Andrea Mara

Official website

The impossible economy of childcare

I remember the first time my Laser card was rejected. It was 2010, and I was just back at work after my second maternity leave. I was trying to buy some groceries, and couldn’t understand why my card wouldn’t go through.

I checked my balance.

Forty-three cents.

Mid-way through the month.

It took a few hours for it all to sink in, and to work out where all the money had gone. It had gone to crèche.

childcare office mum

The reality was, I hadn’t adjusted my spending or budget to take into account that we had two children in full-time childcare; paying €2,100 per month. It wasn’t just a second mortgage – it was more than our mortgage.

My first instinct was to rail (silently) against the crèche – why were they charging so much? But when I broke it down, I was effectively paying €4.77 per child per hour. Less than a fiver.

It’s minuscule – a tiny, tiny amount by any standards. I’d have to pay twice that to a babysitter to mind them while they’re asleep in bed.

So I was paying a second mortgage, but the crèche was only earning €5 per hour per child, and covering all their overheads with that. How does that equation work?

The money is certainly not going to the childcare workers. 2,000 of them marched protested outside Leinster House last week, to highlight the low pay in their sector. Women (and it’s mostly women) who have similar qualifications to primary school teachers, are paid low wages, and often let go outside term-time, when the free pre-school year doesn’t run. They’re doing an incredibly important job – one we want them to get right, but they’re being paid low hourly rates, often barely more than minimum wage.

So how does it all add up?

Childcare - how does it all add up? Office Mum

What it comes down to is that childcare and early childhood education is expensive, and necessarily so. Most crèches can’t reduce their costs, and I don’t think anyone wants childcare workers to be paid even less than they already are. Nor do we want lower quality facilities. So while we as parents can’t afford to keep paying what we pay, that money is absolutely necessary to cover costs, and has to come from somewhere.

The only logical solution is more state funding. Unsurprisingly, we’re lagging behind. In Ireland, expenditure on early years’ services is at 0.15% of GDP, whereas the OECD average is 0.75%.

And of course, there’s little or no money out there to be invested into childcare or anywhere else. But in a perfect world, shouldn’t childcare be treated like primary school education? Provided by the state, with additional payments made by parents, who can of course choose one facility over another, and pay associated extra costs?

Not all families have two parents working, so arguably putting state money into childcare is unfair. But with the gap between what parents can afford to pay and what it costs to provide high quality care to children so wide, is there any solution other than state investment?

All of us pay income tax that goes towards services we don’t use – maybe childcare and early childhood education should fall into that category too. Childcare should be like education – state-funded, and available to all who need it.

A recent report by Start Strong found that:

  • Quality of early care and education in Ireland is extremely variable and we know that poor quality can harm children
  • Government invests a pitifully low amount in early care and education and public funding goes to services without regard to quality
  • Parents pay some of the highest childcare costs in the world without any guarantee of quality
  • Parents often face an all or nothing choice – work full-time or leave paid employment entirely
  • Childcare providers are expected to run an educational service while also being entrepreneurs and running a financially viable business. Childcare workers are often on low wages – hourly rates barely above minimum wage

The report concluded that we need a new model of early years’ services for our young children, focused on quality that is accessible and affordable to all.

Start Strong director Ciairín de Buis, in her speech at the launch of the report last December, said we need to explore that idea that childcare is “Not a business model, but a profession, in which public investment allows early years educators to deliver a public service – a public service that is focused on quality, while also accessible and affordable to families. One that puts children’s interests first, and shows the high value we place on young children’s care and early learning.”

And that’s it – ultimately, we’re talking about investing in high quality care and education for our children, which is an investment in the future for all of us. Surely that’s an equation that does add up?

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For a realistic but ultimately uplifting take on it, read Nicola Sheehan’s story: she knew that her salary wouldn’t cover the cost of having two children in creche, so she saved up to go back to work: Office Mum stories – Nicola Sheehan

Nicola Sheehan Office Mum

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