Getting 'Early Years' plan right is vital for future of our children
Published 23/09/2016 | 02:30
Much of the discussion in recent days around the Government developing a new State-subsidised childcare programme has focused on how this move, if it happens, will impact on "squeezed, middle-income" families.
Let's start by getting one thing straight: parenting, arguably the hardest job in the world, is undoubtedly made all the more stressful when trying desperately to make ends meet. It's a challenge that many of us experience or can identify with. After all, Ireland's childcare costs are the highest in the OECD area and are utterly crippling to many families. This clearly needs to change.
This is a debate about a service for children. At all times, what is designed and proposed must be for their benefit and advantage, above all else. The care and education given to children in crèches and preschools, helps them to flourish. In the first five years of life, children's brains develop faster than at any other time, setting the foundation for lifelong learning, health and wellbeing.
A strong economy needs people's skills, creativity, motivation and knowledge to grow too. Investment in young children has high economic and social returns. Parents, whatever their income and employment status, are children's primary educators. The family, in its many different and wonderful forms, is the natural environment for a child's development. Children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds or who live in poverty - where there is no money to buy books or crayons, for example, or where there may be literacy issues - are already behind the starting line in terms of their development. These children reap the benefits of high-quality care because they have much more to gain.
One in eight, or 140,000, children in Ireland experience poverty - a number that doubled during the recession. In practice, this means a child not having a warm coat in winter or not having a square meal every other day. Children living in poverty tend to live in families where there is no employment, or where their parents work part-time or irregular hours.
As we look ahead to Budget Day on October 11, one of the best weapons that the Government has in its arsenal to address child poverty is to subsidise childcare. This is a proven way to support parents to get jobs, keep jobs, and have a better standard of living than on the dole.
The promised, phased introduction of a new system of subsidised childcare for the under-threes paid directly to providers is long overdue. Given the reams of research, the Children's Rights Alliance is crystal clear that if budgetary choices must be made, children at risk of poverty must get first dibs.
Well and good, but where does this leave all other children, including those who live in squeezed, middle-income families? Surely they are entitled to access the same high-quality care and education? Absolutely, they are.
Allow me to dispel a myth. The "squeezed middle" is a political concept without any basis in fact. In truth, the middle ground is households earning far less than the suggested €30k-€70k range, and according to the Central Statistics Office, they actually earn between €30k-€48k. We know that 62pc of households - the majority and therefore the "middle" - earn less than €50k. This is nearer the eligibility threshold that has been mooted by the Government.
Meanwhile, just 20pc of households earn more than €80k. Most middle-income families stand to gain from what we hope will be announced in the Budget. As we understand, the full rollout of an income-based approach across all income brackets will take a number of budgets to implement and must start in Budget 2017. This must be the ultimate goal so that all children benefit. As the umbrella organisation for children in Ireland, this is something that the Children's Rights Alliance is advocating for and monitoring closely. We want every child in Ireland to benefit from high-quality care and education. Affordability for families is also the key to making work pay - to balance working and parenting.
I see the implementation of paternity leave as a very positive move. The extension of the free pre-school year to two years is also really good for children, and helps with affordability for parents. Both of these are available to all children aged three and upwards, whatever the income or employment status of their parents.
We need to support parents better by providing paid parental leave for mothers and fathers, allowing them the choice to be home with their child for the first year of life. We need to be far more ambitious in providing flexible working terms for all parents, both in single- and two-parent families. We will be scrutinising the plans laid out in the hotly anticipated 'National Strategy on Early Years' to be shortly published by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone.
Undoubtedly, Ireland's performance on childcare and education has improved in the last decade. But this is from a pitifully low base and we still lag behind most other EU and OECD countries.
Getting this right is about far more than subsidies, it is about children and what is best for them.
Tanya Ward is chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance