Business Irish

Sunday 22 July 2018

Children at heart of 'Republic of opportunity'

We must give youngsters the start they deserve by putting childcare at the core of Government policy and stop viewing it as an issue that only concerns women, writes Regina Bushell

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone launching the latest childcare supports. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone launching the latest childcare supports. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Regina Bushell

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar came to power promising much for Ireland's early risers, not least the creation of a 'Republic of Opportunity' for everyone.

The bedrock of a successful society and economy-and, by extension, republic-is children. Providing affordable access to childcare and early education is vital in making sure Ireland's young people get the best start in life.

But Ireland ranks last in Europe for early education and 49th internationally for female participation in the workplace. This is not a coincidence. Much of the reason for this lies in the failure of the State to put in place affordable, accessible childcare and early education services for families who want and need it.

This issue is much more than just one of affordable childcare - it's about equality, too. We need to move away from seeing childcare as a 'women's issue'.

It's not a women's issue and if we continue to see it as such, we perpetuate and prolong the existing inequalities that women face each day.

It has been four decades since women were legally afforded equal status and equal pay in the workplace, and yet almost 50pc of mothers leave work once they have children.

According to figures from last year's census, we have a female labour market participation rate of just 55pc, compared to a male participation rate of nearly 70pc. This is despite Irish women surpassing men in terms of educational achievement, with 43.2pc of women holding a third-level qualification compared to 40.7pc of men.

As we near full employment, these figures seem particularly absurd. Employers are finding it increasingly difficult to find anyone to fill key roles, never mind those with the requisite skills required, yet there are many educated, highly trained women in our homes who want to work but can't because of childcare costs.

For lower income to average income mothers, especially those who work part-time, the lack of meaningful Government support for childcare means it can make little financial sense to go out to work each day.

Based on the national average alone, the cost of childcare for two children can be as much as €20,000 per annum and much higher in some areas, like Dublin.

Efforts to remedy this problem have lacked vision. The Government's Affordable Childcare Scheme gave just €20 a week back to parents, with greater supports available to lower income families. Budget 2018 did nothing further to reduce costs for parents. The free pre-school years only cover children aged three to five for three hours a day, leaving working parents to source additional childcare for the rest of the time while they're at work.

In countries where the government covers much of the cost of childcare, female participation in the workforce is much higher. The Swedish government, for example, invests 3pc of GDP in childcare and early education, with parents guaranteed to not pay more than 3pc of their gross salary, capped at €128 a month. Is it any wonder that 80pc of Swedish women work outside the home?

In Ireland, once children reach schooling age, the situation changes. The State invests more than 10pc of all public spending on primary and secondary education, amounting to a whopping €10.8bn.

Compare this to the mere €466m that is allocated to early years funding, despite the ample evidence that shows children's education and development begins long before they reach the age of three.

Once maternity and paternity leave finish, with most fathers currently unable to afford to take their leave, the State then steps back out of providing any childcare supports to parents.

In the main, thereafter, the burden of responsibility falls disproportionately on women, who must double-job as employees and homemakers.

The facts are clear: the structures of working life are not working for women. This must change. The Government has already begun some of this work by introducing the free pre-school years (of only three hours a day). But that's only a drop in the ocean when it comes to what parents need - in particular, what women need.

With the ongoing economic recovery, an opportunity now exists to get the basics right.

Let's give our children the start in life they deserve. Let's make childcare a core Government policy priority, rather than just a women's issue.

Regina Bushell is chairwoman of Seas Suas, a new representative body for independent early education and childcare providers

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