'Big investment required to make affordable childcare a reality'

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If Ireland's delayed Affordable Childcare scheme is to become a reality, government must be willing to invest more now and into the future, says Teresa Heeney.

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Teresa Heeney, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland

The Affordable Childcare Scheme was announced by the Irish Government in late 2016, promising some help with childcare costs to all parents, with more to low-income families.

While Early Childhood Ireland, as the leading early years representative body, had welcomed the scheme as an important first step, we also had serious misgivings. These included a concern about the underlying flawed cost model on which it was built, as well as a failure to deal with an on-going staffing crisis in the early years sector, illustrated by the findings of a members’ survey, which we carried out in March.  

In any event the proposed scheme had to be temporarily shelved in April, because the IT system – which was supposed to match tax and social welfare records, and would be accessed via a parental portal - couldn’t be delivered on time, as well as the time required for legislative oversight. 

What will arrive in its place, for now, in September 2017, is an adapted version of the original scheme, this time entitled 'More Affordable Childcare' or the ‘September Measures’. A national website and information campaign were launched in late May and our providers have been responding to these fast-moving developments. 

As the new proposals were revealed, it became clear that the administrative burden on providers would be quite significant. The enhanced subvention rates and eligibility criteria for the revised arrangements are complex and the role of providers in helping parents to find their way through the maze of calculations and sub-schemes is intense but crucial, leading to a very concentrated work schedule over the summer months. 

Early Childhood Ireland wasted no time in spelling out this reality and we were successful in gaining a concession in the form of a non-contact time payment for providers, which, while not enough, is a first step and an important principle.

In the long term, however, the full Affordable Childcare Scheme, which will come at some point in 2018 or 2019, is based on a model which does not reflect the real cost of providing quality early years education and care.

The cost of childcare in Ireland is unaffordable for many parents with the average weekly cost accounting for a high 35 per cent of household income, whereas across the EU the average is 17 per cent. At the same time, a significant portion of our sector is breaking even at best, while the workforce is low-paid with many employed on a part-time/38-week basis, and having to seek social welfare support over the summer. 

To address these critical issues, Early Childhood Ireland is seeking significant steps toward the OECD recommended target of 1 per cent of GDP. Ireland is at about half of that now. The only way to reduce costs for families, provide quality for young children and ensure that we have a sustainable sector for all, is to increase investment over the next few years.

Meanwhile, we are committed to working constructively with the Department of Children & Youth Affairs, to ensure that Affordable Childcare delivers for Irish families. No doubt it could be the first step of an ambitious and very significant new policy measure but we have a long road to travel. Its ultimate success is dependent on the participation and engagement of Early Childhood Ireland’s 3,700 members, but along with their continuing hard work and commitment, if Affordable Childcare is to be become a reality, government must be willing to invest more now and into the future. 

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