Ill-judged full-time work incentive for mothers not what children need

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone TD and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD at the launch of the National Childcare Scheme. Picture: Sam Boal/

The Government seems intent on making going home after school impossible for as many children as they can, says Victoria White.

The only things that matter to us are the number of units and how cheap they’ll be.

The National Childcare Scheme is about to take off this October and the general public has so far been concerned with only two issues: The worry that there are not enough places for babies in creches and the worry that after-school centres will be more expensive because of the new ratios of one adult for 12 kids.

It seems no-one is asking basic questions like why are we committing an extra €4.3m to providing 130,000 extra places for under-threes by the end of this year when full-time institutional childcare for young children, particularly under-twos, is sub-optimal?

It amazes me that research study after research study can warn against full-time creche care for babies and toddlers and yet our Government can go on to provide just that.

I’m not talking about a few loons in tie-dyed T-shirts either.

I’m talking about the most comprehensive childcare study ever carried out in the US, by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

I’m talking about Families, Children and Childcare, the most comprehensive research study of childcare ever conducted in the UK.

I’m talking about Professor Edward Melhuish’s audit of childcare research around the world, conducted by the UK government in 2004.

Our Government’s own policy document, First Five, which is meant to inform the National Childcare Scheme, states that over 32 hours a week of centre-based care “has been linked to poor outcomes in language and cognitive development” for children under three years.

So the Government goes ahead and provides it anyway — and does little or nothing to give young couples hope that they might have an option which is not linked to any “poor outcomes” for their precious babies.

I tell a lie, there is a promise to extend paid parental leave by seven weeks for each parent so that by 2021 a couple will have 40 weeks of paid leave between them.

I did think a year had 54 weeks in it but maybe I’m mistaken. 

Either that or the advice in Unesco’s 2015 report on childcare that one year at home should be the minimum a baby expects, which was echoed in the expert advisory group on childcare’s report to Government, Right From The Start, must be rubbish.

Surprising then, that in countries with good outcomes for children and healthy economies, such as Germany, Austria and Finland, the option of three years’ paid leave is provided to a child’s parents.

Maybe they’re not as sophisticated as us and don’t realise babies are better off in creches and their mammies are better off back at work?

“Investing in childcare ticks all the boxes,” Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone wrote recently in the Irish Independent. 

It is good for children in terms of their development. It is good for parents who want access to education, training and work. It is good for the economy.

It is, she wrote, her mission and the mission of her department that her childcare scheme must be open to all children, “no matter what their age”. No matter whether it suits them or not, in other words?

I have great respect for Ms Zappone who is well-intentioned and wholly sincere but she doesn’t seem to understand the special needs babies have.

It is the required 1:3 ratio of carer to children which is causing creches to cut or halt their provision for babies under one year. Yet even that ratio is high. 

And there is no legal requirement to provide a dedicated carer for each set of three babies which would be the only way they could provide the consistency of care which is necessary for the proper development of an infant.

Of course some creches provide just that but it is very hard to make it pay.

That’s not surprising because they are trying to replicate the one- to-one care a parent would normally give an infant.

Professor Edward Melhuish, the author of the audit of international childcare for the UK, told The Guardian at the time that funding a parent to stay home would cost more or less the same as adequate creche care for a child that young.

We won’t consider funding even two years’ paid parental leave.

We won’t consider a flexible payment which could go to a gran or an auntie or big sister.

We still haven’t even brought under the remit of Tusla and the National Childcare Scheme, the very childminders who can offer adequate baby care — those who mind fewer than four unrelated children.

We have never seriously considered a legal right to part-time work for carers of young children, such as exists in such bastions of backwardness as the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands.

When you think how important such a measure might be in reducing the number of hours young children spend in centre-based care while maintaining a parent’s relationship with the workplace, that seems shocking.

Part-time work can be a great option for a parent of school-age children, sometimes meaning they have to out-source very little care.

Instead, the future we are preparing for the nation’s children once the school-day ends is a session in another school-like environment, an after-school centre.

Children don’t want this future. 

The report into after school care commissioned by Ms Zappone’s department a couple of years ago submitted to the new requirement under the Children’s Act that children should be consulted in matters which concerned them.

That was great, but what was important was to hear what they said: 1% of them wanted to go to creche after school and 59% wanted to go home.

The report lamented that this was “not possible” for every child.

That’s true but by subsidising centre-based care so that those who opt for home-based care can’t compete economically, the Government seems intent on making going home after school impossible for as many children as they can.

There have always been children who benefit by not going home every day but they are not the focus of the Government’s plans.

The Carlow Regional Youth Service, which services up to 60 children who need help with the transition to secondary, is warning that the new National Childcare Scheme may close them down because the parents it serves may not be in work or training and won’t be able to collect the full subvention.

So the real intention of the Government’s National Childcare Scheme is laid bare: it is an ill-judged incentive to women to work full-time through their children’s early years, even when they want, and their children need, to stay home.

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