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Why so many creches have been closing and what can be done about it

Despite a slowdown in the rate of closures last year compared with 2022, any indication of continued shrinkage of childcare availability is a big concern

A creche closing down can be devastating for the children and families using it, not to mention the staff who lose their jobs, but adverse effects also ripple out into the community and wider economy.

Exactly how many early childhood care and education services are closing and why has been a fraught issue for several years and one that is set to continue in 2024. Despite a slowdown in the rate of closures last year when compared with 2022, any indication of continued shrinkage of childcare availability is a big concern.

We were only days into the new year when Chartered Accountants Ireland (CAI) reminded policymakers that the “steep cost and lack of availability of childcare” is the “biggest challenge facing working parents” in their profession today. Its president, Sinéad Donovan, also stressed that it is a problem not just for individual families but for the whole economy.

“Our evidence shows that affordable, quality childcare drives more sustainable, inclusive economic growth and competitiveness,” she said as the CAI launched a policy paper entitled The Next Financial Year: Building Capacity. On the subject of creche closures, it called on the Government to expand capital investment and grant support to the sector, to ensure it could be sustainable and meet the continued demand for childcare.


Figures obtained from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth show that there were 114 closures and 82 new registrations of early learning and care (ELC) services last year to the end of November – a net loss of 32.

This compares with 138 closures and 81 new registrations in the same period in 2022 – a net loss of 57.

Meanwhile, openings of stand-alone, after-school care services increased. According to the figures provided to the Department by Tusla, which regulates ELC and school-age care (SAC) services, 49 SAC settings closed but 207 new ones registered in the first 11 months of last year – a net gain of 158.

Action to prevent further closures of early years settings is being urged by Early Childhood Ireland (ECI), the largest membership organisation in the sector. It points out that as regulations stand, providers do not need to tell the State, via Tusla, that they are closing until up to 28 days after their doors have shut.

“There needs to be proactive action by the State – the State that invested €1 billion [in the sector] in 2023,” ECI’s director of advocacy, Frances Byrne, tells The Irish Times. “It is far too hands-off – it needs to be more hands-on. The State needs to be saying, if you’re closing, or considering closing, let us know.”

This could easily be done, she suggests, through the Early Years Hive – the portal through which the National Childcare Scheme is administered by Pobal and where providers are logging on every day of the week.

Along with a system to flag possible closures well ahead of time, the ECI recommends that a stakeholder response team be set up to assess the reasons for, and impact of, any potential cessation of service. The intention would be to avert closure, or, if that’s unavoidable, manage the fallout.

Currently, if a setting closes, there are few support services available to help families find alternative places for their children, argues the ECI in a position paper presented to the Oireachtas Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth at the end of last year. While parents are advised to contact their local county childcare committee, it is under no obligation to find an alternative place for any child.

“In some communities there will simply be no places available. Moving children is not optimal in any case, as consistency of relationship with their key adults in EY and SAC settings is important for their emotional security.”

It is possible, Byrne acknowledges, that a particular service would be no longer needed due to changing demographics locally, but the State needs to be assessing that and, where there remains a need, exploring all options to address that. For the department to be involved, through Pobal, in many other aspects of early learning and childcare centres but not closures doesn’t make sense, “given the investment, the importance to children and families and of course staff”.

The Department of Children said it already had a range of supports in place to avert closures, or assess closures of services – similar to the work of a task force proposed by Early Childhood Ireland

A creche in one Co Mayo town is an example of where a much-needed service was maintained, after a very brief closure, through the intervention of family agencies. But the co-ordinated efforts of these local “heroes”, says Byrne, is not typical of what happens elsewhere.

In 2018, the group running a purpose-built, community-based creche in the heart of Kiltimagh had to close it that summer. But the Mayo county childcare committee, Pobal and Tusla all saw the need for the service to continue, explains Louise Kilbane, who secured the tender to take it over.

She had opened her first Lollipop Lane centre in Springvale, Tubbercurry, Co Sligo, in 2006 and was contemplating growing the business when she saw the Kiltimagh tender notice in a local newspaper in June 2018 and successfully applied. The creche, catering for 40 children, closed that July, but she took it over on August 1st, with a view to reopening on September 1st.

Kilbane pays tribute to the agencies who “100 per cent supported the reopening of the service and did everything to get the service opened in a very short period of time. We had to be registered again because it was technically seen as a new business, a new service,” so it had to go through all the procedures and inspections that apply to any new service.

“It did come down to the wire – the Tusla inspection was on August 28th. I think we were all biting our nails hoping we had crossed every t and dotted every i. Thankfully, we got the go ahead.

“We’re a little bit different because it’s like a community service run by a private operator,” says Kilbane. “We are very much there for the community and work very closely with the agencies in the area. That doesn’t make it unique as we all do that,” she continues, “but everybody at the time saw that it was very important that the service remained open”.

Like many rural areas, Kiltimagh has seen growth in recent years, with people moving back home and there is high demand for limited childcare places. The Lollipop Lane preschool caters for children aged one to five, most of whom are using full daycare services, while a few are part-time.

“We could expand in the morning,” says Kilbane, but only if they could find a bigger, viable premises and then the staff to run it. “We have a waiting list. I think this is a national problem – everywhere you ring, anybody I talk to looking for early-year services is finding it difficult to find a place.”

In a written response to questions from The Irish Times, the Department of Children said it already had a range of supports in place to avert closures, or assess closures of services – similar to the work of a task force proposed by Early Childhood Ireland. It maintained that city and county childcare committees and Pobal work together to assess and provide support to early-learning and childcare services experiencing difficulties.

“This support focuses on operational as well as financial supports to assist services to manage their immediate difficulties and transition to a more sustainable model of delivery.” Where services do close, city and county childcare committees have successfully aided reopenings, it says, citing the example of the Before 5 Family Centre in Churchfield, Cork. It closed suddenly last August leaving, it seemed, 14 workers without jobs and the loss of up to 100 childcare places, before Northside Community Enterprises stepped in to operate it.

“In the event of closures,” the department’s statement continued, “city/county childcare committees also assist parents with sourcing alternative early learning and childcare places where possible.”

Note the caveat of the last two words. Those committees can’t find places that are not there.

However, the department also said it was establishing a new “supply management unit” this month. Akin to the Department of Education’s forward planning unit, this new unit’s remit will be “to develop a planning function, for monitoring, analysing and forecasting of investment needs”.

After what Byrne describes as a “brutally disappointing” Budget 2024, with “a paltry” €83 million increase on the €1.1 billion invested in 2023, she hopes this year will see the setting of a new State investment target for the early-childhood care and education sector. A previous target was the doubling of funding to reach €1 billion by 2028, which was actually achieved last year.

“That is really welcome,” she stresses, but now a new target is needed. “It is not just about an investment target – it’s how you get there.”

ECI is calling for a five-year plan after which, depending on the investment target, “we would be optimistic, rather than expect to be looking at a publicly-funded model”. However, she believes there needs to be much more consultation about what that might look like, with the people who have been delivering care and education in this area for years.

“The sector has evolved and people have invested their time, energy, expertise and, of course, money and all of that needs to be taken into account, so there is the least disruption to everybody, most especially children and their families.”

Going into 2024, Kilbane, who is also a lecturer in early childhood care and education at Atlantic Technological University in Mayo, believes the sector is divided, with a lot of different groups trying to achieve high-quality services. The two biggest challenges are staffing and sustainability.

“In order for services to be sustainable they need to be full and in order for them to be full they need to have a full complement of staff. It’s a vicious circle at times. We need to recognise our graduates coming out of college with highly qualified degrees.”

The statistics show we have enough people being trained for the childcare sector, “the issue is people aren’t staying in the sector because of pay and the stresses”.

She sees people leaving for jobs with better terms and conditions, such as special-needs assistants in primary schools, or who stop working with children altogether and change careers. In addition, the recognised high quality of the degree courses here means graduates are sought after from abroad.

“We are in a very difficult position right now. If we don’t stop the momentum of people leaving the sector, we could find significant closures down the road [due to] staffing crises.” She acknowledges the Department of Children “is doing everything they can to fix this”, but “we need to work together on this”.

Conflicts in the provision of a service for the public good by private operators are inevitable. On the one hand providers and parents are crying out for more State investment and, on the other, some centre owners are resisting demands for increasingly detailed financial disclosures. But Kilbane says she has no problem reporting where the money goes in her business.

“How can the sector make the case for the need for greater investment if we don’t show them?” She is well aware there are big chains “making massive turnovers” but fears small providers will disappear without more State support.

As a private provider herself, she believes if a fully, publicly-funded system would be good for children “then we really have to consider this. How we go about doing this I don’t know. How is the department going to take over my business that I have spent 20 years building?”

Blood, sweat and tears went into Lollipop Lane, her “first baby”, says the mother of two teenagers.

“But we have to look at the system before it collapses. I think the only way that is going to happen is if we sit down and have really tough conversations…. Is it going to be a fight? Yes, on both sides. And rightly so. Maybe 2024 will show us how we are going to do that.”

The National Childcare Scheme universal subsidy will increase from €1.40 to €2.14 per hour from September. For parents using 45 hours of early learning and childcare a week, this will be an additional €33.30 off weekly costs

Asked about upcoming developments in early-childhood care and education this year, the department said that, provided the necessary legislative and regulatory changes were completed, it expected childminders would be able to start registering with Tusla and taking part in the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) from this autumn. This would mean many more parents who are using childminders rather than centre-based childcare should be able to benefit from fee subsidies for the first time.

The NCS universal subsidy will increase from €1.40 to €2.14 per hour from September. For parents using 45 hours of early learning and childcare a week, this will be an additional €33.30 off weekly costs. The rate paid to providers for each “sponsored” child referred by a State agency will also rise. A final report is due to be published this month on three years of the access and inclusion model (AIM), which is designed to ensure children with disabilities can take part in mainstream preschool.

Meanwhile €7 million is being provided to fund AIM, from next September, beyond time spent in the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme. The equal participation model (EPM) to support disadvantaged families to participate fully in early learning and childcare services will also start to roll out from September, with €14.5 million allocated for a full year.

Year three of the core funding paid to providers will kick in at the beginning of September. Costing the State €331 million for 12 months, that will be a €44 million up on the current allocation of €287 million. The department says more than €9 million of this is intended to support a 3 per cent increase in capacity in the sector over the year, whether that’s new services or existing ones offering more places and/or longer hours to families.

There is also a new capital grants scheme aimed at increasing capacity for the one-to-three age group, which will start to operate from early this year.

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Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting