New Decade, New Approach – commitments on childcare were important then and are critical now – delivery urgently needed

In recent weeks, progress towards the New Decade, New Approach commitments has been a focus of political and media attention. The New Decade, New Approach agreement between the UK and Irish Governments, and agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive, brought about the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly in January 2020. The deal highlighted areas to be targeted to help improve the lives of all citizens in Northern Ireland.

One key priority identified was childcare, committing the Executive to: “Publish a Childcare Strategy and identify resources to deliver extended, affordable and high quality provision of early education and care initiatives for families with children aged 3-4”.

Employers For Childcare welcomed the priority placed on childcare, particularly the commitment towards publication of a new Childcare Strategy given that the previous Northern Ireland Childcare Strategy only went up to 2010 and consultation on a updated strategy had concluded in 2015. From our work with parents and employers we know that an inability to afford or access childcare is a barrier to parents seeking to get back into the workforce or increase their hours of work. Investment in our childcare infrastructure to ensure quality care is affordable and accessible is a key to unlocking this barrier and can play a vital role in tackling issues such as economic inactivity and unemployment.

Renewed focus on childcare

While we appreciate that a global pandemic has impacted on the delivery of many of the New Decade, New Approach commitments, we are now calling for a renewed focus on securing progress in relation to commitment to a Childcare Strategy. As a key priority even prior to Covid-19, the past year has only exacerbated challenges experienced by parents and childcare providers. Childcare played a vital role during the pandemic and many childcare providers went above and beyond by providing childcare for the children of key workers, and vulnerable children, at a time when schools and many other businesses had closed their doors and we were all told to ‘stay home and stay safe’. This was recognised by Executive Ministers at the time, but we must see continued recognition of the vital role of childcare in our economy.  Childcare is essential as a key part of our infrastructure that will underpin our economic and societal recovery from Covid-19.

Childcare is key in removing barriers to employment, particularly for women and for those in lower paid jobs. It also assists in addressing structural inequalities and improving the lives of children, young people and their parents. Longer term, there is clear evidence that children who benefit from quality, enriching childcare achieve better educational outcomes and, over their lifetime, have higher earning potential.  In the words of a parent who responded to our Northern Ireland Childcare Survey research last year:

“Covid-19 has brought into very sharp focus just how much we rely on those who look after our children and the massive benefit they have provided to them… Aside from the fact that childcare allows us to work without worrying about children, the educational / social / emotional support they provide for our children is invaluable.”

The childcare sector requires significant long-term, strategic support and investment and this necessitates a joined-up approach from across Government to deliver an ambitious and world-leading Childcare Strategy.

Long-term support and investment needed

The childcare sector in Northern Ireland has benefited from over £30 million in financial support in the last year to support re-opening, recovery and sustainability. This has been critical to the sector, and widely welcomed. It has also demonstrated just how important longer-term, strategic support is as we move to a system that is sustainable for providers to deliver and affordable and accessible for parents.

Learning from elsewhere – the role of the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare

As well as the experiences of the pandemic an important development in the last year has been the establishment of the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare, which has provided a forum to share evidence, experience and to learn from other parts of the UK and Ireland about what has worked and what hasn’t worked in relation to childcare policy. This learning must shape how we develop a Childcare Strategy that works for Northern Ireland including:

  • Reflecting that all parents need greater support to ensure childcare is affordable, not just those with children aged 3-4
  • Demonstrating how younger children can benefit from quality childcare, with early intervention playing a key role in giving children and young people the best start in life
  • Any provision of ‘funded’ places must be adequately resourced to ensure that they are affordable and sustainable for providers to deliver.

Next steps

We recently called on both Michelle McIlveen and Paul Frew in their roles as Education and Economy Ministers to ensure that childcare is rightly recognised as a top priority for the Executive, both in terms of educating and developing our children, and in ensuring that parents can work.

We now look forward to working with both Ministers and through the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare to secure progress on a much needed Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland that meets the needs of children, parents, childcare providers and our economy. A key next step will be a Strategic Insight Lab in the Autumn, providing an opportunity to engage with, and contribute constructively to, the Childcare Strategy development process.