Northern Ireland

Kate Nicholl: Childcare in Northern Ireland in 'crisis'

Alliance’s new childcare scheme proposes an 'alternative, child-centred way forward'
Alliance’s new childcare scheme proposes an 'alternative, child-centred way forward' Alliance’s new childcare scheme proposes an 'alternative, child-centred way forward'

I asked my mum if being a parent meant always feeling guilty.

Yes, she answered, and it gets worse.

It had been a revelation to me – not the lack of sleep, nor the overwhelming love, or even the constant verging-on-paranoid fear for their safety - I was on some level prepared for all of this.

It was the guilt. It’s always there.

Had we created enough of a routine? Was there too much routine? Do they have a proper diet? Are they too naughty? Why don’t they sleep?!

Just as you’re starting to navigate a new world, aware of your parental failings - a further and unwelcome revelation happens with childcare – with parents routinely paying more than their mortgage for childcare.

Read more:

  • Parents facing 'impossible' choices over childcare costs
  • Co Derry mum paying £1,000 a month for childcare hits out at 'demoralising' costs
  • Lynette Fay: Spiralling childcare costs affect everyone, even non-parents

That’s before having another baby, a choice which is rapidly becoming a luxury.

Those first few years are a wonderful time in a parent’s life, but they’re also incredibly stressful.

That’s compounded by the lack of support for childcare. It will get easier when they’re three, you tell yourself, only to discover the support is relatively little.

The choices are stark.

Giving up work or even reducing hours for those few years inevitably has a significant impact on careers and predominantly for women.

My WhatsApp groups - and letters from constituents - confirm the issue.

The question I was asked on the doors most when canvassing during the Assembly election was not about the protocol, or budgets, or south Belfast issues - it was about childcare.

Something is wrong with our system and while political parties are starting to recognise childcare as key social and economic infrastructure, too often the ideas bandied about on how to fix it are rooted in soundbites, not evidence.

We need a child-centred policy which narrows rather than widens inequalities and developmental gaps.

Childcare is a major issue for many families
Childcare is a major issue for many families Childcare is a major issue for many families

Alliance believes we can and must do better.

We set up a childcare working group and with a team of MLAs, policy advisors and researchers, consulted with parents, providers, academics, charities and business to discuss how to create a childcare system which works.

Children First, Alliance’s affordable childcare scheme, proposes an alternative, child-centred way forward.

The scheme would operate through government payments to registered childcare providers where participation would be conditional on the delivery of: 

1. Child-centred care  

2. Reduced costs for parents and carers 

3. High-quality provision 

4. A well-qualified workforce 

5. Training for staff 

6. Flexibility 

In practice, our proposals would significantly reduce households’ childcare costs and at the same time, deliver substantial public investment in the childcare sector.

In strengthening the childcare workforce through new training and qualification opportunities, staff morale and retention should improve, therefore delivering better outcomes for children.

This investment in the sector would also allow providers to enhance pay and conditions for their staff, further combating the workforce crisis we are currently seeing in the sector. 

These workers do some of the most important work in our economy and are paid the least for it, therefore are seeking better paid employment elsewhere.

We are seeing other parts of these islands recognising the importance of childcare and making significant investments in it, while we fall further and further behind.

All of this is taking its toll on families. On the sector. On the labour market.

Childcare is in crisis, and while short term interventions can and must be made, we need to start thinking long term; child-centred, affordable, high-quality childcare is vital for the future, and we’ve mapped the way forward.

Our policy document, Children First: Alliance's Proposals for Child-Centred and Affordable Childcare, is available to view now at

Kate Nicholl is an Alliance Party MLA