Much achieved despite another difficult year – looking forward to better times ahead in 2022!
It’s hard to believe as we reflect on 2021 and look ahead to the busy Christmas and New Year season that we are at the end of another year that has been dominated by Covid-19. As we contemplated a Christmas apart from many family and friends in 2021, we were looking forward to the roll out of the vaccine programme, which we hoped would deliver a pathway out of the pandemic. Sadly, as we are faced with yet another new variant, and again, unbelievable pressures on our already stretched beyond breaking point health service, it’s beginning to feel like Covid-19 will never actually be ‘over’.
With the continued prevalence of “the virus” in our community, so too the challenges continue. For families trying to balance work and childcare with periods of self-isolation and ongoing Covid testing. Also for employers, in making up for many months of closure in some sectors and in ensuring they have the staff they need to run their businesses. We have also seen huge difficulties facing our childcare sector, in coping with increasing costs while dealing with uncertainty over numbers, occupancy levels and the continued impact of Covid-19 in terms of enhanced cleaning and staffing challenges. All of this set alongside rising prices for homes and businesses for essentials like energy, food and other supplies. Finally, many families will have experienced a decrease in their income, due to factors such as the £20 cut to Universal Credit or having been on furlough for a period of time.
This continued impact of Covid-19 on parents, employers and childcare providers makes the work of Employers For Childcare more important than ever. While not immune to the effects of the pandemic on our own business, we have still been able to generate a profit from our Social Enterprise trading activities, which has been invested in our charity, creating real social value across the UK at this critical time.
We published our latest Social Impact Report on Social Enterprise Day in November that shows that since 2008, we have invested £7.1 million from our Social Enterprise trading activities into our charity’s work. This investment has enabled us to provide critical support to parents, employers and childcare providers through the delivery of our Family Benefits Advice Service, as well as our policy, lobbying and research work.
Critical policy and lobbying role
The past year has seen the continuation of our charity’s policy and lobbying work towards securing better support for, and investment in, our critical childcare infrastructure and recognition of the vital role that childcare plays in supporting economic growth and recovery. This is particularly important as we seek to build back better following Covid-19. We continue to advise the Northern Ireland Departments of Health and Education through our membership of the Childcare Reference Group and are pleased to have helped secure almost £40 million in recovery funding for the childcare sector.
We provide the Secretariat for the All Party Group (APG) on Early Education and Childcare, which has been playing a key role in progressing towards a new Childcare Strategy by bringing together elected representatives and key stakeholders with local and visiting experts. We would like to use this opportunity to say a sincere thank you to the Chair of the APG, Chris Lyttle, MLA who has been a strong supporter of our work over the past decade, and has been such an effective chair of the All Party Group since its inception. We, the sector and the parents of Northern Ireland are grateful for his commitment, enthusiasm and tenacity on this issue. As Chris prepares to leave elected politics in 2022 we wish him and his family all the best for the future. It hasn’t escaped him (or us!) that his time at the Assembly coincides with the number of years we have been publishing our Childcare Survey and calling for better support for parents as part of a new Childcare Strategy!
We are encouraged that progress is now underway towards this much-needed and long-overdue new Strategy which is critical to delivering long-term investment to support parents, children, childcare providers and the economy more broadly. We were pleased to participate in a constructive two-day Strategic Insight Lab recently, aimed at gathering ideas and informing the development of a new strategy. We look forward, with optimism, to continued progress in 2022, despite the uncertainty associated with Assembly elections and the formation of a new Executive. It is vital that momentum is maintained so that there are no further delays to achieving one of the key commitments in New Decade, New Approach.
12 years of important research
Last month also saw the publication of the 12th Northern Ireland Childcare Survey, which once again, highlighted the issues facing parents and childcare providers in accessing and delivering childcare in Northern Ireland. The survey, which is the most comprehensive childcare research produced in Northern Ireland, must play a vital role in informing the development of our new Childcare Strategy. A huge thank you to the 2,200 parents and childcare providers who participated in the research. We hope, on their behalf, that this will be the final year in which we will be having to use the report to emphasise the need for strategic, long-term support and investment.
While Childcare Vouchers remain closed to new entrants, we continue to operate the scheme on behalf of almost 2,000 organisations across the UK. As a result, in the past year we helped parents and employers save £8.2 million. We are also delighted to have welcomed many new clients to our Childcare Voucher scheme, who have ‘switched’ from a different provider.
As the only Social Enterprise in the UK providing this service, they have been attracted by our Social Enterprise credentials, as well as our outstanding customer service. We are incredibly proud, as a Social Enterprise, that we can compete for, and win business in a competitive open market. We would like to say a huge thank you to all those businesses with whom we work, many of whom have been with us for years. And a warm welcome to those who, over the past year, have made the decision to ‘buy social’ and choose Employers For Childcare as their Childcare Voucher provider.
As we entered 2021 and the first anniversary of the pandemic, we were planning for the reopening of our fabulous, inclusive, indoor adventure centre, High Rise in Lisburn. Unfortunately, as the pandemic has continued to rage, it has not been possible for us to reopen the centre. With many of our guests having additional needs, their safety, and that of our staff, is our top priority, so for now, High Rise remains closed. We do, however, hope that 2022 will see the centre reopen, better than ever, and that it will once again be filled with shrieks of excitement and the gasps of wonder as our guests of all ages enjoy all that it has to offer. Watch this space for details!
At the risk of incurring feelings of déjà vu, we genuinely look forward to a brighter 2022 and better times ahead. But before we close out on 2021, we would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported us over the past year, especially our own committed and dedicated staff team, who have adapted to the continued disruption and enthusiastically embraced new ways of working to continue supporting others. Thanks also to our Board of Trustees for their valued guidance and strategic vision in steering the organisation through these challenging times.
Best wishes to everyone for a safe and restful Christmas and for the New Year and the opportunity to reset and rebuild. It is our sincere hope that 2022 is a more positive one, and that our end of year review next year won’t be dominated by Covid-19 but, will instead feature lots of happy memories and positive feedback on a successful High Rise reopening!
Please note our office is closed from Friday 24 December to Monday 3 January (inclusive), reopening opening on Tuesday 4 January 2022.