Funding uncertainty threatens community childcare

Community non-profit childcare facilities in Ireland's disadvantaged areas are likely to close because they are not 'financially viable'. Hilary Curley reports

Community-owned childcare facilities are under threat of closure because of uncertainty over Government funding. A total of 750 community-based childcare facilities receive staffing grants from the Government to provide childcare places in the poorest areas in Ireland.

The funding is due to run out in August and letters have been received by community groups saying that future subsidies for staffing is dependent on whether the area is "very disadvantaged" and on the facilities becoming "financially viable".

No criteria determining what is "very disadvantaged" has been communicated to the community projects by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. In response to questions from Village, the Department said that it involves looking at the profile of parents in the area (medical card holders, people in social housing) and looking at the socio-economic profile of the area.

Community childcare providers, who are the most common form of organised childcare provision in disadvantaged urban communities, have consistently argued over the years that not-for-profit voluntary groups offering childcare for parents on low incomes will never become financially viable because to charge the full market rate for childcare (€180 per week) would mean excluding the poorest parents and children and directly contradict their raison d'etre.

The Department of Justice has initiated a review of the staffing grants, which are offered to community-based childcare providers under Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme (EOCP) to allow parents on low income to access affordable childcare, saying that it wants the not-for-profit centres to "maximise end-users' contribution", ie, pass the cost on to the parents. But community groups argue that they can only charge the price the local market can bear.

In Tallaght, for example, an area of significant disadvantage, the Tallaght Childcare Company provides 42 full-time childcare places. A charge of €95 per child is levied. At this rate, fees make up less than 40 percent of the income for the year. The staffing contribution from the Department makes up 20 per cent and the rest is sourced from other grants and fund-raising.

"Tallaght Childcare Company could become financially viable if it substantially increased its fees and it could attract parents who are willing to pay such higher fees. However, that would defeat the purpose of the service," said Diane Richmond from the Tallaght Childcare Company.

The current uncertainty surrounding future funding means that many of the staff in these facilities are opting for other jobs or are in the process of looking elsewhere. The childcare regulations stipulate that there has to be one staff member for every three children and the ratio is even less for babies. The loss of staff means the number of children that can be catered for in the facility will be reduced or, more drastically, the facility will have to close.

Over the past four years the Government has invested heavily in both the building and staffing of community childcare facilities in order to increase the number of childcare places available in the country.

An evaluation of the EOCP, conducted in April 2003 by the evaluation unit in the Department of Finance, concluded that 92 per cent of the money made available by the Government (both capital and staffing grants) in the national childcare programme was awarded to community childcare providers. A budget of €499 million has been made available for the programme overall.

Sustainability of the childcare places in the future is an issue of concern to the community childcare providers. They are urging the Government to acknowledge the need for ongoing subsidisation of childcare facilities for people on low incomes or living in poor areas. They are calling for a funding strategy for community facilities to enable them to be sustainable into the long-term.