Elaine Dunne, Chairperson, Federation of Early Childhood Providers
Last Wednesday, over 500 people took to the streets of Dublin to protest outside the Dáil against how Core Funding will be allocated.
Leading the protest was Elaine Dunne, Chairperson of the Federation of Early Childhood Providers. Elaine owns and runs Treehouse Montessori which operates two services in Kilternan and Glencullen, Co Dublin.
Between the two, she offers full day care to 31 children, a part time service to 22 children and after school to 55 children. In the childcare sector, Elaine’s service would be considered small to medium and these are the creche owners who were protesting at the Dáil last week, not the big childcare chains.
Elaine explains, “The Core Funding model that the government is introducing in September is working for day care services which are providing care from 0-3 years old. That we are happy with.
What is not working is the allocation of funding for ECCE which is the free preschool service. Specifically, it is not working for small providers.
And often these small providers are just offering the ECCE service, they don’t offer a day care creche service and therefore, cannot rely on fees that are paid by parents.”
Breaking down the figures for Irish Country Living she says, “The funding is not allocated evenly based on the number of children in your service.
“Let’s take an example of a large day care service with five branches, offering places to 63 children. They are open 9 hours a day, 50 weeks of the year (11 staff plus an out-of-ratio manager). The estimated core funding that they will receive is €174,230 per year.
“Moving to a medium sized operation, which opens for 8 hours a day, 50 weeks a year (4 staff), they have 33 children across three branches.
The number of children they are servicing is close to half that of the large provider. Yet the estimated funding they will receive is €57,955 per year, which isn’t even a third of what the bigger provider is getting.
“Now let’s take a small provider with one branch that is just offering the ECCE service hours to 22 children (open 3 hours a day, 38 weeks of the year). They will receive just €5,737.
“There is a massive discrepancy in the allocation of funding. Yes, the small provider just offering ECCE is open less hours and has much less staff but they are only getting about 3% of the funding that the big operator is getting.
However, they still have to pay high insurance costs, bills, staff wages etc. How is that fair or accurate? We have asked the department how these calculations are being done but we are yet to receive an explanation.”
Last week, in Irish Country Living, comments from readers showed the efforts that some parents had to go to in order to get an ECCE space for their toddler and that will become even more difficult if these small services have to close.
Elaine says, “In April, we ran a survey amongst our members about core funding and in that, 260 small services stated that they will probably have to close up by this time next year. And the only reason many of them are not closing sooner is because they don’t have the money to pay redundancies and they don’t want to let parents down.
But some have already given parents notice. This is really unfortunate, this Core Funding which was to resolve so many issues is actually causing mayhem for smaller services.
And these are the type of services that are mostly providing early education in rural Ireland. They are servicing communities and holding them together.”
“If this happens, if we see small childcare providers pushed out of the system, the bigger childcare provider chains will take over.”
On top of that, Elaine says there is still a lot of uncertainty about the new system. At the time of print, Elaine says that childcare providers have still not been issued with contracts.
“A ready reckoner was released but that had a massive disclaimer which stated that the proposal may not be accurate. So we haven’t seen contracts yet, we haven’t seen any terms and conditions which is very worrying as it doesn’t allow us to plan accurately.
“€221million of funding a year is a big number and it’s very welcome. But the reality is that what small ECCE services are getting versus what is needed to sustain this whole sector is pittance.
“The funding is a start and I have to say that Roderic O’Gorman has done a really great job because he has gotten as much as he could and the department can only allocate out what they are getting.
But it’s Pascal Donohue that needs to deliver more here, for more funding to be delivered by the government.
“This money is being allocated but there is a lack of understanding of how we work. There was an expert group put together for the allocation of Core Funding.
Yet there wasn’t one provider representative at that table. I looked for a place and my request was declined. Our voices haven’t been heard.
“In regards to the Minister’s response, I really question where they are getting these figures from. At the protest, one woman was crying, showing her bank balance for her business. It is very disappointing that they are not acknowledging our pleas.”
Minister Response to the protest
Core Funding will effectively increase ECCE capitation for the overwhelming majority of services.
Services currently in receipt of ECCE standard capitation will see capitation increase at least 9.5%. A majority of services currently in receipt of ECCE higher capitation will also see capitation increase. Just 1% of services will see no increase in funding.
DCEDIY has not seen any convincing rationale for an increase in ECCE capitation by 45%.
DCEDIY has examined in detail the current and projected levels of income in the sector, including of ECCE providers, and has concluded that there is no threat to the viability of providers.
In fact, most ECCE providers have substantial income in excess of costs.
Jennifer Whitmore TD, Wicklow
Big funding for childcare has been announced but where is the big plan? That is the question put forward by Jennifer Whitmore TD from the Social Democrats, the party’s spokesperson on Children and Youth Affairs.
“The government has outlined that we are working towards a public model of childcare but what model does that look like? And how will that be achieved?
Funding is just one part of the puzzle. If a plan isn’t presented, how can they be held accountable?
“A plan should have been released by now and it needs a timeline assigned to it. This is the problem with an annual funding model.
Each year we get an announcement or the budget is put forward but we’re still waiting until the following September before that money is doled out.”
When asked what the childcare sector should look like into the future, Jennifer says,
“Eventually, I would like to see school campuses where each school would have childcare and early years providers working alongside each other.
It is a very child centered approach and leads to an easier transition to school. It also works for parents in terms of multiple children of different ages attending the same campus.”
Looking at the current model though, there are three elements of early childcare-Core Funding, the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) which provides a subsidy to parents and the ECCE preschool system.
“They are all currently operating as separate entities but there needs to be better cohesion, certainly between the two funding models anyway. I believe this would provide more transparency for parents because the current system, especially the NCS is quite complex.”
Yet, all of this is happening as we remain bottom of the league in OECD countries.
While having a big plan is important, Jennifer says there also needs to be a focus on the current problems.
“The current system, it doesn’t work for families or providers and therefore, it’s not going to work for the children either.
So the introduction of Core Funding is welcome. However, there are gaps. The freezing of fees is welcome, but the issue is they are being frozen at a very high level and I think there needs to be a lot more investment to help parents deal with the costs.
“Also, Core Funding seems to be more targeted towards the big full-time providers. I think this is an area the government should certainly look into because small providers do an incredible job providing early education for children. And I fear that they could be squeezed out of this process.
“Statistics show that 67% of creches are currently either making a loss or just breaking even. We need to do more to ensure that creches are a viable business going forward into the future.
It is a hard industry to run a business-capital costs are high, insurance costs are very high, a lot of staff is needed to provide the appropriate care for children.
It’s a very difficult sector and because it’s predominantly run, owned and operated by women, I think it hasn’t gotten the focus it deserves. I think a lot of people see it nearly like a vocation, but they are businesses.”
Frances Byrne, Director of Policy and Advocacy, Early Childhood Ireland
“To hear Minister (Michael) McGrath use words such as ‘major transformation’ and ‘turning point’ in relation to the early years and childcare sector in Budget 2022 was very pleasing,” says Frances Byrne, Director of Policy and Advocacy, Early Childhood Ireland. “Finally, the sector is getting the attention that is needed.”
However, while the funding announced is big, Frances questions if the impact will be quite as significant. “The big problem is the low base we’re coming from.
Across the EU, in countries that invest fully and properly in childcare, all the problems, such as accessibility and staff wages, are not an issue. We are way behind in terms of our investment in childcare.
“Let’s look at the positives. We have a very good curriculum for early learners and we have 30,000 staff who are becoming more and more qualified.
That’s important because, in the countries that do well in terms of childcare, their educators are as qualified as primary and secondary teachers.
We also have 98% of three-year-olds attending preschool and we have a very positive action and inclusion model called AIM which supports children with a variety of additional needs.
“Yet, all of this is happening as we remain bottom of the league in OECD countries. We have increased funding, but we are crawling when we should be racing up the chart.”
Although Minister O’Gorman outlined in his interview with Irish Country Living, that a plan will be presented on how that funding will be allocated in the coming years, Frances says that is something we should have seen already.
“The question we have is what is the plan for 2023? How much will be spent and what will it be spent on? And what’s the plan for the following year and the year after that? How will it factor in inflation?
“Otherwise, we’re relying on budget announcements every year and we shouldn’t have to do that. The Department of Education doesn’t have to do that, it’s a given that primary and secondary education is paid for, and the same should be true of early childhood.
Early childcare and education should be seen as a basic right and a service to children, that’s the space we need to be moving in.
And we trust that is the direction it is going but we would be much more assured if a multi-annual spending plan was presented to the country.
Frances says, one of the most welcome changes to Core Funding is that it is now de-coupled from children’s attendance. “This is much better, much more child focused.”
She explains what this practically means for parents. “Up until now, if your child is in a creche or attending ECCE, providers can offer very limited flexibility.
If you collected your child early or had them at home some morning because you’re off work, that impacted the money the creche received, they had to re-jig the subsidies which required a lot of administration.
“Under Core Funding that will be introduced in September, at the beginning of the school year, the provider will say we have room for 12 children for example, and if during the year, sometimes they have 10, sometimes they 11, there won’t be any extra paperwork.
They will get the funding provided they are paying the wages. Not only is this a relief for providers, it will allow families much more flexibility. It’s not going to happen overnight but it is a big improvement to the system.”
Frances says that parents should be aware that while this investment is very welcome, things are going to feel precarious for another couple of years.
“That will be the case until we get much closer to the €1billion spend which is effectively what the government have committed to.
And that’s going to get us part of the way but not all of the way to 1% GDP which is what we’re aiming for.”