Ireland’s childcare crisis is showing no sign of letting up, with hundreds of private providers warning they face closure in the autumn.
hey claim the Govern- ment’s core funding programme will distort the market, discriminate against smaller services and encourage anti-competitiveness due to the introduction of a cap on fees.
For parents, lengthy waiting lists and monthly childcare fees of up to €1,400 are significantly affecting their family lives and forcing some people out of work.
The Irish Independent spoke with childcare providers and parents about how the crisis is negatively affecting those on both sides.
Samantha O’Neill (33) learned she was pregnant in March last year and started contacting creches three months later – before she had even told her family she was expecting.
The first-time mother lives in East Wall, Dublin, and the majority of creches in the area had no baby rooms while the rest had waiting lists until 2023 or 2024.
She found a place with availability for December 2022 in Inchicore, which is roughly a 35-minute drive from her family’s home on a day with little to no traffic.
Ms O’Neill gave birth to her son, Oghran, last November and her maternity leave is due to end in May, but she will have to take 16 weeks unpaid leave, seven weeks of annual leave and all her parental leave to try to hold out until December.
“Having to deal with the stress of getting a place, it’s a bit of a nightmare,” she said. “There’s a lot of women who are stressed about being pregnant.
“It’s at the stage where you have to call a creche and put a name down even before you’re out of the woods risk-wise, and it can be so daunting to ring up and take them off a list then if something happens.
“It shouldn’t be like this. People should be able to get a childcare place for their children.”
Ms O’Neill’s, whose mother has offered to help but lives 35km in the opposite direction to the creche, said people should not have to rely on their parents for support.
“We want to have a second child, but financially it’s not possible, even with two working parents on good salaries,” she said.
“I shouldn’t have to choose between staying at home and going to work. It’s almost gone in the opposite direction where you can’t go back to work.”
As part of its attempts to address the ongoing crisis, the Government announced a €221m core funding programme that will provide support to the early learning and childcare sector. It is due to come into effect on September 1 and aims to improve affordability by freezing fees and creating better pay and working conditions for staff.
In order to receive funding, providers have to agree not to increase fees.
However, Early Childcare and Education (ECCE) service providers have described the plan as “seriously flawed” and warned that thousands of parents may face an autumn without childcare.
Barbara Brennan has been running a pre-school in Dublin for 10 years and believes the funding programme is not in line with inflation. She claimed she will only be €20 better off with the new plan.
“The larger services are gaining and the smaller services are losing out on this scheme,” she said.
“The way life is at the moment with everything increasing, everything I buy – every roll of toilet paper, every pencil and crayon – everything has gone up, utilities are going up. I’ve been informed my mobile phone will go up.
“Nothing has stabilised, and yet I’m expected to maintain my service at the same rate that I’ve been at since 2017, which is incredible.”
Her pre-school caters for 15 children and she employs one staff member part-time.
She previously charged fees but now runs her service as part of the ECCE scheme, meaning the State pays her a set amount per child in return for her providing a pre-school service free of charge.
“The problem with the funding is that although I’m the manager-owner, I only get paid for 15 hours, even though I work between 22 and 25 hours a week,” Ms Brennan said. “I have to clean the place, prepare the room for children, do paperwork in the afternoon and other things.
“I run it from the back of the house, deep in the heart of the community. They’re local children and they depend on me. The alternative is if the likes of me are gone, parents will have to send their children to creches, but creches will tell you they don’t want children in for three hours, they want children in for eight hours.
“We have a lot of teachers and nurses who like this model for their children. They don’t require full-day care and they won’t have options if the likes of me go.”
Ms Brennan said this year has been the most stressful of her career. She hoped the new funding model would help improve the situation and enable her to better support her staff, but she fears it will not have the desired effect.
“I pay over what most people would pay, but they deserve more,” she said. “Primary school teachers are paid throughout summer, my staff have to sign on. That upsets me, filling in the form every year for social welfare. We need to be seen as educators and I feel the department sees us as babysitters.”
Providers, particularly those that offer the ECCE scheme, say the core funding programme withdraws two additional funding streams that were previously available, describing this as “catastrophic”.
They say another year of underfunding will force them to close their businesses.
More than 800 members of the Federation of Early Childhood Providers surveyed had significant concerns about the funding programme.
Nearly 70pc said that after examining the viability of the core funding allocation to their service, they did not believe they could sustain their business, while more than one-third said they will reject the programme.
FECP members say it favours large, profit-making urban providers and penalises the smaller community-friendly providers.
The Irish Independent contacted the Department of Children for comment.