It’s not to late to fix childcare in Northern Ireland
Stormont is working on a new Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland, and not before time.
Childcare has long been a neglected issue. For years, the system has been strapped for cash and other resources, to the benefit of nobody.
Costs for parents are huge. Childcare is often one of the two biggest financial commitments for any family who needs it (alongside housing). This has knock-on effects for the wider economy, making it hard for two parents to work full time.
However, this doesn’t mean that providers are doing well. In fact, many are struggling to keep afloat – despite the low wages typically paid to staff in daycare and nursery settings.
One way or another, the system needs far more support from government. This has been the case for many years but, for a variety of reasons, the Executive has not been able to meet the need that exists. For instance, the 2011-15 Programme for Government committed to a childcare strategy and a draft was produced, and consulted upon in late 2015, but never finalised.
Aoife Hamilton, Head of Charity Services at Employers For Childcare, said: “We have been reporting on childcare in Northern Ireland for over a decade and for many years, parents and childcare providers have been telling us about the issues they face, but this is the most worrying picture yet.
“Childcare providers are facing unprecedented challenges – in recruiting and retaining staff and meeting salaries, particularly with the increase announced to the National Living Wage, as well as rising food and energy costs and uncertainty over numbers and occupancy levels.
“This could impact on their ability to deliver the high-quality childcare that enables parents to work. The sector rightly benefited from vital Government funding during Covid-19 which was a real lifeline for many but now much, much more is required.”
Locally, there are several ways in which parents can get support for childcare costs. Most parents should be eligible for some help. However, the assistance in place is plainly not enough, as shown in the results of the NI Childcare Survey year on year.
Over the past 18 months the NI childcare sector has benefitted from various bits of bespoke support from the Department of Education. Providers will also have been able to use furlough and other Covid-19 relief programmes.
However, these are emergency measures aimed at mitigating against crises caused by the pandemic. They do not address the pre-existing challenges faced by the sector.
The latest Employers for Childcare survey found:
- The average cost of a full-time childcare place is £170 per week (£186 for a day nursery, and £166 for a childminder). Day nursery costs ranged from £120 per week to £245 per week with the range for childminders being from £100 to £300 per week.
- 71% of childcare providers reported that they are either just breaking even or are making a loss.
- Almost a third of childcare providers described their current financial position as ‘distressed’ or ‘struggling’, meaning that they are at immediate risk of closure or are focused on survival over the next 12 months.
- 41% of parents report having to regularly use means other than their income to pay for childcare including savings, overdrafts, credit cards and even payday loans – rising to 55% of lone parents.
- A third of parents aren’t claiming any financial support towards the cost of their childcare.
- 69% of parents report that there is insufficient provision of childcare in their area, an increase from 61% last year. This rises to 73% of lone parents and 87% of parents who have a child with a disability.
- 54% of families report challenges in accessing the formal childcare they need, citing concerns not just about costs but also around flexibility and accessibility.
- For 44% of parents, difficulties in accessing or affording the childcare they need have impacted on their ability to work. This rises to 58% of mothers, compared to 27% of fathers.
- In 2021 families reported using an average of 39 hours of childcare per week, a decrease from 42 hours in 2020.
The average cost for one full-time childcare place is £170 per week – which is over a third of the median weekly household income in Northern Ireland (per figures published 5 August 2021). That is an astonishingly high price to pay while, at the same time, many providers are on their knees.
The benefits of childcare are significant (and, despite the financial strain on providers, the actual quality of service remains broadly high). According to the Employers for Childcare findings, 98% of parents agree it has a positive impact on the learning, social and emotional development of children.
This would be enough to argue for more support for the sector, in order to reduce pressure on families and on childcare settings. But there’s more. Affordable and accessible childcare is a key part of the economy – with 98% of parents saying it is vital in enabling parents to work, and 94% saying it is essential to the economic and social recovery from Covid-19.
Childcare is infrastructure, and it should be treated as such. England, Scotland and Wales all have more in place to help parents and providers. While none of the systems in the other parts of the UK is perfect, they are a step or two ahead of NI.
Ms Hamilton said further: “We need to see long-term, strategic investment in this essential economic sector. Without it, costs are likely to continue to rise and the sector will be at risk of collapse meaning parents will be unable to work, our economic recovery will be held back and children will miss out on important developmental opportunities.
“Work is underway on a new Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland and there is now a not-to-be-missed opportunity for our Executive Ministers to show their commitment to building back better, and creating a world-class childcare infrastructure – that supports parents to work, aids the wider economy and society and critically, invests in the social and educational development of our children – the benefits of which will be felt for generations to come.
“Ahead of the upcoming Assembly Elections we are calling on all of our elected representatives and candidates to listen to parents and childcare providers and to make sure childcare is a top priority for a new Executive”.
The message from Employers for Childcare is a simple one. By the time they publish the findings of their next survey a year from now, they no longer want to be talking about the inadequate levels of support for parents and providers.
Over the next few months, Northern Ireland’s political parties will be producing manifestos and campaign promises, ahead of the coming elections. It will be interesting to see the prominence – or not – that is given to childcare.
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