A Gorey couple who run an ECCE childcare service are protesting the “unfair” Core Funding model introduced by the government, which they say leaves them chronically underfunded and at risk of shutting down.
Owners of Erika's Fairy Wood Montessori Playschool, Noel and Erika Chambers signed up to be providers on the state-subsidised Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme when it was first introduced in 2010. While they couple say they were not properly funded through the ECCE scheme in the first place, a new funding model introduced in Budget 2023 has compounded the financial strain on their business and could lead to its permanent closure. On Friday, they were some of many childcare facility owners to take part in nationwide protests against the new Core Funding model, which were organised by the Federation of Early Childhood Providers (FECP).
According to Noel, the new funding model leaves them with €2,661 less than last year. This is despite ongoing investment in the improvement of their services, and a large amount of additional administration work that they are now required to undertake.
“Last year, the government brought in a Higher Capitation payment if you brought on graduates to run each classroom. We got extra funding for that so we could pay higher wages. It was towards creating a much better quality service for the children, with graduates leading the rooms,” explained Noel. “They also brought in a Programme Support payment, which was a payment given every year to cover all the non-contact time. That paid us for seven minutes extra a day to do the paperwork we need to do.”
"When they announced Core Funding, they took away the Higher Capitation payment for graduates and they took away the Programme Support payments, which was worth about €34,000 a year to us. When you’re working flat out the whole week and you’re only getting paid for 15 hours, every little helps,” he explained. “They took back that money from us, repackaged it and gave it back to us. It works out that we are getting less than before.”
Noel and Erika’s staff currently work 21 hours each week, with the government funding only covering 15 of those hours. The staff require these extra hours to complete essential tasks such as administrative work and room cleaning. They also pay their staff above the minimum recommended wage, but this is not reflected in the funding they receive.
While the introduction of the Core Funding model has exacerbated the financial strain for the Chambers’ and other ECCE-only childcare providers, the issue stems back to the introduction of the ECCE scheme in 2010, said Noel.
"Our protest is saying, we haven’t been funded properly from 2010. It is nothing to do with energy prices going up or toilet roll being double what it was last year, which is the case. We were never funded properly in the first place. The only time we were funded properly was through the pandemic,” he said. "We signed up for the ECCE scheme and we didn’t really have much of a choice. Nobody is going to pay privately for a Montessori when the government is going to cover the cost for them. We were charging €80 a week at the time and the government came in with the ECCE scheme, which was giving us €64.50 a week. It wasn’t as much as we were getting privately but it guaranteed we would have a constant flow of people.”
“Since that time, they have only raised that price up to €69. That is a rise of €4.50 per child per week and we have had to cover every single other extra cost that has risen in that time. This year alone, we are at nine per cent increases and the government doesn’t care. Not only that, we have expanded our business. We have gone from one classroom to three classrooms. We have put hundreds of thousands of euro into the buildings. That’s not taken into consideration by the government. They don’t want to know.”
Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman called the recent protests by childcare providers “unwarranted”, saying Budget 2023 has provided a €13m increase to the ECCE-only services through the Core Funding model. However, according to Noel, this increase is not reflected in the funding they are receiving.
"Our figures are showing we are actually down €2,600 the whole year. So, who is getting the money? It’s not coming into our service,” he said. “An ECCE-provider like ourselves that has graduates, they’re the ones that are suffering. Those services that put the money into the service over the years, that got staff to upskill or recruited better staff, now we are being punished. We are getting negative funding in favour of other services. It’s just not fair. We will keep protesting until something is done about it. It has to be fair. You can’t be telling the public you are putting in billions, but we are losing money.
I’m not saying he’s not putting €13m more into childcare, but we are not getting a cent of it. They need to recognise that an ECCE-only service with graduates is different to an ECCE service without gradates and different to a creche.”
Noel said that they are not against the Core Funding model but are seeking for the government to provide a “fair Core Funding” model that supports services like theirs and recognises the additional costs absorbed by the company. If these changes are not made, he is not hopeful that their business will be able to survive going forward.
“It is going to start affecting children. We are looking to next September. We have 70 to 80 children booked in for next year. We are wondering should we be telling these people we might not be here this year? Should we be telling the staff this? At this level of funding and the rate everything is going up .as well, we might not be. We haven’t even started talking about heating costs and lighting costs. There’s very little we can do to reduce these costs. We can’t turn our heat down as you have to have it at a constant temperature for the children. You can’t turn the lights off. You can’t not provide them with arts and crafts stuff, cleaning equipment and toilet paper. All of this has to be paid. There’s no recognition of the fact we have to pay all of that out of our own pockets,” said Noel, adding that they are not permitted to ask parents for any extra funding or seek donations to support their business.
In the coming weeks, Noel and Erika plan to continue their fight for recognition and will attend another protest on November 25.
"We will continue what we have been doing for 16 years,” he said. “I know a lot of services will be closed by next June. I’m not saying we are going to be closed by next June but if things don’t change, we’re going to have to have a very serious look at where we are going because there’s no point in us providing the service we have free for the government, or for a very cheap price. It is not possible. Where do you go? Do you start laying off your graduate staff and taking on less educated staff? That’s just ridiculous.”
“As far as the government is concerned, we are fully funded by the government and what I am saying is, we are not. We are fully underfunded.”