All Party Group hears about impact of finding and affording childcare on working parents and receives an update on the new 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 Wednesday 21 June 2023. This in-person meeting brought together more than 60 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, the first since the Group’s Annual General Meeting in May, Chair Nicola Brogan, MLA provided an update on action points from the last meeting:

  • Having written to the Secretary of State regarding the Barnett consequentials associated with the childcare announcements in the Spring Budget, details of a response from Minister of State Steve Baker, MP were shared with the group. The Minister advised that an Executive needs to be in place with an Education Minister in post to prioritise early years and that, because of the current budget deficit, any Barnett consequential allocations will go towards reducing that deficit. There is no imminent prospect of the equivalent funding that has been allocated to childcare in England being ring-fenced for childcare in Northern Ireland.
  • Having written to the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education regarding cuts to vital funding schemes providing much needed support to the childcare sector, confirmation was received that the proposed cuts to a range of Early Years programmes – including the Pathway Fund, Sure Start, Bright Start and Toybox – would not be proceeding. The Chair commended those at the meeting for their effective campaigning against the proposed cuts, while noting that deep financial challenges remain and the office bearers for the All Party Group will be meeting in coming weeks to discuss next steps.

Update from Department of Education – progress on new Early Learning and Childcare Strategy

Tina Dempster, Head of the Childcare Strategy Team within the Department of Education, and Marc Bailie, Head of the Family Policy Unit within the Department of Health, were both in attendance to provide an update on developments and address any matters arising.

Tina provided an overview of progress in relation to the new Early Learning and Childcare Strategy advising that targeted engagement is ongoing, alongside cross-departmental engagement. Costed options are still being finalised, and it is planned that this work will be advanced over the summer to allow for engagement with elected representatives and with the Stakeholder Engagement Forum in September on the options. Importantly, the costed options are not being hampered by the current funding situation, in recognition that significant new funding will be required to implement what is going to be an Executive Strategy. Tina also confirmed that the Independent Review of Childcare Services in Northern Ireland, undertaken by RSM, will be published on Thursday 22 June providing important context for the development of the new Strategy.

A lively discussion followed, with questions and input from all members of the All Party Group in attendance, as well as stakeholders. Issues discussed included the proposals around the standardisation of pre-school places, the need for ambition within the Strategy and the importance of continuing to gather learning from elsewhere in the UK and Ireland, while seeking a bespoke solution for Northern Ireland.

Stakeholders from the community day care sector raised the issue of planned funding cuts that had been reversed at the start of June, and highlighted that while there had been a reprieve for some important schemes, the experience had been traumatic for many of those working across the sector, and the families – particularly those who are facing the greatest disadvantage – who rely so much on their services. This had had a devastating impact also on the workforce across the sector.

There was also a discussion about the resourcing of Departments to take forward critical work both in the longer term, on Strategy development, and in supporting the sector and families in the here and now, as well as the importance of engagement with all Government Departments.

Presentation from parents group Melted Parents NI

Finally the group heard a number of powerful presentations from representatives of the recently-formed campaign group Melted Parents NI, who are campaigning for reform and investment in childcare to support parents. The personal presentations focused on the impact that finding and affording childcare has on parents – financially, mentally, emotionally and practically – from forcing parents to reduce their working hours, or leave their careers altogether, to restricting their family size. Particular challenges were highlighted for parents who have a child with additional needs.

The representations from the group reinforced the messages that the All Party Group attendees have been sharing with policy-makers and political representatives across the lifetime of the group – that investment in our childcare infrastructure through a new Childcare Strategy is both urgently needed and long-overdue.

A presentation delivered by members of the Melted Parents NI group, and their political briefing setting out key asks, can be downloaded from the top right of this page.

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:

“Thank you to everyone who participated in today’s meeting – while the ongoing delay in the progression of the new Early Learning and Childcare Strategy is a source of much frustration to all of us who have spent many years working hard on this issue, we continue to press for progress and to work together for the benefit of children, families, the childcare sector and our wider economy and society as a whole. A hallmark of this All Party Group, its membership and the stakeholders who give so generously of their time, is the constructive way in which issues are discussed, solutions raised and commitments shared. Through working together, it is clear that this Group has already played – and continues to play – a key role in securing and informing the development of the much-needed new Strategy.

The stories we heard from parents here today build upon the evidence that we have all been gathering for so long, and shows the impact that the lack of investment in our childcare sector is having on parents, on children and on our economy. They add to our call that childcare must be an urgent, day-one priority for a restored Executive.”

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 will be held via Zoom on Thursday 21 September at 2pm. The meeting will hear from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation who have recently published a new report, developed with Coram Family, into ‘Tackling disadvantage through childcare’ and from Neil Leitch, Chief Executive of the Early Years Alliance in England.

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