All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare learns about policy developments in other jurisdictions

The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare, chaired by Chris Lyttle MLA (Alliance Party) met remotely this week (Thursday 25 March) to hear from experts in the field of early education and childcare, from England, Scotland and Ireland. The meeting was marked by constructive and meaningful engagement from almost 50 stakeholders from across the early education and childcare sectors, elected representatives and departmental officials.

The group heard three informative and engaging presentations from:

  • Neil Leitch, Chief Executive, Early Years Alliance (England)
  • Graeme McAlister, Chief Executive, The Scottish Childminding Association (Scotland)
  • Mark Considine, Principal Officer, Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (Ireland).

Approaches to policy in each of the jurisdictions has been very different, and this was reflected in the presentations. Reflecting on the experience in England, Neil focused on the importance of appropriately valuing the sector as vital early educators with a key role in giving children and young people the best start in life. He observed that, despite being an essential part of the national infrastructure, reports have evidenced that the sector has suffered from underfunding, both prior to and during the Covid-19 pandemic. Neil shared a moving video of parents describing the vital role of childcare providers in their child’s life and development.

In Scotland, developments in early learning and childcare have been a flagship policy for the Government with a strong focus on early intervention, and the introduction – delayed to August 2021 – of 1,140 hours a year of funded early learning and childcare for all three and four year olds, and eligible two year olds. However, Graeme identified significant challenges for the sector, and particularly for childminders, in the implementation of policies. With concerns in relation to workforce sustainability, financial viability and the impact of Covid-19, Graeme also reflected on the importance of changing perceptions of the sector and increasing the value attached to childcare and childminding.

In the Republic of Ireland, a new National Childcare Scheme was introduced in November 2019. Mark provided a detail overview of the Scheme, and its various elements including a ‘universal’ subsidy for parents, and an ‘income assessed’ subsidy that is means tested according to household income and circumstances. Recognising the complexity of the scheme, the Government has sought to streamline as much as possible at the ‘front end’ interface for parents, carrying out as much work as possible in the background to ensure families get the right support. Overall, the scheme is targeted to ensure that those who need it most, get the most support.

While each jurisdiction faces its own challenges, clear and shared themes emerged, with particular issues around funding, gender inequalities and how the workforce is valued in terms of recognition and pay – but also a shared emphasis on ensuring that the child is at the heart of policy development. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was also highlighted by all speakers and Neil provided a powerful quote emphasising the importance of addressing these issues: “there can be no return to normal because normal was the problem in the first place”, stressing how Covid-19 has only exacerbated issues within the sector.

A lively and constructive discussion followed the three presentations, from discussing examples of best practice with speakers identifying constructive policy developments in Scandinavian countries where significant investment is provided in early education and childcare provision, to the importance of valuing and recognising the high-quality professional work of the childcare workforce. It was also noted how important it is to remove barriers for women – both within the childcare workforce and also to support more women to get into work, education or training. Finally, the urgency of introducing a fully-costed Childcare Strategy was stressed, with the importance of learning from the models introduced in England, Scotland and Ireland, in developing a policy that is right for Northern Ireland.

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: “It was both interesting and informative to learn more about policy developments across the UK and Ireland. I would like to sincerely thank each of our expert speakers for their time and the insights that they have shared. It’s important that going forward we can learn from their experience and apply this learning to inform a Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland, which is much needed and long overdue to support parents and our vital childcare sector, as well as facilitating the economic and social recovery from Covid-19. Thank you also to those who attended for their constructive and meaningful engagement, which will be key in helping to inform developments here.”

Looking ahead

The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare will continue to meet on a regular basis, working constructively with the Departments of Education and Health and other key stakeholders to ensure progress on these important issues. It was agreed that the next meeting, which will focus on childcare for children with additional needs, will be scheduled for May 2021.

Employers For Childcare provides the Secretariat for the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare – correspondence to or 028 9267 8200.