Lack of meaningful engagement with childcare sector risks provision of childcare
11 January 2021 - Daily Mail
Covid has been an eye-opener in many ways. It has shone a bright light on our society; how it is organised and operates, and particularly, the fundamentals that we require to function. The pandemic has shown us that central to our very existence is our healthcare system, our schools, retail and childcare. We’ve learned that if we don’t get these things right, we run in to grave problems and the fallout is immense. Take childcare.
Without adequate childcare provision, our doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals cannot care for the sick, our teachers cannot teach our students and our retail workers will struggle to work their shifts. Put simply, our children need to be cared for, and early education provided, for society and our economy to function at the basic level.
Last March, when early learning and childcare services in this country were closed in response to the pandemic, parents with young children quickly came to appreciate the difficulties of functioning as full-time carers, teachers, and working professionals. Speaking from my own experience of working with parents last March, and as someone who leads a childcare organisation and is an early learning childcare provider, it was virtually impossible to do all three things simultaneously to any fully productive level.
It became very evident that early learning and childcare services are an essential part of a well-functioning society and economy, even more so in a pandemic, and especially for parents who work in frontline jobs with irregular hours or those with vulnerable children.
Until last week, Ireland’s childcare services were fully and safely open to all. Providers and early learning childcare professionals have been eagerly playing their part in keeping Ireland going to the greatest extent possible. And central to that is giving parents and children certainty and stability, or at least as much that can be offered given the circumstances.
Then came the latest Covid-19 restrictions last Wednesday, which, for many of us, was Groundhog Day. While we were swiftly transported back to last March, we believed that given the experience of the first lockdown under our belt, we had learned from the mistakes of the past and would avoid the pitfalls this time round. While we did take some learnings, unfortunately, and, crucially, we didn’t take all. We got it wrong with schools which resulted in a U-turn, following pressure from the sector and yet again, we’re struggling with childcare.
Why? Because there’s a lack of meaningful engagement with Ireland’s childcare providers and the relationship between government and the sector is almost totally one way: we are simply issued orders, without consultation, that we are then expected to follow unquestioningly. The latest example of this was the new decision taken by Minister Roderic O’Gorman and his Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY) last week.
On Thursday, Minister O’Gorman said he was seeking legal advice on making it mandatory for childcare providers to return fees to parents for the month of January. I chair Seas Suas, the representative body for independent early years’ service providers, and can report that our members were all quite taken aback and surprised by this. The decision was representative of someone firmly out of touch with the sector.
When the current lockdown was announced, which restricted care only to vulnerable children and the children of essential workers, many childcare providers across Ireland took immediate action on their own initiative.
For parents whose children would be kept at home by the restrictions, many providers advanced various solutions regarding fee payments, including reductions, credit, and complete suspension of payments. These solutions are the responsibility of individual providers and the parents that freely choose them, and to date this has worked well; similar arrangements were put in place last spring at the start of the first lockdown.
The Minister's decision to seek legal advice is therefore not only out of touch with the reality of what is already happening on the ground, it makes the childcare sector look, to put it plainly, like the “bad guys”.
Ireland’s childcare providers have strong and warm relationships with parents, relationships built on mutual trust and respect. We look after, educate and care for their children. By seeking legal advice, the Minister inadvertently paints us as greedy and unreasonable during a public health crisis that affects the sector and our employees just as it does everyone else.
Kept in the dark
Parents might reasonably expect that an essential service like childcare would be in frequent two-way communication and collaboration with the Government, or that we would have some advance notice of the pandemic restrictions and subsequent decisions taken that affect us and the children we care for. This is not the case.
When the current lockdown was announced, and with it our opening rules and conditions of service, we were told just as much as the general public; we read it in the newspapers and saw it on the evening news. The DCEDIY issued an online FAQ resource for parents on Thursday evening, this correspondence to childcare providers - who provide the service - followed over 24 hours later, allowing limited time for our sector to communicate further updates to parents ahead of reopening today.
The DCEDIY currently does not have a progressive relationship with the childcare sector. Service providers and childcare professionals are not viewed as collaborative partners. The DCEDIY’s official approach, which pre-dates Minister O’Gorman, seems to be that the sector is to be dictated to, not robustly engaged with. This has created many long-term issues.
Last year, at the start of the pandemic, the Government advanced a number of proposals for childcare for frontline workers, all of which were abandoned because they were simply not practical or workable.
This was a waste of everyone’s time. Had there been more meaningful engagement with the childcare sector, the professionals and providers who actually know how things run on the ground would have been able to suggest and quickly implement realistic, useful solutions to the benefit of parents, children, and other frontline services.
In short, the childcare sector wants to reset its relationship with the Government. We want to be treated fairly and openly, and to have our expertise and advice sought for the good of all, not have dictates issued to us from the DCEDIY, underpinned by threats of legal action.
We believe that this relationship must be built not just with the DCEDIY, but cross-governmental to include the Department of Finance; childcare providers are on the frontline and while challenging, we are operating and keeping our doors open to support children and families at this time. We are doing so at reduced occupancy while still shouldering the fixed costs of operation. This sector has received support which we welcome. The schemes that are currently in place must be advanced promptly to providers, maintained and extended, while an exceptionally strong case for sustainability funding for the sector exists.
The pandemic still has months to run. We must put plans in place now for the end of January and beyond – we have 20 days and we must get it right. Effective, long-term solutions that work for parents and children will only come when we act fast, learn from mistakes of the past and when the Government opens proper channels of communication with the childcare sector.