Sunday 19 November 2017

Yvonne Hogan: 'Huge crèche fees are not the childcare sector's fault, Minister Zappone, they're yours'

Affordable childcare schemes are great but shouldn't rearing children at home also be more 'affordable'

Minister Katherine Zappone opening the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross, Co.Wexford.Photo;Mary Browne
Minister Katherine Zappone opening the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross, Co.Wexford.Photo;Mary Browne

Yvonne Hogan

Staying at home for a parent, be it mother or father, is not an option that is encouraged or supported by Government policy, despite the fact that it is currently enshrined in the Constitution that a woman should not be obliged to work outside the home due to economic necessity. Society has obviously changed utterly since this clause was written but our political framework has not changed with us; it does little to support parents who wish to combine working outside the home with parenting and it is working against those who wish to work inside the home.

Minister Katherine Zappone's speech at the opening of the Kennedy School in New Ross earlier this month gives further insight into her thoughts on early childcare. As the working parent of a little girl who has just started school, I have been following the minister's attempts to fix what she describes as 'one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world' with interest.

Zappone has form in the field of early childcare, having set up one of Ireland's first crèches in Jobstown 30 years ago in the course of developing An Cosan, so many in the sector were no doubt pleased when she was appointed Minister for Children and Youth Affairs last year.

Expectations were high and she started off well. She invested further in the Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme (ECCE), a universal scheme introduced in 2010 that gives all children a free year of preschool, and has committed to making it more accessible and inclusive to those with disabilities. I am a big fan of the ECCE - I like the fact that it is available to families who choose to have a parent stay at home as well as those who work outside the home. I personally enjoyed the significant reduction in crèche fees for the last year of my daughter's four years in full-time childcare.

I am less a fan of Zappone's own 'affordable' childcare scheme whereby all parents with a child attending a Tusla-registered childcare service will receive a subsidy of up to €87 a month towards their childcare costs.

Firstly, the word affordable in this context really annoys me. On a literal and an ideological level. Literally, an €87 reduction does not make the €1,200 monthly cost for a baby under 12 months in full-time childcare more affordable. The very idea is laughable.

Ideologically, approaching childcare - or any societal issue like healthcare, social welfare, education, housing and the arts for that matter - as a purely financial issue is unimaginative and damaging and it isn't working. It shouldn't be a predominately private sector. It is an essential function of any community and it should be the responsibility of the State.

Secondly, the scheme excludes those who have made the decision to stay at home and care for their kids. Forgoing a second income is a significant economic sacrifice. Shouldn't rearing children at home also be more 'affordable'? Particularly given that we have it enshrined in the Constitution that a parent in the home is important for society. A tax credit to all families would have been fairer and more appropriate.

A tax credit would also have been fairer to the childcare providers. Like the ECCE scheme, I believe this scheme puts an unnecessary burden on the already stretched and under-supported early childhood sector. It is also indicative of the regard in which the early childhood sector is viewed by the Government. Did the GPs have to do all the paperwork when the Government introduced free GP care for the under sixes? No - the parent registers online. Do the property developers have to do the paperwork when the Government introduces budget measures that boost their industry by making property more 'affordable'? Hardly.

But the childcare providers are expected to take on all this extra work without complaint and for very little compensation. And not only that, they are insulted by the Minister who warned them in this paper that if they raise their fees and fumble in the greasy till, she will scrap the scheme and the whole thing will be ruined for everyone.

Her comments at the Kennedy School referring to the poor pay and conditions in the sector and urging workers to form a union can only have poured salt in the wound.

I have seen first-hand the care, the dedication and the passion with which childcare providers execute their roles over the last four years as my child attended a Montessori nursery run by the most amazing women. Yes, crèche fees do hover around the €1,000 mark depending on the age of the child, but to me, they are worth every penny.

The fact that we can't afford them is not down to greed on the part of the childcare sector, it is because we have had successive governments that failed to understand that the first years of a child's life are the most important in terms of determining who they will become. It is a sector that should be embraced by the Government and supported entirely, as are our national and secondary schools. It should be respected and revered, and not spoken about like it were a rogue bank or a vulture fund.

Sure, in any privatised sector you will always get the odd operator who cuts corners and takes any opportunity to boost profits, but I believe the rhetoric of the Minister has been very unfair. Private childcare providers stepped into the chasm created by successive inept governments that failed to change with the people and provide the facilities we required.

So really, it's not the childcare sector's fault that we can't afford their fees, Minister Zappone, it's yours.

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