Parenthood

At first glance, it’s a headline that’s hard to ignore and a promise that’s difficult to find fault with, especially if you’re a cash-strapped parent paying out a second mortgage in childcare fees. As election promises go, it certainly had my attention.

And indeed, comparing it with what we have now, it would be a giant leap forward, with a healthy Scandinavian glow.

First of all, there’s the headline-grabbing €2 an hour. At present, the average cost is €4.25 an hour, and higher in Dublin. I was paying around €5 an hour when I had two children full-time in crèche – it doesn’t sound huge until you express it as a monthly cost of €2,100. It was crippling and unsustainable, and indeed, when we had a third child, we couldn’t afford to keep paying.

There’s the promise of a 40-hour-week provision – compared to the current 15 hours covered by the ECCE scheme. For any parents working full-time, the current scheme translates into a relatively small reduction in fees, and for anyone at home and looking to get back out to work, three hours each morning is often not enough (though admittedly the ECCE scheme is not purporting to be childcare – it’s for early learning.)

There’s the plan to provide childcare for children from nine months to twelve years of age – the first time that there’s been real acknowledgement that childcare requirements don’t end when children start school. In fact, as any working parent knows, that’s when things become more complicated. School ends mid-afternoon, which is of course out of synch with most workplaces, and parents often find themselves stuck during school holidays. After-school care is expensive – in some cases, it’s almost as expensive as a full-time crèche place.

So really, what’s not to love? Apart from the fact that it’s a promise and not something we can necessarily expect to see, it does sound utopian.

But there are some concerns. In a statement, Teresa Heaney, CEO of Early Childhood Ireland said “Hard pressed parents will be delighted to hear Labour’s promise of childcare for €2 an hour under a new scheme being promised by the party.  However, we would caution that the €500 million earmarked for such a proposal is too low.”

The reality is that if childcare is not properly funded, we as parents won’t get the high-quality standard of care that we need and want for our children. Assigning insufficient funding means staff may not be paid as they should be; providers won’t be able to hire sufficient staff, or may have to hire employees with lower qualifications.

“The Labour Party’s announcement of its intention, if elected, to further subsidise childcare is unworkable from the childcare providers’ point of view unless there is a substantial increase in funding for all State registered childcare providers,” says Eithne McLeavey, of Sandymount Green Montessori sessional childcare. “At present childcare providers are short-changed by the ECCE funding. The capitation grant of €64.50 per week per child or the higher capitation grant of €75 per week per child for providers with degree level staff falls short of covering costs. This results in low wages and unsatisfactory working conditions.”

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In other words, if the scheme is foisted on childcare providers without adequate funding, it just won’t work.

“We already know that children benefit from quality early education and care and we also know that quality is directly linked to staff qualifications,” says Teresa Heaney. “So how can we justify that many of the professional childcare staff who have degrees are paid just €10.27 on average per hour?”

But no doubt, the promise of any change at all is a positive sign that the concerns of parents are being heard. We are way behind other countries in terms of state investment in early years, and this is why we pay the highest childcare costs in Europe.

The reality is, parents can’t afford to keep paying what they pay, and providers can’t operate on insufficient funding, so while €2 an hour childcare sounds fantastic, let’s hope that’s not all it is – a fantasy.

Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working or looking after her three kids, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.

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childcare, #election2016, childcare costs, creche fees