15 Asks for the Executive - Publish a costed action plan alongside the Childcare Strategy in early 2015

In 15 Asks for the Executive we focus on a range of issues the current Executive can either complete or significantly progress before the June 2016 Assembly election

In this series of articles we take each 'ask' and explore them in greater details.

This week we are focusing on number four "publish a costed action plan alongside the Childcare Strategy in early 2015"

Mairaid McMahon, Director of Charity Services, Employers For Childcare Charitable Group

Publish a costed action plan alongside the Childcare Strategy in early 2015

This should detail the resources available to implement each aspect of the Strategy.

Our “Executive Ask” was written more in hope than expectation, and simultaneously attempted to be somewhat presumptuous in demanding the publication of a costed action plan to support the long awaited Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland. Back in 2012, we were delighted with the Programme for Government commitment to “publish and implement a Childcare Strategy with key actions to provide integrated and affordable childcare”, which included a promise to “develop and begin to implement” the Strategy in 2012/13 and to evaluate it in 2014/15. So, at this stage in February 2015, you would be forgiven for thinking that we are about to critique the evaluation of the Strategy. Such a chance would be a fine thing. Having experienced numerous and repeated false dawns, we are yet to even see the outline of such a Strategy glimmering on the horizon.

Before we go any further, we thought it would be helpful to remind you why the publication of a Childcare Strategy is so important. At Employers For Childcare Charitable Group, we believe that the provision of flexible, affordable and appropriate childcare is critical to economic and social wellbeing. Our 2014 Childcare Cost Survey of over 4,200 parents revealed that on average, 44% of respondents’ household earnings are allocated to childcare, with 58% of parents telling us that they struggled with these costs either throughout the year or at some point during it. Our Survey also found that 51% of parents were reducing their working hours or leaving work altogether as a direct result of the cost of childcare. Those parents were deeply concerned about the long term impact of these decisions on their career progression, family life, family incomes and their health and wellbeing. Add to this the results of the 2014 Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion Report, which showed that the typical household in Northern Ireland has seen a 10% reduction in income, and the mounting pressure on family finances is placed into sharp focus.

Further research from the Child Poverty Alliance crystallises the issue in the following way. Lack of access to suitable childcare is a significant barrier to employment for many parents, reducing their capacity to increase their family’s income. The high costs of existing childcare provision are placing additional pressure on the incomes of families who are able to access this service, pushing them into in-work poverty. Those children who are unable to access good quality childcare miss out on the chance to enhance cognitive skills, such as language development, logic, reasoning and concentration, thereby reducing their academic potential with consequent effects for employability in later life. But crucially, those children also risk missing out on opportunities for early identification of additional developmental needs which, if not appropriately addressed, could again have severe and long term impacts on children’s development, as well as their health and wellbeing. And thus the cycles of inter-generational poverty are created and sustained.

To address this, we believe there are certain key requirements of any strategy relating to the provision of childcare. It must be led by a single department, whose responsibility it would be to co-ordinate the setting of policy and ensure delivery against agreed objectives. It must be under-pinned by a recognition of both the social and economic value of childcare for society as a whole, with corresponding targets to tackle poverty and enhance opportunities to access employment. It must set out standards of care for children which recognise the importance of early years development, and standards of service provision for parents which incorporate the need to deliver flexible, good quality and affordable places. It must address the particular needs of families who live in rural areas, children with additional or special needs, parents who work outside of the traditional “9 to 5” pattern and those who are undertaking training or development to enhance their career prospects or facilitate a future return to work, and provide clear and easy-to-access information and advice for parents on access to childcare services. An Executive Childcare Strategy, fully endorsed by all departments and including clear lines of delivery and accountability, is the only way to deliver this type of support which will allow parents to balance their work and family lives effectively, and to maximise opportunities for child development. And in the context of budget cuts and departmental reorganisations, a fully costed action plan is essential to ensuring those strategic objectives are translated into real and meaningful actions.

We know that OFMdFM, for their part, have undertaken significant amounts of stakeholder engagement and consultation, as well as rolling out a range of actions under the Bright Start framework. Rather than allowing the contributions of many voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations, who have worked hard to inform this process, to be lost, we must capitalise on the political commitment evident in the Programme for Government to deliver an Executive Strategy. We need to move this conversation on from endless discussions about when draft documents might be published and how far reaching they might be, to finally engaging in partnership with departments to deliver upon the Strategy’s commitments. We have had plentiful opportunities to talk about what could be done: now it’s time to put all of those words into action to support parents and children across Northern Ireland.

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