Education Minister addresses All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare on progress towards a new Childcare Strategy

The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare, chaired by Chris Lyttle MLA (Alliance) met remotely on 22 September 2021 to hear from Education Minister, Michelle McIlveen, and Tina Dempster, Head of the Childcare Strategy Team within the Department of Education, on progress towards a new childcare strategy for Northern Ireland. The meeting was marked by constructive and meaningful engagement from elected representatives – including Chair Chris Lyttle, Vice-Chair Sinead McLaughlin, Secretary Nicola Brogan and Treasurer Claire Sugden – and almost 50 stakeholders representing early education and childcare, the women’s sector, business community, parent organisations and the broader third sector.

Strategic Insight Programme launched to inform a new Childcare Strategy

Minister McIlveen welcomed the opportunity to engage with the All Party Group, and confirmed that her Department is now refocusing on a Childcare Strategy, having dedicated significant resources to responding to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the sector. This resulted in approximately £36 million being paid to childcare providers, to enable the sector to remain viable and childcare places to be available for families, at a time when the essential role played by early education and childcare to our broader society and economy was demonstrated more clearly than ever.

A draft Childcare Strategy was previously consulted on in 2015, and the Minister noted that – while that consultation provided important learning – there have been significant changes to the childcare landscape over the past number of years, and not just as a result of the pandemic. To inform next steps, the Department is therefore now launching a Strategic Insight Programme, being run by a dedicated team within the Department of Finance, seeking the views of key stakeholders on the objectives, priorities and key deliverables of a Childcare Strategy. Minister McIlveen outlined the key stages of the Programme:

  • Three initial engagement sessions for political representatives (involving the MLA members of the All Party Group), parents and childcare providers in early October
  • A half day challenge lab involving departmental officials, academics and other organisations
  • A two day strategic insight lab for key stakeholder organisations at the end of November.

A report will be produced by the Department of Finance by the end of December setting out the key findings from the programme. Alongside this, the Department is also commissioning an independent assessment of childcare services in Northern Ireland which should report by spring 2022.

It is anticipated that these two reports will then inform the next steps in establishing evidence based objectives, actions and – importantly – a costed delivery plan. The Minister confirmed that she is bidding for additional resources for the financial year 2022/23 to enable her Department to take forward the detailed planning work involved in the drafting of the Strategy itself. It was also confirmed that the final proposals which emerge from the programme will be consulted on, and that iterative, ongoing consultation will be a feature of the process.

The Minister expressed her hope that she would have the opportunity to speak with the All Party Group again, and to continue her engagement with members and stakeholders.

Progress welcomed while need for urgency and inclusivity emphasised

Members and stakeholders of the All Party Group welcomed the update and the ‘roadmap’ set out for the coming weeks and months.

During a constructive and lively discussion session, key points were put to Minister McIlveen and to Tina, particularly in relation to the inclusivity of the strategic engagement programme and to maintaining a real urgency in securing a strategy that has been already overdue for many years.

Stakeholders sought confirmation that the women’s sector would be included within any engagement, and specific consideration given to the gendered impact of lack of access to childcare. Similarly, the needs of rural families and providers were raised. Also discussed was the importance of securing a representative, inclusive cross-section of childcare providers, and that partnership with providers must be key to the on-going development of the Childcare Strategy. When engaging with parents, it was noted that parents who have a child with a disability must also be included, and their specific issues in securing accessible childcare considered.

Tina provided assurance that the Strategic Insight Programme will be broadly representative and, while numbers will be limited, groups identified in the discussion will be invited to participate in the process.

Several members raised the urgency of progress in securing a childcare strategy that delivers both affordable care which is essential for working parents, especially mothers,  and quality provision which helps to give children and young people the best start in life. It was raised that neither families nor providers can afford further delays, so ensuring a focused consultation process, and building on the wealth of work that has already been done, is essential.

Call for interim ongoing support for the childcare sector

In the absence of a Childcare Strategy, several stakeholders referenced how important the Covid-19 childcare support funds have been in supporting providers, and their concern that funding, as well as indemnity cover, are due to come to an end later this month. Referring to a staffing ‘crisis’, increasing costs and low morale there was a strong call for the value of the sector to be recognised, and for consideration to be given to further funding, together with practical recommendations such as a review of the staff to child ratios,. Without this, there is an associated risk that increased costs for settings could result in increased fees for parents.

The Department of Health has committed to a review of the Minimum Standards – including ratios – which will be informed by consultation with the sector.

Important themes for a new Childcare Strategy

Several important themes were raised in discussion, including:

  • The scope of the Childcare Strategy to cover the needs of families with children from 0 to age 14, not just in the ‘3-4 years’ age bracket
  • Affordability, quality and flexibility of provision
  • Childcare as a key building block within our economic infrastructure
  • The critical role of high quality childcare in relation to child development, particularly for children from a disadvantaged background
  • Adopting an integrated approach to early education and childcare, reflecting the importance particularly of the first three years of a child’s life
  • Alignment with the new Anti-Poverty Strategy that is being developed.

 Ongoing engagement with the All Party Group

Members welcomed the Minister’s engagement with the All Party Group and were keen for this to continue.

Chair Chris Lyttle MLA expressed his thanks to the Minister, and to all those who attended the meeting:

“Since its establishment last year the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare has pressed for progress in relation to the long overdue and much needed Childcare Strategy, so we welcome that a clear pathway is now in place for its development in partnership with childcare providers, families and key stakeholders across Northern Ireland.

I would like to thank Education Minister Michelle McIlveen, and Tina Dempster, Head of the Childcare Strategy Team, for taking the time to outline the next steps including an innovative Strategic Insight Programme, and to reiterate that the All Party Group remains a constructive forum for feedback, ongoing engagement and consultation.

Together with my colleagues on the All Party Group, and the range of dedicated experts and practitioners who attend these meetings, we will continue to press for the development of the Childcare Strategy to be prioritised by the Minister, reflecting both the importance and the urgency of progress for children, parents and childcare providers.”

Looking ahead

The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare will continue to meet on a regular basis, and is planning to schedule sessions for November and December – either side of the two day Strategic Insight Programme.

Further information on the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare is available on the Northern Ireland Assembly website.

Employers For Childcare provides the Secretariat for the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare – correspondence to or 028 9267 8200.