Over the past six budgets, investment in Early Learning and Care (ELC) and School Age Childcare (SAC) has increased by 141% - rising from €260 million in 2015, to €638 million in 2021. This excludes substantial funding provided to support the sector during the closure period from March - June and to operate in a COVID-19 context since reopening. Despite this progress, investment in the area remains low by international standards.
In their latest calculation of Ireland’s expenditure on early learning and care, the OECD includes an estimate of the cost of primary school for children aged under 6 years.
This is to account for the fact that many children in Ireland start primary school at an earlier age than in other countries. Using this measure, Ireland spends an estimated 0.5% of GDP on early learning and care.
If the cost of primary school for children aged under 6 is excluded, Ireland spends just 0.2% of GDP on this area, compared to the OECD average of 0.7%. Our spending also falls short of the UNICEF-recommended investment level of 1.0% of GDP.
It is important to note however that Irish GDP is seen as a poor point of international comparison and work is underway to provide more analysis using an alternative benchmark. That being said everyone acknowledges we need greater investment.
The First 5 Strategy, commits the Government to at least double public spending on early learning and care services by 2028. This doubling of investment would increase Ireland’s position by €574m or by approximately an extra 0.2 per cent of GDP. Every 0.1% increase in spending as a share of GDP would cost an estimated €339m per annum.
A key vehicle to ensure that such significant additional investment delivers optimally for children, families and the State will be a new Funding Model.
An Expert Group to develop the new Funding Model was appointed in September 2019. The Group will examine how additional public funding can be used to deliver higher quality, more affordable, more sustainable and more inclusive services.
This important project is recognised in the Programme for Government. I am pleased that a programme of consultation is currently underway and I greatly look forward to receiving their report next year.