The Parent Trap: What's being done about the Irish childcare crisis?
"Young children and their families deserve better"
Like the children in our crèches and pre-schools, we all learned some valuable lessons this year. One of them was just how essential great childcare is; a truth that came sharply into focus when we simply didn't have any. So how is a service that, at some point, is a crucial cog in most Irish people's lives still so greatly unsupported?
There's a mass exodus of staff from the sector happening, with no apparent incentive for new recruits to replace them. Waiting lists are so long, the children on them will have outgrown the need for early years care by the time they reach the top. And the demand is so great that you'd be forgiven for presuming the service was free, but eye-wateringly expensive fees often surpass what the average Irish person pays for a mortgage.
And that's per child.
It's a broken system in need of a complete rebuild. We spoke to parents, service providers, early years groups and our government to find out what's being done about the ever-worsening childcare crisis affecting children and their families all over Ireland
The waiting game
For Louise from Dublin 6, securing a crèche place for her child was a long and arduous road, as she explains: "The place I visited when I was three months pregnant told me I hadn't a hope. They were so limited in the number of babies they could take, and said siblings that weren't conceived yet would take priority. They said to contact them every month to renew my interest. That was February 2020 and everywhere closed a few weeks later, so I didn't get to view anywhere else. I continued to renew my interest with them and about 12 other places that I would call or email regularly. Some places added me to a list, but it was never clear how the list system worked. Most places didn't answer calls or respond to emails, so every month I would try again. We finally got a place, but I honestly think it was luck that I happened to email at the right time. He started in July 2021, but I was due back to work in the April."
The constant ringing around will be familiar to many parents, and Stef from Rathmines earned her stripes there too: "We work in Dublin 4 and Dublin 2, so were looking for something near Ranelagh or Rathmines preferably. We made a list of 25 or so places when baby was four months old and called and emailed each one. I got four responses in total; two to say they could take her in 2023 and two to say they'd put her on a waiting list. Only one crèche answered the phone."
Another mother describes struggling to get a spot, despite being surrounded by childcare facilities: "We are in Lucan and there are plenty of crèches, but not many will take kids under one. I work in town, so we had to take into account crèches that would allow us to commute. I rang the crèche we wanted in March 2020. There was no spaces until Oct 2021."
"The place I visited when I was three months pregnant told me I hadn't a hope"
There's a presumption that this is a Dublin-centric problem, but as Tricia from Carlow discovered, that isn't the case. "I was due back to work at the start of June and started ringing around crèches in February. I live in rural Carlow and got a no from them all. One girl genuinely laughed when I said it was for a baby. I really wanted to send him to a crèche because he had spent his entire first year being at home due to covid, so I felt he needed the social aspect."
Another mother was forced to turn down a job, when she relocated to Tipperary. "I couldn’t believe what a struggle it was. My husband and I moved home to Tipperary after years in Dublin. We thought finding childcare down here would be much easier than in Dublin. We contacted the crèches in our town and local towns, as well as contacting every minder in our town. Everybody was full. Crèches were only taking names to add to a waiting list for July 2022. Every crèche said that people put their name down for a place when they're twelve weeks pregnant. I am a primary school teacher leaving my permanent job in Dublin. I was offered a job and I had to turn it down as I felt it was too much of a risk accepting the job, given there seemed to be no hope of finding childcare."
Saranne from Balbriggan in Dublin had to leave her job to make things work: "I tried all the crèches in my locality. It was hit and miss for a response even. I ended up taking a part time weekend and evening job so my husband can mind her while I work"
If finding a full-time crèche place is a struggle, securing part-time hours is currently an even bigger challenge. With such limited numbers, it makes sense for services to fill spots with full-time places, but providing children with part-time care also has implications on the government funding service providers receive, often making it an unattainable option.
The challenges for Irish childcare providers
Early years providers are struggling to operate under a system that doesn't support them. Funding issues, staff shortages, stringent regulations and waiting lists they can do nothing about are amongst the issues faced by many. It's reported that 61 childcare facilities closed their doors in the first five months of 2021.
The current funding model translates into unfavorable salaries for workers in the sector. Claire Keane manages a community crèche in rural Galway and describes the impact it's having on the industry: "We have advertised for months now and just aren't getting people applying. Staff aren't just moving facility, they are leaving the sector. I'm a manager but come next week I will have to go and do both roles; manage and also work in a room with the children every afternoon. I have a masters in this area and I would get better pay in a retail job. There's nothing wrong with working in retail, but it doesn't require the level of qualification that I have, or the responsibility. Ages zero to three years are the foundations for a child's life, but childcare is underinvested by our government. When we compare our conditions to teachers, we are miles behind."
Jennifer Dolan is a Montessori and afterschool teacher who runs a small service in Drumcondra that caters for 16 children. "Myself and my three staff are fully qualified and trained up to level 8 degree standard and are constantly upskilling. The staffing crisis has hit an all-time low. For someone to go off and study for four years and come out and work a full-time, 40-hour week and get paid, in most settings, €400 a week — I don't know any other sector that is paid so low."
Rebekah runs a Naíonra in west Dublin that has just doubled its capacity to cater for the closure of local facilities. "We've had four services in the surrounding areas close. Two of them were due to Tusla wanting improvements made to buildings. They were old buildings owned by trusts and committees and the service providers had no control, so they had to close their doors. Covid has also forced a lot of services to go part-time. It's impossible to implement covid guidelines over two sessions, so lots of places cut their afternoon session. It's become so hard for people. We're so heavily regulated, it's often impossible to function under all the guidelines unless you're a purpose-built facility."
The crippling cost of childcare in Ireland
Children's charity UNICEF published the results of a survey entitled 'Where Do Rich Countries Stand on Childcare' in June 2021, which found that families of average income in Ireland are spending up to half of a two-income household salary, to put two children in childcare. In fact, alongside New Zealand and Switzerland, Ireland has the least affordable childcare in wealthy countries, globally.
Figures released by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in 2020 revealed that the average cost of childcare in Ireland was €184 per week for full-time care and €109.98 for part-time.
"It's now not uncommon for parents to pay €1,300 per child, per month, for full-time childcare in Dublin"
Of the 4,000 childcare facilities reviewed for the report, the lowest full-time fees for children aged two to three years was recorded in Co Carlow, at €148 per week. The highest full-time fees recorded in Dublin (Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown), at €251 per week.
Fees have increased in many facilities since these figures were released. It's now not uncommon for parents to pay €1,300 per child, per month, for full-time childcare in Dublin.
Why is childcare so expensive when workers are not paid well?
Spiraling insurance costs are often sited as the final death knell for early years businesses. In 2020, some services reported insurance costs increasing by as much as 300%, after one of two insurers withdrew from the Irish market.
Darragh O’Connor, head of strategic organising at SIPTU recently said: "The day-to-day challenges have been grinding down on those in the sector. There has been an underlying crisis in the sector for a number of years now, but the insurance crisis was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. The lack of Government investment in the sector is driving up fees for parents."
"The insurance crisis was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back"
Elaine Dunne of the Federation of Childhood Providers added: "A lot of childcare providers who are members of the federation are operating at a loss. We were already broken by re-registration (with Tusla), we were on the ground. The insurance costs and re-registration were just too much when there is already so much more going on.
"We have a staffing crisis. We can't get staff. Funding is also a huge issue. The funding received for operating the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) schemes works out at €64.50 per child. Out of that, you have to take out wages, insurance costs, rent and food for the children. It's a lot of expenses and on top of that, there is a lot of paperwork. You are running at a loss."
In 2020, a broker reportedly contacted 15 Irish and UK insurers about cover for the childcare sector — each declined to provide quotes.
The National Childcare Scheme and its many issues
Launched in November 2019, The National Childcare Scheme aims to assist Irish parents with the cost of childcare.
A universal subsidy for children between 24 weeks and 36 months is available to all qualifying families at any income level. This subsidy is paid at €0.50c per hour, up to a maximum of 45 hours per week. This works out as €22.50 for a full 45 hour week.
A second income-related subsidy is payable for children aged 24 weeks to 15 years. It's means-tested and the rate is determined by the family's income, which must be below €60,000.
The scheme, although much maligned, has been a welcome relief for those who benefit from it. However, its narrow parameters exclude many middle-income families and can result in pay-outs of a very small percentage of overall fees. Comments from HerFamily readers included:
"It's pointless. The average person seems to be getting back €0.50 per hour."
"We have two very ordinary salaries and are only entitled to the minimum subsidy"
"They make you jump through hoops to get it and you end up with less than €100 a month. It's a drop in the ocean when you consider how much a crèche costs."
The system is based on need, so parents detail the hours required on application. The childcare facility then claims for this amount of hours. Any deviation in hours, week-to-week, can interfere with their claim. If hours — and in turn the creche's claim — are reduced, this may result in parents paying more when their child has attended for less hours than listed on their application.
One parent complained: "It shouldn't be based on hours. It should be days. You're basically penalised for picking your child up early."
"They make you jump through hoops to get it and you end up with less than €100 a month"
Rebekah runs a Naíonra in west Dublin and spoke to HerFamily to explain the issue from a provider's prospective: "We don't get paid if the child doesn't attend, but we still have to pay our staff to come in. So if a child leaves 15 minutes early or comes in 15 minutes late on a regular basis, when we have our compliance check the department will take that money back off us even though we've already paid our staff to be in. I know of a service who had over €10,000 taken off them. That's a full wage for some of us."
She goes on to say: "Under the previous funding agreements we could have vulnerable children with us for 40 hours per week in a fully funded place. These kids are only getting 15 hours under the NCS, some are getting nothing. These children are being left behind. Especially in disadvantaged areas where the gap is already so big. It discriminates against those in lower socio-economic groups."
Supply and demand
Speaking to HerFamily, a representative from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth said: "Data available prior to COVID-19 indicated that, on the whole, supply was meeting demand, with some evidence of undersupply for certain cohorts in certain areas, including children under the age of three."
A frustrating response given that children under the age of three is, of course, where the issue is concentrated.
We spoke to Director of Policy at Early Childhood Ireland, Frances Byrne who said: "The department is looking at this from a national point of view, but that's no good to parents where there are waiting lists. We don't have the same kind of planning for childcare as exists for schools. We've looked for the establishment of a single agency and part of its function would be to look at areas where there's a spike in births — if a big employer moves to a certain area, then of course you're going to have a young work force, who will become parents. We don't do any of that. So what emerges is that you have pockets of south Dublin, pockets of Cork, pockets of Galway and other cities where there's a shortage.
"We're inclined to think it's a city phenomenon, but it happens in rural areas for different reasons, where you might only have one or two crèches and there aren't enough places for the children in that area. There's an unevenness to supply and demand. It's almost a geographic lottery.
"At the moment for a couple or a lone parent planning a family, you have some certainty for the first six months because of paid maternity leave. After that, it's question marked until your child turns two years and eight months, when they're more or less guaranteed and ECCE place. So from six months until two years and eight months, you're left trying to juggle all of that and that's just wrong. Parents should have certainly and providers want to give parents that certainty."
What have the government promised to do about the crisis?
Joint Labour Commitee
In June 2021, a Joint Labour Committee was established with the goal of establishing improved pay and conditions for those working in the sector. A representative from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth said: "The JLC will provide an opportunity for unions and employer representatives to work together to determine wages and working conditions for early learning and care and school-age childcare."
Workforce Development Plan
The aim of the Workforce Development Plan is to raise the profile of careers in early learning, establish a career framework and leadership development opportunities and work towards building a more gender-balanced and diverse workforce. The department's representative said: "The Workforce Development Plan will be finalised over the coming months, with a view to publication by year end."
First 5 is described as "a whole-of-Government strategy to improve the lives of babies, young children and their families. It is a ten-year plan to help make sure all children have positive early experiences and get a great start in life". The strategy includes:
- The development of a new parental leave scheme, for fathers and mothers, with family-friendly working arrangements.
- Government parenting support, such as programmes to facilitate strong parent-child relationships and play-based learning.
- The development of a child health workforce and National Healthy Child Programme, to promote the positive health and mental health of babies and children.
- Improvement of the affordability, accessibility and quality of Early Learning Care. An Affordable Childcare Scheme and new funding model under which employers will be supported to provide more favourable working conditions that will attract and retain staff.
- New measures to address poverty in early childhood, including free and subsidised Early Learning and Care.
New Funding model
In September 2019, the now former Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone appointed an expert group to develop a new funding model for Early Learning Care and School Aged Care, with the objective of more precise allocation of public funding. The department told HerFamily: "The expert group has met eighteen times to date and it is expected that its report will be submitted in November 2021. The full implementation of the expert group's recommendations is likely to be a multi-annual process, with funding likely becoming available on an incremental basis. In the short term, it is anticipated that the group’s recommendations will contribute to informing the Budget 2022 process and department officials are already engaged in that process."
Not enough investment
UNICEF decreed this year that wealthy countries should be investing at least 1% of GDP — the total economic activity of a country — in early years care services. Ireland currently spends just 0.1%.
Early Childhood Ireland are currently putting pressure on the Government to meet the commitment outlined in the First 5 strategy to double investment in childcare by 2028, and to publish the plan to achieve this as part of Budget 2022.
Frances Byrne says: "We have the lowest investment in the OECD in Early Years and that's why we find ourselves in this. It doesn't happen in countries that have consistently invested in these areas. We have brilliant professionals, great providers who are waking up every day trying to do their best. We have a really strong curriculum in Ireland, but we also have uneven supply and demand, precarious working conditions and the highest fees from take-home pay for parents across the EU. And that's because we haven't invested enough. We need to invest more.
"This year's budget, announced in October last year was practically silent on childcare. We were stunned because from last march, all that was in the papers and online every day was talk of childcare and then suddenly the budget was practically silent. That needs to change. The government must put it front and centre.
"Providers want to be in a position to offer flexibility and they're not able to do that because of the way our funding is organised. If a family looks for reduced hours, the provider looses fees immediately and government funding very quickly after that. In other countries, they don't have these problems - it's not impossible and this is not rocket science. It's about prioritising the care and education of children and the needs of their families and communities.
"The outgoing government made a commitment and the current government has reiterated that there will be double the funding by 2028. We need to see that."
Not just a mother's problem
Head of Social Policy & Employment Affairs at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Dr. Laura Bambrick recently said: “Ireland has one of the lowest rate of working mothers in the EU27 — a third are outside of the workforce. Unusual among our rich EU peers, there is no legal right to a childcare place in Ireland and fees are not subject to any regulation. There’s no cap on childcare costs."
Frances Byrne adds to this: "Even when the economy was booming and women of certain age groups went out to work for the first time, we saw in the statistics; once child number two came, the participation of mothers in the labour market fell off a cliff. Whatever about holding it all together and being able to afford it for one child, lots of families were forced to make an economic decision. Women were saying, well if I go out to work after having child no. 2, I'll literally be working to pay my childcare bill. Why would you do that?
"Once child number two came, the participation of mothers in the labour market fell off a cliff"
"We need our government to step in and do what other governments don't think twice about doing. We want this to happen from a children's rights perspective and from a quality perspective, but it's a no-brainer when it comes to the economic welfare of the country as well. No matter what angle you look at this from, whether it's from a children's perspective, a parent's perspective — particularly mothers — or from an economic perspective, it's an absolute win-win. What drove the good quality, well invested-in care and education systems in Scandinavian countries was a gender equality issue. But there was a realisation that if we don't have quality, women are not going to put their children into services, so it became a high quality system that parent's could have confidence in.
"There is no down-side to investing in early years care and education, and after-school care for older children"
"This is a public good, and childcare has been treated as an essential service in the pandemic. The other education services did not go back in person as early as we did. There was clearly an economic impetus there, but it's a policy no-brainer. There is no down-side to investing in early years care and education, and after-school care for older children."
Pressure on the government to fulfill promises
As part of its pre-budget campaign Early Education Ireland is asking members in 17 counties to write to their local TDs, but what can parents do? Byrne adds: "We're a bit off a general election yet, but this has to become a political issue. We need all of the parents who are frustrated now to remember those feelings of panic and to say that to politicians when they come knocking next time. You might be out the other the side of it by then and your child might be in pre-school, but tell them you were fraught trying to find a place. And tell them you paid a huge fee for it that you know parents in other countries are not paying.
"It needs to be put front and centre for politicians so that they understand where parents, staff and service providers are coming from, and so that they meet the obligations and the commitments that they've already made.
"The insecurity of childcare funding has been recognised by this and previous governments. Immediate action to reform and invest in this essential sector is long overdue and yet, our members and the families they support are beginning another new term with uncertainty hanging over them.
"Young children and their families deserve better."