By Niamh McDonald
In July 2019, the European Commission published a report on childcare and early childhood education (The Eurydice 2019 Report on Early Childhood Education and Care in Europe). It confirms what all Irish parents know, that there is a massive burden on families, a burden that in other countries is taken up by the state. In Ireland there are no limits placed on fees that private childcare organisations can charge and this has led to the country becoming one of the most expensive places to arrange childcare in the EU.
The report found Irish average monthly childcare fees to be €771. Only the Netherlands, the UK and Switzerland have similar childcare fees and all these countries have the same approach to the supply of childcare: they rely heavily on private enterprises to early childhood education and care to children under three.
How’s this for a contrast: in Bulgaria, parents just pay €18 a month. While in four European countries, free childcare is a reality for parents (Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro and Romania). Of course, it’s necessary to make allowances for the much lower incomes of workers in these countries, but this is still a dramatic difference and shows just how far Ireland has moved away from a reasonable childcare cost.
Most European countries are somewhere in between and, crucially they set a cap on the fee that a company can charge. Moreover, when it comes to the quality of childcare and the level of training required for people taking up childcare jobs, there is a curious mismatch between Ireland’s incredibly high fees and the fact that there is no requirement for at least one of the staff to have a relevant B.A.-level qualification. You might expect that if you pay a lot, you are paying for highly trained staff. You might also expect that the staff have decent wages, yet the majority of early years educators have wages that are below that of the living wage (€12.30 an hour).
The explanation for this mismatch is that the approach of successive governments over the years has been pro-market to an extent that makes their policy in other areas, such as transport and health, look positively socialist. Unlike other European countries, the education authority plays no role in early childhood care in Ireland. Insofar as there is regulation in Ireland, it is concerned with health and safety rather than a child’s development.
Although the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, prides herself on progress in childcare made since her appointment in May 2016, after her first three years in office, nothing fundamental had changed: the landscape remained the same as it had since the introduction of the partial pre-school programme in 2010. Parents gained little, if anything, from the Affordable Childcare Scheme (ACS), introduced 1 September 2017, with an allowance of €20 a week per child. When crèches raised their prices as the subsidy came in, no new money came to help parents. In other words, ACS became a business subsidy, not a family subsidy. Only if it had been accompanied by a cap on fees would the scheme have worked to the benefit of parents but that kind of measure is abhorrent to Fine Gael and its ‘independent’ friends.
Another scheme boasted of by the government is the ‘Free Pre-School Programme’. But this runs for only 38 weeks in a year, for just three hours a day, and you are not eligible for other schemes that reduce costs for parents. Parents wanting to enter the workforce find it nearly impossible to get work on the basis of these limitations and so end up trapped: either out of work or losing nearly all the income they gain as a result of arranging childcare for the missing weeks and hours. Lone parents are particularly caught by this arrangement.
The main beneficiaries of this pro-market approach to childcare are not necessarily the small, family-run crèches. In fact, many of these do not have the staff or the time to struggle with the bureaucracy around the ACS and many of them too are run primarily to help parents rather than for profit. Those who are doing well out of the current approach are the large companies, such as Giraffe (bought by the UK’s Busy Bees in 2018) and Tigers (which is expanding rapidly not only in Ireland but also into the UK market at London), plus the government itself, which evades its social responsibilities and can keep the money that should be spent on childcare for servicing the debts of the banking industry that we incurred during the bail out.
The 2019 National Childcare Scheme: not the solution
From October 2019 a new scheme will replace all previous targeted childcare programmes. According to Minister Zappone, the National Childcare Scheme is the ‘pathway to truly accessible, affordable, quality childcare.’ SPARK, Single Parents Acting for the Rights of their Children, have looked into the consequences of this scheme and believe it to be flawed.
Under the scheme, the poorest parents will lose up to €100 per week to give less than €5 per week subsidies to families with a net income of €60K.
The main losers on NCS will be lone parents with school age children. Currently someone on CCS gets €145 child care subsidy. If the scheme is implemented as is, they will see the subsidy reduced to €45 per week for children in first class upwards and to €63.75 for junior and senior infants.
Parents looking to work on a CE scheme or do training can access childcare of €25 per week now for pre-school children and €15 per week for school-age children. With the new scheme, they will get subsidies as above, but there will be no cap on what a crèche can charge, unlike the current scheme. SPARK estimate that parents will be expected to pay at least €85 per week, in other words, will experience an increase of €70 per week. In effect, parents will be locked out of ETB courses and CE schemes.
NCS means the end of targeted supports for the poorest families and a redistribution of resources upwards. This redistribution will have little impact on higher earning families, but will devastate lone parents.
SIPTU’s ‘Big Start’ a good start
Independent Left supports SIPTU’s ‘Big Start’ campaign for increased investment, unionisation of childcare work and increased pay for childcare workers accompanied by career development and training. We go further, however, in also advocating the following:
- The EECE needs to begin at two years of age and double the hours from 15 per week to 30 per week available twelve months of the year.
- An increase for each child’s capitation grant for accessing crèches; no parent should pay more than 30 per cent of the overall cost.
- A massive increase in investment: a minimum 1 per cent of our overall GDP is needed to create a fully functioning national childcare system
- An increase in financial supports to lone parents and migrant parents whom are most vulnerable to poverty and isolation.
- 73 per cent of crèches are private 27 per cent are public; not all government subsidies are available through private crèches and not all government subsidies cover all the costs in private crèches. This directly affects people on lower incomes, single parents returning to education or the workplace. A focus by government needs to be placed on the creation of public crèches facilities in local communities.
These demands are achievable. In times of near-full employment, even Fine Gael are interested in measures that increase the possibility of parents of young children entering the workforce and their resistance to introducing measures that favour the working class is tempered by the thought that many employers will benefit too.
There’s a bigger picture here also. The reason childcare is such a burden on working class families has deeper roots than Fine Gael’s commitment to the market. Even in the better examples provided by European countries, parents will tell you matters are far from perfect. The problem everywhere being, in a word, capitalism. Capitalism has never cared about children. In fact, children suffered terribly during the industrial revolution as their lives were sacrificed in the unregulated business competition of the era. Nowadays, the system has evolved to train up children to perform more sophisticated work than pluck threads from fast-spinning machinery. All the same, from a business point of view, the happiness of children has never been a concern and using tax for that purpose is a waste.
For those who want to, spending time with babies, toddlers and very young children ought to be a joyful experience, one that is full of love as well as of learning. The child psychologist Donal Winnicot argued that it made an enormous difference to how a happy a person was in later life if their first two years were secure and loving. Very few children across the world have that experience at a deep level. The difficult choice for parents everywhere, but especially in Ireland, is either to leave their young children for hours at a time in order to work to pay the rent or mortgage, or to take time off at the risk of poverty and all the stress that brings into the home.
While a socialist childcare policy therefore places a great emphasis on increased funding, it also has to go to the heart of the problem. Independent Left want a complete revolution against capitalism and to create an entirely different way of running society. So that everyone who wants to has the freedom to choose to spend time, stress-free, with their babies and young children and can do so to their heart’s content.