Challenges facing Northern Ireland’s childcare sector could pose major threat to the economy

Employers For Childcare today (Tuesday 23 November) publishes the most recent Northern Ireland Childcare Survey, with a warning that Northern Ireland could be facing into a childcare crisis which would have a severe impact on parents’ ability to work. This would further add to the pressures on the economy with many employers already struggling to recruit and retain staff. Almost a third of childcare providers who responded to the survey described their financial position as “struggling” or “distressed” meaning that they are focused on survival over the next year or, in some cases, at immediate risk of closure.

Childcare providers point to Covid-19 related pressures having added to the challenges already facing their sector. 7 out of 10 are either just breaking even or are making a loss, which is clearly not sustainable in the longer term. A third of providers anticipate increasing their fees in the next year to stay afloat – rising to two thirds of day nurseries. The impact is not just financial, with three quarters of Northern Ireland’s childcare providers reporting that Covid-19 has had a negative impact on them or their staff in terms of mental health and well-being. At the same time, families are struggling to find and pay for the childcare they need with over a quarter (28%) of parents having difficulties meeting the costs of childcare. The average cost of a full-time childcare place here is now over a third of average household income – one of the highest figures across all OECD countries.

Aoife Hamilton, Head of Charity Services at Employers For Childcare, comments: “We have been reporting on childcare in Northern Ireland for over a decade and for many years, parents and childcare providers have been telling us about the issues they face, but this is the most worrying picture yet. Childcare providers are facing unprecedented challenges – in recruiting and retaining staff and meeting salaries, particularly with the increase announced to the National Living Wage, as well as rising food and energy costs and uncertainty over numbers and occupancy levels. This could impact on their ability to deliver the high-quality childcare that enables parents to work. The sector rightly benefited from vital Government funding during Covid-19 which was a real lifeline for many but now much, much more is required. We need to see long-term, strategic investment in this essential economic sector. Without it, costs are likely to continue to rise and the sector will be at risk of collapse meaning parents will be unable to work, our economic recovery will be held back and children will miss out on important developmental opportunities.

Looking ahead, Aoife continues: “Work is underway on a new Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland and there is now a not-to-be-missed opportunity for our Executive Ministers to show their commitment to building back better, and creating a world-class childcare infrastructure – that supports parents to work, aids the wider economy and society and critically, invests in the social and educational development of our children – the benefits of which will be felt for generations to come. Ahead of the upcoming Assembly Elections we are calling on all of our elected representatives and candidates to listen to parents and childcare providers and to make sure childcare is a top priority for a new Executive”.

Aoife concludes: “Although most working parents will be eligible for some financial support towards their childcare costs, a third of parents told us they are not claiming any help with their childcare – so we would urge all parents, whatever their income level, to call our Family Benefits Advice Service on Freephone 0800 028 3008 and we can identify what is available for their family”.

Download the Northern Ireland Childcare Survey 2021 and Executive Summary here.

Employers For Childcare has been tracking the affordability and provision of childcare in Northern Ireland through the ‘Northern Ireland Childcare Survey’ since 2010. The 2021 survey received 1,580 responses from parents and 714 responses from childcare providers.

Key findings

  • The average cost of a full-time childcare place in Northern Ireland is £170 per week:
    • £186 per week for a day nursery
    • £166 per week for a childminder
  • The full-time average of £170 per week is equivalent to 34% of the median weekly household income in Northern Ireland (latest figures published 5 August 2021)
  • Day nursery costs ranged from £120 per week to £245 per week with the range for childminders being from £100 to £300 per week.
  • The average weekly cost of a full-time childcare place is highest in Co Antrim (£174) and lowest in Co Tyrone (£150).
  • In 2021 families reported using an average of 39 hours of childcare per week, a decrease from 42 hours in 2020.

Aoife Hamilton, Head of Charity Services at Employers For Childcare launches the 12th Northern Ireland Childcare Survey with an appeal to elected representatives to make childcare a top priority to support parents who need to access childcare to work and to enable providers to deliver high quality childcare in a way that is sustainable. It's vital if we are to build back better from Covid-19 that we invest in our childcare infrastructure, to support parents, providers, the economy and children's development.