I’ve always believed if there is a will to do something then there is a way – we just have to find the courage to grasp the nettle. Child care is one such issue that needs to be radically flipped on its head and viewed from a visionary perspective.
For too long we’ve tinkered at the edges – Budget 2006 provided parents with a €1,000 childcare supplement which was thankfully scrapped in favour of one year free pre-school provision of three hours per day, five days a week over a 38-week year in 2009. This provision has been very gradually increased but is still woefully inadequate both from a working parents’ perspective and from the childcare workers’ perspective given that it requires too many to be without work for up to 14 weeks during the summer. And here we go again, a new subvention for childcare in Budget 2017 but still no vision.
What we need to ask ourselves today is what type of childcare provision do we want for all children from the ages of 6/9 months until they begin primary school – set it out and achieve it, not in drips and drabs but in as short a timeframe as possible, just as Donagh O’Malley did when he announced free secondary education.
What I would advocate is provision for a national system of free universal childcare in the form of inclusive community childcare facilities. Except for its majority religious patronage, our primary school system is not an ineffective model upon which we could base our approach. In particular:
- Qualified childcare workers would be employed by each child care provider/community childcare facility but paid by the state according to an appropriate salary scale
- An appropriate per child capitation payment and resource grants would be paid to each provider/community childcare facility
- Appropriate and integrated support services would be provided and funded by the state
- A range of facilities, including small from-home self-employed childcarers, would be certified to provide high quality, best-practice based childcare.
- All facilities and childcare workers would be open to inspection/evaluation
- The system would operate on a 48/50 week basis and include capacity for after school activities for primary school children
- The system would acknowledge parents who wish to stay at home and look after their own children rather than use their children to outside the home childcare perhaps through the provison of early years toys/resources
- The system would be flexible enough to accommodate fluctuating local demand
Of course there are challenges in taking such a leap of faith.
- Funding for a start – given the lower childcare worker: child, this system has the potential to require a budget greater than that currently required by our primary school system, currently approximately €9bln. However, a ring-fenced % tax for childcare could be considered – paid for by everyone across their working lifetime
- The availability of appropriately trained childcare workers to meet system needs
- The reaction of some commercial providers to potential loss of current profits – however, a scheme under which the state could acquire premises/businesses could be set up to allow those not wishing to join the national system hand over their facilities.
However, there are also significant benefits.
- With expediency and determination we could realise such a national universal childcare system within 3/4 years.
- Children would be cared for and learn from fully qualified professional childcare workers using the best-practice NCCA framework for early years learning, Aistear
- Parents would be relieved of enormous financial burden of commercial child care costs generally concentrated within a 4 – 10 year period and, it could be argued, use their spare cash to contribute to the local domestic economy.
- Parents, in particular mothers, would not be forced to choose between furthering their careers and childcare – this has a direct income tax benefit to the state
- Plans for new schools in newly developed communities could incorporate plans for new community childcare facilities so as to ensure wrap-around care for all children
- Childcare facilities would be central to communities, be inclusive of all families regardless of income and therefore support community sustainability and cohesion