New crisis in childcare as crèches turn babies away
- Pre-schoolers are ‘cannibalising places’ amid focus on Government scheme
- Parents unable to find care for younger toddlers are delaying their return to work
Parents are facing a severe shortage of crèche places for babies and toddlers because of the success of the free pre-school programme for three to five-year-olds.
The Government-funded Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme has grown to cater for 120,000 children a year, more than double the 52,600 in 2009.
It has transformed the early childhood experience in Ireland, but with the unintended consequence of squeezing out babies and toddlers from childcare facilities.
Many childcare providers are overwhelmingly focused on the ECCE scheme at the expense of places for younger children.
The shortage of places is wreaking havoc for mothers seeking to return to work after maternity leave, typically when a baby is nine to 12 months old.
Some mothers are asking employers whether they can delay their return to work because of their difficulties in organising childcare.
It is also heaping pressure on other family members, including grandparents, to weigh in on child-minding.
The most recent figures analysed by the Irish Independent show that, in the early-years sector, toddlers aged one to three years accounted for only 16pc last year, down from 20pc in 2015-16.
The huge majority (67pc) of the 179,000 children enrolled in childcare facilities nationwide were pre-schoolers, many in the ECCE scheme.
Childcare providers are also aware that they can cater for more children in the over-threes age bracket, because they need only one staff member per eight children.
Baby rooms require a staff-to-child ratio of 1:3 and the children are too young to be included in the ECCE scheme.
Teresa Heeney, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland (ECI), which represents the sector, said: "The second pre-school year cannibalised places for younger children. That is what is happening. It is particularly acute in areas of population growth."
The Department of Children acknowledged the pressures, stating it was "aware the higher cost of baby rooms may be contributing to an emerging capacity issue".
The scale of demand from parents for the ECCE scheme along with the higher costs associated with running "baby rooms" are driving providers to focus on the pre-school programme.
The Department of Children said it was "monitoring this situation closely", and added that decisions were due to be made soon on a previously announced dedicated-funding stream in respect of baby room provision.
Much of the extra expense associated with baby rooms arises from the requirement to have a staff-child ratio of one to three, compared with one to eight for the over threes.
Apart from costs, recruitment and retention of staff is a challenge, blamed on the 38- week year, which forces many on to the dole for the summer.
Early Childhood Ireland first warned of a capacity problem in its 2016 report 'Doing the Sums'. This found that baby and toddler rooms, in general, could not compete with the predictability and dependability of the revenue stream produced by an ECCE room.
The report warned of providers moving towards an ECCE-only model, alongside school-age childcare, warning: "If left unchecked, non-ECCE services may be further reduced, or removed entirely."
Now, the latest statistics on childcare lay bare the realities facing many parents across the country.
The most recent figures from the Government agency Pobal for 2017-18 show the shift towards older children. There was a total of 179,137 enrolled in childcare facilities.
Some 67pc were pre-schoolers, which is associated with the high uptake (118,673) of ECCE. Meanwhile, toddlers aged one to three years accounted for just 16pc.
The proportion of pre-schoolers was up from 63pc in 2015-16, while the proportion of toddlers fell from 20pc to 16pc in the same period.
Ms Heeney said providers who were turning parents of babies and toddlers away were reluctant to expand because "they are afraid they won't get the staff and because the regulations are so tight".
Childcare is a major concern for employers' organisation Ibec, particularly in how it relates to female labour- market participation.
Ibec senior labour-market policy executive Kara McGann said "despite all the very good work that has been done, we are still not meeting the needs fully".
She said costs are a significant issue both for parents and childcare providers, with providers experiencing difficulties around rent and rates, while there are "particular challenges around the ratios of adult to child".
"If it comes to one parent having to step out of the labour market, more often than not that falls to the female. We know female labour participation has been a driver of economic growth, but we don't want to go backwards," she said.
The ECCE scheme started as a one-year programme for children aged between three years and two months up to four years and seven months, but it has undergone two significant expansions.
The Government now pays for two academic years, from age two years and eight months until primary school. It is offered for three hours a day, five days a week.