Childcare costs

The childcare money pit

Posted on November 30, 2012

The budget is coming and the leaks have been drip, drip, dripping for months. However, with all the debate over child benefit, are we missing the elephant in the room? Irish childcare costs are now among the most expensive in the world and we have one of the lowest public expenditure on childcare and early education.

According to a 2010 OECD report, Irish parents spend an average of 29% of their incomes on childcare. A full-time Dublin crèche place can cost up to €1100 for just one child, with most crèches offering a discount of only 10% for a second child. As childcare bills now surpass mortgage bills as the major household cost for families, what affect is this having on working parents and, in particular, working mothers?

Orla O’Connor, Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, says that, while families struggle to pay childcare costs for one or two children, many simply cannot afford the cost for a third child. “You can clearly see that in families with more than two children, there is a significant drop in women’s employment rates”, she says. “While we can’t say that this is caused by childcare costs, what we can say is that the costs can be really prohibitive.”

O’Connor says we are lagging behind all other EU countries when it comes to public subsidisation of childcare. “In the National Women’s Council, we look to the Danish model where, at a maximum, parents will pay 33% of their childcare costs whereas in Ireland, parents are paying 100%.”

Following a recent trip to Sweden, where free childcare is provided for every child aged between three and five, Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, announced that she would like to extend the current ECCE free pre-school year to a second year. This is something that Early Childhood Ireland has been calling for since the scheme started in 2010. CEO, Irene Gunning, says that children get the most benefit from two years of pre-school education. “It should be universal, it should be considered the right of a child”, she says. “Young children need a play-based curriculum in a warm and friendly environment.”

O’Connor says that, while the ECCE has been a step in the right direction, it still provides financial support to a private childcare model which focuses on full-time childcare. ” We should be looking at more of a public model, especially with out-of-school costs. The infrastructure is already there, there is much less investment needed and it would reduce childcare costs considerably.”

Clearly, the cost of childcare is a huge burden for parents but is it the biggest consideration when choosing childcare?

Iseult Coffey considered many issues when investigating childcare for her son, Felix. “I was really torn because I had read Steve Bidulph’s book, Raising Babies” (which details the stress levels of the under-threes in daycare). “My first concern was about putting him in a very warm environment as opposed to a squeaky, clean, clinical environment.”

Iseult visited a number of crèches and interviewed a childminder before choosing the crèche that Felix has been in for the past two years. “I went to another crèche, which ticked all the boxes from a professional point of view but I didn’t feel the manager was very warm, I just didn’t get a good vibe off her. With a baby, all it needs is cuddles, that’s what I was looking for.”

Another reason she chose the crèche was cost and flexibility. “With my crèche, you can pay for the days you are in, you can pay half-time if you want. But that wasn’t the blocker for me – it was the warmth.”

When Sarah Herron returned to work after having her first child, Tommy, she chose a crèche. “The crèche was in Dublin city centre and it was crazy money. You wouldn’t want to add it all up, month after month, it was such a massive amount of money.”

After two years, Sarah decided to try a childminder, who stayed with the family until Sarah’s maternity leave with her second son, Luke. As Sarah’s leave came to an end, they considered an au pair and now couldn’t be happier with the outcome. “Initially we took on an au pair just to tide us over until we could get a more permanent childminder but it worked out so well for us that we’ve had au pairs for the last three years.”

Sarah admits she was apprehensive at the start. “I was very nervous about it to begin with but the first au pair was so easy and and it was her fourth time being an au pair so she taught us so much about how it worked. I got used to it very quickly.”

The biggest benefit of an au pair for Sarah is the flexibility. “I start work early so I can leave early. While I’m commuting, the kids are asleep”. She also finds that an au pair fits in more easily with the family’s needs. “With an au pair you have a lot of control, you can dictate exactly what you want whereas with a childminder, it can be more complicated.”

On the issue of cost, Sarah says that, while it is a consideration, it is not the most important one. “Cost is important but getting the right person is more important.”

Claire Noonan agrees. “The person is far more important than the price. I would be more willing to cut any other aspect of our budget than our childminder’s pay.”

After Claire’s first child, David, spent 18 months in a crèche, she decided to try a childminder. She found someone through word of mouth and “it just really, really worked. When she told me she was leaving nine months later, I nearly died.”

Claire found another childminder, again through word of mouth, and now, with a small baby and two children in school, Claire finds the convenience invaluable. “Rosemary helps in the morning, she brings them to school and picks them up. She makes it all so easy. In fact, Rosemary keeps me sane.”

Catherine Dempsey also chose a crèche for her first child, Bea. Her work contract ended when she was on maternity leave with her second daughter, Mae, and she decided not to seek a new one so she could stay at home. Now that both girls are in school, she is in the process of setting up a business from home.

“Kate Pops came about because I had started making cake pops at home to give to friends as presents and one friend said that I should try and sell them.” When she put the word out about her business idea, she had such a huge response that she is now in the product testing phase and hopes to be up and running shortly.

Catherine works around the kids’ schedules. “I bake the cakes the night before, freeze them and when the kids are in school, I defrost and decorate them.” Being able to work without the cost or worry of childcare is what suits Catherine. “With Bea, I remember sitting at home at night and calculating how many hours I had spent with her and whether that was more or less than the time she’d spent in the crèche and I thought, I really don’t want to do that again.”

Orla O’Connor says that the issue of childcare plays a role in all aspects of women’s employment. “We know that when decisions are being made, childcare costs are a huge factor in terms of the type of jobs that women take up, the hours they work and the location of the jobs.”

Dolores Grace is a fully-qualified accountant with four children. She gave up work after her third child was born. “I would have continued working if childcare was more affordable because I did love my job but it just wasn’t feasible.” While she likes being at home with the children, she would prefer to be at work. “I feel I’m wasting away here. I trained for five years and studied very hard for it.”

Dolores has investigated going back to work, “but even if I earned a salary of 50 grand, by the time you take childcare out of that and tax and the other bits it costs to go to work, it’s not actually worth my while.” There is also the issue of the hours she would have to work. “When you’re trained professionally, they don’t just want you for part-time work, they want you for almost 50 hours a week and that’s very difficult because then you’re removing yourself from the home completely.”

Instead, Dolores works part-time in the evening. “I do a small amount of lecturing, just to keep my head semi-sane. I do it at night because it doesn’t cost anything, my husband is at home with the kids.”

The EU target for female employment is 75% by 2020. In 2010, the rate of employment of Irish women was 56%. We have a long way to go.

By Fiona McPhillips. First published in the Evening Herald, 25 October 2012.

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