Childcare must be a day one priority for new Education and Economy Ministers

This week, we welcome a new Education Minister – Michelle McIlveen, and a new Economy Minister – Paul Frew, to the Executive. Action on childcare must be top of the agenda for both Ministers to ensure that our children and young people get the best start in life, and that our economy can thrive as we work towards our recovery from Covid-19.

Essential economic infrastructure

Childcare is part of our essential economic infrastructure, with a key role to play in helping parents move into work and thereby addressing Northern Ireland’s enduring high levels of economic inactivity. Without it, employers struggle or are unable to recruit or retain skilled staff from amongst the 350,000 working parents with dependent children in Northern Ireland. Last year, our research with parents revealed that over 80% were using some formal childcare. However, many parents question whether this is sustainable if they are struggling to pay their childcare bill or to find the hours of childcare they need. In the words of one parent:

“Making the decision to return to work after having a baby is tough when faced with childcare costs. Many women take longer leave or leave their work as a result of crippling childcare costs with two or more children.”

An accessible, high quality, affordable childcare system is therefore essential if we are to move towards an economy which supports everyone to thrive and enables all sectors – whether that is big business, small enterprise or the self-employed, and from retail and hospitality and tourism to IT, services and construction – to achieve their full potential.

Achieving the Department for the Economy’s ’10X Economy: Economic Vision for a decade of innovation’ must be underpinned by significant investment in our childcare system, and its recognition as a key element of our economic infrastructure, as starkly demonstrated during Covid-19. This is an investment where the positive return on our economic and societal wellbeing will be much more than 10X.

We have been making this case strongly for many years, but it’s now not just us saying this. It’s encouraging to see the local business community also making the case for urgent investment in childcare. Just today FSB NI and Women in Business NI are both urging the new Ministers to “place the business of properly investing in childcare at the very top of their in-trays”.

We support this call and agree that there is a vital role for business leaders in helping to make the case to Government – if we aspire to a prosperous, productive economy, we must see investment in childcare that allows parents, and mothers in particular, to get into, and crucially remain in work.  We cannot wait any longer – parents and providers need to see support now.

Giving our children and young people the best start in life

High quality childcare has long been recognised as playing a key role in the early education and development of children. Recent research from Save the Children highlighted that children who benefit from high-quality childcare start school, on average, around eight months ahead, developmentally, of children who do not attend any childcare.

The recent report examining persistent educational underachievement in Northern Ireland – A Fair Start – has built on this work to make a clear case for redirecting focus to the early years, and bringing forward a Childcare Strategy, recognising the benefits of effective early intervention on physical and mental well-being, educational attainment and longer-term employment prospects.

Next steps

The vital role of childcare has been brought into sharp focus during Covid-19, but many of the pressures we are seeing now were challenges that already existed, prior to the pandemic

We are calling on both Michelle McIlveen and Paul Frew in their roles as Education and Economy Ministers to ensure that childcare is rightly recognised as a top priority for the Executive, both in terms of educating and developing our children, and in ensuring that parents can work. As demonstrated through research from Professor James Heckman, investment in childcare and early education:

  • Helps to reduce deficits and strengthen the economy, promoting economic growth and
  • Drives success in school and life, with significant returns in terms of educational, health and productivity outcomes.

We look forward to working with both Ministers through the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare and to seeing progress on a much needed and overdue Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland.