Covid-19 has highlighted NI’s lack of support for childcare
Northern Ireland relies on childcare.
That doesn’t just mean the parents of children who use these services, or the children themselves – it means all of NI.
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen different childcare settings close for various periods of time because of lockdown or because of confirmed cases within the setting. The economic knock-on effects of this are huge.
Whenever working parents or guardians are unable to access childcare, it means someone is unable to go to work (or is working at an extremely diminished capacity). If childcare is struggling in general, that means thousands or even tens of thousands of adults have their ability to work (or to find employment) come under pressure. This hurts local businesses, the economy in general, and on and on.
The survey found that, unsurprisingly, Covid-19 led to major obstacles in accessing services, with three quarters of parents unable to access any childcare for some or all of the five months from April to August.
Obviously, that specific issue was caused by the pandemic – but it tells the tale of a major and long-standing problem.
Childcare is infrastructure, but in Northern Ireland it is not treated as such. While other parts of the UK have greater provision with more in development (in England, parents are entitled to 30 hours per week for free), NI has very little support for parents or for providers.
It is important to note the latter. Childcare providers offer an essential service but operate on tiny margins. According to the latest EfC findings, almost 75% of providers said they have been operating at a loss or just breaking even.
That again comes in the context of Covid-19, while also betraying the fact that a vital local sector has simply not been looked after by Stormont.
Meanwhile, parents in Northern Ireland do not have nothing – but they don’t have much. EfC itself operates a vouchers scheme that helps parents, and a free advice helpline that parents or guardians can use to make sure they are receiving all help for which they are eligible. Provision is meagre compared with the rest of the UK, and it has been about 20 years since NI had a childcare strategy.
This survey is the 11th annual effort for EfC and one of the central dynamics – and one of the key problems with the under-supported childcare sector – has again been reaffirmed.
Childcare costs are enormous. One third of parents say it is their largest monthly outgoing, exceeding their mortgage or rent payment. However, providers are struggling too. The market, as it stands, works badly both for providers and customers. That cannot be allowed to continue, yet the same story has emerged year on year.
EfC found that:
- The average cost of a full-time childcare place in Northern Ireland is £169 per week (£181 per week for a day nursery; £165 per week for a childminder)
- One in five parents had to use annual or unpaid leave to manage childcare, while over a quarter were working outside of normal hours – early in the morning or late at night, to provide childcare during the day
- In 78% of families, at least one parent had to manage childcare responsibilities while working
- 70% of parents who have a child with a disability said if their childcare provider temporarily closed due to Covid-19, they would have no access to childcare.
- County Armagh continues to have the highest average cost of a full-time childcare place – £174 per week, whilst County Fermanagh experiences the lowest average full-time childcare costs of £150 per week
One parent told EfC: “Covid-19 has brought into very sharp focus just how much we rely on those who look after our children and the massive benefit they have provided to them.”
Another said: “Nurseries and childcare are critical to parents. They play such a vital role in allowing parents to work… Please do not let the schools and childcare settings close again!”
Employers for Childcare
Aoife Hamilton, Head of Charity Services at Employers For Childcare, said: “Covid-19 has demonstrated how vital childcare is for families and to our economy – just as our key workers needed roads and public transport in order to provide essential services, they also needed childcare so they could go to work.
“Looking ahead, the plea from parents is that we cannot go back to a situation where they are expected to work, and yet unable to access the vital childcare they need. This was a situation that parents overwhelmingly described as “stressful” and “impossible”, leading to feelings of exhaustion, worry and a “sense of huge guilt, failure, a constant battle”. One family told us both parents had ended up in hospital due to the stress of balancing everything.”
Ms Hamilton said that while the childcare difficulties faced by parents have been exacerbated by the pandemic, they have not been caused by it.
She said: “This is the 11th year of our research and for years, hard-pressed families have been crying out for better support with childcare. Even before the pandemic, many households were struggling, with four in ten families reporting using means other than income (such as loans and credit cards) to pay their childcare bill.
“Ongoing uncertainty around restrictions, combined with concerns about the impact of reduced hours or household income, furlough and potential redundancy for some due to Covid-19, all serve to compound the challenges faced by families, and their worries at this time.
“It’s not just parents who are struggling – at the start of the year almost three quarters of childcare providers told us they were either making a loss or just breaking even. Covid-19 has only heightened the pressures on childcare providers, who have had to adapt, introducing infection control measures to ensure the safety of children in their care, with many experiencing a decrease in their occupancy levels.”
It should be noted that different types of childcare provider will have been eligible for various strands of governmental support during the pandemic – including initiatives from both Westminster and Stormont.
Many will still be struggling because of Covid-19, although realistically the pandemic has been a challenge in all directions so this is to be expected.
However, that has nothing to do with the long-term neglect of a sector that is an important cog in local infrastructure.
EfC says its key asks – on behalf both of parents and of childcare providers – are that the Assembly and the Executive should:
- Continue to provide ongoing financial support to sustain the childcare sector at this time
- Set out a concrete timeframe for the finalisation of a Northern Ireland Childcare Strategy, incorporating learning from the Covid-19 pandemic, together with the existing evidence base – ensuring publication before the end of 2021
- Provide reassurance that families will be able to continue to access childcare during any future potential lockdown
- Ensure that childcare is embedded in all Covid-19 recovery plans – recognising its vital role to the economy and to society as a whole
Marie Marin, CEO of Employers for Childcare, wrote: “Covid-19 may have exacerbated the challenges experienced by the childcare sector, but it did not create them. Equally, progress was already long overdue on a Childcare Strategy prior to March 2020.
“Covid-19 cannot therefore be used as an excuse for the continued absence of a Childcare Strategy or timeline for its finalisation. This is not good enough. With our last full Childcare Strategy having been published two decades ago, this generation of parents and children need to see progress now.
“In fact, what the response to Covid-19 has shown, is that the Government CAN take action quickly and efficiently where it’s needed.
“And what is needed now is – urgent action to invest in our childcare infrastructure, which is of critical importance to enable economic recovery, nurture the social and educational development of our children, and to support children and families who are at risk of poverty.”
Over to Stormont.
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