Employers’ Forum critical in charting new journey for childcare

Number of private individuals/facilities registered as daycare providers for under-12s in Northern Ireland falls to 3,397

The aim is to ensure as many childcare providers as possible can open to assist parents returning to work
The number of registered daycare providers for under-12s in Northern Ireland fell by 6% to 3,397 in the year to March 2023, according to Department for Health figures

Last week Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly visited FinTrU to hear about the company’s drive to create a diverse workforce.

The importance of a childcare strategy formed a key part of the discussions, but sadly we are seeing the outworkings of a fragmented approach to childcare over recent years which is impacting on the ability of both employees to find childcare places and childcare employers to find staff.

While Northern Ireland is well placed to enjoy further economic growth on the back of inward investment and indigenous business growth, we are unfortunately failing to invest sufficiently in the childcare provision necessary to allow employees to connect with job opportunities. Planned increases in the minimum wage will also create additional pressures in an already stressed system.

A look at the latest Department for Health figures highlights the precarious situation we are in concerning childcare employers here.

On March 31 last year, there were 3,397 private individuals/facilities registered as daycare providers for children aged 12 and under in Northern Ireland. That figure is 6% down on the previous year. In 2018, the total number of places across all registered statutory and private providers and facilities was 62,638. By 2023 that had plummeted to 57,482.

At Belfast Met we are determined to play our part to support the supply side of these challenges, developing and delivering a new pipeline of skilled workers to enter existing and new opportunities in the childcare sector. We plan to attract women returners to undertake short ‘taster’ programmes with employers we work with. We’re also encouraging others to consider an Adult Apprenticeship Pathway into childcare where they are supported by employers and Belfast Met to enhance their skills.

Belfast Met has been working closely with our Childcare Employers’ Forum this year and already it has identified some key changes that would be hugely beneficial. These include consideration of limited adjustments to the regulations to work in the childcare sector which would make it easier to recruit new employees, while continuing to maintain the highest standards in respect of safeguarding and supervision.

The employers would also ask for consideration to be given to subsidising the increasing costs for families to access quality childcare, which is a significant challenge, not least given the cost of living crisis we are in.

In addition, to create an immediate increase in the talent pipeline, our childcare providers desperately need to be able to employ school leavers under 18 who are passionate about childcare, but again existing regulations work against this opportunity. Currently, childcare students, as part of their programme of study are required to undertake 350 hours work placement without any chance of financial reward.

Through Belfast Met’s engagement with employers, we are convinced they are mutually interested in working with government to design and deliver new solutions. With a working Executive in place, we now have decision-makers and legislators who can address these significant challenges. Failure to do so will dent our economic and social inclusion ambitions in the future.

Stephanie Gray, curriculum area manager for early years education and childcare at Belfast Met

There will no doubt be difficult terrain to navigate in the development of our childcare strategy, but some of the Colleges proposed changes could give the childcare sector, employers, and parents much less of a mountain to climb.

  • Stephanie Gray is curriculum area manager for early years education and childcare at Belfast Met.