Education Minister addresses All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare
The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare, chaired by Alliance Party MLA Chris Lyttle, met remotely today (Monday 21 September) to hear from Education Minister, Peter Weir, and senior officials from the Departments of Education and Health, on progress in relation to a childcare strategy and support for the childcare sector during COVID19.
The All Party Group, which Employers For Childcare provides the Secretariat for, aims to promote best practice policy and provision in the delivery of early education and childcare, a vital issue prior to the pandemic, but one that has come particularly to the fore over recent months as access to affordable childcare has been recognised as critical both to our economic and societal recovery. Today’s meeting was marked by the constructive engagement of 45 stakeholders from across the childcare and early education sectors, elected representatives and departmental officials.
Minister Weir provided an update on the delivery of successive funding packages to support the childcare sector in reopening and recovery following the initial impact of the COVID19 pandemic. This included a recent decision to increase the amount of funding available to Registered Childminders who opened in July or August 2020. Proposals have been made for further support for the sector, particularly around the ongoing impact of COVID19, potential for temporary closures and associated loss of income to providers. These are being considered and details will be made available in due course. The Minister noted that, while work on a Childcare Strategy has been effectively put on hold as a result of COVID19, the experience of the pandemic has provided useful learning that will inform longer-term policy development. He advised that full Executive support will be necessary, given the requirement for significant long-term funding and legislative underpinning, but expected that would be achievable given the cross-party support that is evident on this issue.
Attendees welcomed the Minister’s update, however a clear and robust case was made for a firm timetable to be established urgently in relation to the publication of the long awaited Childcare Strategy in Northern Ireland, reflecting a commitment in the New Decade, New Approach agreement published at the start of this year. Whilst there was a recognition that elements of the Strategy may take a number of years to deliver, attendees pressed for progress in relation to the Strategy itself, citing the number of years it is already overdue and the impact this is having on parents and providers. It is anticipated that a Strategic Insight Lab event, involving key stakeholders and relevant Government Departments, will take place before the end of January to progress on the content of the final Strategy, incorporating learning from the experience of the COVID19 pandemic and developments, including in other jurisdictions, since the draft Strategy was previously consulted on in 2015. The Minister, and Tina Dempster – Head of the Childcare Strategy Team within the Department of Education – responded to questions and points raised by attendees, including the need to ensure that Registered Childminders are involved and reflected in the Childcare Strategy development, the impact on gender equality in terms of the cost of not delivering on the Strategy, and the need for a broad focus on childcare needs for children from infancy through to older, school-age children – and not only children aged three to four.
Following this discussion, the Head of the Family Policy Unit in the Department of Health, Marc Bailie, provided a useful update on the Childcare Recovery Scheme and confirmed that new guidance for childcare providers, and updated ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ will be published to the Family Support NI website within the coming days, designed to assist providers and parents to make decisions and take action in response to COVID19 scenarios.
The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare will continue to meet on a regular basis, working constructively with the Departments of Education and Health to ensure progress on these vital issues. It was agreed that the next meeting, which will focus particularly on maternal employment and the gendered impact of COVID19, will be scheduled for early November 2020.
- 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 APG on Early Education and Childcare – correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org or 028 9267 8200.