With just 12.5 hours per week of funded childcare per week, Northern Ireland is falling behind its UK counterparts and many other members of the developed world in terms of childcare provision, a key component in allowing parents to return to work after the births of their children.
Northern Ireland’s model of childcare, or preschool education, provision is currently 12.5 hours per week, only accessible in five 2.5-hour slots during the school term, for eligible three and four-year-old children. Childcare is a devolved matter, allowing Northern Ireland’s inflexible model to be contrasted by England’s, where children are guaranteed at least 15 hours of funded childcare per week over 38 weeks of term, but parents have the choice to avail of less hours per week over an increased number of weeks.
In the March 2017 spring Budget, England introduced 30 hours per week of funded childcare in certain situations. Two parent households, where both parents are working and earning less than £100,000 per annum, and single parent households, again under the £100,000 threshold, are entitled to up to 30 hours per week.
In Scotland, 600 hours of funded childcare per year, roughly 16 hours per week during term time, are provided for all three and four-year-old children, as well as eligible two-year-olds under the Children and Young People Act 2014. Plans to almost double this amount to 1,140 hours per year, or 30 hours per week in term time, have been announced and will be in place by 2020.
The Welsh Government are in the process of rolling out a comprehensive nationwide free childcare programme. Originally planned to be fully available nationwide by 2020, the process has been accelerated due to controversy over the programme having started in some areas as early as 2017 and having been unavailable in other areas. The programme will see Welsh parents given 20 hours of free childcare per week on top of 10 hours of early education provision.
It is not just UK countries that are far ahead of Northern Ireland in terms of childcare provision; Finland was named as the only country in the world where fathers spent more time with their children than mothers, due in part to the country’s progressive childcare and parental leave laws.
Once a baby is born in Finland, its mother is eligible for four months of maternal leave and its father is eligible for over two months of paternal leave. Following that, over five months in parental leave can be shared between parents. Parents caring for their children are paid €450 a month and are entitled to return to the same job up until the child’s third birthday. From there, daycare is universal and full-time provided that both parents are working. In some Finnish municipalities, care is still universal and full-time if only one parent is working, while in others it is reduced to 20 hours per week.
Scandinavian countries have often been recognised as world leaders in the case of childcare provision, which in turn makes up a significant proportion of their reputations for being the happiest places to live in the world. Sweden’s model differs from the free at the point of service Finnish model: parents pay a percentage of their gross annual pay (3 per cent in 2014) for care of two children. The rate reduces for a third child and is free for a fourth.
In Northern Ireland, working parents with children under the age of 12 (or under 17 for those with disabilities) can pay online for a tax-free form of subsidised childcare. For every £8 paid by parents, the government contributes £2, to a maximum of £2,000 of government money per year per child, or £4,000 per year for a disabled child. The Childcare Voucher Scheme, whereby parents could swap a maximum of £243 per month of their pre-tax salary for registered childcare, was closed to new entrants in October 2018.
“The cost of full-time childcare in Northern Ireland has fallen to £166 per week according to the Childcare Cost Survey, compiled by Employers for Childcare. However, the report also found that childcare costs have remained as either the largest or second largest expense for two thirds of families.”
A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that countries having predominantly privatised childcare results in much greater percentages of parents’ income being spent on care and single parents being greatly affected. For example, in the United States of America two parent households spend an average of 25.6 per cent of their income on childcare, with single parents spending an average of 52.7 per cent of their incomes. In contrast, couples in Denmark, where childcare is publicly funded but private care is available, spend an average of 10.7 per cent of their income and single parents spend an average of 2.9 per cent of their incomes.
The cost of full-time childcare in Northern Ireland has fallen to £166 per week according to the Childcare Cost Survey, compiled by Employers for Childcare. However, the report also found that childcare costs have remained as either the largest or second largest expense for two thirds of families. 57 per cent of families reported changes in their working patterns over the last year, with 46 per cent of those who reported a change attributing it to the cost of childcare. The report found that it is still mothers who are mostly stating that they have reduced their hours or left the workforce in order to care for their children.
Another OECD report found that the United Kingdom had the highest percentage of parental spend on childcare in a situation where both parents are working with two children, with one earning an average salary and the other earning 67 per cent of average. However, it appears that, given the four differing systems of childcare in the UK, the OECD used England’s data, meaning the chart does not take Northern Ireland into consideration. OECD found that English parents in that situation are spending 55 per cent of their earnings on childcare, with New Zealand, where parents in that situation spend 40 per cent of their income on childcare, a distant second.
In the case of a single parent with two children, England falls to eighth in the table of costs proportionate to income. The Republic of Ireland is the most expensive country in that scenario, with childcare costing single parents an average of just under 40 per cent of their income.
There are currently no plans to increase the number of funded hours available to parents in Northern Ireland. Employers for Childcare have written that they “would welcome a move within Northern Ireland that would give working parents access to additional hours of funded preschool education, and enhanced flexibility in how this provision can be accessed, so that it can be used as childcare”. Without an Executive to affect legislative change, it would appear that Northern Ireland will continue to lag behind.