“Very challenging and the most stressful time of my life”: Major study highlights childcare challenges exacerbated by Covid-19

Employers For Childcare today publishes the findings of the most comprehensive survey of parents in Northern Ireland in relation to childcare in 2020. Together, the Northern Ireland Childcare Survey and a follow up study of the childcare challenges faced by parents due to Covid-19, received more than 5,000 responses from parents and childcare providers. Their experiences make a compelling case for the Executive to ensure that support with childcare is a key priority going forward. Parents are reporting that they can’t continue to work if they struggle to access affordable childcare, while providers say they can’t continue to deliver high quality care if it is unsustainable for them to do so.

Three quarters of parents were unable to access any childcare for some or all of the time during the early months of the pandemic. They reported challenges around managing childcare, while home schooling and working and the negative impact this had on their physical and mental health, their work and their family’s wellbeing. Where access to childcare was impacted, one in five parents had to use annual or unpaid leave to manage childcare, while over a quarter were working outside of normal hours, early in the morning or late at night, to provide childcare during the day. Some parents had no choice but to leave work altogether.

Aoife Hamilton, Head of Charity Services at Employers For Childcare, explains: “Covid-19 has demonstrated how vital childcare is for families and to our economy – just as our key workers needed roads and public transport in order to provide essential services, they also needed childcare so they could go to work. Looking ahead, the plea from parents is that we cannot go back to a situation where they are expected to work, and yet unable to access the vital childcare they need. This was a situation that parents overwhelmingly described as “stressful” and “impossible”, leading to feelings of exhaustion, worry and a “sense of huge guilt, failure, a constant battle”. One family told us both parents had ended up in hospital due to the stress of balancing everything.

“Importantly, what our research – carried out at the start of the year and in September – highlights is, that while the difficulties faced by parents have been exacerbated by Covid-19, they have not been caused by it. This is the 11th year of our research and for years, hard-pressed families have been crying out for better support with childcare. Even before the pandemic, many households were struggling, with four in ten families reporting using means other than income (such as loans and credit cards) to pay their childcare bill. Ongoing uncertainty around restrictions, combined with concerns about the impact of reduced hours or household income, furlough and potential redundancy for some due to Covid-19, all serve to compound the challenges faced by families, and their worries at this time.

“It’s not just parents who are struggling – at the start of the year almost three quarters of childcare providers told us they were either making a loss or just breaking even. Covid-19 has only heightened the pressures on childcare providers, who have had to adapt, introducing infection control measures to ensure the safety of children in their care, with many experiencing a decrease in their occupancy levels.

Aoife continues: “Urgent action is needed from the Government to support parents and the childcare sector that we all rely on. We must see investment in our childcare infrastructure, which is of critical importance to enable economic recovery, to nurture the social and educational development of our children and to support children and families who are at risk of poverty. Employers For Childcare will continue to work with key stakeholders from across the sector, and in support of policy-makers, to secure a fully costed Childcare Strategy which actually delivers for parents, providers and the wider economy”.

Parents and carers can call Employers For Childcare’s Family Benefits Advice Service on Freephone 0800 028 3008 for free, impartial and confidential advice on the financial support available towards the cost of childcare and other family benefits.

The Northern Ireland Childcare Survey 2020 and Executive Summary is available to download here.

Employers For Childcare has been tracking the affordability and provision of childcare in Northern Ireland through the ‘Northern Ireland Childcare Survey’ since 2010. The 2020 survey received 2,627 responses from parents and 483 from childcare providers. The follow up survey on Covid-19 and work, received 2,089 responses from parents.

Key findings: 

  1. The average cost of a full-time (f/t) childcare place in Northern Ireland is £169 per week:
    1. £181 per week for a day nursery
    2. £165 per week for a childminder
  2. Day nursery costs ranged from £125 per week to £275 per week with the range for childminders being from £100 to £250 per week.
  3. County Armagh continues to have the highest average cost of a full-time childcare place – £174 per week, whilst County Fermanagh experiences the lowest average full-time childcare costs of £150 per week.
  4. During the pandemic, from April to August, 74% of parents said they were not able to access any childcare for some or all of this time.