herald

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Parents of young kids are better off but there's no vision for the future

Is Minister Howlin confusing 'pre-school' with 'childcare'?

Banging on about the "labour activation" of women when his major announcement was an extra year of free pre-school for three-year-olds?

Three-and-a-half hours, 38 weeks of the year. You have a very odd job if that's all you need in childcare, and the €5 extra a month in child benefit isn't going to help much.

Pre-school and childcare are completely different subjects. Pre-school is early years education for kids. Childcare is someone minding your kid while you work or train to work.

Some 8,000 kids will benefit from the very welcome childcare places directed at the disadvantaged.

Other parents of young children have to chew on the hard fact that the pre-school intervention is for kids over three while the care of the under-threes is the most important and most expensive.

A special payment for parents of kids under three was suggested way back in 1998 by the Commission on the Family.

Even Labour suggested back in 2002 that parents of children under three should get a special payment.

The country with the best educational system in the world - Finland - allows parents the chance to stay home with their kids for the first three years.

Both or either parent can take time off work to care for their own kids.

The best childcare payments worldwide can be passed on to relations or child-minders who are consistently found to offer the best alternative to parental care for young kids. In France two-thirds of young kids who are in childcare are with registered child-minders.

But child-minders and grannies, Ireland's most popular childcare options, don't feature in this Budget at all. They don't even feature for after-school care. This is to be incentivised in school buildings - despite the fact that Growing Up In Ireland study found care with extended family after school was best.

Child-minders and relations look too much like mothers to be favoured by the Government.

Instead it has found introducing more pre-school to be the easiest option. It's not a childcare solution but it does disadvantaged kids some good and gives all parents a break.

Reports have shown our crowded schools are totally unsuitable for four-year-olds. Now they will be more likely to go to school at five.

That will be a help, along with the improvement - by one child - in the pupil-teacher ratio.

But our pre-school system is in the steerage class.

The restored capitation fee announced in the Budget of €64.50 a week per child (or €75 if the childcare staff are of graduate level) is bunged at private providers for 38 weeks of the year.

There is no funding for curriculum development. There is no funding for decent pay or basic holidays for childcare staff. In this context it is debatable if the very welcome €15m for special needs provision can be properly invested.

On the plus side, the introduction of two weeks' paternity leave is fantastic and will impact on the long-term relationship of many fathers with their children.

But we're coming from a shockingly low level. In Sweden a year-and-a-half's paid leave can be split between partners. In Germany a mother or father can take unpaid leave for the first three years .

After the Big Giveaway Budget parents of young kids are marginally better-off. But we are still waiting for a new vision for the future of our children.

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