Childcare June 6, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Education, Irish Politics, Social Policy.
A most interesting thought in the SBP from Richard Curran who when writing about the current debacle in childcare notes that:
It [the childcare industry] emerged out of a market demand, rather than by a thought-out government policy.
In that respect he regards it as a product of the Celtic Tiger and he’s probably not entirely wrong there. Certainly, having had the opportunity to see it up close myself it’s very evident that standards are variable in the extreme, that the marketisation of the process has not been to the best and that the incidents and – perhaps more accurately – attitudes – noted in the RTÉ Prime Time last week were far from a surprise.
My own experience is of an excellent community creche in the inner city. There was never anything approaching concern at any stage. And yet, it is fair to say that it has all seemed very contingent. It was pure luck that there was a place there. And even there it was obvious just how great the challenges were for staff.
Curran makes a sensible point here:
The fact that the programme affected so many people reflects just how enormous the private childcare industry has become. The industry has emerged relatively recently and is clearly not sufficiently regulated and monitored, reflecting the speed and haphazard way in which it came about. It exploded onto the scene in a hurry at the back end of the economic boom.
Haphazard is a very appropriate term to use. There’s this sense that this is something that has sprung up almost out of nowhere. An example. Around the corner from where I lived there was talk about six years ago that there would be a creche in a house on the road. These are terraced streets, small gardens or yards, but it struck me at the time that it seemed reasonable in that it would be in the community but that the location would be very constrained.
Curran argues that women’s participation in the workforce is an enormous driver of this increase in childcare needs.
When Bertie Ahern became taoiseach in 1997, there were 539,000 women in employment. Within two years, that number had grown by 130,000, and within five years nearly 200,000 more women were in the workplace. This peaked at around 890,000 in 2008, just before the crash – an increase of 350,000 in just over a decade.
Of course the other way of looking at that is that there was already in 1997 an enormous need and that this was masked by a societal indifference to the issue. The state wasn’t going to take charge – the RoI state never does. So instead the ‘problem’ was addressed piecemeal and in an ad hoc fashion.
Curran also argues that tax individualisation had its part to play making it more attractive for women to work (though note in passing that it is women who are regarded as the supposedly ‘natural’ childcare agent in families)
There were a number of reasons for this. In December 1999, the then finance minister Charlie McCreevy announced the introduction of tax individualisation measures for two-income married couples. This meant that, instead of having a single tax credit for a married couple, if both partners were working they could each have their own tax credit. Each year the benefits to dual-income families increased.
It meant that a single-income married couple earning €68,000 or above in 2007 would pay €6,240 more in taxation than a married couple where both went out to work.
But in fairness Curran continues:
The move provided a clear financial incentive for married women in general, and young married mothers in particular, to go out and work outside the home. This was no bad thing. But it needed a proper childcare system to emerge in tandem.
And that’s the crucial point. No such system emerged. Anything but.
Despite the state being awash with money and running up surpluses, it didn’t provide the funding. Instead, McCreevy and other cabinet ministers wanted to see the state’s role in these matters reducing not increasing. Childcare would have to develop along an American market-driven model.
The older I get the more I am convinced that the period between 0 and 12 is the most important in a person’s life in terms of shaping future potential. It’s now very evident that life chances are impacted negatively (or positively) to a remarkable degree by this point. That requires that the greatest support and assistance has to be channelled to that age cohort. But this isn’t what is or has happened.
Women responded to the tax changes in their droves. Tens of thousands of mothers were taking up jobs, and trying to do the best they could with family and friends to help out with childcare.
And a central point:
Employers realised that they didn’t have to provide proper childcare support, and that they would get more and more women to work for them anyway.
By 2001, these factors had combined in a way that highlighted the need for a proper childcare system. The state had allocated just IR£46 million for state childcare provision in its 2000 budget. This was paltry.
And there were other dynamics at play:
The economic boom, combined with the individualisation measures and other changes, was providing more and more mothers with career opportunities and better incomes to help support their families in the long run. The boom was also opening up a world of opportunity for the family as a whole to enjoy a better standard of living.
However as house prices continued to skyrocket, the decisions that families made then would restrict their options into the future, should anything go wrong with the house-price bubble.
But still the state didn’t enter into the equation in any meaningful way.
However there was no real state provision of childcare. At the time, there were no tax credits for childcare expenses. It was clear even back then that the childcare crisis was not going to go away, but would only get worse.
Instead of defining a vision for how the childcare system should work, defining the state’s role in it and providing the necessary funding, successive governments allowed market forces to take over.
Undoubtedly, there has been a lot of progress in recent years in developing standards and improving the professionalism of childcare provision. But it remains a relatively poorly-regulated industry, often driven by profit.
It’s essential to consider the latter point. This isn’t service provision for it’s own good, at least not in most cases. It is a hard-nosed business where profit is central. It is this, for me, which sets alarm bells ringing much more loudly because if we’ve learned anything at all it is that when profit-oriented institutions – of whatever sort – are poorly regulated the chances of negative outcomes are much greater. Catherine O’Mahony, also in the SBP, makes a similar point but from a different position:
I reckon we have a handful of options. First, we could stop complaining and push government for a thorough overhaul of the childcare system, making early childhood education a proper formalised career option for ambitious young people, and moving toward universally available state-backed childcare provision.
There would be a significant cost.
Second, we, as parents, could demand of creches that all childcare workers have decent qualifications. By doing so, we would need to accept the need to pay them more.
Or third, we could stop kidding ourselves and accept the limitations attached to placing our children in the care of a for-profit organisation. This requires developing a healthy scepticism about claims that every creche will immerse our children in some kind of toddler nirvana.
The thing is that three isn’t in contradiction with either one or two. And one would obviously be my preferred choice. O’Mahony recounts how she found in a creche that there was something while not actively negative appeared sub-optimal in terms of what she expected.
[her] daughter remembers her time at the creche very fondly, so whatever momentary neglect or roughness was there went over her head…That said, I still couldn’t keep her there.
Her next home from home was a happier choice, an independent Montessori school with a notably high ratio of staff to children and – crucially – a far higher standard of education among the carers. And yes, the cost was a small fortune.
But the problem is that that is not an option for many people. Buying your way out of a negative situation isn’t a solution except in a very limited number of cases, and it leaves the obvious question, what of those who are left behind?
Far far better to recognise that far from ‘accepting limitations’ and ‘developing a healthy scepticism’ it is better that there is a systemic shift to state-wide provision of child-care as a service paid out of taxation and properly regulated and regularly inspected.
One final thought, I was surprised at the idea of daily ‘reports’ on what took place in the creche as being quite a normal experience. The most frequent reports, and they were more like activity books, received were on a three monthly basis. To be honest I think that’s grand as long as there’s an on-going engagement by parent(s) and creche. But then perhaps such daily reports are all of a piece with the sort of pretension that would see a creche named ‘Little Harvard’.
These things are clues.