The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has just launched ‘Shared Island – Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland and Northern Ireland’. This report examines Early Childhood Care and Education (ECEC) policies in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It compares patterns of participation in ECEC among pre-school children in the two jurisdictions and draws on interviews with stakeholders to outline key developments and challenges. The report highlights important issues that are faced by both Ireland and Northern Ireland in providing a high quality, affordable and accessible ECEC system that addresses disadvantage. The report also explores areas in which Ireland and Northern Ireland can collaborate and learn to improve provision North and South.
Affordability and availability
Affordability and availability are identified as common challenges for accessing services. Costs are reported by the OECD as being the highest in Europe. There is recognition that recent initiatives have increased support for low-income families. In Ireland this has taken the of the ‘Fee Freeze’ under Core Funding and the increase in the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) subsidy for parents. While in Northern Ireland, parental support is managed through Universal Credit and the tax system.
The availability of places in both systems is also noted as an issue, particularly for children aged under three years of age. Issues persist in availability in urban areas in Ireland, while in Northern Ireland, shortages are most acute in rural areas. Similarly, the flexibility of provision is an issue common to both. This has begun to be addressed through Core Funding in Ireland, and certain flexibilities around the NCS.
In terms of ECEC policy on quality provision, the report notes several developments which have made a contribution to improvements in both jurisdictions. In Ireland there has been a new focus on higher qualifications for staff, outlined in the Nurturing Skills: The Workforce Plan. Both jurisdictions also feature professional and support and development initiatives, with the sector in Ireland receiving support from Better Start, while in Northern Ireland mentoring, leadership and practice support are provided by the Early Years organisation. However, challenges to quality provision in both remain namely through the terms and conditions of the workforce, and both jurisdictions feature high turnover and low remuneration. Issues in Ireland persist in qualification attainment, with more work needed to encourage existing staff to avail of continuous professional development. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland a ‘two-tier system’ of pay disparity remains, with highly qualified staff working in nurseries and low qualifications in private and voluntary provision.
The report also notes several factors which influence participation in ECEC in both jurisdictions. Notably, children aged between three and four years are more likely to use non-parental care, along with those with higher levels of income or mothers employed either part- or full-time. In fact, centre-based care is associated with being in the top thirty-third percentile of income whereas lone parent families were more likely to rely on family and friends for ECEC.
There remains opportunities for collaboration between stakeholders in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and there are current existing examples of this collaboration to serve as a template. For example, Departmental contact is retained via the British-Irish Council Early Years Sub-group. Moreover, there is a good relationship between inspectorates which often engage in cross-border shadowing. Given the shared challenges, there are also further avenues for informal contact and information sharing. These opportunities can be used to tackle challenges around affordability, quality, as well as how ECEC can address inequality and disadvantage in Irish and Northern Irish society. Ireland has a lot to learn from Northern Ireland regarding the inclusion of childminders in the formal ECEC system, Northern Ireland can learn from Ireland’s implementation of the Aistear Siolta framework for children under three years and from the Irish system’s use of the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM). Further scope remains in ‘wrap around ‘services and qualifications.
The report makes it clear however that both jurisdictions will need to increase spending in line with other wealthy European countries. This will ensure that quality is maintained through a well-paid and supported workforce, and that increased qualifications are awarded through remuneration. The affordability and accessibility of ECEC services for all families will improve as will the provision of supports for disadvantaged families.
You can read the full report on the ERSI website. If you would like to know more about this report and how it relates to our work, please get in touch with our Policy, Advocacy and Campaigning team at firstname.lastname@example.org