Alliance Party of Northern Ireland publishes new childcare proposal

The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland has this week published its new plans for an affordable childcare scheme. Called ‘Children First’, the party says the scheme would significantly reduce the cost of childcare for parents, while helping to improve the quality of childcare provision, and supporting the childcare sector to be more sustainable.

The party, in its paper, demonstrates interest in the work that we at Employers For Childcare have been doing on an affordable childcare model, as well as looking at the core funding model introduced recently in the Republic of Ireland. The party is proposing a model involving core funding, or a supply-side subsidy, paid directly to providers (rather than a free childcare offer, like what is in offer in England).  Employers For Childcare has previously set out the problems associated with the 30 hours free childcare offer in England in an article here.

Funding would be set at a level that is sensitive to both supply and demand and would be conditional on:

  • Child-centred care – providers should work with education and health professionals where required, such as health visitors and speech and language therapists, to provide integrated support to children and so that provision is truly accessible to all children.
  • Affordability – reducing the cost to parents and carers.
  • Quality – mandating how settings should provide early years care and play-based learning for children.
  • Qualifications – using a skills and qualification framework for childcare workers that drives up quality and allows for progression within the sector, learning from examples such as Denmark.
  • Training – ensuring childcare settings are both qualified and confident in catering for children with additional needs or who may not have English as a first language.
  • Flexibility – providers would have to guarantee standardised operating hours and the subsidy applies year-round, rather than term-time only or for a fixed number of hours.

In practice, Alliance sees this working as a subsidy that is introduced gradually, increasing over time, that complements (but is additional to) the financial support available to parents through Tax-Free Childcare and Universal Credit.  It believes that further modelling is needed to scope out the level of investment required, and the associated savings that will be delivered to parents.

Commenting on the launch of the report, Alliance’s Early Years and Childcare spokesperson, South Belfast MLA Kate Nicholl said: “Alliance’s proposals for an affordable childcare scheme would deliver a practical and child-centred solution to the current crisis, with reduced costs for parents and more support for childcare providers. We need to be ambitious for our children and families. Alliance will deliver affordable, quality, flexible, child-centred care, with core-funding paid directly to providers as the best way to promote a system that’s flexible and available to all.

“Not only will this ensure children are placed at the heart of the system, but will increase the quality of childcare provision as staff are upskilled through enhanced training and qualifications, bolstering the sector.

“We are confident this document can act as a blueprint for an incoming Executive, which if restored and reformed, can begin to deliver quality childcare for all children.”

Employers For Childcare’s response

Employers For Childcare welcomes these proposals from the Alliance Party in relation to the future direction of childcare policy in Northern Ireland, particularly in regard to the dual approach of both supporting child development, as well as parental employment.

The proposals show clear learning from experiences elsewhere, including other parts of the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

It is important that a model for an Affordable Childcare Scheme based on supply-side funding is reflected in the costed options that are currently being developed by the Department of Education, as part of work towards a new Early Learning and Childcare Strategy.

The full Alliance Party childcare policy paper ‘Children First’ can be downloaded here.