The availability of high-quality early learning and childcare that is affordable and accessible is a key Government priority.
Since 2015, significant increases in State investment in early learning and childcare has given rise to a substantial growth in the numbers of children participating in these services. More than 100,000 children now participate on the universal pre-school programme on an annual basis and the National Childcare Scheme subsidises up to 80,000 children.
To ensure that the supply of early learning and childcare places meets demand, my Department has, since 2015, funded the creation of more than 27,000 new places through an Annual Capital Programme.
Before the onset of Covid-19, national data indicated that, on the whole, supply of early learning and childcare places was meeting demand, with evidence of undersupply for certain age groups, and in certain areas and my Department was taking a number of steps to address this, principally through capital investment through the National Development Plan.
Data gathered throughout the Covid-19 pandemic revealed lower demand for early learning and childcare, and reduced occupancy among early learning and childcare services. Indeed, data captured in June 2021 found significant vacancy rates across the country – with the national vacancy rate averaging at 21%.
My Department is continuing to monitor early learning and childcare capacity, particularly in light of the recent lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.
Pobal has, using the data captured in June 2021 and current registration data, recently projected vacancy rates in February 2022. While this analysis shows a fall in vacancy rates from June 2021 to February 2022 – with vacancy rates falling from 21% to 19%, this analysis suggests that there is unused capacity across the country. Further analysis is being undertaken by Pobal to establish if this unused capacity varies by type of provision or location, to establish any mismatch is supply and demand for certain cohorts or children or in certain areas.
Pobal will also commence new data collection in April 2022, as part of the Annual Early Years Sector Profile survey. This will allow for updated information on capacity among early learning and childcare services to be established. In addition, my Department is undertaking research on the early learning and childcare needs of parents who work atypical hours or live in rural communities under way.
Parents experiencing difficulty in relation to their early learning and childcare needs should contact their local City/County Childcare Committee (CCC) for assistance. Contact details for CCCs may be found on www.myccc.ie.