All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare meets to hear about childcare for children with additional needs

The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare, chaired by Chris Lyttle MLA (Alliance) met remotely today (20 May 2021) to discuss the vital issue of access to childcare for children with additional needs. The meeting was marked by constructive and meaningful engagement from over 30 stakeholders from across the early education and childcare sectors, elected representatives and departmental officials.

The group initially heard from Christine Leacock, Pre-School Education Team, Department of Education, who provided an update on the Pre-School Admission Criteria Consultation which is currently open. The Pre-School Education Programme provides a year of funded pre-school education for children aged 3 to 4 in their pre-school year. Christine explained that the focus of the consultation is the statutory admissions criteria for pre-school education, particularly views on proposals to amend the definition of “children from socially disadvantaged circumstances” within current admission criteria. The consultation also asks about different pre-school session lengths and how any future standardisation of session times might impact views about the admissions criterion. The consultation will close on Friday 16 July 2021, and responses can be submitted here.

The group then heard three informative and engaging presentations from:

  • Orla Fitzsimons, Chief Executive, Parent Action CIC
  • Dr Joan Henderson, Founder and Managing Director, Solas
  • Jenny Adair, Childcare Partnership Manager, Health and Social Care Board

Parent Action is a human rights based organisation which advocates on behalf of parent carers of children and adults with additional needs, who are in turn advocates for their child’s rights to access public services. Orla highlighted the increasing pressures families are under, and how many parent carers, particularly mothers, can be forced to give up work because of their caring responsibilities. Orla shared the moving real-life experience of a parent carer who has a child with additional needs, and highlighted how important the family’s childcare provider has been in supporting the child’s development and also for wider family support.

Joan founded Solas in 2009 as a charity which specialises in early education and social development programmes for children with additional needs and also provides family and home support training parent programmes. Joan highlighted the need to strengthen the current legal framework, which does not currently include provision for children with a disability or for childcare for children aged over 12 – creating significant issues for families of a young person with additional needs and who need this vital support. Joan suggested carrying out pilot projects with older children on how best to provide care and development for them, whilst also supporting their parents to access and stay in work. Joan also called for The Children (NI) Order 1995 to be amended to include children with a disability up to the age of 19.

Jenny gave an update of ongoing work being coordinated by the Childcare Partnerships to address inequalities in our childcare system and how best to support families. Jenny provided details on a new Children with Disabilities Working Group established in August 2020 to help address challenges for both families and childcare providers through research, whilst also sharing knowledge and identifying model of good practice to provide high quality care and learning environments. The research identified several recommendations to inform roundtable discussions and it is hoped that a number of key actions will be delivered within the next 12 to 18 months to help inform a Childcare Strategy and review of Minimum Standards which is anticipated in 2022.

Commenting on today’s meeting, Chair Chris Lyttle MLA reflected on a busy, proactive first year for the All Party Group and expressed his thanks to those who spoke at and attended today’s meeting:

“I would like to thank each of our speakers for their time and the insights that they have shared from a parental, practitioner and policy-maker perspective. It’s important that going forward we can learn from their experiences and apply this 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 our recovery from Covid-19. Thank you also to those who attended for their engagement, which will be key in helping to inform developments.

“Since the All Party Group’s establishment last year, we have held six constructive meetings with participation from the Education Minister, senior officials from the Departments of Health and Education, and a wide range of independent stakeholders including childcare providers, membership bodies, charities, women’s sector representatives, employer groups and trade unions. This demonstrates the wide ranging commitment to secure progress on this vital issue, and we look forward to now to setting a work plan for year two of this critical All Party Group and to continuing our work together.”

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 will be scheduled for September 2021.

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