Childcare high on the agenda for Education Committee meeting
On Wednesday 8 April, the Education Committee received a briefing from the Education Minister, and posed questions to the Minister and officials from the Department of Education on activities in response to COVID-19.
Several members highlighted the importance of childcare at this time, and the need to ensure both that vital care is available for key workers now, and for this to be delivered safely and to ensure that the sector is supported to be sustainable as we move forward. Members referred to conversations with parents who are struggling to access the care they need, and with some childcare providers who are concerned that the value of the sector has not been sufficiently recognised.
The Minister confirmed that the Departments of Education and Health have been working on a new package of support for the childcare sector that is being put to the Executive for approval, and hopes to be able to announce details of this in the near future. No further information could be provided to the Committee in terms of detail or a timeline for the support package.
Employers For Childcare has been working closely with officials across a number of departments in relation to the development of guidance and continues to support the sector through the provision of information and advice. We would urge the Government to publish details of the support package as soon as possible given the time that has lapsed since childcare settings were closed to all but the children of key workers and vulnerable children.
Employers For Childcare briefing for Committee
Employers For Childcare provided a short briefing to members of the Committee ahead of the meeting, highlighting:
- how vital our childcare sector is as part of the early education and economic infrastructure which enables parents to access work, both during this crisis, and when it ends
- the work of officials and helpful engagement with the sector, research, development of guidance and updating of search functions on the Family Support NI website in a timely way – we appreciate all the hard work from the Departments of Health and Education and colleagues in the Health and Social Care Board at this challenging time
- queries our Family Benefits Advice Service helpline is continuing to receive from:
- key worker parents struggling to access the childcare they need
- childcare providers, including childminders having to exit the sector due to lack of support available
- families who are struggling financially due to a loss of income, or a reduction in their hours of work, but are being asked by their childcare provider to continue to pay for childcare that they cannot access.
While many providers are not charging, those that do may feel that they have no choice as, despite the Government support packages in place for businesses and the self-employed, these schemes are yet to pay out funds and providers may still have to pay overheads such as rent and insurance, in addition to staff salaries. Additionally, few can claim virus-related losses on their insurance.
Without immediate action we are concerned both that key workers will be unable to access the care they need in order to provide vital services in response to COVID-19, and that the childcare sector will be unable to recover from the impact of this crisis with many settings facing permanent closure.
What we have called for:
- Financial support for childcare providers: A comprehensive financial support package tailored specifically to the childcare sector, support for those that remain open to provide care for the children of key workers and vulnerable children. With much reduced numbers, it is likely that the cost of delivering this care will be significantly more than fees generated therefore intervention will be needed. A comprehensive support package for the sector could also avoid providers considering charges for parents who are not accessing childcare.
- Financial support for key worker parents: While parents may be eligible for support through existing schemes, families may still be experiencing financial hardship where one or more parents have seen a reduction in their income or hours worked. At the same time, key worker parents may be working additional hours and require additional hours of childcare. Many of these families may not normally pay for childcare, as it could be provided by grandparents or relatives, and they are now facing a previously un-budgeted for expense. This support could be targeted at providers to enable them to deliver care at a reduced cost or free of charge.
It is important we see some progress on the publication of details of any new support package quickly – Northern Ireland cannot be left behind in this or we risk the collapse of a sector that is critical to the economy, both during this crisis and when we move into the recovery phase.
Developments in other parts of the UK and Ireland
England: The Government is continuing to pay for free early years entitlement places for 2, 3 and 4 year olds even where settings are closed or children are not able to attend. This is in addition to the broader support schemes announced by the Government for businesses and the self-employed. Find out more here.
Wales: The Welsh Government has announced that key workers will be given free childcare for pre-school children during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ireland: The Government has announced that the wages of childcare workers will be paid for three months and has implemented an extensive package of support for childcare providers while facilities are closed including reimbursing staff costs and a fund for expenses like rent and utility bills. In return for this financial support, providers must agree not to charge parents for fees, to allow parents to keep their childcare places, and reinstate laid off staff on the same terms as before. Full details of the package of support here.
Anyone needing advice in relation to childcare, or the financial support available, call our Family Benefits Advice Service on Freephone 0800 028 3008 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.