‘We have 180 people on our waiting list’: childcare sector crisis continues


Childcare, along with housing and health, is one of the main pillar problems facing Leo Varadkar’s Government.

For years, the privately-run sector has flirted with oblivion in Ireland, with no one being well served by what’s in place.

Creches have sailed desperately close to non-viability,  childcare workers are among the worst remunerated in the country despite doing an utterly vital job, and, meanwhile, parents are hammered by punitive creche fees, particularly in urban areas (in Dublin a monthly creche fee of €1,200 and upwards is far from unheard of).

It’s a headache the Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman could do without — with handling the fallout from the need to accommodate Ukrainian refugees and being tasked with managing the end of direct provision, the man is already hopelessly overworked.

Nevertheless, Budget 2023 gave some hope to parents for the first time in many years. The Government had seemingly finally gotten the message, and following a period of heavy consultation with all stakeholders, the move was on to make Ireland’s childcare system less of a disaster.

With an additional €357.6m — part of an overall €1bn funding package which saw creches ordered to freeze their fees while processing increased pay for workers — allocated to the National Childcare Scheme (NCS), the non-means-tested universal subsidy for all parents of children in childcare is set to increase by €0.90c per hour to €1.40 from January 1.

This, on top of a more quietly announced amendment from August 29 which saw NCS subsidies extended to all children under 15 years (it had been only for sub-three-year-olds previously), is the opening salvo in the Government’s commitment to reducing childcare fees by 50% over a two-year period, and by an ambitious 25% within the first year.

The increase in the hourly rate of the universal subsidy itself is worth an estimated €1,170 per year per child off the cost of a childcare place, according to the Government, from January 1.

Inevitably, not everyone was happy with what was announced.

Industry body Early Childhood Ireland broadly welcomed the initiative, not least the fact the Government had hit a €1bn funding target five years ahead of schedule. But ECI bemoaned the fact that there had been no far-reaching five-year investment plan put in place, nor an expansion of the Access and Inclusion Model for children with disabilities while targeted subsidies for lower-income families remained unchanged.

“Significant progress has been made towards the transformation of our sector, but we must not lose momentum,” ECI said at the time.

Such debate aside, it’s clear both that fees will come down and, belatedly, early years work is to be made a more attractive prospect for people entering third level.

Meeting the targets

The real issue, however, is whether or not the State’s 25% and 50% reduction targets can be met.

Early signs seem promising.

A straw poll of several creches in north Dublin suggests a drop in fee levels of close to 20% as of January 2, 2023. That will translate to a near-€2,000 fall in payments per childcare space per year.

If not quite life-changing, that is a saving that nevertheless cannot be dismissed.

There are questions that remain outstanding though. Will childcare places increase in number? Will graduates entering the sector likewise increase?

And can one of the most punitive restrictions of all on the sector — creches opting to refuse access to children who are too young, under one predominantly, under two in some cases — be resolved?

Age restrictions

Your writer has a vested interest in that particular imposition, given our nine-month-old daughter will have no childcare place for the next three months due to a change in policy on the part of our regular creche, which is no longer accommodating under-one-year-olds in a ‘baby room’. I’ll be taking two months’ parents’ leave to ease that problem.

 Cianan Brennan and his 9-month-old daughter, Isolde.

 Cianan Brennan and his 9-month-old daughter, Isolde.

There are massive positives to that — even the fact that fathers now have an option to spend so much dedicated time with their children, whether paid or unpaid.

But the fact remains that many single parents returning to the workforce with their child aged 6 months are in an enormous pickle if they can’t find any childcare.

One Dublin mother recently told me they had come close to a nervous breakdown while minding their child for three months after having returned to work.

Why does this happen? Because young babies are unfortunately far more expensive to care for, and the fact they are more vulnerable than an older child and require greater supervision.

The Department of Children told the Irish Examiner that just 36% of childcare businesses in Ireland currently accommodate under-ones, which shows how quickly the issue has taken over the sector.

A spokesperson acknowledged that given the free market nature of the sector in Ireland, creches “are free to determine their own enrolment policies”.

Asked what working mums who are expected to return to their roles when their baby is just six months old are supposed to do, the Department suggested that parents engage with their local city or county childcare committee (there are 30 of them) with a view to identifying vacant places.

The spokesperson added that some €70m has been allocated under the National Development Plan for the creation of new places across the country.

They said that the new heightened levels of core funding made available in the recent Budget had already “given rise to a significant growth in capacity”, with analysis suggesting that available hours for 0 to 1-year-olds have increased by 5% on the levels seen prior to the onset of Covid-19 in early 2020.

They added that the State has committed to opening up the National Childcare Scheme to parents who use childminders — something which is expected to happen within the next 2-3 years. Childminders are routinely seen as too expensive an option for parents of just one or two children.

The Department added that its policies are working on two broad fronts.

They said that over the 12 months to December 2022, participation levels in the NCS had risen by 82% from 54,000 children up to 98,000, while childcare costs as a result of the expanded subsidies available had fallen from 26.5% of net income for couples, and just 5.3% for lone parents, versus the EU averages of 8.1% and 8.4% respectively.

Government success

This story can’t be told without acknowledging the fact that the current Government has some major recent achievements to its credit in terms of what’s happening with childcare – it has managed a €1 billion package for the childcare sector five years ahead of expectations, it has finally found a way to reduce fees, and it has done so in continuity from a previous Government and minister. This reflects very well on both Minister O’Gorman and his predecessor in the position, Katherine Zappone.

Frances Byrne, director of policy and advocacy with Early Childhood Ireland is not shy about expressing enthusiasm for what has been achieved in Budget 2023.

“It’s a tremendous milestone, that’s undeniable, you couldn’t be churlish about it. Given the Ukraine situation, the Minister could’ve been forgiven for postponing the childcare changes but he didn’t,” she says.

“It’s fantastic that they reached the funding target five years early. But still, what’s happening has to be built on further. And you have to remember that the Nordic countries with effective childcare systems which we hold up as best in the field — the quality seen in those services is uniformly high.” 

‘Administrative nightmare’

Despite all this positivity for parents, providers are still finding it tough.

While fees are falling, this is primarily as a result of the increase in the universal subsidy to €1.40 per hour. In actuality, fees are not falling, they’re just being more heavily subsidised by the State.

The flipside of this is that creches are currently barred from raising fees (something which tended to undercut the introduction of subsidies in the past, with creches then charging more in order to transfer the benefit to themselves as a means of ensuring their own viability).

“For providers, the changes to the NCS have been an administrative nightmare, an absolute f*****g nightmare,” one creche manager in north Dublin — who does still offer a baby room service — in north Dublin tells the Irish Examiner.

“I can’t tell you how long it has taken us to figure out the new fees. There’s no universal system in place for rates to work off,” she says.

Her big problem is that the rates of pay for her workers went up but her fees are frozen.

“I fear for next year to be honest and I can completely understand why people aren’t doing the baby rooms anymore, I really can.

The core funding for me, it looks amazing, but when it comes down to it it’s not as incredible as it looks. My rent has gone up, I’m getting to the end of this year and I’m still working off a bit of the EWSS (a Covid-19 wage support scheme), which really helped me.

“And we simply cannot get staff. I’ve lost three recently to other industries, and the only CVs we get are from abroad, people looking for us to sponsor them. It’s not like we aren’t busy, we’ve 180 people on the waiting list, people are putting their names down when they’re nine weeks pregnant and I still know they probably won’t get a place.

I’m quite worried to be honest. This year to come, I don’t think a lot of businesses will survive it

The real problem, says Frances Byrne, is that while the new levels of funding are massive, they’re not enough to account for nearly 30 years of underinvestment in the sector in one swoop.

“We’ve €1bn for 2023, but in reality we probably need €4bn to get next to where the Nordics are,” she says.

'If you can’t get the staff, you’ve an economic decision to make. That’s what has led to so many closing their baby rooms.' 

‘If you can’t get the staff, you’ve an economic decision to make. That’s what has led to so many closing their baby rooms.’ 

That resulted from outdated Irish values of “the woman in the home”, she explains. 

“We had a marriage bar from work. Tell young women about that now and they’d faint. The expectation was that women would stay at home, raise kids, and not work, it’s as simple as that. And that expectation is now kind of built in so that people have made their lives work around these unacceptable resources rather than telling their politicians that this just isn’t on. But now finally that’s changing.” 

Ms Byrne admits, however, that young babies are the ‘Cinderella’ story of Irish childcare: “They don’t get to go to the ball.” 

“The Government is trying to address that imbalance in the system, which arose between infants and ECCE (preschool) children, with the core funding it’s provided,” she says.

“But providers are having to make tough decisions. You wake up in the morning, your staff are out sick, you’ve regulatory responsibilities to match regarding minimum ratios of staff to under-one babies, and you’ve fewer of them than you do toddlers. If you can’t get the staff, you’ve an economic decision to make. That’s what has led to so many closing their baby rooms.” 

Can that trend be reversed?

“It’s very hard to know,” she says. “The staffing issue is the decision maker here. There have been positive and unprecedented moves towards regulation. We should see increased wages. But the impact is more likely to be in the medium term.”

Unfortunately, for many parents, that won’t come quickly enough.

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