From the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, my Department has been and continues to be committed to ensuring that investment in the Early Learning and Care (ELC) and School-Age Childcare (SAC) sector is maintained and that services remain sustainable.
A list of ELC and SAC supports available from 12 March 2020 is as follows:
- continuation of DCEDIY subsidy schemes on an ex-gratia basis from 12 March – 6 April.
- Temporary Wage Subsidy Childcare Scheme (TWSCS) operated from 6 April – 28 June.
- Reopening Funding Package was announced in June 2020, which included a Reopening Support Payment for DCEDIY funded service providers opening between 29 June and early September 2020. Also, the COVID-19 Capital Grant contributed towards capital costs associated with the reopening of ELC and SAC services.
- Economy wide support, Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS), became available in August 2020.
- Sustainability Fund was made available on 24 August.
- On foot of the measures announced at the end of 2020, my Department put in place a newly designed COVID-19 operating support payment (COSP) for 1 February – 5 March 2021. A new strand of the COVID-19 Sustainability Fund was also put in place for this period.
- Extension of Covid-19 Operating Support Payment and Covid-19 strand of the Sustainability Fund to cover the period until 29 March when services could fully re-open, subject to public health guidance at that time.
- Extensive range of provider/practitioner public health resources/guidelines were provided to assist services to reopen and operate safely.
- Extensive range of CPD resources were provided for practitioners to engage in training during services closures.
- Extensive range of parent/child resources/ guidelines were provided to prepare for the transition back to ELC and SAC and to continue learning at home.
Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS)
The Deputy will be aware that employers in the ELC and SAC sector are currently eligible to access the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) without having to demonstrate the 30% reduction in turnover required of other employers.
EWSS has been a key component of the Government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis. It is an economy-wide scheme that operates across all sectors. The special arrangement for registered ELC and SAC services to be exempted from the turnover test has made substantial financial supports available to the sector since August 2020.
For over a year, between October 2020 and November 2021, the EWSS has been paid at enhanced rates. This amounts to an investment of €34 million per month in the sector and is estimated to cover, on average, 80% staff costs and 50% operating costs.
The EWSS is due to revert to standard rates between December 2021 and February 2022. This amounts to an investment of €22 million per month in the sector and is estimated to cover, on average, 50% staff costs and 38% operating costs.
For March and April 2022 a new flat rate for the EWSS (€100) will apply. This amounts to an investment of €11 million per month in the sector and is estimated to cover, on average, 25% staff costs and 11% operating costs.
With the additional cost of play-pods and other public health measures estimated to be €12 million per month, the EWSS at enhanced and standard rates exceeds what is required by the sector to adhere to public health guidance. The EWSS at flat rates is just marginally below the cost of play-pods.
Sustainability Funding also continues to be available to providers where there are sustainability difficulties. The Covid-19 Impact Support funding strand is available for both community and private services for eligible ELC and SAC services that require further financial assistance in addition to current support measures available.
Transition and Core Funding
As I announced on Budget Day, a Transition Fund will be available for providers in the sector following the cessation of EWSS from May 2022 until the introduction of the new Core Funding in September 2022. €37 million has been allocated for this fund.
From September 2022, a new Core Funding stream will operate. €69 million has been allocated to this funding stream in 2022, equivalent to €207 million full year costs and constitutes a significant and strategic new approach to funding the sector in the longer term.
City/County Childcare Committees (CCCs)
The 30 City/County Childcare Committees (CCCs) funded by my Department have continued to provide supports to the ELC and SAC sector throughout the course of the pandemic. The CCCs are usually the first point of contact for ELC and SAC service providers - they provide information, support and advice on a broad range of Covid-19-related and many other issues.
As an extension of this support, in February 2021 my Department established a national Covid-19 out of hours helpline which is hosted by the CCCs. The purpose of this helpline is to provide weekend support to ELC and SAC providers who have a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19 in their service.
National Voluntary Childcare Organisations
My Department also provides funding to seven National Voluntary Childcare Organisations who provide support to and represent 4,500 ELC and SAC providers. These organisations have also continued to support the sector throughout the pandemic.
Pay and Working Conditions
Looking to the future, I am conscious of the need for improvement in pay and working conditions for practitioners in ELC and SAC services. The level of pay they receive does not reflect the value of the work they do for children, for families and for the wider society and economy.
The Deputy will be aware that the State is not the employer and does not determine pay rates. However, last December I began a process to examine the possibility of regulating pay and conditions in the sector and the suitability of a Joint Labour Committee (JLC), which will provide an opportunity for unions and employer representatives to work together to determine wages. As a result of this process, an Establishment Order for a sectoral Joint Labour Committee was signed in June, and the Committee is now in the process of being formed.
In addition, I will publish a Workforce Development Plan for the sector later this month, which will include important actions to strengthen career pathways and support recruitment.
New Funding Model
An Expert Group has been convened by the Department to develop a new funding model for ELC and SAC. The Expert Group is tasked with examining the current model of funding, its effectiveness in delivering quality, affordable, sustainable and inclusive services and considering how additional resourcing can be delivered for the sector to achieve these objectives, drawing on international practice in this area.
The Expert Group have met 21 times since late 2019. The group has presented a report to me, and it is due to be submitted to Government shortly. Since the report is under consideration, it is not possible at present to share the full details of its recommendations but, subject to Government approval, it will be published in the coming weeks.
Review of the operating model for ELC and SAC
Under 'First 5, the Whole of Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families' my Department committed to completing a comprehensive review of the operating model for ELC and SAC in this country.
The ELC and SAC sector in Ireland has grown substantially in the past decade - the objective of the review is to ensure that the operating model is fit for purpose to implement Departmental ELC and SAC policy relating to quality, affordability and access, to the scale and standards required in an evolving and expanding sector, with the citizens of Ireland at its heart as core beneficiaries.
I am pleased to report that this review is due to conclude shortly. An independent external contractor has been engaged by my Department to undertake an analysis of the current landscape and consideration of options for a future operating model. An Oversight Group, chaired by my Department, has also been established and is meeting regularly.
I look forward to bringing a report to Government on the matter in the coming weeks.