- Nurseries fail to meet regulations in complex system
- New Affordable Childcare Scheme delayed
- Staffing crisis
Early years settings in Ireland are being stretched to breaking point due to increased running costs and inadequate state funding, while staff are exiting the sector en masse.
Consequently, childcare fees are on the rise, and more than two out of five providers offering childcare schemes – of which there are six – are failing to meet requirements set by the state, a report has revealed.
From this month, state funding is increasing by 7 per cent for the universal pre-school offer of 15 hours (38 weeks a year), called Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). However, for some settings, the funding is still not enough to cover costs.
The scheme is being extended from a one-year to a two-year offer. As of September, ECCE will be available to children over the age of two years eight months.
According to Dr Mary Maloney, chairperson of PLÉ, an Irish childcare organisation, the increase in childcare fees and failure of thousands of settings to meet funding requirements is partly down to the complexity of the country’s childcare schemes.
She said this was because Ireland’s six childcare funding schemes have different eligibility or reporting criteria, and apply to children of different ages and hours of attendance, with varying payment rates and periods.
A report outlining findings from compliance visits to childcare centres, published in the summer, found 15 ‘high-risk’ cases where there were major concerns over financial controls, including the possibility of fraud.
A total of 2,862 settings were inspected over a ten-month period by regulator Pobal.
Other failings included overcharging parents, absent or inadequate attendance records, claiming for more children than were attending, and failing to meet ratio requirements.
Overall, 1,234 settings were found to be ‘majorly non-compliant’, 633 had ‘minor non-compliance’, while 956 were found to be compliant.
A recent survey showed childcare fees across Ireland have risen significantly since 2013, with parents in Dublin paying an average of €1,047 (£1,154) a month for one child.
While most families are now receiving subsidies through the Affordable Childcare Scheme, a delay to the IT system means several thousand families are still missing out. All children aged between six months and three years (or until they qualify for ECCE) are entitled to €20 a week, or €1,040 per year for those in full-time childcare.
After numerous delays, the full scheme will now launch in September 2019.
Ireland’s minister for children and youth affairs Katherine Zappone has acknowledged that the country’s childcare costs are too high.
In a statement, she said, ‘Making childcare more affordable for families is one of the key priorities for me personally and for my department. At the outset I have always been clear that it will take time and a number of budgets to correct decades of neglect and under-investment by successive governments. Transforming one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world into the best was never going to be easy.
‘We are on a journey towards making childcare in Ireland not only affordable, but also to ensure that our childcare services are of the highest quality. I believe that, over time, these aims are complementary and achievable.’
Another challenge faced by the childcare sector is recruitment and retention.
Karen Clince, chief executive of Tigers Childcare, which operates 14 settings in Ireland, told Nursery World that in the past two years there has been a ‘mass exodus’ of childcare staff.
She said, ‘The economy is growing again, which is leading to people taking up full-time employment. As of 2016, people entering the sector need to be qualified. Pay is quite poor and with increased regulation in Ireland, it can be a stressful job. As a result, people are choosing jobs where they don’t need qualifications and the pay is better over working in childcare. You have to be really committed to want to work in the sector.
‘The only way wages could increase is if Government funding rises. The funding for the free pre-school year does not meet costs. It would mean passing the additional cost onto parents, many of whom struggle to afford childcare currently.’
She added, ‘Recruiting for staff has never been as hard. It’s a struggle to get even a few CVs through for lower-level positions.’
Ms Clince said to combat this, they are promoting childcare as a profession and making people aware that there is a career path, which will lead to higher salaries.
Opinion: Dr Mary Maloney, chairperson of PLÉ
‘In June, the European Commission recommended Ireland take action on childcare. This call was made in recognition that “access to affordable, full-time quality childcare in Ireland remains difficult and is the most expensive in the EU for lone parents and second highest for couples”.
‘In relation to quality, there are increasing demands of the sector in Ireland vis a vis qualifications, training, regulation, curriculum and governance. It is clear the children’s minister, Katherine Zappone, is committed to the twin objectives of affordability and quality and has increased investment over the past three years by an unprecedented 80 per cent.
‘The reality is, however, that Ireland spends less on pre-primary education than any other EU country. As the Irish economy emerges from recession, Government attention is focused upon labour market activation.
‘Hence, in addition to improving outcomes for children and reducing poverty, the Affordable Childcare Scheme (ACS), due for implementation in September 2019, seeks to facilitate labour activation and reduce the cost of childcare for families.
‘While the ACS makes provision for much-needed financial support, it does little for the 27,000-strong early childhood workforce who feel undervalued and disenfranchised.
‘The average industrial wage in Ireland is approximately €38,000 per annum (£34,000), yet early childhood educators regardless of qualification levels and/or experience earn between €20,000 (£18,143) and €21,500 per annum (£19,504) for full-time work. Unrest within the workforce is rife. Minister Zappone has encouraged the workforce to join a union and is examining the possibility of a Sectoral Employment Order – a legally binding agreement setting out minimum pay rates and other conditions.
‘Educators are no longer willing to work for abysmal salaries and are exiting the sector in large numbers. Staff turnover stands at 28 per cent. In the midst of the staffing crisis, recruiting and/or retain staff is extremely problematic. The crisis undermines quality and children’s experiences at the most critical time in their development.
‘However laudable the aim to reduce childcare costs, immediate sustained investment on par with other European countries is critical to stem the flow of educators from the sector.’
Ireland: Six different childcare funding schemes
Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) or Free Pre-school scheme
A two-year universal entitlement for which children become eligible at two years, eight months. The scheme is provided for three hours a day, five days per week over 38 weeks a year. The programme runs from September to June. Settings providing the ECCE scheme must adhere to the national framework for early years care and education.
Community Childcare Subvention (CCS) Programme
Designed to reduce childcare costs for parents on low-incomes. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) pays for a portion of the childcare costs. The CCS is only available through participating community not-for-profit childcare settings. It is available for 52 weeks of the year, running from September to August.
Training and Employment Childcare (TEC) Programmes
This is for parents accessing ‘eligible’ training courses and ‘eligible categories’ of parents returning to work, by providing subsidised childcare places.
Childcare Education and Training Support (CETS) Programme
Provides childcare on behalf of the Local Education and Training Boards and Secondary Schools.
After-School Childcare (ASCC) Programme
Administered on behalf of the Department of Social Protection (DSP), it provides after-school care for primary school children for certain categories of working parents and parents on Department of Social Protection (DSP) employment programmes.
Community Employment Childcare (CEC) Programme
Administered on behalf of the Department of Social Protection (DSP), it provides childcare for children of parents who are participating on Community Employment schemes.