All Party Group hears about recent childcare developments in England and an update on the Review of Minimum Standards and the Childcare Strategy

The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare, chaired by Nicola Brogan MLA, met in the Senate Chamber at Parliament Buildings, Stormont on Thursday 27 April 2023. This in-person meeting brought together more than 40 attendees including elected representatives, senior departmental officials and a wide range of stakeholders representing early education and childcare, the women’s sector, business, parents’ organisations and more.

Before moving on to the main business of the meeting, Chair Nicola Brogan, MLA provided a short update on action points from the last meeting:

  • Having written to the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Finance regarding business rates for registered childcare providers, the response – which was shared with members – advised there can be no new rate relief policy developed in the absence of a functioning Assembly and Executive, and that a proposal and business case from the Department of Education would be required;
  • Having written to the Secretary of State regarding the Barnett consequentials associations with the childcare announcements in the Spring Budget, a response is still awaited;
  • Carers NI have indicated that they would be happy to share the recommendations of the new Care Poverty Commission later in the year.

Update on Spring Budget childcare announcements

Aoife Hamilton from Employers For Childcare gave a short presentation on the childcare announcements from Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Spring Budget. These ambitious plans are part of a Westminster Government drive to encourage more people back to work and to boost economic growth. In making the announcements, the Chancellor acknowledged that childcare costs in the UK are amongst the highest in the world, and have been identified as a barrier to parents – particularly mothers – going back to work or working full-time.

The key announcements were:

  • 30 hours free childcare scheme expanded in England to children from 9 months (over the next two years)
  • Increased funding for childcare providers who currently deliver free childcare hours
  • Additional funding for wraparound childcare provision
  • Flexibility in staff to child ratios in group settings
  • Financial incentives for childminders
  • More help with childcare costs through Universal Credit (UK wide).

Critically, other than the increased support with childcare costs through Universal Credit, these measures relate only to England and so will not benefit families in Northern Ireland. This package of support is expected to cost more than £4 billion and while equivalent funding will be made available to Northern Ireland through the Barnett formula, this will not be ring-fenced for childcare.

Learning for Northern Ireland

Aoife outlined some of the responses to the announcements from those across the childcare sector – which have been mixed. While the acknowledgement of the vital role of childcare in our economy and society has been welcomed, there is much concern about how the various schemes will operate in practice, particularly given historic underfunding of the existing 30 hours free childcare scheme, and the workforce challenges facing the sector.

She also identified that there is critical learning from developments in England for the work ongoing on our new Early Learning and Childcare Strategy. With this significant investment in England, the gap is widening even further between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK and Ireland in terms of recognition for the vital role of childcare.

Review of Minimum Standards delayed

Marc Bailie from the Family Policy Unit in the Department of Health had been scheduled to provide the Group with a detailed overview of the plan for the Review of Minimum Standards, which was due to take place in 2023, and to ‘workshop’ priority areas, issues and recommendations. Unfortunately, instead, Marc informed the Group that the Review has been delayed until 2024-25 due to internal resourcing issues but confirmed his intention that the Review of the Minimum Standards, while delayed to 2024-25, will be completed in-year.  He recognised the disappointment and concern that this would cause, and gave a commitment to retaining an open dialogue with the sector in relation to this important issue, in order to gain a better understanding of the priority areas for consideration and outlined his team’s intention to begin ‘data gathering’ in the current year. He also reflected on the importance of the Review, and the need to ensure it isn’t hampered by affordability considerations given the current financial situation.

Questions and discussion

Following Aoife’s presentation and Marc’s update, the group’s chair Nicola Brogan opened the floor to questions. Alongside proposals to re-establish the Childcare Reference Group, initially formed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the questions and discussion centred largely on the delayed Review of Minimum Standards, addressing issues such as timescales, engagement and communication, and the challenges faced by the sector in vetting staff. In particular, there was considerable discussion around delays in receiving GP health declarations for candidates, and the impact that this can have in recruiting new staff. Linked to this, similar issues are hampering the ability of students to undertake appropriate placements within childcare or, in some cases, to even be accepted onto relevant courses. This has significant workforce implications for providers. Based on the discussion, Marc agreed to give consideration to a communication for GPs.

During the discussion session, Tina Dempster from the Department of Education gave an update on the new Early Learning and Childcare Strategy. She advised that work continues to progress and that the strategy will be ambitious in its aims, rather than being constrained by the current challenging budgetary environment. While the strategy cannot be published for consultation without Executive agreement, Tina indicated that the team plans to engage with political representatives, and the childcare sector, to provide an outline of the general scope and direction of the strategy by mid June.

Thanks to speakers, members and stakeholders for their engagement

Commenting on today’s meeting, Chair Nicola Brogan MLA thanked the speakers, the members, and all those who attended:

“Thanks to everyone who participated in today’s meeting – while the news of the delay to the review of the Minimum Standards was not welcome, we are aware of the constraints the Department of Health is working under in the current budgetary environment and appreciate the open channels of communication between the department and the childcare sector on this important issue. We look forward to continuing to work with Department of Health officials to identify any short term measures that can be taken forward to alleviate some of the deep challenges faced by the sector.

 Hearing the detail of the Budget announcements on childcare to support parents in England brings into sharp focus the unacceptable lack of support here. It’s simply not good enough that we are falling further and further behind in terms of investing in this critical sector, which supports children, parents, employers and the wider economy and society.

 It is reassuring to hear from the Department of Education that work is continuing to progress on the new Early Learning and Childcare Strategy and we look forward to an update on this from officials in the coming weeks. But there is also deep concern across the sector at the ongoing – and worsening – impact of its absence, and the current lack of financial support. Childcare must be a day one priority for the restored Executive and this long-overdue and much-needed Strategy must be delivered as a matter of urgency.”

 Looking ahead

Chair Nicola Brogan closed the meeting by thanking all stakeholders for their continued high level of engagement with the All Party Group and advised that the next meeting would be the Group’s AGM on Wednesday 24 May, to be followed by a further meeting in late June, which will hear from parents on the impact of finding and paying for childcare.

Find out more about the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare

Further information on the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare, including links to read more about previous meetings, is available here.

Employers For Childcare provides the Secretariat for the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare – correspondence to