Published 17/02/2011 | 05:00
They were once an absolute necessity in many Celtic Tiger marriages; the creches where hard-working parents dropped their children each morning as they went off to work.
Now both sides are feeling the pinch as recession and unemployment takes its toll on what parents will pay and what providers can charge.
A report by the National Consumer Agency showed that creche fees around the country range from €140 a week in Tralee, Co Kerry, to a whopping €268 a week in Swords, Co Dublin. The average fee of €190 a week for just one child works out at close to €10,000 a year, a huge chunk of most people's earnings, especially if they have to pay for more than one child.
While cash-strapped parents struggle to pay huge childcare bills, advocates in the industry claim that most creches are barely staying afloat. Push costs down further and the standard of service will drop, they say. Some creches may even go under.
A survey in 2009 by the National Children's Nurseries Association (NCNA), an organisation that represents many creche owners, showed that 36% of creches had already reduced staff numbers.
"A lot of our members, particularly in the commuter belt around Dublin, are really suffering from high rents and commercial rates. It's not unusual for creches to be charged €10,000 a year in commercial rates from their local council," says Teresa Heeney, director of services for the NCNA.
Customer numbers are also down thanks to rising unemployment. Parents are shifting from full-time to part-time care because of shorter working hours. And many parents are asking and getting discounts to keep their children in childcare, though these may not be advertised, she claims.
"There's been a huge transformation in the sector," says Heeney. "A lot of the discounts which are being offered to people individually don't show up in reports like the NCA's. Also the price given is for full-time care. Many creches are now caring for more children on a part-time basis," she says.
"We're also seeing a trend towards less formal arrangements for childcare. People are drafting in friends and family members to mind children and so keep costs down."
Mary Giblin of the Galway City and County Childcare Committee says that even within her area prices vary enormously. "You'll find creches in the city are a lot more expensive than those outside the city. I think it's the difference in rents. From what I can see all creches are having a hard time at the moment."
The introduction of the free pre-school year for children aged three and upwards has been a lifeline to privately-run creches, say both Heeney and Giblin. The scheme, which has been taken up by 94% of parents of eligible children, provides for a €64.50 fee per week per child in private care.
Parents may have sympathy for creche owners but it's short-lived. Costs may not have increased greatly over the last few years but the average parent's take-home pay has fallen.
A survey in late 2009 by the parenting site Rollercoaster (www.rollercoaster.ie) revealed that more than half of parents now questioned whether it was worth their while to work given the high cost of childcare.
"What we're noticing is that some women are packing in part-time jobs to stay at home and care for their children and take in other children to mind," says Giblin.
"It's a very attractive arrangement for the working parent because it's a lot cheaper, maybe as little as €50 a week. And of course it's an income for the minder that they wouldn't otherwise have.
"I suppose I'd be concerned that people would view child-minding as a 'handy earner'. It's not as easy as that. You need to be insured for example. We also offer free first aid courses and other little training grants to try and encourage people to get in contact with us."
The recession has also made au pairs a lot more popular. At the Shamrock Au Pair agency (aupairireland.com), Fiona Byrne is being contacted by families that previously wouldn't have been able to consider having an au pair.
"The issue is that au pairs can't work more than 30 hours a week and if both parents are in full-time jobs it won't work. But now people's hours have been cut," she says.
At the Shamrock agency au pairs are paid €90 'pocket money' in return for 30 hours' childminding which can include baby-sitting at night. They are also given full board and lodging, which must include their own room. "I'm quite careful to explain to people there are hidden costs here. You have another adult to feed," says Byrne.
As well as pocket money, families pay the agency a fee which varies according to the length of time an au pair stays. For a three-month stay the Shamrock fee is €285, rising to €695 for a six-month stay or longer.
The agency then collects references and conducts police checks on the au pairs. It will also provide a replacement au pair if necessary.
"What people have to remember though is these girls are not qualified nannies. They usually have some experience but they don't have training," says Byrne.
As the NCNA's Heeney points out the Government has invested many millions over the last few years to support Ireland's childcare infrastructure.
But the recession is now taking its toll. Creche costs may be high but they are all now strictly regulated and subject to inspections.
"I worry that some of this infrastructure won't survive the next few years. Then when we have an upturn we'll end up having to reinvest in it all over again," she says.
For the moment though, many hard-pressed parents have little choice but to find cheaper childcare arrangements.