James Ward, PA
Disadvantaged children are “falling through the cracks” under the Government’s National Childcare Scheme, experts have said.
Childcare providers protested outside Leinster House on Tuesday, warning the Government that the scheme has put services “at risk of sustainability”.
They have also called for clarity on the future of the Employee Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS), which they say has masked some of the problems in the sector, and without which childcare services face closure.
The Minister for Children, Roderic O’Gorman, said a review into the operation of the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) will be finished in the coming weeks, and insisted he wants equality of access to childcare.
Mary McPhillips, director of operations at charitable organisation St Mary’s Early Years, said: “While the National Childcare Scheme is very good, it’s difficult for the disadvantaged children.
“Our experience is that children whose parents are not working get less access to early childhood education.
“Therefore if we ever are going to change society and break the cycle of disadvantage, we’re not doing it because we’re not treating children equally and giving them equal access to early childhood education.”
Ms McPhillips said childcare services have been “chronically underfunded.”
She added: “I think the EWSS is masking that problem for now, but it’s only delaying the cliff edge.
“I think a number of services are at risk of being able to continue and serve their communities.
“Our service wouldn’t be sustainable long term, if the National Childcare Scheme continues like this.
“If the EWSS is due to finish now, I would say another year. It would have to be resolved immediately. It’s going on for a long time.”
Mr O’Gorman said there was an issue with how the NCS “affects children coming from really disadvantaged areas”.
The NCS, launched in 2019, is a financial supports scheme to help parents meet their childcare costs but concerns have been raised that parents who are not working receive significantly less under the scheme.
Mr O’Gorman said a move to a DEIS (Delivering Equality of opportunity In Schools) style system could be a solution in the long-term, but interim measures would be needed.
He added: “I’m conscious that there are children right now who are being negatively impacted. I want to get an interim solution for them.
“The reason I’m out here today, and the reason I have been engaging with these services over the last number of months, is to ensure that we can see every child that needs, that can avail of childcare, getting that childcare. That’s my goal.”
Mr O’Gorman said there would be “no cliff edge” ending to the EWSS, which is due to be wound down at the end of the month.
Chair of the Oireachtas committee on children, and Sinn Féin TD, Kathleen Funchion, said there were problems with the “design” of the NCS.
She added: “Children whose parents are not working are falling outside of the cracks, because their hours have been reduced.
“You’re talking about children who are very vulnerable, who maybe are going to their short-term facility for a hot meal.”
She added: “All the talk is there’s going to be something positive in next week’s budget, and hopefully there will be, because this sector really is in crisis.
“You will see places closing. Then what happens to kids, particularly those in vulnerable and disadvantaged areas, totally falling through cracks.
“We all talk about early intervention and prevention is better than cure, you know, children really do need their facilities and their services.”
Labour Senator, Marie Sherlock, said that while the NCS represented progress for many families, “for the most disadvantaged families and children in this country, it was an enormous setback”.
She added: “Children now, in these very challenging circumstances, are entitled to less supports, compared with previous childcare schemes.
“We need to see urgent reform of the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) to ensure that no child is left behind, that no child is disadvantaged.
“While the Government has committed to a review, that review cannot come quick enough for us.”