Thursday, 14 July 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
The Deputy will appreciate that this is not my specialised chosen subject. I have served on voluntary boards of community-based childcare services for many years, however, so I have a great interest in the sector. I appreciate the points the Deputy raised.
High-quality early learning and childcare that is affordable and accessible is a key Government priority. Before the onset of Covid-19, national data indicated that, on the whole, the supply of early learning and childcare places was meeting demand, notwithstanding the points raised by the Deputy, with evidence of some undersupply for the youngest children in certain areas. Capacity data gathered throughout the Covid-19 pandemic revealed lower demand for early learning and childcare places. An initial analysis of the data captured in June 2021 found significant vacancy rates across the country with the national vacancy rate averaging at 21% and a vacancy rate in Wicklow of 16%.
In April of this year, the network of county childcare committees undertook a nationwide survey of capacity in early learning and childcare services. This was followed in May by the early years sector profile survey, which is undertaken annually by Pobal on behalf of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. An initial analysis of this data shows that there is currently a vacancy rate in Wicklow of 12.5%. However, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is aware that, in some areas, capacity issues have re-emerged for some families.
A key priority for the Government is to support the early learning and care and school-age childcare sector through the provision of capital funding where it is most needed. Assisting childcare providers in extending their existing childcare services or establishing new childcare services have always been key areas of focus for the Department's capital programmes. The Department has demonstrated its commitment to increasing capacity through having secured €70 million in the revised national development plan for the early learning and childcare sector. This funding will enable significant capital investment in early learning and childcare and much of it will go to increasing capacity in the sector in order to fulfil the Government priority of ensuring availability of high-quality early learning and childcare that is affordable and accessible.
In order to assist with increased capacity, the Department secured €70 million for the sector under the national development plan for the period 2023 to 2025. The majority of this funding is earmarked for new places. This will enable significant capital investment in early learning and childcare during 2023 to 2025 across the three pillars of modernisation, new capacity and First 5 initiatives.
Parents in Wicklow who are experiencing difficulty in respect of their early learning and childcare needs should contact their local city or county childcare committee, which can provide assistance on centre-based childcare, childminders and other options. City and county childcare committees in areas with unmet demand are actively engaging with early learning and childcare services to explore the potential for services to increase capacity. Where services can increase capacity, their applications to Tusla to increase their capacity in the service area have being fast-tracked to ensure that as many places as possible are made available to families.
We are aware of media reports that suggest there has been a high level of service closures this year. Data from Tusla on the actual number of closures over the last three years does not support this claim, however. There are more than 4,500 early learning and childcare providers in the State and, as can be expected, some services close each year and new services open. In 2019 and 2020, more than 190 services closed, while 140 services closed in 2021. By Aril 2022, only 25 services had closed, which is similar to the same period in 2021. These closures were balanced by new services opening.
As I have set out, there will continue to be capacity in the sector as a whole. I will come back to the Deputy and follow-up regarding the issue relating to children under one year, which is a particular challenge in many counties, and the flexible and sessional three to four days of childcare to support remote working.