Saturday 19 October 2019

Dr Katherine Zappone: 'Standing still is not an option - we have to expand and improve for young children'


Growing need: Demand for childcare in increasing. Stock Image
Growing need: Demand for childcare in increasing. Stock Image

Dr Katherine Zappone

The quality accessible, affordable childcare which we continue to work towards must be open to all children, no matter what their age. That is my mission and the mission of my department.

It is why we have secured a 117pc increase in Government investment in budgets since 2015. Why we have given extra financial supports to more than 80,000 children, with half of these on the higher targeted supports of up to €145 per child, per week. It is also why later this year the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) will become reality.

The foundations we have put in place are good. They have seen the numbers on State supported childcare more than double to more than 186,000 children, and the number of early learning and care and school-age childcare places in Ireland also double.

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Having said that we are still not in the place we want to be. I was always clear that our task was huge and ambitious, it has to be as we are correcting decades of neglect and under investment by successive governments. The shortage of spaces for babies and younger children highlighted in the Irish Independent was first identified by my department in 2017. We took immediate steps to address the matter. In January, €4.3m in capital grants were announced to create extra spaces for children under three. That money will translate into approximately 1,300 extra places by the end of this year.

In addition, the NCS will see providers receive the highest subsidy for children in this age group, making it more attractive to care for them. Subsidies of up to €5.10 per hour for babies will be available for up to 40 hours per week, for families using registered childcare.

We are also working intensively to enable more childminders to register with Tusla and hence be able to access the NCS subsidies. I hope to publish an action plan for the childminding sector in the coming months.

I am satisfied our warning systems worked. We spotted a trend and we responded. For some parents our response may seem too slow. Whilst we are improving things at a fast pace, for example, a 128pc increase in 0-3 year old places in the last four years, we appreciate we need to respond even faster.

The effort we have put into childcare is bearing results. Once the most expensive in the OECD for childcare for lone parents, a recent report says we will move to 11th when the NCS is introduced. However, I am also aware demand for childcare is increasing. The shortage of spaces for babies happened despite the fact the number we are subsidising in this youngest age bracket has more than doubled.

Businesses, Ibec and the chambers of commerce have all been in contact to support our childcare measures but also encouraging the Government to do more.

It is clear we must keep pace with demand, otherwise all the good work that has already been done could be eroded. The level of increases we have seen in recent budgets must be maintained - even just to stand still.

However, as someone with a background in community childcare, standing still is not an option for me. I want more progress.

To cut to the chase, an additional €50m will be needed to deliver the first full year of our new scheme in 2020. This is just the bottom line, I will be seeking investment in other initiatives in the early learning and care and school-age childcare space to further address access, affordability and quality.

More is what I will be seeking in the pre-budget negotiations which are getting under way. In First 5, the whole of government 10-year strategy for babies, young children and their families I published late last year, the Government committed to doubling our childcare investment by 2028.

We need to build on the supports we are providing to the sector. Investing in childcare ticks all the boxes. It is good for children in terms of their development. It is good for parents who want to access education, training and work. It is good for the economy.

A national debate on childcare was long overdue in this country. For too long families were left to fend for themselves. What government initiatives existed lacked vision. Long-term planning was non-existent. Over the past three years that has changed. While I acknowledge we are still not meeting the needs of all families, we have made a very strong start. In Budget 2020 we must build on that, and that is what I will be fighting for. We owe it to families to continue the work. To identify future needs. To fill the gaps as they arise, as we are now doing for those children under three years of age.

We must not allow that progress to be undermined - and certainly there must be no going back.

Irish Independent

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