Employers for Childcare publishes annual childcare report
Employers for Childcare released its 10th annual childcare report last week. The report said similar things to the 2018 survey – but that doesn’t mean things are the same.
Childcare continues to represent a major cost for families. In the broadest sense, it is the second highest monthly cost for parents, after housing, while costs have risen faster than inflation over the decade measured by the charity.
The 2018 report found that 67% of childcare providers had an increase in expenditure, yet only 19% increased their fees, with many absorbing the increasing overheads rather than passing them on to parents.
This year’s found that 73% of providers saw increased costs during the year, with only 29% seeing an increase in income. Each report might say something similar but the story is of a structure that is more unstable than last year.
And herein is the great problem at the heart of childcare in NI – costs are a huge burden for families but providers are also under strain.
The only solution, therefore, is a systemic change that almost certainly involves statutory support – i.e. the sort of thing that might be found in a childcare strategy which Northern Ireland still does not have despite this being a mandated commitment dating back to the 2011-2015 Programme for Government.
NI is the only part of the UK without a childcare strategy and while childcare in England and elsewhere is not perfect circumstances are still much easier for parents and attempts at finding solutions have been made.
Even in these stretched circumstances there are encouraging signs. 87% of parents think the quality of childcare is good or very good – which is to the credit of providers in difficult circumstances.
Childcare is important for children’s development. However, it is not just a social issue, as it also has significant economic and labour market ramifications.
Employers for Childcare’s campaigning is drawing allies from different fields in NI. Writing in the News Letter yesterday, Tina McKenzie, Policy Chair for the Federation of Small Businesses, outlined the importance of affordable and accessible childcare to the local economy.
Similar but not the same
The foreword to this year’s Employers for Childcare report, from CEO Marie Marin, begins:
“ ‘I am hopeful…that with a genuine effort our local representatives can work in partnership to produce a long awaited and overdue childcare strategy, which takes into account the needs of all stakeholders.’
“This quote is taken from my foreword to the very first Northern Ireland Childcare Survey in 2010. Unfortunately, as we publish the 10th report, these words apply just as much today as they did then.
“Northern Ireland is still the only part of the UK without a Childcare Strategy, and is falling further behind the other UK regions in terms of vital investment in our childcare sector.
“Since we published our first report, the average cost of a full-time childcare place has increased faster than wages when adjusted for inflation. Equally, we know that costs have gone up for childcare providers, and continue to rise.
“This is completely unsustainable. Urgent action is required to ensure that quality childcare is affordable both for families to access and for childcare providers to deliver…
“We can get this right. Our Government needs to recognise that childcare is a vital part of our infrastructure equal to transport, education and healthcare. Just as we expect our roads and our schools to be there for us, we can redesign our childcare support system to work for us.
“We can do this by removing the barrier that affordability poses, ensuring access to quality care is always an option for families, and helping to give our children and young people the best start in life.
“In doing so we will ensure that our childcare infrastructure in Northern Ireland will unlock barriers to parents participating and progressing in the workforce, particularly women, and to families who are in work, maximising their incomes.”
Major findings from this year’s report include:
- The average cost of a full-time childcare place in Northern Ireland is £166 per week: £173 per week for a day nursery, £165 per week for a childminder
- 50% of families report spending more than 20% of their income on childcare – this rises to 63% of lone parent households.
- Over half of parents think there is a lack of sufficient childcare in their area – of these 45% report a lack of holiday scheme provision.
- 27% of families report an increase in their childcare costs during the school holidays – for families with a child aged 5 or over, this increases to 50%.
- 41% of families used means other than their income to pay for their childcare, including savings, an overdraft, loans and credit cards. Nearly half of respondents had to cut back or go without another expense to pay their childcare bills.
- For 34% of families, childcare is their largest monthly outgoing. For another 30% it is their second largest outgoing.
For lone parents, many of these pressures are exacerbated:
- More than 10% of lone parents using childcare say they spend over half their income on childcare.
- 51% - compared with 41% overall – use means other than their income to pay for childcare, and in particular lone parents are more likely to resort to payday loans.
- 63% of lone parents households had to cut back or go without elsewhere to pay childcare bills.
There are several existing support options for parents using childcare, including childcare vouchers, tax credits, tax-free childcare and Universal Credit.
However, general awareness of the available options and how these are changing over time could be much higher.
Indeed, one of Employers for Childcare’s primary services is carrying out assessments and calculations for families to see what support is the best available to them.
Speaking ahead of the launch of the report at Stormont last week, Employers for Childcare Policy and Information Manager Aoife Hamilton said: “While our research finds that families are struggling to afford the childcare they need, we also found that childcare providers are experiencing increased costs and challenges to their own sustainability.
“Some report that they feel they have no option but to leave the sector as they struggle to break even. This is unacceptable and fails to reflect the value of our vital childcare infrastructure, it’s clear this is an issue which demands urgent attention.
“In launching our 10th Northern Ireland Childcare Survey today in Parliament Buildings we are giving a voice to the thousands of parents and childcare providers who took part, bringing the evidence they have provided to the heart of Government.
“This report is unique in directly representing the views of families and childcare providers. On their behalf, we are calling for a fundamental overhaul of the system to ensure a high quality, sustainable childcare infrastructure that is affordable for parents to access, and for providers to deliver.
“In the context of the current talks, our elected representatives must prioritise investment in childcare underpinned by a fully costed childcare strategy which learns from experiences in other jurisdictions and is supported by legislation.”
Employers for Childcare is calling for a costed Childcare Strategy with a legal framework, informed by learning from other jurisdictions.
This seems not just entirely reasonable, but necessary and urgent.
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