A new early learning and childcare strategy for Northern Ireland could cost £400 million a year, Education Minister Paul Givan has told MLAs.
While the minister said there was “no time to waste” in delivering the strategy, he also stated that the willingness of Stormont’s new powersharing Executive to fund it would be the “real test of commitment”.
Following the first substantive debate of the new Assembly, MLAs backed a Sinn Fein motion calling on the Executive to work collectively to deliver a strategy.
MLAs were told that the current financial burden of childcare means that many families are having to use credit cards and loans, while some providers are closing their doors.
Currently, there is no scheme in place for free childcare in Northern Ireland, unlike in England where 30 hours of free childcare a week is offered.
Mr Givan told MLAs he would bring forward a paper on a new early learning and childcare strategy to his Executive colleagues this week.
He told the Assembly: “The development of an early learning and childcare strategy is a top priority for me as education minister.
“There is no time to waste and I’ll be bringing an initial paper on this issue to my Executive colleagues later this week. It is clear that we have much work to do and I am determined to press ahead at pace.”
He added: “This is about both early learning and childcare.
“This strategy will have dual aims, supporting both child development and enabling parental employment.
“It is about giving children the best start in life and supporting working families. It is important that the work we do and the model we put in place is capable of achieving both.
“I am aware that the cost of childcare is putting immense strain on family finances and in some cases is preventing parents, particularly women, from entering and remaining in the workforce and remaining in their careers after they have children.”
Mr Givan said the willingness of the Executive to fund the strategy would be the “real test of commitment”.
He also said he would look at strategies in other regions.
The minister added: “While we can and should learn from others, it is important that we consider what would be best for Northern Ireland and deliver the outcomes we want to achieve here.
“I am aware of the reported implementation issues in rolling out the 30 hour offer in England and we want to learn from that.
“However, at this stage, I don’t want to rule out any options until I have had the opportunity to consider them in more detail and see if there are elements of them which might translate into the Northern Ireland context.
“I want to deliver a bespoke affordability scheme for Northern Ireland.”
Mr Givan added: “When fully implemented, the annual and recurring costs could potentially be up to £400 million.
“The ultimate scale of the budget required will be dependent on the scope of the strategy and the level of support agreed by the Executive.
“However, make no mistake about my ambition for this strategy and my ambition to make the case for the funding required to deliver progress as a matter of urgency.
“I will drive forward this childcare strategy. But be under no illusion as to the scale of the funding that will be needed to make this a reality.”
Opening the debate, Sinn Fein MLA Nicola Brogan said progress on adopting a childcare strategy had stalled while the powersharing Executive did not sit for two years.
She said: “It is clear that childcare is a massive issue for people across the north right now.
“Very often we hear about the rising cost of childcare and the impact this has on parents and families who are already struggling with the cost of living.
“We talk about the very real and concerning pressures childcare providers are facing right now in trying to keep their doors open with increased operating costs and difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff.”
Ms Brogan said the cost of childcare was having a “crippling effect” on families in Northern Ireland.
She added: “According to Employers for Childcare’s most recent survey in 2023, the current average cost for a full-time childcare place is £10,036 a year.
“For 41% of families childcare is the highest monthly outgoing ahead of mortgage or rental costs and 56% of families are having to use means other than their income to pay for childcare including savings, credit cards and loans.
“These costs are simply unaffordable for families.”
Ms Brogan, the chair of the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare, said the group had examined the English model.
She added: “Whilst this sounds good in practice it is not meeting the needs of parents, providers or children.
“We need our own model.”