All Party Group on Early Learning and Childcare hears an update on the Review of the Minimum Standards for day care and childminding

The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare, chaired by Nicola Brogan MLA, held its latest meeting yesterday (Thursday 25 April) at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. This meeting saw a full house in the Long Gallery with attendance from over 70 people, 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.

This was the first meeting of the APG since the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. The APG, its members and the dedicated stakeholders who have engaged so constructively since it was set up in 2020, have played a critical role:

  • In getting early learning and childcare to the top of the political agenda
  • In raising awareness and understanding of issues facing families, childcare providers and more widely
  • And in putting forward solutions.

The Chair provided an update on action points from the last meeting:

Invitation to Education Minister: The Minister has responded positively to a request to attend the APG and we are awaiting dates from his Diary Secretary to get this scheduled. As soon as a date is confirmed, details will be shared.

Correspondence with Finance Minister and the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Finance: The APG wrote to the Finance Minister, and to the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Finance, regarding the Tax-Free Childcare scheme and their engagement with Treasury on this matter. Neil Gibson, Permanent Secretary, advised that his Department had not had correspondence with Treasury in relation to an increase in financial support for parents through the Tax-Free Childcare scheme, but he confirmed that he would ask officials to raise this with them.

Response from the Secretary of State: Having previously written to the Secretary of State about a wide range of issues in relation to early learning and childcare, the APG received a response from Steve Baker MP advising that the Secretary of State will be working with the new First and Deputy First Minister, Executive and Assembly to improve the lives of people here.

Engagement with new All Party Group on Skills: The APG has linked in with the new All Party Group on Skills, chaired by Sorcha Eastwood, and plan to hold a joint meeting – recognising the interlinking of issues in relation to childcare and skills – later in the year.

She went on to share a policy update from Tina Dempster, Department of Education:

  • The development of an Executive Early Learning and Childcare Strategy remains one of the Minister’s top priorities.  He has met parents, providers and key stakeholders to hear first hand the issues and challenges they currently face.
  • Officials are working at pace to identify a package of measures which could be introduced in the current financial year.  The cross-departmental Task and Finish Group has been feeding into this work and good progress has been made.
  • The scale of what can be done will be determined by the budget allocated by the Executive.  However, the Minister is aware of the urgency and hopes to bring proposals to the Executive in the next few weeks.

Update from Aoife Hamilton, Employers For Childcare (APG Secretariat)

Aoife Hamilton provided a brief overview of some of the developments that have taken place since the last meeting of the APG, focusing on the numbers:

  • Childcare was identified as a Day 1 priority for the new Executive with a number of Ministers highlighting its importance in their opening speeches
  • There have been 91 written questions submitted for answer by Ministers on childcare
  • There have been 9 meetings of the Assembly’s Education Committee, including one meeting exclusively focused on childcare, with a briefing from Employers For Childcare, including on the work of the APG
  • Childcare was identified by the Economy Minister as 1 of 4 key priorities for the economy
  • There has been 1 enquiry on childcare announced by the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly
  • Childcare fees continuing to increase – 73% of providers have either increased their fees since the start of the year or plan to do so before June and 60% of day nurseries are struggling or distressed.

She highlighted again the significant work that has taken place by stakeholders across the sector to share insight, information and experiences to inform the future development of childcare policy. Collectively, the argument has been made that families and childcare providers are struggling now, and need urgent support, in addition to the need for progress on, and a timeline for the new Early Learning and Childcare Strategy.

As the APG met, it was announced that the Executive had agreed a Budget, including a specific allocation of funds for childcare. This is an important step, but much more investment will be needed and further information is required on plans for how this funding will be allocated to enable an assessment of the extent to which these will address the issues facing the sector.

Department of Health workshop of Review of the Minimum Standards for Childminding and Day Care

Following Aoife’s update, the Chair moved on to the main business of the meeting, a workshop on the Review of the Minimum Standards for Childminding and Day Care, facilitated by Marc Bailie, Department of Health.

Marc began by providing some background to the Minimum Standards and accompanying implementation guidance, which are now due for review. He recognised the importance of taking on board a wide range of views as part of the review process, including hearing from stakeholder groups who can be less well represented.

He outlined that a Task and Finish Group and a Review Reference Group would be set up to take forward the work, gathering best practice, evidence and learning from elsewhere, including representation from a wide range of stakeholders:

  • Departmental colleagues
  • Social services
  • Health and social care trusts
  • Providers
  • Children’s representatives
  • Parents’ representatives

In terms of a timeline for the review, in the coming weeks, the Department of Health will launch a public consultation focusing on two key areas raised by childcare providers and representatives:

  • Adult to child ratios
  • Health declaration for prospective childcare workers

While this consultation is out for response, the Department will establish a Review Reference Group which will be tasked with reviewing each of the Minimum Standards and proposing changes. The final stage of the review will be a full public consultation on a revised set of Minimum Standards – the aim is to have this completed within the current financial year.

Following the introduction and overview, Marc asked each of the groups to nominate volunteers for the Review Reference Group. Groups were then asked to feed back their views on how the review can best engage with particular stakeholder groups:

  • Childcare staff
  • Parents
  • Children

This was also an opportunity to record points for the review to consider, following constructive discussion among the groups. All information was collected by the Department for further consideration.

Following the discussion sessions, there were questions and points from each of the groups. Some of the discussion points raised included:

  • Broad welcome for the process and the engagement
  • Importance of engaging directly with and hearing from children and support for doing this
  • Tackling the growing issue of unregistered childminders
  • Balancing the review of adult to child ratios with factors including:
    • Not compromising quality
    • Not putting additional pressure on already stretched staff
    • Resource challenges
    • Additional challenges for some sectors eg Irish Medium
  • Recognition of the high quality within the sector, keen to ensure standards remain aspirational
  • Stakeholders keen to workshop some of the standards
  • Request for update on when the requirement for the GP declaration might be changed. Emphasis that this is a requirement in the childcare sector only, not within education more broadly – about achieving parity
  • Invitation to Marc and team from Department to get out into settings, to experience on the ground what it is like to run a quality childcare setting, take sectoral opinions on board
  • Scope to extend Minimum Standards, currently apply up to age 12 – particularly relevant for children with a disability – in the age ground 12-18 – they and their families could benefit from longer childcare provision
  • Importance of having a good evidence base, using research and experience within other jurisdictions to make informed decisions.

Conclusion and summary

With the Chair having left the APG to attend another meeting, the group was brought to a close by Aoife Hamilton, Secretariat. Looking ahead to the next meeting of the APG, Aoife indicated that the Education Minister Paul Givan has indicated his willingness to attend and that as soon as a suitable date has been agreed, this will be circulated. She also discussed themes for future APG meetings including SEN, Skills, Equality and pedagogy.

The Equality Commission has updated its childcare briefing, presenting an opportunity to approach childcare and early learning through an equality impact lens – available here.

Speaking following the meeting, Chair Nicola Brogan, MLA thanked Marc Bailie and his team from the Department of Health, the members, and all those who attended:

“Thank you to everyone who attended and participated in today’s All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare. The packed Long Gallery was an indication of how important the Review of the Minimum Standards is to stakeholders including providers, families and children. This is an issue that has been raised on many occasions through the All Party Group, so it is positive that we now have a timeline, and can expect further consultation to launch within the coming weeks. I’d like to thank Marc Bailie, Head of the Family Policy Unit within the Department of Health, and his team, for facilitating today’s workshop and I know that they will benefit from the constructive engagement of our All Party Group’s members and stakeholders.

Following the agreement of a new Budget by the Executive today, this Group remains a critical forum for maintaining constructive pressure on Ministers to secure progress, and as a forum for learning to inform policy making that delivers the best possible outcomes for children, parents and providers.”

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