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On Tuesday, Niamh Domican was at the Robert Emmet Community Development Project on Usher Street in the south inner-city, getting help to fill out an application for the National Childcare Scheme (NCS).
The website is confusing, she says, and she wants to know for sure that she can get it.
She’ll be studying social work from September and so needs after-school childcare at the Robert Emmet centre, she says. “I would like for my child to be here so that I can work and study.”
Under the NCS, which was brought in in late 2019, parents can apply for one of two streams for subsidies to cover some of the costs of childcare.
In one stream, anyone with children under three years of age can get a subsidy of 50 cents per hour for up to 45 hours of childcare per week.
In the other, those earning less than €60,000 a year, or who are studying, qualify for a subsidy that is based on income, the age of a child, and the number of children in the household. It’s paid straight to the creche, or after-school programme.
But parents who don’t work or study don’t get the childcare subsidy for after-school care during term time, says Austin Campbell, CEO of Robert Emmet Community Development Project (CDP), which is part of the Dublin 8 After School Alliance.
This means, financially, that the logical choice for those running after-school clubs would be to turn away the children of non-working parents and take children from working households, he says.
But “we don’t want to leave them behind”, says Campbell. “So we lose money.”
The Robert Emmet Project runs after-school activities for 24 kids. After picking the children up from school, they do homework, sports, beekeeping and cooking, says Campbell.
Domican is worried that she won’t get funding under the childcare scheme because she isn’t working – although she is studying.
“If I don’t have childcare, then I can’t do it. It would be harder for me,” she says. She’s not certain she’ll get it. She’s heard of people not being given adequate funding, so she’s nervous.
“I’m concerned, coming up to September, will I actually be able to do this or not?” she says.
Enter the National Childcare Scheme
Before the NCS was the Community Childcare Subvention Programme (CCSP).
Childcare subsidies through the CCSP were for those with “medical cards or specific social welfare payments only”, said a spokesperson from the Department of Children.
Moving to the NCS meant a shift “to a comprehensive and progressive system”, they said, “available to all families”.
Campbell, the CEO of the Robert Emmet CDP, says that it has actually been regressive.
“Under the previous scheme, children who were left behind the most got the most funding, and under the new scheme, they get no funding,” he says.
For parents who aren’t working, their child is entitled to the minimum hours under the scheme, which is 20 hours. But during term time, these are used up while the child is at school, he says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children said that the decision that families who aren’t working or studying get subsidies for up to 20 hours a week is based on research.
“This approach is rooted in research that points to the fact that young children do not need to be in early learning and care for full-time hours in order to meet their child development needs,” they said.
For school-aged children, this need is generally met through their time in school, they said.
Working or studying parents get more subsidised hours “as additional hours are required in such cases due to the parents’ reduced availability to care for their children”, they said.
They said the department was recognising the critical role of family in children’s lives, particularly where those families are available to care for their children.
“And strikes a balance to ensure that families are supported to work or study where they opt to do so,” they said.
Campbell says the NCS was developed to help parents get back to work.
“Because the cost of childcare is expensive, and unless the parents earn a lot of money, a lot of parents would have had to stay at home to look after kids because it made financial sense to do so,” he says.
But in some cases, returning to work isn’t an option for people, says Campbell. “Or it’s not viable, or there’s other kind of larger contexts at play.”
The scheme works for well-off areas of Dublin, he says, where both parents may be working, but in Dublin 8 that situation is less likely for households. “It’s an absolute disaster,” he says.
Says Ní Chobhthaigh: “it’s a model that works in a middle income area, and it’s not designed to support people who are vulnerable, and at the margins.”
The spokesperson from the Department of Children says that by reducing the cost of childcare for families, the NCS aims to “improve children’s outcomes, improve labour market participation and reduce child poverty”.
It seeks to combat “poverty traps” within other schemes, they said, and to incentivise employment and education or training for parents. “A policy objective that is known to benefit child and family outcomes.”
Bróna Ní Chobhthaigh, the CEO of the South Inner City Community Development Association, which runs after-school care for around 100 kids, says that the department’s approach doesn’t take into account the needs of disadvantaged children.
“There’s a depth of evidence on how children from disadvantaged backgrounds need more support from an educational perspective to even come close to meeting the equality of opportunities that children from middle-income houses have,” she says, in the meeting room of the Robert Emmet CDP.
“It’s not enough,” says Fran Farrell, an after-school assistant, sitting beside her. “Because of where most of the kids live and where they come from, they need to be learning more social skills, getting active outside as well.”
Kids could be sharing cramped bedrooms, have nowhere to play, she says. “And it’s not like they can go out of the flats and play either because the drugs and criminal activity that’s happening out there.”
“People won’t let their kids out. You can’t blame them,” says Farrell, so going to the Robert Emmet CDP gives kids routine, structure, and a safe place.
Kids come to hang out with friends and do activities. “We’d like more activities that we’d like to do like bringing them out swimming and all,” says Farrell, but because of the uncertain funding, they can’t.
“The assumption that disadvantaged children are getting enough education support and well being, through their school hours is …” says Ní Chobhthaigh.
“… bullshit,” says Farrell.
Domican says that even if she wasn’t studying or working, she would want her son to be able to attend childcare. “I’d like him to go for him, you know?”
“Building those relationships and build up on his communication skills, you know. Just enjoy that safe environment where I know that he is,” she says.
Especially in the darker winter months, she says. “We live in the city centre which has its pros and cons, but there’s not a lot of green space, there’s not a lot of playgrounds, not a lot of things like that for children to do.”
The Sponsorship Route
The NCS does recognise “that some children may have a need for additional hours and makes provision for referrals from sponsor bodies for children in certain disadvantaged or challenging circumstances”, says the department spokesperson.
In those cases, parents don’t have to meet any work-related, or other, eligibility criteria.
Not any agency is a sponsor though. Sponsors include the ministers for education and justice, councils, the HSE and Tusla,say policy guidelines.
It’s Tusla that Ní Chobhthaigh has come across. But some parents are reluctant to go through Tusla, she says.
“It makes people think, We’re going to be under their radar now,’” says Deirdre Smyth, an after-school care worker for the Robert Emmet CDP. “You don’t want to be associated with them.”
Ní Chobhthaigh says she doesn’t know how many people are avoiding childcare because they don’t want to go through Tusla. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out at the moment.”
Many non-profit after-school care providers “are trying to be the bridge between vulnerable children and parents who might feel vulnerable, and the institutions”, she says.
“Both to support them in emotional stress, and to navigate the administrative structures that are required to get access to it,” says Ní Chobhthaigh.
Ní Chobhthaigh says that the sponsorship model makes sense in theory as a buffer. But “there’s an element of indignity around it”.
“You’re forcing people to reflect on and accept that, and to be comfortable stating I need the support here, or my children are vulnerable. That’s hugely problematic,” she says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children said that Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman has asked Tusla to take a broad definition of need within the parameters of sponsorship to maximise the number of children who can avail of it.
Later this year, a report from an expert group, which is examining how childcare in Ireland should be funded, will be given to the minister, said the department spokesperson.
“One issue this group has been tasked with is examining a Deis-type model for providing childcare in areas of high disadvantage,” they said.
Deis, or Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, is a national programme which identifies certain schools as being located in disadvantaged areas and offers grants based on that.
“It’s not ideal,” says Campbell. But “I guess it’s a start”.
Ní Chobhthaigh says that a few things need to happen. After-school providers need adequate funding back, she says.
“Right now the lack of core funding fundamentally undermines our ability to have any sort of sustainable service provision,” she says.
And parents should be able to access sponsorship without going through Tusla, she says.
Domican says that everyone should be able to access childcare, whether theta re working or not. “Especially at the end of the day, it comes down to the children who benefit from the service.”