All Party Group urges progress on the Childcare Strategy to be a day one priority for new Executive

The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare met remotely on Thursday 10 March 2022. This was the final meeting of the group ahead of the upcoming Northern Ireland Assembly elections on 5 May, and the last to be chaired by Chris Lyttle, who is stepping down as an MLA.

As a relatively new All Party Group, only established in the current mandate, the meeting marked an opportunity to reflect on the Group’s positive impact in this time in pressing for progress on a long overdue and much needed new Childcare Strategy, and the deeply constructive, meaningful engagement of members, stakeholders and invited experts.

Key recommendations for a new Childcare Strategy

The meeting provided a chance to look ahead to the new mandate, and for stakeholders to share their evidence-based recommendations to inform the urgent development of the new Childcare Strategy. These have been collated into a paper, available to download from the top right of this page, which provides an invaluable resource for policy makers and for elected representatives.

Reflecting the cross-cutting nature of childcare, and its impact on every aspect of our society and economy, the paper assembles submissions from a wide range of organisations, networks and individuals. This includes membership bodies, childcare providers and parent organisations, business representatives, civic society and charities, as well as iews from the trade union and academic perspectives.

Some common threads emerged from the discussion, including:

  • A child-centred, and rights based approach to the Strategy’s development
  • The Strategy must have clearly defined actions and specific, measurable targets
  • Early education and childcare to be recognised and invested in as a public good
  • Importance of significant, ongoing, and ring-fenced funding
  • Ensuring childcare is affordable for all families and enables parents to access work, education and training
  • Supporting the sustainability of quality early education and childcare provision
  • Role of quality early education and childcare in giving children and young people the best start in life
  • Addressing gender inequality and the unequal distribution of caring responsibilities towards women
  • Helping to reduce poverty levels in Northern Ireland
  • Recognising the value of the early education and childcare workforce, enhancing pay and conditions within the sector
  • Inclusivity, accessibility and meeting the needs of all children and families, including where a child has a disability, families living in a rural area, those accessing Irish Medium early education and childcare, and families from an ethnic minority background
  • Meeting the varying needs of families with children of all ages
  • The need for a review of regulations, standards and ratios in consultation with the sector
  • Commitment to the development of underpinning legislation
  • Political instability must not be allowed to stall progress.

You can read the full detail within each of the submissions in the recommendations paper.

MLAs, including outgoing Chair Chris Lyttle (Alliance), Vice-Chair Sinead McLaughlin (SDLP) and Secretary Nicola Brogan (Sinn Féin) responded, outlining some of their priorities for a new Childcare Strategy. All agreed that a new Childcare Strategy needs to be a day one priority for a new Executive, and that the necessary funding must be allocated to make this possible. MLAs commended the recommendations paper prepared by the stakeholders of the All Party Group, and reflected the synergy in the themes identified by the wide range of contributors.

Overview of the initial outcomes from the Strategic Insight Lab on Childcare

Tina Dempster, Head of the Childcare Strategy Team at the Department of Education provided an overview of the initial outcomes from the Strategic Insight Lab on Childcare, which was held at the end of 2021 as part of work towards the development of a new Childcare Strategy.

The report from the Strategic Insight Lab sessions is currently being finalised, and the Department of Education aims to publish this within the next few weeks. It incorporates a wide range of views, ideas and comments distilled down into key themes including:

  • Affordability
  • Sustainability
  • Inclusivity
  • Economic and societal issues
  • Childcare workforce
  • Child centred services
  • Leadership and political will
  • Quality childcare.

The next step is to commission a piece of independent research, however this will require funding to be allocated in next year’s Budget. On the basis that this research could take between six and nine months to complete, it is no longer anticipated that a new Childcare Strategy will be consulted on in the Autumn of 2022, which was disappointing and frustrating for members of the group. In the meantime, further engagement will continue with groups of stakeholders including the sector, specific groups, parents and children and young people themselves.

Thanks to outgoing chair Chris Lyttle

The meeting also saw special thanks given to Chris Lyttle, MLA, co-founder of the All Party Group and its Chairperson since establishment, who is stepping down as an MLA at the upcoming election. Members and stakeholders shared warm and personal tributes to Chris, acknowledging the critical role he has played in pushing early education and childcare up the political agenda, and in supporting the sector, as well as the children and parents who rely on it.

Sinéad McLaughlin, Vice-Chair, led the meeting in thanking Chris, saying:

“On behalf of the members of the Group, I would like to record my thanks to Chris for his leadership in this All Party Group, which has been exceptional, and for being a champion of this particular policy issue for the duration of his time as an MLA. Chris is a conviction led politician, who cares about childcare, about parents, families, children and childcare providers. I would like to wish Chris well, he will be a loss to the All Party Group and to politics in Northern Ireland, and I am proud to have worked alongside him.”

In closing his last meeting as Chairperson, Chris thanked his fellow members, and all of the Group’s stakeholders, and shared his optimism for the future:

“It has been a privilege to help establish and Chair this active and engaged All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare. Having been calling for a new Early Education and Childcare Strategy for as long as I have been an MLA – almost 12 years – it is essential that we urgently see much-needed progress. And this All Party Group will have played a key role in helping to secure that progress.

I would like to say a huge thank you to my fellow office bearers, and dedicated colleagues representing the full range of political parties, as well as all the key stakeholders who have so generously shared their time and expertise over the last two years, reflecting both their passion and their commitment. I would also like to acknowledge the constructive engagement of Senior Departmental Officials. And that really highlights the strength of this All Party Group – the commitment of its members, the breadth of its stakeholders, and the level of engagement at meetings.

Looking ahead, I wish the Group every success into the future, and look forward to seeing its work translate into an ambitious Early Education and Childcare Strategy. If we are to aspire to a better society, a better economy, and to giving our children the best start in life, we must invest in early education and childcare – and we must do it now.”

Looking ahead

This was the last meeting of the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare ahead of the Assembly elections in May, and within the current mandate. Following the election, an AGM of the group will be held to agree members and elect new office bearers. The next meeting of the All Party Group will hopefully be held in September 2022. The discussion at today’s meeting, and the Recommendations Paper, provide a strong legacy to hand over to the re-convened All Party Group as it establishes its priorities for a new mandate and maintains a clear focus on securing a new, ambitious and evidence-based Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland.

Further information on the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare, including links to read more about previous meetings, is available here.

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