Better Childcare = Better Business
It might be surprising to some that business representative body Ibec lobbies on the importance of childcare, but it shouldn’t be.
A well-functioning society is both the product of and essential to a successful enterprise sector. By any measure, be it economic or societal, a high-functioning and affordable childcare system benefits everyone.
It was hoped, by policy experts and carers alike, that the incredible pressures placed particularly on working parents of children during the pandemic, would have revolutionised how childcare is provided in Ireland. Unfortunately, it was not the great leveller that was hoped for. Indeed, research from the European Commission reported that the pandemic brought about little-to-no positive change for women in the provision of childcare.
A recent survey conducted last month by Amárach as part of Ibec’s Better Lives, Better Business campaign found that 19% of the general population of Ireland were very worried about the cost of childcare. Unsurprisingly women were more worried about it than men, while 32% of people in the 25 – 34 age group reported being very worried about it.
Global research finds that women do three times as much unpaid care work as men and according to Bloomberg, women spend, on average, over 5 hours more on housework than men each week. Oxfam research (2021) proposes that if women received a living wage for this invisible work and indirect contribution, it would cost the Irish State €24 billion a year.
The availability and affordability of childcare can act as a significant barrier to female labour market participation with working mothers forced to make an unfair choice to step back or out of her career without affordable and accessible childcare. Families without consistent, effective childcare cannot remain in the workforce in a confident, productive way, and unequal access can trigger and intensify a range of income, gender, and social inequalities. High-quality, affordable and appropriate childcare benefits the child, the economy and is critical to the income of families.
There have been significant strides made in terms of the investment in early learning and care, albeit from a low base, with Government’s commitment of doubling their investment in early learning and care and school-aged childcare to approximately €1 billion by 2028 being achieved five years ahead of schedule. Investment too is underway in the early learning and childcare workforce, their qualifications and career paths, while the sector agreed an Employment Regulation Order leading to wage increases for the majority of staff.
While such investment is welcomed, it is imperative that momentum be maintained. For too long Ireland has lagged our peers in investment tables which has taken a toll on the sector and its recipients. The legacy of underinvestment has seen the highest fees paid by parents in the EU for a service that does not always meet the needs of working families in terms of hours of work or flexibility of offerings.
Greater capacity is needed particularly for baby and toddler places as well as out-of-school hours care. Early learning and care employees have lacked a career path or appropriate pay levels impacting recruitment and retention, while providers have struggled with a funding model that fails to meet the growing regulatory and administrative burdens. While this investment is a worthy starting point, it remains that many parents are still paying significant fees, unable to afford multiple children in formal childcare settings, or to find a childcare solution that fits their atypical work hours.
At the same time the lack of discussion about the importance of early childhood care and education is part of a larger issue for the sector. It is not properly acknowledged for its importance in facilitating children’s social, emotional and educational development in their most formative years, but also in enabling working parents to fully participate in the labour market.
There is more work to be done to bring a greater number of families into a position where their childcare fees are affordable, to include the broader spectrum of childcare providers into these subsidies, and in building up the sector to thrive and flourish rather than being challenged by staffing, and state-imposed costs through regulations and commercial rates. The planning system presents challenges to the provision of childcare facilities, which should urgently be addressed. The regulatory system must be reviewed to unblock greater investment into early childhood care and education to grow the supply of quality provision including pre and after-school care. This will be helped by the bedding in of the core funding model but will require a real trusted partnership between government and providers going forward. The creation of such a partnership will fundamentally enhance the provision of childcare, strengthen Ireland’s competitiveness and improve quality of life for all.
Strong investment in sustainable childcare is essential for lifelong positive economic and social outcomes for children and families. Access to quality services has been proven time and again to benefit a child’s education and labour market outcomes while making parents available for work and training, helping to break the cycle of inequality and poverty.
It is essential that early learning and care of the next generation plays a vital role in the effective use of the talent of our labour market and the recognition of the contribution that employees and providers in this sector deliver for Irish society.
Let’s not lose sight of what the pandemic showed us, the time to build back better is now.