Historically, there has been low levels of investment in Early Learning and Care (ELC) and School Age Childcare (SAC) in Ireland. Over the past four budgets however, investment has increased by some 117% - rising from in €260 million in 2015, to €575 million in 2019.
This increased investment has been used to address the cost of Early Learning and Care and School Age Childcare to parents through a range of universal and targeted supports:
- The ECCE programme provides children with 15 hours per week of pre-school education over a 38-week programme year. Since September 2018 children qualify for two years of universal pre-school.
- The universal Community Childcare Subvention (CCSU) and targeted Community Childhood Subvention (CCS) Schemes provide weekly subsidies to offset fees charged by ELC and SAC settings. CCS is available to families who hold a Medical Card or are in receipt of social welfare benefits.
- The Training and Employment Childcare (TEC) Schemes provide a weekly subsidy to offset fees charged by ELC and SAC settings for parents on approved education or training courses, Community Employment schemes, or those returning to work.
- Specific supports are also in place for children in emergency accommodation, in accommodation centres provided by the State for persons in the protection process or programme refugee children in Emergency Reception and Orientation Centres.
Radical reforms to these schemes, based on the principle of progressive universalism, are in train. The National Childcare Scheme (NCS), when introduced later this year, will replace the CCS and TEC schemes with a single, streamlined scheme. Under the NCS, parents will continue to have access to the universal subsidy to meet the cost of ELC. Targeted subsidies for children from 6 months to 15 years of age will be provided with the level of subsidy determined by family income. NCS will also create a flexible platform for future investment in funding, allowing subsidies to be expanded over time.
The OECD in its report - Faces of Joblessness - compared the ELC and SAC supports previously available in Ireland with the expected impact of the NCS. For a lone parent working full time at the 25th percentile of the full-time earnings distribution, ELC costs in Ireland were the highest among all OECD countries in 2015. The Faces of Joblessness report estimated that NCS will bring net ELC costs down to make Ireland only the 11th highest in the OECD, or closer to the OECD average. This analysis was performed before Budget 2019 which increased the NCS thresholds at both ends and which would have enhanced the results further if included.
Notwithstanding this very significant progress, investment in ELC remains unacceptably low.
In their latest calculation of Ireland’s expenditure on ELC, the OECD includes DCYA investment in ELC and an estimate of the DES investment in primary school for children under 6: this is to account for the fact that many children in Ireland start primary school at an earlier age than in some other countries. Based on Ireland’s estimated GDP for 2016 and ELC expenditure estimates, Ireland will spend 0.5% of GDP on ELC in 2016 – with every .1% of GDP increase costing €300 million. If the cost of primary school for children under six is excluded, Ireland will spend just 0.2% of GDP of ELC. This investment compares poorly to other European countries where the OECD average is 0.8%. It also falls short of the UNICEF-recommended investment level of 1% of GDP.
First 5: A Whole of Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families published in November 2018 sets out an ambitious programme of work across Government Departments to improve the experiences and outcomes of children in Ireland from birth to age 5 across all aspects of their lives in the coming ten years. One of the major objectives is that babies and young children have access to safe, high-quality, developmentally appropriate Early Learning and Care which reflects diversity of need. Allied to that objective, First 5 identifies as a key building block additional public funding, strategically invested to achieve the best outcomes for babies, young children and their families. Under this objective, First 5 commits to at least doubling investment in ELC by 2028.