Many childcare providers are just about breaking even on costs
Educating our under-fives is so important, but early years schooling has been subject to under-investment, writes Frances Byrne
Early Childhood Ireland has a diverse membership. Most people are by now familiar with ECCE (Early Childhood Care and Education, better known as the 'free pre-school year'). Those services to children exist alongside other pre-schools, full day-care services and after-school care settings.
Our members are acutely aware of the financial pressures faced by parents in covering the cost of placing their babies and young children in professional care and education. Many describe it as a second mortgage.
The most recent national research from Pobal shows that in 2016/17, the average weekly fee for a full-time place was €174.16, an increase of 4pc since 2016. This was also the first time that fees were raised in five years.
Many providers did not raise their fees and 79pc of Early Childhood Ireland's members have told us that they have no plans to do so. Nonetheless, it would be very easy to assume that providers are making big profits.
Early Childhood Ireland can point, however, to an independent study called Doing the Sums which shows that the average childcare setting in Ireland is in fact just about breaking even.
This research also identified a tendency by owners and managers to reduce their own salaries to supplement the costs of their business. Rent, particularly in urban areas, and insurance costs have increased significantly in recent years. In addition, almost one-third of the sector pays commercial rates. Almost half of these pay between €1,000 and €5,000, while 10pc pay more than €10,000.
Feedback from our members also makes clear that the sector has a staffing crisis. Childcare is not viewed as a viable career, and so providers face daily recruitment and retention worries. Salaries in the sector are low. The national Pobal survey found that average pay in the sector was only €11.93 per hour last year. The Living Wage in Ireland is €11.70 - 50pc of early years professionals work part-time, yet providers estimate that 80pc of their outgoings are spent on staff salaries. This is partly because early years services are required by law to adhere to strict adult-to-child ratios, which are in the best interests of children.
Early Childhood Ireland's recent Childcare Barometer, based on a nationwide opinion poll, showed less than a quarter of Irish people think that this average wage reflects the value of the work carried out by hard-working early years professionals. The public highly values the care and education of our smallest citizens, with 75pc agreeing that education of children under five is as important as for those aged over five.
So why is it that everyone, from parents to providers to professionals in the sector, are left feeling the pinch? The answer is straightforward. Early years care and education in Ireland has been subject to decades of under-investment, which has inevitably brought us to where we are now.
Figures released in November 2017 indicate that Ireland invests about 0.1pc of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in early years education and care. This places Ireland lowest in the EU, while the EU average is 0.8pc. Countries such as Sweden, which is frequently identified as a world leader in early years education, invests between 1.3pc and 1.9pc of GDP. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone, has committed to addressing this.
The good news is that there is huge public support for increased investment by current and future governments. Early Childhood Ireland's Childcare Barometer shows that 65pc of the Irish public think that childcare, like primary education, should be free. Our organisation is in no doubt that the ECCE scheme is the reason behind this. It has been taken up by 95pc of families with three-year-olds and has helped parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and others to see the vital impact that quality education and care has on young children.
Early Childhood Ireland believes that Ireland needs to move towards the Scandinavian model, where parents pay based on their ability to do so, and children receive the same universal quality experiences no matter what that parental contribution is or where they live.
It's long past time in Ireland to move beyond relying on parents, providers and professionals in our sector to sustain what has become an utterly untenable model. Our children deserve much better than this.
Frances Byrne is Director of Policy and Advocacy with Early Childhood Ireland, the leading organisation for early years providers in Ireland, representing more than 70pc of the sector