Frances Byrne: 'We're bottom of EU class for funding - and must make investment in staff our priority'
Parents in Dublin's commuter belt and beyond readily describe their monthly childcare fee as "a second mortgage".
Along with early years providers, they are left bearing the brunt of a historical imbalance in the way we fund care and education during the most critical period of our children's lives.
To add to parents' concerns, there was some anecdotal evidence of fee increases last September when Children's Minister Katherine Zappone's department introduced an interim programme ahead of the full introduction of an Affordable Childcare Scheme next year.
Most crèches did not put their fees up in the end and of those who did, many had not done so for the previous five years. The average increase was low, at about 2pc, though in some areas this was higher owing, for example in Dublin, to higher costs of living. Commercial rates, which private early years providers, who make up most of the sector, are required to pay, also play a part in putting providers under financial pressure.
To address the wider money question though, it is important to note that while some very welcome progress has been made in recent years, Ireland's level of investment remains poor.
We invest only 0.2pc of GDP in early years care and education each year; the lowest amount in the EU. On average, EU countries invest 0.8pc of GDP in this area, while countries identified as leaders in early years provision (the Nordic countries) invest between 1.3pc and 1.9pc of GDP. Inevitably, parents feel they are left to make up the difference.
Another, often invisible, impact is on the educators who work in childcare settings, where average pay is €11.93 an hour, barely above the living wage of €11.90 per hour.
However, despite providers wishing to pay more, years of historical underinvestment mean that the sector in Ireland is enduring a staffing crisis.
Despite increased funding in the past two years by Ms Zappone's department, childcare providers are still struggling to recruit and retain qualified, experienced educators, with low pay the most significant factor, though most report that 80pc of their income is spent on pay.
Earlier this year, as was previously reported in the Irish Independent, one member of Early Childhood Ireland lost two valued staff members because the salary scale that was guaranteed by her local supermarket was greater than any wage she was able to pay.
In the recent Budget, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs announced measures which, from 2019, will bring both poorer parents and the more well-off into the existing schemes and the forthcoming Affordable Childcare Scheme.
We need much more though, and while GDP expenditure provides us with an important measure, the important factor is how it gets spent.
In Nordic countries, the provision is universal in its quality regardless of where families live or what their economic circumstances are.
This is achieved by prioritising investment in staffing, including in their education and professionalisation. In Ireland, we don't even have a leaflet for school leavers about a career in childcare.
We need to value early years highly. As well as affecting these workers and their families, Ireland's ongoing early years staffing crisis will have a lasting impact if it isn't addressed fully. Why? Because all the available research shows early years educators are the magic ingredient when it comes to quality for babies and children. This needs to be our shared priority.
Frances Byrne is director of policy and advocacy with Early Childhood Ireland, which represents 3,800 early years providers, who support more than 100,000 children and their families every day.