Education Minister announces package of support for childcare sector

Education Minister Paul Givan yesterday (23 May 2024) announced a £25 million package of measures to support children, parents and providers with early learning and childcare in 2024/25. The support package received cross-party approval at yesterday’s Executive meeting.

The Minister described the support measures as an “ambitious package of measures for early learning and childcare representing the most significant enhancement of early years investment in Northern Ireland in decades”.

In making the announcement the Minister stressed that the Executive’s aims are to support child development,  improve the affordability of childcare for families and support parents (mainly women) to work. He recognised that no single action can achieve all of the desired outcomes, but that a portfolio approach is required.

What has been announced, he says, can be implemented in 2024/25 within the £25m budget set aside by the Executive and will inform longer-term strategy development.

The measures included in the package include:

  • £7.1 million to expand and stabilise existing early years and childcare provision (programmes such as Sure Start, Pathway, Toybox and others including those focused on supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities).
  • £2 million to address sustainability challenges and deliver a targeted business support scheme for childcare providers to assist those in financial difficulty and in areas where the demand for childcare exceeds supply.
  • £5 million to begin the transition process for standardising the pre-school education programme to 22.5 hours for all children. This is expected to make an additional 2,200 full-time places available from September 2025.
  • £9 million for a Northern Ireland Childcare Subsidy Scheme, with payments being made from September 2024.
  • £2.5 million for a major data collection exercise to help with evaluation of these measures and inform the longer-term strategy.

Northern Ireland Childcare Subsidy Scheme

This is an important step towards delivering much-needed financial support directly to parents, via their childcare providers. While there is no detail on exactly how these payments will be made, a subsidy scheme reflects proposals drafted by Employers For Childcare and shared with the Minister, his advisors and other parties.

The outline of the subsidy scheme put forward by the Education Minister is as follows:

  • It is initially for working parents (based on Tax-Free Childcare eligibility) with children below primary school age
  • It will provide a 15% subsidy towards the cost of childcare for all pre-school age children whose parents are eligible for Tax-Free Childcare on top of the 20% contribution from Tax-Free Childcare
  • It will be paid directly to childcare providers
  • It will require the development of a new partnership with childcare providers and funding will be provided to cover the additional administration costs.

The Minister finished his statement by outlining that these measures related to the £25 million additional funding provided by the Executive in 2024-25 and do not represent the totality of his department’s early years investment. He recognised that some ambitions can only be achieved through the longer-term strategy, which will require time and agreed budget commitments across all departments.

Employers For Childcare’s response to the childcare support package

As an organisation which has spent the past two decades campaigning for support for, and investment in, childcare in Northern Ireland, Employers For Childcare welcomes today’s announcement as good news for many families and for the childcare sector and as the culmination of years of work involving parents, childcare provides and countless other stakeholders.

Speaking today, Employers For Childcare Chief Executive, Marie Marin commented: “We very much welcome the measures announced in today’s plan as a first step from the Executive in making good on their promise to address childcare as a key priority. The announcement of a bespoke Childcare Subsidy Scheme for Northern Ireland is what we have been calling for, for some time, and reflects proposals we have shared with parties and with the Minister. While we are yet to see the full details of how it will be implemented, it is a much-needed tangible action to help tackle the affordability crisis which is facing families and the childcare sector, albeit the benefit of this in terms of reduced fees won’t be felt for a number of months. We will be working to see the scheme expanded in terms of the funding allocation beyond the initial £9 million, and to include all parents, with children of all ages, but appreciate that this is a first step.

Looking ahead she continued: “Now that some measures have been announced to tackle the immediate crisis, we also need to move towards longer-term planning and secure the investment needed to deliver an ambitious new Early Learning and Childcare Strategy with a focus on delivering affordable, but also high-quality early learning and childcare, through a workforce that is properly valued. We, and our colleagues across the sector stand ready to provide the support needed to make this a reality, recognising the clear benefits that investment in high quality early learning and childcare brings to our economy and society”.

The full written statement on the new early learning and childcare package is available on the Department of Education website here.