Saturday 1 October 2016

'Childcare' and working remain incompatible under new plan

Published 15/10/2015 | 02:30

'Mr Howlin inadvertently pointed to the glaring and obvious drawback of the scheme. Those currently working in the institutions are low waged, may or may not be appropriately trained and heard about all this for the first time on Tuesday'
'Mr Howlin inadvertently pointed to the glaring and obvious drawback of the scheme. Those currently working in the institutions are low waged, may or may not be appropriately trained and heard about all this for the first time on Tuesday'

When is childcare not childcare? When it's education. Teachers regularly remind us parents - who sometimes don't quite make collection time on the dot of three, or forget to pick up our kids on a half-day due to stressed schedules - that they are not babysitters. And indeed they are not. It is up to parents to arrange their children's care after the school day is over, not teachers to twiddle their thumbs awaiting absent-minded parents.

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If it seems I have first hand knowledge of this, you'd be right. Only the couple of times, mind you, but it was mortifying for me and the child to find him, all forlorn, in a classroom where all the 'good' mums had turned up on time, as per the note now languishing under a squished sandwich in the bottom of the schoolbag.

Brendan Howlin is a former primary school teacher and is formidably careful with language. So, in announcing a year's "free childcare" in the Budget, he set mammies' pulses racing at the notion of their au pair, crèche or child-minder suddenly getting paid by the State.

"From now on, children will be eligible for free childcare from three years of age, up until they are five-and-a-half, or until they start primary school," he announced with aplomb.

Not so. The 'Childcare' referred to was in fact, the extension, by a year, of the Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme (ECCE). The 'E' is important here. The providers of this important service are educating our youngsters, not just 'minding' them. And they are doing so for a grand total of three hours a day, not the eight or nine that most 'childminders' work. Tut tut, Mr Howlin.

The second year of ECCE is long awaited, and not begrudged by anyone. Children receiving pre-school education do better in later life, and are more likely to stay in school and do well there.

However, in mangling his wording, Mr Howlin inadvertently pointed to the glaring and obvious drawback of the scheme. Those currently working in the institutions where this 'education' is to be provided are low (or minimum) waged, may or may not be appropriately trained and heard about all this for the first time on Tuesday. Do they have the capacity to hit the ground running on this with a doubling of demand?

Dearbhala Cox Griffin of Giraffe Childcare group says that while the industry welcomes the extra year, it will mean another 40,000 children coming into the ECCE year net, placing a requirement for 3,000 more staff (all of whom must be recruited and trained first) before parents can register.

While this is something that can be started right away with bigger providers, some smaller childcare operators around the country will find it a huge challenge. The funding has been increased from €2,375 per child to €2,450 per year - a rise of €75 a year (or €1.97 a week per child for each of the 38 weeks of its provision), but evidently it's not enough.

The scheme has become only slightly more flexible than when it started, and is still dependent on when children's birthdays fall, with just three hours a day paid - hardly allowing for any meaningful return to work for parents whose employers may not take the same rosy view that it's enough for a job. Perhaps deciding where childcare ends and education starts would allow us focus on why the ECCE scheme exists at all.

None of this, of course, goes any way at all of alleviating the horrendous cost of actual childcare. With crèches costing the equivalent of a second mortgage, two pre-school children become financially burdensome, with three nigh on impossible for many families. We need more children - future taxpayers - and we need mums back in the workforce. At the moment, despite this welcome move, the two remain largely incompatible.

Irish Independent

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