Michael Clifford: Poverty among childcare staff affects all of us

Michael Clifford: Poverty among childcare staff affects all of us

The framing of the political approach to childcare is, to a large extent, responsible for the appalling working conditions that prevail in the sector, writes Michael Clifford.

THE latest research into pay and conditions for professionals working in the childcare sector is not a surprise, but at the same time remains deeply shocking.

Most of those in the sector continue to be paid less than the living wage. The key findings in the research are that 94% find it difficult to make ends meet, 84% are unable to cope with unexpected expense and just over half are actively looking for another job.

“The survey reveals a profession living in poverty,” The Early Years Professional Survey states. “Low pay and a lack of basic entitlements predominate.”

The survey illustrates the lived experience of those working in childcare. They dread any out of the ordinary expense. They delay having children. (98% of childcare professionals are female). They have no prospect of putting down roots through acquiring a home. In such a milieu, is it any wonder that half of those surveyed said they are actively looking for another job?

The results would be shocking for any sector, particularly where a professional qualification is increasingly required for employment.

But working with preschool children is more than just a job.

Thousands of parents invest huge trust in those who care, develop and educate their young children. Parents regularly inquire about development and other issues. They go off to their own place of employment either relaxed and confident about the care their child is getting or stressed if there is any concern as to the quality of care.

One major factor in the quality of childcare is continuity. In that regard, the report provides some alarming statistics. It notes that there is currently a 25% turnover of staff per annum in the sector and half of all the respondents in the survey indicated that they are actively looking for another job. What are the implications for the developmental quality offered in the State’s facilities if a quarter of staff leave every year, and half of all staff have their mind set on getting out?

An obvious conclusion is that society does not value the work done by childcare professionals. Or, it may well be that everybody, but most particularly those in the power centres, simply prefer to ignore what is a scandal because addressing it would cause too much upheaval.

Every government must prioritise resources and this is inevitably done with political imperatives in mind. The profile of the average childcare professional, female, young, possibly part-time, probably transient in the sector, is not one to make political hacks sit up and take notice. 

As a constituency, they simply don’t have the organised political power of other sectors. Everybody might think it’s a scandal and aren’t they doing great work, but the patronising tone — one that nurses will be familiar with from the past — doesn’t butter any parsnips.

Funding is a serious issue. The investment in the sector is low by the standards of developed countries, coming in under 0.5% of GDP when the average is 0.8% and the recommended level by the UN is 1%. There has been increased investment in recent years, but much of the focus of that investment has concentrated on parents and not the workforce.

In this regard, it is the framing of the political approach to childcare that is, to a large extent, responsible for the appalling working conditions that prevail.

The political approach has been dictated by policy dating from the halcyon days of illusory wealth known as the Celtic Tiger. Back then, as the general workforce expanded enormously and the issues around childcare surfaced, the whole attitude was to provide “choice” for parents by loading on subsidies.

In the decade leading up to 2008 there was a six-fold increase in child benefit. At the height of the madness in 2006, the Government introduced the “early childhood supplement” of €1,000 per annum for children up to the age of six.

Everybody was thrilled to be in receipt of hard cash at a time when childcare costs were ballooning. The policy effectively diverted direct investment into the pockets of voters. The voter will always appreciate hard cash more than the provision of a service.

As with other areas of public policy this approach had excellent short-term political benefits, but negative consequences in the long run. One fallout from the decision to dole out cash rather than designing a proper childcare infrastructure was the continued failure to ensure that workers in the sector were provided with a wage reflecting the work they do. The “cash first” approach simply moved the State further away from any input into the direct provision of childcare.

The subsidy model did not lead to an improvement in wages or working conditions. Some evidence from recent years is shocking in this regard. For instance, in 2016 the Department of Children used a model to determine how affordable childcare could be achieved.

Figures used in the model included one that put the annual salary of a facility manager at €28,850. That’s a manager who could have responsibility for dozens of staff and even more children. Is there a manager at work in any sector, with commensurate responsibility, who works for that kind of salary?

Recently the political spotlight on childcare focused on an issue other than parents with the screening of the Prime Time Investigates story on the Hide and Seek creche chain. If anything, the programme highlighted once more the level of trust that is required for parents to hand over care of their children to staff in these centres. After all, it was staff that made the efforts to highlight what was the very poor management practices exposed in the programme.

Whether that can act as an awakening in wider society about the role of staff in early years settings remains to be seen. But one way or the other, this issue will not go away.

There is only so much road in the pretence that a highly qualified workforce charged with major responsibility is willing to continue living in poverty simply because that’s the way it has always been.

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