Thousands of families are facing childcare chaos with nearly half of all preschools and smaller creches preparing for a series of flash strikes in September. The sector agreed a fee freeze for parents in exchange for extra Government funding, but they say this is now ‘unworkable’ with soaring inflation pushing them to the brink. Providers staged a second protest at the gates of Leinster House yesterday, saying a ‘gun’ is being put to their heads to accept funding which won’t cover their costs. A survey of creche owners and managers who operate the free Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) places last week revealed that 45% would be willing to engage in a series of flash closures, without any advance warning to parents. That would see strikes at 260 services affecting over 5,700 children, but a sector representative said the number was rising. Almost twice that many providers – 88% – said they were prepared to close in September on three specific dates. It would be the first time such strikes have ever been held.
Children’s Minister promises to ‘substantially cut’ childcare prices Close to 100 childcare providers attended yesterday’s protests at Leinster House and outside the Department of Children, but failed to win an audience with Minister Roderic O’Gorman. Elaine Dunne, chair of the Federation of Early Childhood Providers (FECP), said while larger childcare operators are happy with the Core Funding model, smaller ECCE operators were the ‘anomaly’ in the system, adding: ‘[the Government] had seven years to get this right, and all they have done is to destroy us’. Having already demonstrated discontent at a march on Leinster House last month, and met with ministers and public representatives, the ECCE providers say their concerns are not being addressed. ‘People in the sector are loathe to deprive parents of this vital educational support, but lack of action on the Core Funding model will see hundreds of pre-school care facilities close permanently anyway,’ said Ms Dunne. ‘The proposals introduced by the Minister for Children are simply not workable.
Childcare needs to be public or our most vulnerable children will suffer They do not nearly cover ECCE costs and, therefore, do not provide viability for ECCE preschools, whose services represent a third of all childcare providers.’ The FECP maintain up to 260 ECCE providers will close for good over the next year, due to lack of funding. A total of 79% of childcare providers recently surveyed say their overheads have risen dramatically this year. Just under a quarter (24%) have already had a rent increase this year, and 37% of the 771 respondents say they will be unable to pay staff wages going forward. There is also insecurity and lack of clarity in the ECCE scheme management, providers say, claiming they need clearer contracts and additional time to assess viability.
‘The current situation is putting a gun to providers’ heads, in very troubling economic and market conditions. Many will simply choose to walk away, leaving parents without childcare, and employers with additional staffing difficulty,’ Ms Dunne said. ‘Service closures aren’t easily reversed, so Government needs to engage with us now.’ The federation has called for an investment of €30million into ECCE Standard Capitation, raising the State subsidy to €76 per child per week from September. It said the ECCE capitation has increased by only 7% since 2010. It has moved from €64.50 to €69 in 12 years and has never been indexlinked.
The Government is looking at options on how to reduce the cost of childcare as part of Budget 2023, including examining whether to increase the number of free hours available under the ECCE scheme. But ECCE providers argue they cannot cap fees at last year’s 2.2% rate of inflation, considering inflation is currently expected to reach at least 7% for the year. A spokeswoman for the Department of Children said yesterday: ‘The threat of flash closures with no notice to parents is entirely regrettable and will do significant damage to the trust parents have in services. The department sincerely hopes any providers who are planning this will reconsider.’ She said that Core Funding, with a full year value of €221million, will improve affordability, quality and sustainability in early learning and childcare. ‘It will be distributed to services in a fair and proportionate manner… An overwhelming majority of providers will benefit significantly from Core Funding. Just 1% of services will see no change in funding,’ she said. The spokesperson said that evidence ‘does not substantiate the claim that significant numbers of providers are set to close down’