Ibec’s newest industry association has put affordable childcare top of its list. Bringing together a very diverse sector was Childhood Services Ireland’s first challenge. By Barry McCall
Affordable childcare delivered by a viable sector is at the very top of the agenda for Ibec’s newest industry association, Childhood Services Ireland (CSI). The association’s membership includes the full spectrum of services providers from across the sector which looks after more than 200,000 children in 4,600 childcare services and employs almost 31,000 childcare professionals.
“Ibec had a number of childcare providers already in membership and they were asking for a trade association to represent their sector’s particular interests,” says Childhood Services Ireland director Darragh Whelan. “A lot of issues were coming to a head at the same time and concern was shared by parents, providers and employees. We spent six months in planning and formally launched the association on October 22nd last.”
Bringing together an extremely diverse sector was the first challenge facing CSI. “It includes lone providers, professionals, full day-care providers, multi-site providers, community providers, and part-time wraparound providers who provide childcare before and after pre-school and school times,” Whelan notes. “The public and private sector providers tend to have different service models and the different types of provider all attract different forms of funding from the Government. We have a council of 16 people representing the full spectrum of employers in the industry.”
Not in crisis
He says the sector is not in crisis, yet. “We are not at that point yet but the sector has always been in very dire straits. It has suffered from inactivity in policy developments and structural improvements since the foundation of the State.”
One of the key challenges facing the sector is the attraction and retention of talent. “It has always been unattractive to new entrants,” Whelan notes. “They can get better pay and conditions in other areas. Providers find it very difficult to recruit and retain staff and that comes down to the terms and conditions on. Pay is low and needs to improve. But affordability is another issue.”
The crux of that problem is that the cost of improving pay and conditions for staff would be passed on to parents in the form of higher fees, thus making childcare even less affordable. “Affordability here is the worst in Europe, ” he adds. “A lot of subsidies go into the sector, but affordability is still poor. The Minister recognises that pay must improve but it shouldn’t be the provider who pays as this will affect affordability. What is needed is a funding model that improves the terms and conditions for staff and improves affordability.”
Whelan recognises the increases in funding to the sector in recent years but says more needs to be done. “Funding has improved substantially, and it doubled during the term of the last government,” he points out. “A lot has been achieved but we started from a very low base. The sector has only been around since the 1990s and we appreciate that the Government has been doing its best in a difficult climate. Funding will need to double to again over the next number of years to get us to a sustainable level.”
Covid-19 has done nothing to improve the viability of the sector. “It has affected every sector but the pre-existing issues with staffing in the childcare sector have been exacerbated by it,” he says. “The pod system required for safety purposes has increased costs as have other measures, but the system provides funding per child and not per staff member.”
With more staff members per child required due to Covid-19, the arithmetic is clear. This has added urgency to the resolution of the funding model issue.
“We are looking to address key issues around terms and conditions. We also want to address career progression and planning, continuous professional development and training and the retention power and attractiveness of the sector. That’s number one on the agenda for the industry. We are open to engaging in dialogue with Siptu and the Government in relation to that, but the funding has to come from government.”
While different solutions have been put forward, including the establishment of a Joint Labour Committee (JLC) for the sector, the model favoured by CSI would see the Government making a fund available and providers being able to opt in our out of it.
“A JLC is too rigid a structure,” says Whelan. “We have to figure out the wage rates that can work for everyone and a means of putting it in people’s pockets.”
Looking beyond the pay and affordability issue, he says the aim is to continue to grow the membership and expand services. “We are adding services such as HR support all the time, we will also help members in areas like Garda vetting, business development and training provision.”