now, to prevent more childcare providers from going out of business and protect families against further increases in costs.
“Secondly, we need to see continued progress on an ambitious new Childcare Strategy that properly recognises the value of childcare as key economic infrastructure and makes a real and lasting difference to this and subsequent generations.
“To deliver these key asks, we need an Executive in place to make decisions and deliver the investment that the sector, the parents that rely on it, and our economy and society more broadly, needs.
“Childcare rightly received a lot of attention in the run up to the last Assembly elections yet any progress that we are seeing on a new Childcare Strategy is being put at risk by the lack of a functioning Executive.
“It is simply not good enough that we are facing into continued political uncertainty, with the situation having worsened and costs continuing to increase for providers and parents. Our fear is that as there appears to be no clear end in sight to the ongoing political and governmental vacuum, our childcare sector cannot afford to wait any longer for the support it so critically needs.
“The time for manifesto pledges and empty promises is over, we must now see real delivery on policy commitments and ambitious investment to ensure we have a childcare system that is properly funded and fit for purpose.”
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