I am aware that school-age childcare providers have been particularly affected by lower demand from families in the initial weeks of reopening, during the Covid-19 pandemic. School-age childcare has been centre-stage in the Department’s thinking throughout this time, and it remains high on the agenda of the Advisory Group on Reopening, which meets on a regular basis. Throughout the pandemic a primary focus of my Department has been, and remains, on sustaining the early learning and care (ELC) and school-age childcare (SAC) sector. We have kept services open by funding the additional costs associated with following public health guidance, the cost of lower occupancy, and through encouraging greater uptake of childcare places.
The key new contributor to the ELC and SAC sector is the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme, which funds up to €200 per week per staff member. This funding in now secured until 31 March next and I will continue to work to ensure that the needs of the sector are recognised in any reforms of the scheme thereafter.
A second key contributor to the sector in 2021 will be to encourage more parents to access safe and more affordable early learning and childcare services. We have witnessed a reduction in demand in 2020 in terms of numbers and hours.
Despite this, I have retained all funding in Budget 2021, meaning that there is funding available for up to 20,000 new families to join the National Childcare Scheme and access subsidies of up to €200 per child, per week.
School-age childcare is central to the childcare funding schemes. The National Childcare Scheme allows parents receive hourly subsidies for wrap-around childcare in term-time, and for longer hours over holiday periods. I was pleased to increase the number of subsidised hours from September this year, partly to address the concerns of providers.
Where providers are struggling with an imminent threat to the viability of the service arising from a demonstrated decline in occupancy and/or demonstrated increase in costs due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, my Department has made available financial support in the form of COVID-19 Sustainability Support funding. This sustainability funding is available to both private, for-profit providers and community non-profit providers, subject to eligibility criteria and an assessment of need.
As of 1 October, the ELC and SAC COVID-19 Sustainability Support Fund is now open for applications. This funding is accessible to providers (not-for-profit and for-profit) who can demonstrate that the other measures available as part of the July Stimulus Package are not sufficient by themselves to enable viable operations of their business. Further information in relation to eligibility is available in the Applicant Guidelines. The Application Form, Workbook, and Applicant Guidelines for the ELC & SAC COVID-19 Sustainability Support Fund are available on the Hive and can be accessed at the following link: https://earlyyearshive.ncs.gov.ie/useful-links/. Support for ELC and SAC providers in relation to the completion of the application form and workbook is available via the local City and County Childcare Committees (CCCs). Contact details for the CCCs can be found in the Guidelines document, or at www.myccc.ie.
In addition to the COVID-19 Sustainability Support, my Department oversees a case management process through which local CCCs and Pobal work together to assess and provide support to early learning and care services and school-age childcare services in difficulty. This can include help with completing and interpreting analysis of staff ratios, fee setting and cash flow, as well as more specialised advice and support appropriate to individual circumstances. Pobal co-ordinate the overall case management process with the CCC administering initial, and on-going, case management assistance. The CCC, where appropriate, will proceed to make a formal notification to Pobal who will provide more consolidated support while verifying the service’s necessity for a financial intervention. All services who require support should contact their local CCC in the first instance.
In relation specifically to the reduction in attendance at school-age childcare services, officials in my Department are keeping this matter under review.