Update on Childcare Strategy developments and proposal for 22.5 hours of funded pre-school education for every child

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen today (Wednesday 7 September 2022) provided an update on ongoing work to develop a new Executive Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland.

Reflecting engagement with stakeholders, and in recognition of the importance of childcare and early education in a child’s development, planning is now underway to develop an integrated Early Learning and Childcare Strategy.

A core component of this is a new proposal to offer every child in their pre-school year a minimum of 22.5 hours of pre-school education per week. This is in line with the commitments set out in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, and as recommended by the Expert Panel on Educational Underachievement in Northern Ireland.

Proposal to offer 22.5 hours funded pre-school education to every child

At present, 60% of children in their immediate pre-school year can access a minimum of 12.5 hours of pre-school education per week, during term time. 40% of children are accessing 22.5 hours of pre-school education per week.

Through this proposal, every child aged 3-4 should be able to access a minimum of 22.5 hours of funded pre-school education per week. It is recognised that implementing this proposal will take time and careful planning, but funding has been allocated for the development of a costed delivery plan and timetable, with work commencing in the autumn.

Initially, this will involve a pilot programme to create new full-time statutory nursery provision in certain areas. This will inform plans for the standardisation of all pre-school education sessions, including a phased lifting of the current restriction on the creation of new full-time provision. At the same time, officials will look at how to support existing part-time pre-school provision to convert to full-time provision.

Update on progress towards a new Childcare Strategy

The Minister also provided an update on work which is ongoing to inform the development of the wider Strategy:

  • Invitations to participate in a new Stakeholder Engagement Forum will issue this week, with the first meeting expected to take place in October 2022
  • An independent Review of Childcare Services in Northern Ireland is currently underway and due to report by the end of December 2022.
  • A review of Department of Education targeted early years interventions, including consideration of how Sure Start services are currently targeted, will report by the end of November 2022.
  • A report of the Department of Finance Strategic Insight Lab which took place at the end of 2021 will be published before the end of this week.

The Department of Education continues to work on the development of the Strategy, and costed options should be ready for consideration by the Executive by March 2023.

In the meantime, the Minister has also taken steps to:

  • Address the affordability of childcare for families by writing to the UK Chancellor to request an uplift in the rate of the Tax-Free Childcare scheme from 20% to 30% to support eligible families with their childcare costs.
  • Relieve some of the current pressures experienced by childcare providers by writing, jointly with the Health Minister, to ask the Justice Minister for an update on proposals to streamline the AccessNI process for those working in the childcare sector.

Announcement welcome but further progress needed

Marie Marin, Chief Executive of Employers For Childcare, welcomed the Minister’s announcement but called for progress to be maintained on delivering a full, ambitious Childcare Strategy that delivers for families with children of all ages, for our childcare sector and the economy as a whole:

“Through our work with families, childcare providers and employers we know just how critical progress on a new and ambitious Childcare Strategy is to them. We welcome today’s update from Minister McIlveen, and the proposal to standardise the current pre-school programme, to guarantee all children a minimum of 22.5 hours of funded pre-school education per week. Early education is key to giving children the best start in life, and it is right that all children should be able to benefit from this.

However, this does not deliver the affordable, accessible childcare that families with children of all ages, right across Northern Ireland, need in order to work. Nor does it provide the investment that is so urgently needed to allow childcare providers to deliver high-quality childcare sustainably, and invest in their workforce. While it is helpful to see an update on the work that is underway to inform the new Strategy, we need to see efforts redoubled to deliver an ambitious, fully costed Early Learning and Childcare Strategy. This is long overdue, and must be delivered as a matter of urgency.

Families and childcare providers are facing immense pressures right now due to the current cost of living crisis. We are urging the Education Minister to implement a package of immediate financial support to assist the sector through this critical time. Otherwise, the risk is that we will see either a further increase in fees to parents – with some being forced out of work as a result – or providers having to close. This will be bad for children, for families, for the sector and of course for our economy and society as a whole.”