'The Budget had some positives for childcare. But there's a lot more to do'

Payments to providers under free government schemes need to increase if we want the best-quality care.

By Regina Bushell Managing Director, Grovelands Childcare

OVERALL, BUDGET 2017 included some positives for children, parents and childcare providers. However, in my opinion it’s a case of ‘a little done, a lot more to do’.

The minister and department have made moves in the right direction to begin to improve the childcare and early education system; now that work must continue so that we develop a childcare system that benefits all children in the state.

Collaboration on policy

One positive development is the willingness of the minister and Department of Children and Youth Affairs to listen to and work with the sector to develop policy. This is a very welcome move.

For far too long, childcare policy and regulation has been developed and rolled out without any consultation whatsoever with those working in the sector, who know intimately the needs of children, parents and childcare professionals.

Unsustainable pay rates for government schemes

However, there are two issues that Budget 2017 failed to deliver adequately on: capitation levels for government schemes and remuneration for the administration of these schemes.

At the centre of childcare policy in Ireland lies the Early Childcare and Education Scheme (ECCE), under which every three-year-old child in the state can avail of three free hours of childcare and early education from September to June for up to two years, or until they begin primary school.

This scheme offers children and parents a wonderful opportunity to avail of care, learning and socialisation free of charge, and it certainly is a positive move that this has been increased to two years from the original single free year.

Nevertheless, the payment levels given to childcare providers to run the government-supported ECCE scheme are completely unsustainable. The current payment rates simply do not cover the costs incurred by providers to run the scheme

Like all businesses, childcare providers have a range of costs including maintenance, insurance, rates and salaries. Until payments are increased, salaries will remain low – which means that the sector continues to lose out on highly qualified staff who will continue to look for work in other areas with better remuneration.

Increasing the level of payment to providers of ECCE and other government schemes must be reviewed as a matter of urgency in order to ensure the sustainability of these very popular initiatives.

The current payment rate is €64.50 per week per child, while a higher rate of €75 is paid to providers who employ a staff member qualified to degree level. A recent poll of Private Early Education Providers (PEEP) members agreed that payment per child per week should be in the range of €80-€90, depending on the overheads of individual provider.

The announcements of two new childcare schemes, the Single Affordable Childcare Scheme and the Universal Childcare Scheme is welcome news for children and parents.

However, this will put increased pressure on childcare providers to cater for resulting demand. As long as capitation remains low, providers will be unable to attract and retain the high-calibre staff needed to make these schemes a success.

Administrative burden

The government-funded schemes also involve a huge amount of administration and reporting – all of which is not paid for. Budget 2017 has made some attempt to rectify this by announcing funding of €14.5 million to pay for some ‘non-contact time’ on top of existing capitation payments.

This equates to a small step in the right direction, but there’s a lot more to do. The responsibility for some of this administrative work could be shared with parents which would also help to ease the burden on childcare providers and close the gap on non-paid for time in running the schemes.

I am hopeful that in the new spirit of collaboration that these issues will be rectified as quickly as possible so that together we can develop a sustainable, high-quality childcare and early education system we can all be proud of.

Regina Bushell is managing director of Grovelands Childcare and the chair of Private Early Education Providers (PEEP).

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