September 4, 2017
Opinion by Cllr Jennifer Whitmore: There has been lots of feelgood fanfare around the roll out of the Affordable Childcare Scheme, which came into force last week. Promotional videos show cute children talking about what their parents get up to when they are busy at crèche.
For working parents struggling with childcare costs, what’s not to like about a State subsidy to help with crèche fees? By enabling more parents to avail of childcare services outside the home, the scheme must surely be greeted with open arms by the childcare providers too?
That’s what you’d think. And it’s what I thought before I carried out an online straw poll in the past week. Curious about how this scheme was going down, I put out a call online to parents in my local area.
Palpable desperation and frustration
I had expected to hear back from parents struggling with increasing childcare costs. Instead the voices I heard were from childcare providers, whose desperation and frustration was palpable. The strong message coming through was that the implementation of this policy, however well meaning, is seriously flawed.
For example, several childcare operators told me that their contracts with the government providing for the roll-out of the programme had not arrived and that they were hearing that the situation was the same in all childcare facilities across the country. They don’t know what rules will be included in their contracts, or when payments etc will be made. They have been told the contracts will be with them in October.
The managers of childcare facilities who got in touch with me also spoke of an increased administrative burden as result of this new scheme that is placing huge strains on them and their businesses. Some crèches have reported that forms can take 20 minutes to fill out per child. Multiple this by 40 or 50 children, and you can understand their frustration.
Whilst the government has promised some funding to compensate for these administration requirements, there is no definite schedule as to when that money will be allocated or how.
No one would suggest that paperwork is not needed – we are after all entrusting our cherished children to the care of service providers and we need to be assured that they will be properly cared for.
But could this scheme have worked differently? Was there not a way to structure it so that the onerous administrative requirements didn’t fall entirely on people whose talents lie in caring for children?
Free GP care scheme
Interestingly, when free GP care for children aged under six was rolled out in 2015, parents signed up to the scheme through an online portal managed by the HSE. Forms were not filled in the GP clinic and the administrative duty of implementing it did not fall to the GPs.
But in this instance, the heavy lifting is with the childcare sector, and that has had an impact for workers and parents alike. Some crèches have decided that they need to increase their charges, in part because of the increasing requirements placed on them by the government. In some cases, this has unfortunately negated the benefits that parents were to see as part of the financial support scheme.
The knee-jerk analysis is to view fee hikes as yet another sign of an opportunistic industry that has seen an easy way to make extra cash. While this may be the case with some providers, it is by no means the whole picture.
A chronically underfunded sector
But the real underlying story here is what these reports tell us about our chronically underfunded childcare sector. Amongst the estimated 22,000 workers in the sector, many are employed for just 15 hours a week, or only on contract for 39 weeks a year. This forces thousands of trained workers to sign on to social welfare each summer.
Despite the fact this is a well-qualified workforce, with a minimum qualification of a level 5 QQI award, they earn an average of €10.27 per hour.
This situation is appalling for staff morale and retention levels, but it’s also bad for our children. The first five years are the most important in a person’s life, when the future emotional, social and educational well-being is laid down. Despite this, we have one of the most under undeveloped childcare systems in the EU.
UNICEF’s international benchmark for investment in early years education is 1% of GDP. We spend just 0.5%: below the average for OECD countries and just 25% of the European average investment in early years services. We are nowhere near the 1.8% of GDP spent in Iceland, the 1.6% in Sweden, or 1.4% invested by the Danish.
Hitting smaller operations hard
This historical lack of state funding puts enormous pressure on childcare services, which in turn puts pressure on parents. Far from being a boon, the additional burden of the new Affordable Childcare Scheme, according to people I have spoken to, is hitting some childcare providers hard, particularly smaller operations.
If smaller centres are forced out of business, the childcare options open to parents will greatly limited. This would not be a good result for anyone. As one childcare operator put it to me: “We are in this because we love what we do and, like doctors and nurses, this job is a vocation. We have subsidised the chronic underfunding from the government out of our own pockets for years and there just isn’t the capacity to do it any more”.
As a parent of very young children myself, I deeply value the relationships that form between my family and the people that I entrust to care for my little ones. The State needs to ensure that our children get the best early education and care, and that means that they need to place equally as high a value on the childcare operators that provide that important public service.
This opinion piece was originally printed in thejournal.ie-you can read it here.
Jennifer Whitmore is a Social Democrat Councillor and member of Wicklow Council Council. She is also mother to four young children. She is writing in a personal capacity.
4 September 2017