PARENTS IN IRELAND face some of the most expensive childcare costs in the European Union.
Childcare costs more here than in the Nordic countries, Eastern European nations including Bulgaria and Romania, and southern European countries including Italy and Spain.
Our parental leave entitlements are among the worst in the developed world, although slightly ahead of those on offer in Switzerland and New Zealand.
Even parents who can afford childcare may not be able to find it, depending on where they live: Ireland is ranked 14th out of 41 nations surveyed in a 2020 Unicef report when it comes to accessibility of childcare options. And if they do find it, the same report could not find adequate data to be able to benchmark the quality of that childcare against the other countries surveyed.
Childcare has moved up the Government’s priority list, however, and there is growing pressure from the European Commission for Ireland, and some other countries, to do better.
But unlike some seemingly intractable issues, there are solutions. A deep-dive into the issue by Noteworthy for The Good Information Project has shown that childcare can work for parents, children and indeed wider society when:
- It is fully publicly funded
- It encompasses early years care, pre-school, school-age and even care for teenagers
- It is of high-quality, built around the needs and wishes of children rather than being treated like a ‘storage system’
- It is supported by adequate paid parental leave
The pandemic has highlighted the difficulties encountered by parents and guardians when they could not get childcare, as well as the knock-on effect it had on employers and organisations when their staff were trying to juggle childcare and work.
In these testimonies from readers of The Good Information Project on how their lives are impacted by the fragmented nature of Ireland’s childcare system, particularly during the pandemic, one woman noted, “the only reason we have two children instead of three is because we simply could not afford the childcare for three”.
Here, through the First5 strategy, the Irish Government has committed to an ambitious programme of investing €1 billion per year into childcare by 2028, and to move to a new hybrid model that will include more public funding and management.
Meanwhile, the introduction of a single National Childcare Scheme, which replaced and merged several previous initiatives, has raised hopes that childcare costs will fall, particularly for lower-income families.
But are these initiatives enough to bring about sufficient change? Noteworthy and The Good Information Project spoke to a variety of campaigning organisations, politicians – including the Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman – experts and academics about the progress Ireland is making when it comes to childcare, what’s working and where we might be going wrong.
Childcare: why it matters and how Ireland falls behind
In February 2020, parents, childcare professionals and service providers took part in a major protest to highlight problems with the funding, cost and availability of childcare.
“We are in a far better place now,” Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman told Noteworthy. “We provided support for the sector throughout the pandemic and now we have a clear vision of where we are going for the sector post-Covid. We are increasing investment through core funding and providing better pay to staff to help keep them in the sector.”
Childcare is one of those rare issues that unites people from across the political spectrum: from a capitalist, economic point of view, better childcare leads to more money and larger talent pools for both business and the State. When it comes to social justice, inclusion and equality, advocacy groups point to evidence that investing in childcare leads to better social outcomes for children and wider society.
A Unicef study into how relatively wealthy countries address childcare, published in June 2021, says that countries with the best childcare “combine affordability with quality of organised childcare [and] offer generous leave to both mothers and fathers, giving parents choice how to take care of their children”.
“Childcare in Ireland has long been viewed as a private issue, and one that is for families to resolve or for private providers to supply,” Niamh Kelly, policy manager at One Family, a not-for-profit that supports and advocates for one-parent families, told Noteworthy. “It is connected with how we have viewed women and children over the years and has left the profession of childcare undervalued. But we are on the precipice of change – and what happens next will be important.”
In 2017, 54.2% of women said that caring responsibilities were the main reason they were not in paid employment, compared to an EU average of 31%.
Report after report has also shown that high childcare costs are a barrier to employment, particularly for women in lower-income households, although the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is currently developing a model to support children, families, early clearing centres and school-age childcare services in areas of high concentration of disadvantage.
Professor Mathias Urban, Desmond Chair of Early Childhood Education, and Director of the Early Childhood Research Centre (ECRC) at Dublin City University, works closely with the EU and European Commission on how countries approach policies on early childhood care.
“The process must be initiated and facilitated by the Government at a high level; it should be a task for the Department of the Taoiseach as it crosses policy and department boundaries.”
Ireland’s Parliamentary Budgetary Office (PBO) – part of the machinery of Government but politically impartial and focused on the best financial and social outcomes – was clear when it reported in 2019 that childcare is not just a private matter but one that has wider benefits for all of society, including promoting childhood development, creating higher labour market participation and high wages, and ultimately leading to “better long-term health outcomes and a reduction in risky behaviours such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.”
In a 2015 submission, Chambers Ireland, which represents almost 50 chambers of commerce in Ireland, said that increasing female labour participation by even one point would “generate a saving of €172m per annum for the Exchequer – effectively the same amount as the annual cost of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme,” which guarantees two years of free preschool for every child.
Chambers Ireland estimated that equal labour market participation would lead to an additional €1.728bn for the State between reduced unemployment benefits and greater income taxes. “[This is] more than three times the size of investment in early childhood education recommended by UNICEF,” the business lobby said.
Frances Byrne, director of policy and advocacy at Early Childhood Ireland, said that investment can ultimately lead to less crime, fewer victims of crime and less social deprivation: “Greater investment in quality early years can mean lower need for youth interventions and, down the line, reduced criminal justice system interventions.”
Low public investment
Public expenditure on childcare rose five-fold since 2010.
On average, however, the cost of childcare to families has not decreased, with Pobal pointing to “a trend of modest but continued annual fee increases which have been seen across the sector since 2015.”
Although investment has increased over the past decade, Ireland spent just 0.2% of GDP on early childhood education and care in 2018, which includes spending from public and private sources. This compares to an average of 0.9% across OECD countries, whereas some OECD countries including Chile, Iceland, Israel and Norway, spend at least 1%.
Sharon Byrne, early years coordinator at children’s charity Barnardos, told Noteworthy that the Government’s plan to increase expenditure to €1 billion per year by 2028 is not enough: “Even with Irish investment doubling to €1 billion, that only brings us to just under 0.5% of GDP.”
Minister O’Gorman was reluctant to be drawn on what percentage of GDP Ireland should be spending by 2028. “We took a big step forward in 2020, we will spend €716m in 2022 and, by 2023, that will grow to 800m – and that’s before any additional increases [that I will seek].”
High fees for parents
Ireland has some of the highest childcare costs for parents and guardians in the OECD and, in 2019, had the highest childcare costs in the entire EU, with a 2020 European Commission report finding that “net childcare costs remain among the highest for middle and higher income households (26.5 and 31%, respectively in 2018)”. O’Gorman said that his department is set to change this.
“This and next year we can make a significant dent in the amount of fees parents pay,” he said. “Core funding to services is being provided to help pay staff and, in return, they have agreed not to increase fees in September 2022. This is the first time that the Government has had a mechanism to cap fees. Reducing fees for parents needs to be the next key step in terms of childcare reform and, in the next budget, we want parents to see a significant, notable decrease in the cost of childcare.”
Figures from the Annual Early Years Sector Profile Report 2019/20, compiled by Pobal for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, found that the average weekly fee for a full-day place stood at €186.12 for a full-day place, although there were significant variations depending on location. In Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, it costs €239.84 for a full day, 59% higher than in the cheapest county, Monaghan, where parents and guardians can expect to shell out €150.46 for full-time care.
Rent costs and ratio requirements are two major factors here, although wages are the biggest cost for a provider.
“The measures we are taking are core to finding a way to support services and reduce some of that [wage] pressure,” O’Gorman said.
There have been some positive changes for families: the European Commission said in 2020 that the cost of childcare in Ireland has “fallen substantially since the National Childcare Scheme – for a single parent with two children earning the average wage, net childcare costs fell from 30% to 1.2% of the average wage”.
At One Family, Kelly said that there remain gaps for single parents of children over the age of seven as a result of changes introduced to the lone parent payment in 2015, while there are no options for care for children over the age of 14.
“There have been improvements but the system does not centre children,” she said. “For parents not in education, training or full-time work, there are only part-time hours for children – but it’s precisely those children who may need the hours most.”
O’Gorman points out that he has taken on board the concerns brought to his attention about how certain aspects of the NCS – in particular, a practice that saw the hours a child spent in school deducted from the hours of support given to a parent or guardian – were further disadvantaging children from disadvantaged areas; from April 2022, 5,000 children will benefit from changes introduced by DCEDIY.
The right to a place
Previous bold initiatives suggest that change is possible. In particular, the ECCE scheme, introduced in 2010, is widely regarded as a significant success, with over 105,975 children taking part in the 2019/20 programme year.
“It is valued by parents and society, with 98% of three-year-olds participating,” says Frances Byrne. “Even if there was a recession tomorrow, it would be untouchable.”
But despite improvements in childcare and the rollout of the ECCE scheme, there is no legal right to a childcare place in Ireland, in contrast to the law in countries including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany and Sweden, which all have some form of legal guarantee ensuring access to childcare.
Despite the success of ECCE, whether or not a parent or guardian can access childcare is often a matter of luck, Ivana Bacik, Labour spokesperson on children, told Noteworthy.
The European Commission’s 2020 report said that the number of children under three in formal childcare is lower than the EU average of 17.2%.
O’Gorman acknowledged that there is a “real difficulty” for parents seeking childcare for children under three, and that many rely on private childminders in the black economy, but he hoped that his department’s initiatives, including the Childminding Action Plan and the NCS, would improve choice and availability.
Frances Byrne said that there is a lack of commitment to data and planning, which leads to a shortage of childcare spaces in different parts of Ireland.
“In Nordic countries, everyone gets a place, irrespective of geography,” said Frances Byrne. “It’s been a very informal sector [in Ireland].
“It hasn’t required registration until recently [and there remain exemptions]. It has developed through some standalone services in schools, and a lot of parents use childminders – often another mammy in the school.”
The Crowe Horwath report identified that operators in rural areas can struggle with lower population numbers which, in turn, can impact on their income and accessibility to training events. Larger operators have a distinct advantage when it comes to pricing.
Regulations require a higher staff ratio for younger children than for school-age children. “The system as it exists means that childcare providers are left to make decisions that are almost completely economic in nature,” said Frances Byrne. “If a staff member leaves, even if they were in a room with older children, it may make more sense to close the ‘baby room’ because there’s no ECCE funding and, with rising bills and costs, there has to be costs cut somewhere. Providers hate making these decisions.”
“Despite the administrative burdens and weekly reports, no government department or agency is tracking room closures,” Frances Byrne said. “Nobody is tracking the impact of closures on the sector – even though all it would take is a requirement to notify Tusla or Pobal. If DCEDIY knew that three settings were closing down the baby room for instance, it should and would set off warning lights.”
School-age children still need care
Across Europe, campaigners are beginning to turn their attention towards the issue of school-age childcare. Children over the age of five don’t suddenly need no care after school, or in mid-term, Easter, Christmas and summer holiday school breaks.
There is, however, slow progress on this sector, and a paucity of research at Irish, European and international level.
At Dublin City University, Dr Paul Downes is Professor of Psychology of Education and Director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre at the Institute of Education. He was also a member of the Government’s Working Group of the National Childcare Coordinating Committee on Developing School-Age Childcare.
Speaking to Noteworthy, Downes said that good quality school-age childcare must avoid being a place where “children are stored for hours, becoming listless and de-motivated in an unstimulating environment that does not respect their need for play and rest.”
As part of this, Downes said that there is a need to develop an after-school strategy that encompasses sports, outdoor education and the arts.
If schools are to become central for after-school care, experts like Downes say that this cannot take place in classrooms: it would require purpose-built spaces, which may look more like a youth centre than a school. Part of this is to avoid academic hothousing, where children spend all the daylight hours after school focused on homework and academics.
“It doesn’t just demotivate children personally but also educationally,” Downes said.
Purpose-built spaces on or close to school premises would, of course, require major public infrastructure development.
Pay and conditions
The year 2013 was a watershed moment for the childcare sector, when RTÉ’s PrimeTime featured an exposé into the mistreatment of children at three creches. The political fallout was instrumental in kickstarting a mood for change, but progress has been slow.
More recently, a former director of the Hyde and Seek creche pleaded guilty to breaching childcare regulations.
“We’ve had a string of scandals in the sector,” said Urban. “They would not have happened in a public system, and if something similar had happened in the school system, there would be fitness to practice inquiries – but we don’t have these in place. The OECD and others have been pointing out that the market system we have is detrimental to the quality of services. Public provision is related to better quality experiences for young children.”
Speaking to Noteworthy, Kathleen Funchion, Sinn Féin spokesperson on children and chair of the Oireachtas committee on children, said that the State would have greater control over quality standards if it took on the wages of the sector.
“Pay rates in the [early learning and childcare] sector are unacceptably low,” Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman said in late 2020.
Over 30,000 staff work in the early learning, care and school-age childcare sectors, with 85% working directly with children, figures from Pobal show.
The average hourly wage of staff working with children in 2019-20 was €12.45 per hour – barely over the living wage for the year in question – a figure which excludes managerial staff, staff on employment schemes or government funded programmes. Staff payment rates vary per county (see graph).
However, half of staff working with children earned less than the living wage in 2019 and 2020. A survey of early years professionals carried out by trade union SIPTU in 2019 found that 94% of workers struggled to make ends meet.
The Government-commissioned Crowe Horwath report into the cost of providing quality childcare services in Ireland said that the capacity to offer attractive wages or salary levels was a key concern for 83% of providers, while 72% said that they had difficulty attracting suitably qualified and experienced staff.
Staff turnover in childcare is high, with an annual average rate of 18% in 2019-2020. This compared to a 14% national rate across all sectors, according to a survey of over 48,000 employees – mostly human resource practitioners – conducted by Adare Human Resource Management.
The national employee turnover rate in childcare, however, belies striking regional differences.
In the country’s most expensive region for childcare, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, the average turnover rate is 38%, followed by Kildare, Sligo and Dublin city on, respectively, 22%, 21% and 20%. The lowest turnover rates are in Waterford and Roscommon, at 11%.
A Joint Labour Committee (JLC) is currently considering employment conditions and minimum rates of pay for the childcare sector, but several voices – including Frances Byrne and Funchion – have expressed concern that it will be difficult for the JLC to issue its report before September 2022. Funchion believes the wages issue needs to be tackled immediately; “It is unfair to link funding and wages to the JLC outcome.”
O’Gorman said that while there is pressure on participants in the JLC process, there is more funding available than ever before and that this, along with Nurturing Skills: the Workforce Plan for Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare 2022-2028, will be key in delivering a better wage structure and professional environment for new entrants to the childcare and early education sector.
In November 2019, a new paid parental leave allowed parents two weeks non-transferable paid leave in the first year of their child’s life, rising to four weeks in 2020 and seven weeks in 2021. But Irish leave entitlements are down the end of the league table, coming in 36th of 41 OECD countries surveyed. Since the Unicef report was compiled, however, further extension of paid parental leave has rolled out.
The Unicef report focused not simply on how much time is allocated to parents for maternity and paternity leave, but how much parents are paid on this leave. It found that Ireland, alongside Australia and New Zealand, offer less than ten weeks of full-pay equivalent.
Countries with the most generous leave entitlements are not among the wealthiest in the OECD and are all post-communist states: Romania offers 92 weeks of full-pay equivalent, Estonia offers 84 weeks, Bulgaria offers 70 weeks and Hungary offers 68 weeks. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea offer the longest leave for fathers.
At home, Niamh Kelly, policy manager at One Family, pointed out that parental leave is allocated per parent rather than per child – meaning that the child of a single parent may only have half the time with their caregiver compared to the child in a dual parent household. “It is a massive inequality which means that children suffer.”
“We understand that there are constraints because of an EU directive, but it would be helpful if, for instance, a parent could nominate another caregiver,” Kelly said.
“We don’t provide enough paid leave to parents,” O’Gorman told Noteworthy. “This is a key focus of my time as Minister: we have to support parents in the choices they make, especially in the first year of a child’s life. Leave entitlements will move to seven weeks per parent per year.”
What needs to change?
Niamh Kelly of One Family said that the focus on improving female workforce participation has driven the changes, but a more child-centred approach would yield better results.
It’s a view supported by Frances Byrne, director of policy and advocacy at Early Childhood Ireland, as well as Sharon Byrne, early years coordinator at children’s charity Barnardos.
“The conversation has focused quite heavily on the economy and the labour market but needs to come back to quality for children and how good childcare can play an important role in broader family support,” Sharon Byrne said.
DCU’s Mathias Urban coordinates Think20 (T20), a global group of research centres and think-tanks providing research-based policy recommendations relating to early childhood for the G20, of which the EU is a member.
He says that the EU Child Guarantee is an important step, building on 20 years of policy development at EU level.
“It started with the desire to invest in childcare in order to be economically competitive and to increase the participation of women in the labour market, [but] the narrative changed and it became more child-focused. EU member states are starting to take it seriously. Ireland is committed to implementing the EU Child Guarantee, however, I would like to see Ireland taking a more ambitious lead role, both at home and in the EU.”
There is broad consensus from academics, campaigners and opposition politicians on what needs to change: Urban, Bacik, Funchion and Frances Byrne are among those calling for a fully public system.
DCEDIY’s own expert report, Partnership for the Public Good: A New Funding Model for Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare, commissioned by O’Gorman’s predecessor Katherine Zappone and compiled by a mix of Irish and international academics and high-level civil servants, was heavily constrained in its terms of reference from recommending a public childcare system – a fact its authors mention at least 30 times in a 160-page report.
“The terms of reference were not drafted by me, but by the previous Government,” O’Gorman told Noteworthy. “When I came into the office, I spoke to the chair and made it clear that if he wished to bring in some reference [to public provision] in the final report, that was fine by me – and indeed those references were made.”
The report said:
O’Gorman said that the report’s continued pushback against its terms of reference – and in particular its finding that “change may include a role for public provision, subject to Government direction” – “is something we can work at… It would be great to see some element of that and I am very open to it [but] we are going forward in terms of partnership with providers, with much greater investment, much greater public management [and] control over fees, moving away from a market-led approach to childcare. The State will put more money in and have more control over processes.”
“Public provision of childcare is linked to more secure and better work environments for educators,” said Urban.
Bacik said, as minister for children, she would declare a “Donogh O’Malley moment,” making early childhood care and education free, with the State providing funding for local providers.
“There are countries with less money than Ireland who have made this a political priority,” she said.
Urban said that countries who are not as affluent as Ireland have achieved good services. He also pointed to the example of Canada, which is phasing in a system where, by 2026, average childcare fees will be $10 per day (about €150 per month).
“We advocate for transition to a fully public early childhood education and care system,” Urban said. “It can be achieved in five years. It has to start where we are, and the direction of travel is to phase out for-profit provision and move towards a public system.”
Free childcare for all?
In the here and now, O’Gorman acknowledges that there are real difficulties for parents and guardians trying to access quality, affordable childcare. “I urge them to check out NCS.gov.ie and see what kind of subsidy they can get for childcare, and we are working to better advertise the NCS.”
An increase in the subvention has served to broaden out the universality of the scheme for all children up to the age of 15. “For parents it may mean a saving of perhaps €200-300, but it is just a first step,” he said.
With the immediate Covid emergency having passed, normal politics is set to resume. O’Gorman’s immediate task for the last 18 months – responding to the short to medium-term impact of the pandemic on childcare – is likely to give way to wider scrutiny of his department’s plans on childcare.
Pressure to act is likely to intensify. The Minister faces clear options: does he push forward with his plans – or does he, as his opposition counterparts call for, make all childcare free?
DCEDIY’s own expert report, Partnership for the Public Good: A New Funding Model for Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare, compiled by a mix of Irish and international academics and high-level civil servants, doubts that the planned investment will be enough to solve the problems.
“We are convinced that the commitment to increase investment to at least €970 million by 2028 will not be sufficient to deliver the improvements required,” it said.
This work is also co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.