IN recent years, a crisis in the early years childcare sector has deepened and it has now reached boiling point.
Parents in Ireland pay the second highest childcare fees in Europe. In some parts of the country, spaces in such facilities are limited. Owners of creches and pre-schools struggle to meet the costs of rising rents, high insurance premiums and continuing changes in regulations.
As a result, the Early Years Alliance have planned a protest that will run tomorrow, Wednesday, February 5.
The Early Years Alliance is a coalition campaigning for sustainable, high quality, affordable Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services delivered by professionals paid a decent wage for the valuable work they do with young children.
The members of the Alliance include SIPTU, the Association of Childhood Professionals, the Federation of Childhood Providers, the National Community Childcare Forum, Seas Suas and National Childhood Network.
Sharon Welch, 50, is the owner of Bee Happy Montessori in Youghal. She has worked in the childcare sector since 2005. She is well qualified, holding a degree in Social Science and Youth and Community work, FETAC levels 5 and 6, a diploma in Montessori education, and is currently studying to become a play therapist.
Despite holding these qualifications and having years of experience, Sharon struggles to meet the costs incurred running a pre-school.
She said: “I’m treated like a private business but my funding comes from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. They give me €69 per child. If you have a degree in childcare, you qualify for the higher capitation, which is €10 more per child. Even though I am well qualified, they still won’t give me the higher capitation because I don’t have a degree in early childcare even, though I have a degree and relevant childcare qualifications.”
Early years services like Sharon’s receive funding for 38 weeks of the year when children attend pre-school or creche. They are not funded for the holiday periods during the year.
Services are also deducted money if a child shows a pattern of non-attendance for sickness or lateness. If a child is out sick one day for four weeks in a row, the Government takes back the funding. Sharon said that during holiday periods she has to “pay the staff holiday pay”.
She added: “I have to pay rent and rates (on the premises used to run the Montessori school). With the funding of €69 per child, I have to pay staff, pay myself, pay costs and overheads (associated with the Montessori school), any training such as first aid.”
Sharon explained how funding for 38 weeks of the year affected her personally.
“For July and August, I can’t sign on for those two months because I am classed as self-employed. I only have income for 38 weeks of the year.
“I can’t buy my own house. I’ve had to ask my family for money at times to survive. It’s hard to have a good quality of life.”
The early years care and education sector is predominantly staffed by women.
Sharon said: “The majority of people making decisions in government are male. I think they see us as glorified babysitters as opposed to professionals who are trying to earn a living.”
She added: “I love my job. I do a really good job and I feel I should be paid well for it. I’m well qualified. I take my job seriously and put a lot of time and energy into it.”
Thirty-year-old Sarah Newman works as a manager at a creche in Cork city. She began working in childcare nine years ago. She studied and gained FETAC level five and six and holds a BA degree in Early childhood care from Dundalk IT, which she completed via study in Cork College of Commerce by night.
The average wage in the early years sector is currently €11.45 per hour. When Sarah started working in childcare in her early twenties, she was not too concerned with her low wages because she loved working with children. As she approached her thirties she wanted more from life, her own home and car. She realised she would need to earn more money in order to afford a better lifestyle.
She said: “It’s not all about the money. Everyone in childcare loves their job and they love kids but I had to go back to college to get my degree in order to try to make more money. The money in childcare isn’t great.
“You get to a point where this (money) becomes an issue. I love my job and when I started, I didn’t really care about the money I was earning, but now it is a concern because I want to be able to have my own home and things like that. I only started driving this year because I couldn’t afford to before then.”
Sarah is concerned about the quality of childcare that will be available to parents in the future if issues in the sector are not addressed appropriately.
She said: “People are starting to leave the sector now. People who are made to work with children are forced to leave because they can’t afford to live on the money they earn.”
Sarah has worked with babies and toddlers, taught pre-school children and now works as a manager in a creche. She has first experience of the issues faced by childcare workers and understands the pressures that owners of creches and preschools face on a daily basis.
The last term was a particularly difficult one for those working in early years in Ireland.
Services had to re-register with TUSLA under a new process which was time-consuming and costly.
Before Christmas, Ironshore, an insurer, pulled out of the Irish market. There is now only one childcare insurer in the country and premiums have increased significantly. Sarah said: “Staff are being paid low wages because creche owners have to bear the costs relating to updates in regulations so there is no money left over to pay a higher wage.
“For example, in September, everyone had to re-register their pre-schools and it cost €3,500. That’s a huge chunk of money so how are owners expected to pay staff more money?”
“Every year, things seem to change. An inspector could come in today and say everything is fine. A year later, another inspector could visit and tell you something needs to be changed. Any change needs to be implemented within three days.
“When you have various bodies coming into creches telling us what needs to change, shouldn’t they help the owner bear the cost and implement the changes?”
At the protest, the Early Years Alliance will be highlighting its Election 2020 demands for the sector. These include the development of a funding model that supports affordable and accessible childcare for parents, high quality for children and sustainability for providers.
The Early Years Alliance is also seeking adequate funding for the introduction of the Living Wage for all workers in the sector in 2020, as a first step towards a professional pay scale and the establishment of a single inspection process with a graded compliance system.
ABOUT THE PROTEST
Early Years Alliance have planned the protest tomorrow.
It will be held in Dublin on February 5, at 11.30am, beginning in Parnell Square and ending at Leinster House. No protest march is planned in Cork.
It is at the discretion of childcare providers around the country as to whether or not they close crèches and pre-schools and take part in the protest in Dublin.
Theresa Butler of SIPTU (Cork and Kerry branch) said: “We are urging parents and the general public to support this protest. Public support is vital in achieving our aim of securing a substantial increase in investment for the sector which will deliver for parents, providers, educators and children. We also urge voters to ask candidates directly about their awareness of the crisis in the early years sector, if they support the upcoming early years protest and their party’s plans to address the issues of affordability, pay and sustainability of services.”