In a report described as “the most worrying yet”, a warning has been sounded that Northern Ireland could be facing into a childcare crisis which would have a severe impact on parents’ ability to work.
This would further add to the pressures on the economy with many employers already struggling to recruit and retain staff.
Almost a third of childcare providers who responded to the survey described their financial position as “struggling” or “distressed” meaning that they are focused on survival over the next year or, in some cases, at immediate risk of closure.
Childcare providers point to Covid-19 related pressures having added to the challenges already facing their sector. 7 out of 10 are either just breaking even or are making a loss, which is clearly not sustainable in the longer term. A third of providers anticipate increasing their fees in the next year to stay afloat – rising to two thirds of day nurseries.
The impact is not just financial, with three quarters of Northern Ireland’s childcare providers reporting that Covid-19 has had a negative impact on them or their staff in terms of mental health and well-being.
One childcare provider in Co Derry told the organisation: “Covid-19 has seriously impacted my business in terms of losing children and also the worry of the future. I have lost work and will probably have to look for another part time job to stay open.”
At the same time, families are struggling to find and pay for the childcare they need with over a quarter (28%) of parents having difficulties meeting the costs of childcare.
“The average cost of a full-time childcare place here is now over a third of average household income – one of the highest figures across all OECD countries. In Co Derry that figure has increased to £170 per week in 2021.
“In addition, three quarters (75%) of parents in Derry/Londonderry told us there is insufficient childcare provision in their area,” said Employers For Childcare.
Aoife Hamilton, Head of Charity Services at Employers For Childcare, comments: “We have been reporting on childcare in Northern Ireland for over a decade and for many years, parents and childcare providers have been telling us about the issues they face, but this is the most worrying picture yet.
“Childcare providers are facing unprecedented challenges – in recruiting and retaining staff and meeting salaries, particularly with the increase announced to the National Living Wage, as well as rising food and energy costs and uncertainty over numbers and occupancy levels.
“This could impact on their ability to deliver the high-quality childcare that enables parents to work. The sector rightly benefited from vital Government funding during Covid-19 which was a real lifeline for many but now much, much more is required.
“We need to see long-term, strategic investment in this essential economic sector. Without it, costs are likely to continue to rise and the sector will be at risk of collapse meaning parents will be unable to work, our economic recovery will be held back and children will miss out on important developmental opportunities.
Looking ahead, Aoife continues: “Work is underway on a new Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland and there is now a not-to-be-missed opportunity for our Executive Ministers to show their commitment to building back better, and creating a world-class childcare infrastructure – that supports parents to work, aids the wider economy and society and critically, invests in the social and educational development of our children – the benefits of which will be felt for generations to come.
“Ahead of the upcoming Assembly Elections we are calling on all of our elected representatives and candidates to listen to parents and childcare providers and to make sure childcare is a top priority for a new Executive”.
Aoife concludes: “Although most working parents will be eligible for some financial support towards their childcare costs, a third of parents told us they are not claiming any help with their childcare – so we would urge all parents, whatever their income level, to call our Family Benefits Advice Service on Freephone 0800 028 3008 and we can identify what is available for their family”.