Childcare provision is good but there are problems with affordability and sustainability
A full-time childcare place in Northern Ireland costs £8,632 per year.
For two thirds of families who use childcare, it is either their largest or second largest monthly outgoing. In general, it outstrips costs for groceries, heating, transport, electricity and other home costs (after housing – and, for a third of families, it is even higher than that).
The average family spends £133 per week on care – with this rising to £158 for families who use only formal provision.
There is strong support among parents in Northern Ireland for the introduction of measures similar to those in England, where eligible families can receive 30 hours free childcare for three- and four-year-olds.
Those are some of the findings of Employers for Childcare’s latest annual Childcare Cost Survey, published last month. The organisations aims is to address childcare, not only as a social issue but also as a labour market and economic issue.
Aoife Hamilton, Policy & Information Manager at Employers for Childcare, said: “Over half of the parents who responded to the Survey stated they have had to cut back or go without to meet their childcare costs. In fact, some have had to resort to borrowing, using payday loans to meet their bill.
“At the same time, many childcare providers told us they have sought not to increase their fees over the past year, in some cases absorbing increasing overheads, rather than passing them on to parents. This situation is simply not sustainable for parents or childcare providers in the longer term.”
Childcare in NI falls short on many fronts. The quality of provision is largely good, but there could be better policy integration with education and early years strategies, making it even better for children. Help for parents would ease financial, familial and social stress for them. It would help employers by making life easier for their employees. And it would help the economy more generally, by freeing up some of the enormous amount of money parents put into childcare, allowing it to go elsewhere.
Key findings from the report include:
- In the last year, over half of families report they have gone without or had to cut back on another expense to meet their childcare costs.
- Families told us they have cut back on groceries, clothes, heating and home repairs. As a result, some families have been unable to save or pay into a pension impacting on their future financial stability.
- One third of parents (33%) resorted to means other than their income to pay for their childcare including savings, loans from family or friends, credit cards and payday loans.
- On average, families use 41 hours of childcare per week.
- 63% of all families access childcare provided by grandparents, for some or all of their childcare needs. The majority of these families told us the key reason for this is to manage the cost of childcare.
- The ability to access affordable childcare is impacting on the working patterns of parents: 57% of households reported a change in working patterns in the last year, 46% of these households attributed this change to the cost of childcare.
- The majority of parents in Northern Ireland (86%) think the quality of childcare provision is good or very good.
- More than half of parents (58%) think there is insufficient childcare provision in their area.
- In particular, afterschool clubs, breakfast clubs, specialist day nurseries and holiday schemes were identified as having insufficient provision.
The sector – and the people who both rely on it and largely fund it, namely families with children – is under strain already, and this is set to get worse.
In 2018, 67% of childcare providers reported an increase in expenditure but only 23% saw an increase in income. Only 19% increased their fees. However, 51% anticipate their expenditure will increase in the coming year, with just 23% anticipating income will increase.
The paper calls for a fundamental review of how childcare in Northern Ireland is both funded and structured.
Although some measures of financial support for parents are available these are relatively minor, such as through-work childcare vouchers, and there is widespread support for bolder provision, such as making all childcare costs tax and national insurance free, or for a scheme like the 30 hours free in place in England.
Employers for Childcare also wants greater recognition of the link between good childcare and education/child development – mirroring the views of other people in the sector. A joined-up approach like this could, in theory, effectively provide more funding, with good strategic planning between different areas of policy leading to more efficient spending.
Related to this, parents would like to see an enhancement of existing provision – and also the accessibility of this provision, which is not always what it should be, particularly in rural areas – and improved information on both what childcare and what support is currently available.
Ms Hamilton said: “Despite significant progress towards gender equality, it’s still predominately mothers who report reducing their hours or leaving the workforce to raise their children. Mothers who are qualified for a range of professions, from Quantity Surveyors to Nurses, have told us that they have had to reduce their hours or work opposite shifts to their partner to reduce their childcare bill. As a society we must address this issue, we cannot be educating and training our daughters to be the best in their field whilst continuing to ignore the barrier an inability to access affordable childcare presents to a woman’s career progression in particular.
“Over three quarters of parents stated they believe the quality of childcare they receive is excellent, with many calling for childcare workers to be better remunerated and recognised for the valuable role they play in shaping the next generation”.
“The message coming from parents is therefore very clear – they want proper investment from Government in a childcare infrastructure that is affordable, flexible and meets the needs of families. Alongside this they are calling for an early years system on a level with other parts of the UK, and access to the financial support needed to ensure going out to work will always pay.”
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