Now is the time to look at future of childcare sector in Ireland

The Government must seize opportunities presented by the Covid-19 pandemic to fix the childcare sector once and for all, says FRANCES BYRNE, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Early Childhood Ireland
Now is the time to look at future of childcare sector in Ireland

The Irish childcare system has been critically under-funded for years, says Frances. Picture: Stock

EVERY sector has faced extraordinary challenges in the face of the Covid-19 crisis and, for childcare, those challenges have severely exposed the vulnerability of our vital services.

In my role as Director of Policy and Advocacy for Early Childhood Ireland, I have been bringing the concerns of childcare providers in Cork, and across Ireland, directly to the table of the Children’s Minister.

These concerns — about staff retention, quality of service, rising costs, insurance issues — existed before the Covid-19 crisis hit in March 2020. While our 3,800 childcare members nationwide have adapted to fully reopen this month, the same concerns persist now and, in many cases, have been exacerbated.

With the initial reopening of some childcare services at the end of June, over 1,700 providers reopened in line with government guidelines. This month, as the 2020/2021 school year commences, a further 3,000 creches and afterschool childcare settings have reopened their doors to families hoping to return to some semblance of normality while keeping their loved ones safe.

Over the past few months, we’ve been supporting our members to reopen safely and to meet the new demands on their staff and premises through the introduction of pods, additional hand sanitisation stations, expansion of outdoor play areas and essential staff training.

On the whole, Early Childhood Ireland has welcomed the support packages and guidelines introduced by the Government to see our sector through this current challenge but, as we all look ahead to the new academic year, we must also look at the future of our sector.

The 2021 Budget announcement is on the horizon. We believe that the Government has a unique opportunity to make up for lost ground and to take some practical steps to bring our childcare system closer to the internationally-lauded Scandinavian model. By investing in childcare in the Budget, the Government can help move Ireland away from the bottom of the EU childcare investment league table for good.

The Irish childcare system has been critically under-funded for years and the impact this has had on staff retention rates, as well as rising costs for providers and parents alike, has been laid bare by the additional challenges of the Covid-19 crisis. The strict adult-to-child ratios are at a greater risk than ever with additional staff required to manage each pod within settings; and delays to Covid-19 testing potentially leaving crèches without a full roster of staff for an entire week.

Childcare providers have demonstrated their personal resilience and professional commitment to finding solutions throughout it all and, in facing the challenges of the Covid-19 crisis, the Government has recognised the need to protect the sector and to listen to those working within it. We are calling on the Government to continue to prioritise our sector as they look to the 2021 Budget and the new National Economic Plan.

Parents cannot be expected to continue to pay high fees; staff must be given excellent terms and conditions that will keep their skills and experience in the sector and therefore guarantee the quality of service that providers can give families across Ireland. These are the challenges which threaten the sustainability of our early years and school age childcare providers. Notwithstanding increases in funding by the last government, proper investment has been deferred by too many governments in the past, and we believe that the Department of children needs to address them once and for all, before the cracks within the sector become too great to ever be repaired.

We are calling on the Government to present a timeline for year-on-year funding which will ensure children and their families can expect the same access to quality experiences that we see in other European countries.

About Early Childhood Ireland

Early Childhood Ireland is the leading organisation in the early years sector. It supports 3,800 childcare members, who support over 100,000 children and their families through preschool, afterschool, and full day-care provision nationwide.

Early Childhood Ireland provides a range of professional supports and services for its members, and campaigns for better childcare provision in Ireland. Follow Early Childhood Ireland online: @EarlyChildhdIRL.

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