Children love to be rewarded with good grades in school, and sometimes children require incentives to do better. It turns out, so does the Government! Earlier this year, the Children’s Rights Alliance gave the current Government a B+ for its efforts to make childcare more affordable for parents. Why did the Government deserve this grade?
The Children’s Rights Alliance is a national membership-based organisation working to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child. Every year, the Alliance holds the Government to account by grading its progress in implementing their own commitments to children contained in the Programme for Government. We publicise these grades in our annual flagship publication Report Card 2017, which was launched in February just gone.
Report Card 2017 is the first under A Programme for a Partnership Government, published in May 2016 following the formation of the new Government. The Programme is a really important document for children and families as the commitments it contains are the ones on which the success of this Government will be judged, and this can motivate Ministers and civil servants to prioritise planned actions.
Report Card 2017 marks the first time that childcare (also called Early Childhood Education and Care) received a standalone chapter in the report, indicating its increasing importance as a national policy issue. While carefully researched and compiled by Alliance staff, with input from Alliance members like SVP, a high-level independent assessment panel ultimately awards the grades.
A Programme for a Partnership Government committed to introduce subsidised high-quality childcare for children aged nine-36 months and to continue to support low-income families through a simplified targeted childcare subsidy.
This is a long-awaited and vital commitment by Government. Childcare costs are unaffordable for many parents in Ireland, as SVP Members know well from visiting their homes. You won’t be surprised to learn that childcare costs in Ireland are the highest for one-parent families and the second highest for two-parent families in the EU. This is partly due to the lack of a comprehensive childcare subsidy system, available in most EU countries.
Unaffordable childcare can prevent children from accessing the quality early education, from which they could benefit, particularly children whose home environment does not support their learning and development. Research by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice indicates that excessive childcare costs compromise the ability of some low-paid families to meet their basic living costs. Unaffordable childcare costs can prevent parents from working outside the home, which is bad news for our high child poverty rates.
The Government received a ‘B+’ grade for its commitment to introduce a childcare subsidy for children aged six-months to three-years and to continue to support low-income families through a simplified targeted childcare subsidy. It was the highest grade in Report Card 2017. The Government’s efforts to meet broader childcare commitments, including improving service quality, received a ‘C+’.
When the ‘B+’ was awarded when Report Card 2017 went to print in January, the Government’s much-publicised ‘Affordable Childcare Scheme’ (ACS) was at an advanced stage of development and had been allocated an additional €19m in Budget 2017. The ACS is a scheme of financial support for all parents, which aims to make childcare more affordable in respect of children aged six-months to 15 years old.
All children under three can benefit from some level of subsidy regardless of parental income, making this the first time that an Irish Government has introduced a ‘universal’ childcare subsidy. A means-tested, simplified, targeted subsidy is also available through the ACS to low- and middle-income families, widening access to childcare subsidies to parents in both employment and in training/education on the basis of household income. The ACS also represents the first time that a broad group of parents will be supported to meet the costs of childcare during school holidays and after-school.
An estimated 79,000 children were to benefit from the ACS from September 2017 – including 31,500 children already in receipt of a targeted subsidy and 47,5000 new beneficiaries whose parents would receive a childcare subsidy for the very first time.
The Alliance recognises that the early childhood and school age childcare sectors are historically underdeveloped and require quality enhancement; however, we welcome the ACS as potentially transformational in supporting access for children to services, and supporting hard-pressed parents make ends meet.
The introduction of the Affordable Childcare Scheme has been postponed. In April 2017, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs announced that the online IT system through which parents would apply and be means-tested for the subsidy would not be ready to support the implementation of the ACS in September 2017.
The Government now proposes to make childcare ‘more affordable’ for an estimated 70,000 children, rather than 79,000 this year. Without an operational online IT system, means-testing to determine eligibility for targeted subsidies is not possible, which is why fewer parents will qualify for a subsidy. It can only be dispensed to parents who have been previously means-tested for another purpose, e.g., social welfare payments, Family Income Supplement, or the GP card for a child over six.
The existing targeted childcare schemes, which were to be simplified, will be used to distribute increased levels of subsidy to childcare services. This means that childcare providers, rather than the planned online system, will have the difficult job of determining eligibility. This is not ideal for the smooth implementation of the scheme. However, no means-testing is required to qualify for the universal element of the ACS for children under three so these decisions should be more straightforward.
Is all this good or bad news? It is good news that the €19m additional childcare funding allocated in Budget 2017 will still be used for childcare. It is good news that far more parents and children than ever before should receive some level of childcare subsidy from September. It is bad news that around 9,000 children who were expected to receive a childcare subsidy under ACS may not receive it in September. Additionally, the level of subsidy that parents and children may receive this year may be different to that they will receive under ACS when means-tested for it in the future.
What grade will the Government receive next year in Report Card 2018 for its efforts to improve childcare affordability for parents? We will need to wait and see how effective and efficient the implementation of more affordable childcare is this September and whether or not it improves children’s access to childcare services and supports families’ standards of living.
It also depends on when the ACS is actually implemented, as Government has not yet indicated a date.
The story of the delivery of the current Government’s commitments on childcare affordability is far from over.
Report Card 2017 is available here.
Click here for information on More Affordable Childcare.
Download the full Programme for a Partnership Government here.
Early Years Manager
Children's Rights Manager