Ireland has the highest level of private childcare services in Europe and among OECD countries as well as a lower than average level of government investment.
That’s according to a new research paper published by the Oireachtas Library and Research Services, which highlighted a number of challenges should the next government seek to introduce a “universal” preschool scheme.
The paper by senior parliamentary researcher Dr Emily Heery found that Ireland was an outlier across countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Europe on the level of private childcare services and on government investment.
OECD data from 2017 showed that Ireland, alongside New Zealand, had the highest percentage of children attending private services at 99%, well above the OECD average of 34% and EU average of 27%.
The research, carried out before the Covid-19 pandemic, also found the level of government investment in Ireland was the second lowest across OECD countries in 2016.
Less than 0.4% of GDP was spent on early childhood and education services for three- to five-year-olds in Ireland in 2016 compared to the OECD average and EU average of 0.6%.
Nordic countries, such as Norway and Sweden, where childcare services are in the main publicly provided, spent 1% of GDP on childcare services by comparison.
A European Commission report also found childcare fees in Ireland were among the highest in Europe in 2019, ranking alongside fees charged in the Netherlands, UK, and Switzerland.
Despite the high fees, the research paper noted the wages of childcare workers remained “low” and had prompted street protests earlier this year. The average hourly rate for early years assistants, it found, was €11.44, which is below the €12.30 per hour living wage rate.
Countries providing public childcare tended to offer more accessible, available, affordable and higher quality services compared to countries relying on private services, the paper found.
Nordic countries, such as Norway, recognise universal childcare as a “social right” and have a high level of public investment, high staff to child ratios, low fees, and competitive salaries for staff.
Dr Heery concluded that introducing a universal early years childcare scheme would require a “dramatic policy shift for Ireland” but that doing so could “boost” the affordability, accessibility and quality of services and enhance the well-being of children and mothers.
The “market-driven approach” to childcare services in Ireland and the negative economic impact of the Covid-19 public health crisis, however, will present “key challenges” to rolling out a universal childcare scheme, she added.
The research paper comes as childcare providers have this week warned that many services could face closure in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Childcare services closed on March 12 but are set to reopen next Monday.
Seas Suas, which represents independent early learning and care providers, said short-term grants provided in response to the Covid-19 outbreak could not address the long-term deficits in the sector.
“Our sector needs practical longer-term support to ensure we are viable in the longer term, beyond August; the point at which Government funding support has been signalled to end,” Chair of Seas Suas, Regina Bushell, said, adding that it estimated that €130 million in funding will be required to support the sector for the rest of the year.