Vital role of childcare in the economy highlighted at All Party Group meeting

The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare, chaired by Chris Lyttle MLA (Alliance), met remotely on 18 November 2021 to discuss the critical role of childcare in helping to achieve economic growth and development. The group heard from Paul Grocott, Deputy Secretary, Economic Strategy Group at the Department for the Economy, who presented on the 10X Economy Vision (10X) for Northern Ireland, together with senior officials Michelle Scott and Claire Thompson.

The meeting was marked by constructive and meaningful engagement from elected representatives from six parties – including Chair Chris Lyttle (Alliance), Vice-Chair Sinead McLaughlin (SDLP) and Secretary Nicola Brogan (Sinn Féin), MLAs Diane Dodds (DUP) and Roy Beggs (UUP), and a Green Party representative – together with more than 50 stakeholders representing early education and childcare, the women’s sector, business, parent organisations and the broader third sector.

Presentation on the 10X economic vision for a decade of innovation

Paul gave an overview of the 10X vision, stating that there is a firm commitment from the Department for the Economy to recognising the importance of childcare as an enabler to delivering its strategic outcomes. Summarising the approach that is being taken within 10X, Paul stated the focus is on:

  • being purposefully bold and ambitious
  • specific areas of strength
  • ensuring inclusive innovation is a driver for economic growth and prosperity.

In developing implementation plans for 10X the importance of ‘co-design’ was referenced in working with stakeholders to agree specific interventions which could include:

  • working with businesses, and applying conditionality to Government support, to incentivise employers to support their staff in accessing childcare and availing of financial support they are entitled to
  • ensuring work is joined-up by linking with the Department of Education on the development of the new Childcare Strategy
  • identifying areas for collaboration on childcare
  • promoting awareness and uptake of existing financial support with the cost of childcare
  • supporting the development of childcare hubs as part of city deals.

Paul discussed the particular importance of childcare in enabling women to get into work, and shared details of ongoing work to develop programmes encouraging more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) related careers – increasing the number of women in these industries by just 10% could benefit the economy by up to £2.3 billion.

Michelle reiterated that the Department recognises childcare is a fundamental part of economic infrastructure in Northern Ireland, allowing parents to participate in the labour market and to access training and skills development. As a result, the Department will be considering what interventions could be implemented, complementing work being taken forward on a new Childcare Strategy, as part of 10X to reduce and remove barriers to employment.

Claire provided an update on how extensive consultation on a new Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland is being incorporated into a final version which should be ready for publication later this year. A lot of feedback received related to barriers to skills development, particularly the ability to access childcare that facilitates training and skill development, and this is very much on the Department’s agenda. This includes the establishment of a sub committee to a new Skills Council on equality, diversity and inclusion, which will be considering the vital role of childcare.

Robust and constructive discussion

Members and stakeholders of the All Party Group welcomed the presentation from the Department and engaged in a discussion with officials that was robust and challenging, as well as positive and constructive, covering:

  • Need to ensure recognition of the role of childcare not just in facilitating employment, but also in supporting access to training, education and upskilling opportunities that will assist those who are keen to move into work or to progress in work
  • Importance of valuing and investing in the existing childcare infrastructure, which is a key employer of women, recognising the highly skilled workforce and ensuring better pay and conditions
  • Requirement for significant financial investment in the childcare sector to ensure it can continue to deliver essential, high quality services in a way that is accessible and affordable for all
  • How an inability to access childcare affordably, as a result of a lack of Government investment, is a barrier to people fully participating in the workforce
  • Recognition of the role of childcare in addressing the developmental needs of children, supporting care and early learning, which helps to improve educational outcomes and longer-term skills development and economic potential
  • Need to ensure the 10X vision, associated strategies and implementation plans intersect and interact fully with the Childcare Strategy, resulting in concrete actions.

 Welcome engagement with the All Party Group

Members welcomed the engagement with the All Party Group. Chair Chris Lyttle MLA expressed his thanks to officials from the Department for the Economy, and to all those who attended the meeting:

“I would like to thank Paul Grocott, Deputy Secretary, Economic Strategy Group from the Department for the Economy, along with Michelle Scott and Claire Thompson, for taking the time to provide an overview of the 10X Economy Vision and the role of childcare in its delivery.

It is encouraging that the Department for the Economy has recognised that childcare is a fundamental part of the economic infrastructure in Northern Ireland, and key to achieving the bold, innovative and ambitious 10X Economy vision.

The officials will have seen from today’s meeting that we are fortunate to have a bold, innovative childcare sector in Northern Ireland that is informed and engaged on economic issues and ready to  work with the Department to shape and deliver on the initiatives discussed today. But it is also clear that this is a sector that requires immediate support and investment through an ambitious Childcare Strategy if the 10X vision is to be made a reality. This must be underpinned by joined up, cross-departmental engagement that recognises the role of childcare in achieving positive outcomes across a range of policy areas – as an enabler to economic growth, supporting the development of children, reducing health inequalities, lifting families out of poverty. Put simply, if we are to aspire to a better economy and society, we must invest in childcare – and we must do it now”.  

Looking ahead

The All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare will meet again in January 2022, with a session focused on the role of childcare and early education in helping to give children the best start in life.

Further information on the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare is available on the Northern Ireland Assembly website.

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