All Party Group meeting emphasises vital role of early education and childcare in giving children the best start in life

The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare, chaired by Chris Lyttle MLA, met remotely on Thursday 13 January 2022 to hear from experts discussing the critical role of early education and childcare in giving children and young people the best start in life. The group heard three informative and engaging presentations from:

  • Dr Nathan Archer, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, University of Leeds and Member of the Advisory Group of the Nuffield Foundation Early Childhood project
  • Teresa Geraghty, Senior Research Analyst, NCB
  • Pauline Walmsley, Chief Executive, Early Years – the organisation for young children.

The meeting was marked by constructive and meaningful engagement from elected representatives from five parties – including Chair Chris Lyttle (Alliance), Vice-Chair Sinead McLaughlin (SDLP) and Secretary Nicola Brogan (Sinn Féin) – together with more than 50 stakeholders representing early education and childcare, departmental officials, the women’s sector, business, parents’ organisations and the broader third sector.


Dr Nathan Archer shared the findings of a Nuffield Foundation report he co-authored on the role of early childhood education and care in shaping life chances. While recognising that there has been progress in recent years, both in policy and practice, the report calls for a wholescale system review of early education and care. Dr Archer referred to key issues including:

  • Complexities in the allocation of funding
  • Insufficient emphasis on the quality of provision
  • Potential conflict between the dual objectives of educating children, and enabling parents to work
  • Underfunding of the sector impacting negatively on sustainability
  • A lack of funded programmes for children age 2 and under
  • Children from disadvantaged families being less likely to benefit from funded childcare entitlements
  • Workforce challenges within the sector including low pay, limited opportunities for progression and a perceived lack of value. Strikingly, Dr Archer highlighted that 45% of the early years workforce in England are also claiming state benefits.

He pointed to a growing international and UK evidence base demonstrating the positive impacts both in the short-term and the longer term for children who benefit from high quality early education and childcare. Looking ahead, in learning for the development of a new Childcare Strategy in Northern Ireland, key take-aways included:

  • The importance of ensuring clarity of purpose when designing new policies
  • Considering the needs of young children and their families
  • Prioritising disadvantaged children in order to deliver the greatest impact.

Teresa Geraghty from NCB presented compelling research and shared the experiences of parents in Northern Ireland who have a child with additional needs and were impacted by an inability to access early education provision for their children during the Covid-19 pandemic. She highlighted these challenges through powerful direct quotes from parents who expressed feelings of fear, stress and anxiety when reporting how the enforced closure of schools and some childcare settings had disrupted routines, particularly for families of children with additional needs.

As well as impacting directly on the learning and educational development of children, parents also emphasised how their children had lost out on opportunities for social and emotional development, physical therapies and speech and language support. Looking ahead, Teresa echoed a similar view to Nathan, calling for a more holistic and coordinated approach to address complexity and fragmentation within the systems and structures in place to support children in their earliest years.

Pauline Walmsley from Early Years drew together some of the key themes discussed in the earlier presentations, and made the compelling argument that without significant investment in early learning and childcare, the children of Northern Ireland will not realise their full potential.

Pauline highlighted a wealth of research and policy underpinning the need for investment in this vital sector to ensure quality outcomes. Internationally, this has been recognised through the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and within the UN Sustainable Development Goals. She referred to research which has shown that:

  • 80% of brain growth and development happens in the first three years
  • Experiences during these years shape how a child sees the world
  • During this time, a child will develop the first 1000 words of their vocabulary
  • And the earlier the investment – pre-natal and in the 0-3 age group – the greater the return.

 And yet, Pauline highlighted that we are perpetuating a historic underinvestment in public spending on early childcare education and care, at a level that is below the OECD and EU averages.

Across each of the presentations there was a clear recognition of the vital role played by the early education and childcare workforce, and that investment is key to ensuring that those working in the sector are properly valued and recognised, can benefit from better pay and conditions, and have clear pathways for qualifications and career progression.

The presentations were followed by an engaged and insightful question and discussion session with members and stakeholders.

All presentations are available to view and download from the top of the page.

Thanks to expert and engaging speakers

Commenting on today’s meeting, Chair Chris Lyttle MLA thanked the speakers for their time and expertise, and all those who attended for their engagement:

“A huge thank you to today’s speakers and to all who attended the latest meeting of this important All Party Group. I continue to be impressed by the high standards and professionalism presented by those who work within and lead our early education and childcare sectors. Today’s meeting once again brought powerful testimony of the need to invest in this critical sector and the benefits of doing so – to support the development of all of our children, to help their parents to get into and stay in work, to enable employers to have access to the staff they need and, vitally, to ensure those that work in the sector are adequately recognised and rewarded for their role as early years educators.

We have heard all the evidence, now we need to see action and a coherent vision for early education and childcare implemented through a bold and ambitious Childcare Strategy, which must be an urgent priority for the Executive”.

Financial support for the childcare sector

Members also heard that, at the Assembly Recall debate on Monday 10 January 2022, Education Minister Michelle McIlveen announced the Department of Education is at an advanced stage in finalising the business case for an extension to the Childcare Temporary Closure Fund, details of which she hopes will be announced soon. Similarly, a bid has been made for further funding to enable the re-opening of the Childcare Sustainability Fund. Members of the All Party Group are keen to see these funds confirmed as soon as possible, to ensure the early education and childcare sector receives the support it needs to continue to function as a critical part of our economic and social infrastructure.

Looking ahead

The Group also heard a brief update from the Department of Education which, within the next month, aims to finalise the report from the Strategic Insight Lab process that took place at the end of 2021, focusing on the actions and solutions needed as part of a new Childcare Strategy. The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare will meet again in March 2022 in what will be its last meeting prior to the Assembly election in May – we look forward to a further update at this meeting on progress towards a new Childcare Strategy, which must be a key priority for the Executive following the election.

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 or 028 9267 8200.