Policy That Fails Children

Market-driven childcare is failing parents and children, especially those from poorer backgrounds. Eilis Ryan investigates the effects of unaffordable childcare.

Anne Keating, a community development worker in Ballymun has firsthand knowledge of a childcare system which developed, not as a strategic policy around families’ and children’s welfare, but as a haphazard response to economic developments in Ireland.

“It was only when the economy started to grow that childcare went on the government agenda,” she remembers. “The whole system of childcare grew up, not around children, but around ensuring women could work when needed.” While emphasising the importance of employment to women gaining independence and moving out of poverty, the system which developed did little to support mothers to access childcare while preparing themselves for the workplace, through education for example.

Childcare as a service from the start in Ireland, then, has been driven by the economic demand for women to work. “My view,” says Anne, “is there was no thought put into developing a model of childcare which was based around children – as an early education intervention, as an intervention to allow parents access education, or to ease parents, particularly young single mothers, gradually into the workplace.” This haphazard development led to State interventions which mixed capital grants to build or expand private creche facilities on the one hand, with public subventions to community creches on the other. In the case of the latter, these subventions were to be matched by parental contributions where feasible, with parents who could not afford to pay offered various subsidies.

The model has become one which subsidises individuals who can’t afford a service, rather than structuring a service in a way which makes it affordable. 

The “system” which resulted has meant that, when what State funding was available was cut, its impact was felt overwhelmingly in communities which were already struggling. Creches in communities which have a high level of poverty and exclusion will tend to have a far higher number of parents reliant on grants to help pay creche fees. As a result, since these grants have been cut over the last number of years, parents can no longer afford to send their children to creche. In an area like Ballymun, where nearly 100% of parents qualified for such grants, this withdrawal has meant the closure of creches. “The biggest impact,” Anne says, “is in poorer communities where few or no parents are paying a full rate themselves, but are in receipt of subsidies. The model has become one which subsidises individuals who can’t afford a service, rather than structuring a service in a way which makes it affordable.”

The consequence of this, the withdrawal of children from creches, means for Anne that a critical component of building a more equal playing field for children in disadvantaged areas is falling away. “If the ability to stimulate early growth isn’t available in the child’s home, then we’ve got to give it,” she says, and the most recent cuts to childcare allowances have meant that this is no longer happening in many communities. Instead, children are starting school in many cases already behind their peers. “If they go in and from the start they are struggling, they’ll never recover from that.” This immediate disadvantage is compounded by the fact that, again owing to increasingly unaffordable childcare, many children are being sent to school too young.

Finally for Anne, without adequate childcare supports, the overwhelmingly young, single mothers living in communities like Ballymun, are denied any opportunity of building a pathway for themselves towards independence and a job. A first step towards that, in most cases, is education – and under the current curtailed childcare provision arrangements, this is simply not feasible. Cuts to subsidies means access to childcare has become dependent on income, not need or right. “What young single mothers need from childcare is an intervention when their child is young so they can get the education they need in order to get a job and take care of their child. How long are we saying that for?” says Anne.