Childcare provision in Northern Ireland

A recent survey published by Employers For Childcare examined the status of childcare provision in Northern Ireland. This explainer article updates our previous analysis and includes comparisons of other UK regions and Ireland.

What is considered “childcare”?

A baseline definition of “childcare” is given in the UK Childcare Act 2006 (Section 18): “any form of care for a child, including education or any other supervised activity”. Different statutory agencies are responsible for the regulation of formal childcare across the UK and Ireland. In Northern Ireland, childcare is registered and regulated up to age 12, which includes wraparound childcare (i.e. pre- and post-school day) for school age children (and delivered by School Age Childcare providers and childminders). This article focuses on childcare provision for those up to age 5 (i.e. before enrolment in primary school).

A statutory definition of “childcare” excludes that provided by a parent, step-parent, or other relative. Childcare can be provided by friends or family, but any unregistered childminding done for financial gain is illegal.

Formal childminding includes:

    • Nannies: an approved home childcarer, employed by the family, to provide care in the family’s home
    • Childminders: registered, self-employed, providing care in the childminder’s home, typically for children from more than one family
    • Daycare centres/day nurseries (e.g. by “early years” specialists, playworkers, and early years educators)
    • Out-of-school clubs (e.g. before/after-school supervision and holiday provision)

Government funding for childcare provision can take the form of direct funding of formal providers (e.g. childminders and day nurseries) and funding to users, running from open eligibility (all parents and guardians of children of applicable age), to only “working parents”, to those eligible for other benefits or criteria (e.g. low income).

This article focuses on childcare provision that is wholly state-funded for the user (families).

What childcare is funded by the Northern Ireland government?

There is currently no Northern Ireland government-funded programme for childcare for those aged under 3.

The Department of Education sponsors a Pre-School Education Programme (PSEP), which funds “one year of non-compulsory pre-school education”, i.e. a year before a child starts primary school. The Department defines this as “not free or funded childcare”, but as “funded pre-school education”. The Department of Education is distinguishing between services provided by registered childcare providers (such as childminders and day care settings) that enable parents to access work, education, or training, and the provision of an education programme following common curriculum guidance.

Under this programme, most pre-schools in Northern Ireland offer “part-time” places of 2.5 hours a day (12.5 hours per week; 475 hours per year); some offer “full-time” places of 4.5 hours a day (22.5 hours per week; 855 hours per year). In both cases, the provision is delivered at set hours over 38 weeks from September to June. Every child is entitled to this provision in the year immediately before they start primary school, but parents have to apply and meet an individual provider’s criteria.

The charity, Employers For Childcare, offers a family benefits advice service, providing parents with additional information about childcare provision in Northern Ireland and financial support available for the cost of registered childcare.

What happens elsewhere?

England:

Certain 2 year olds in England can access 570 hours a year of “early education and childcare” if parents are on a low income, receive certain types of benefits, have special education needs (SEN), or receive Disability Living allowance. This is usually taken as 15 hours a week over 38 weeks, but can be used flexibly (for example taking fewer hours over more weeks).

All 3 to 4 year olds in England are entitled to 570 free hours of “childcare” per year. This can be taken over 38 weeks or flexibly. Certain 3 to 4 year olds in England from working families (earning above the minimum wage for 16+ hours a week and less than £100,000 a year) are entitled to 1,140 hours per year, or “30 hours free childcare”. This can be taken over 38 weeks or flexibly.

Scotland: 

Funded “early learning and childcare” is available to certain 2 year olds and all 3 and 4 year olds. The provision is for 1,140 hours per year (30 hours per week if taken during term time).

Wales: 

Wales’ Flying Start programme offers “part-time childcare” for certain 2 to 3 year olds (in “disadvantaged areas”) — 2.5 hours a day, 5 days a week for 39 weeks, with at least 15 sessions during the school holidays; this is 487.5 hours a year, plus extra for holidays.

Certain 3 and 4 year olds in Wales can have up to 30 hours per week of “childcare or early education”. Early education is mainly provided by schools through a Foundation Phase nursery programme. The 30 hours is made up of a minimum of 10 hours of early education per week and a maximum of 20 hours of childcare per week. The provision is for up to 1,440 hours per year, which can be taken over 48 weeks.

Ireland:

In Ireland, the Early Childhood Care and Education Programme (ECCE) is a two-year pre-school programme available to all children aged between 2 years and 8 months and 5 years and 6 months. This is offered through a wide range of childcare settings (pre-schools, Montessoris, creches, playgroups) depending on what is available in the local area. It is for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 38 weeks; this is 570 hours per year.

Let’s compare the childcare and early education provision that is wholly state-funded for the user in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

Country Age Provision per child Flexible Timings
Northern Ireland 0–2 None
3–4 475 hours per year (term time) for all families; 855 hours per year in some pre-schools; funded pre-school places are only provided in nursery schools, primary schools with nursery units, and some voluntary/private settings funded to provide PSEP places; childminder provision and non-PSEP funded nurseries are excluded. no
England 2 570 hours per year for certain families. yes
3–4 570 hours per year for all families; 1,140 hours per year for certain families. yes
Scotland 2 1,140 hours per year for certain families. yes
3–4 1,140 hours per year for all families. yes
Wales 2–3 487.5 hours per year (term time) for certain families, plus 15 sessions over school holidays. no
3–4 1,440 hours per year for certain families. yes
Ireland 2–5 570 hours per year (term time) for all families. no

This shows that Northern Ireland has the least provision, with the most restrictions.

Where does the “30 hours free childcare” fit in?

The phrase “30 hours free childcare” appears in campaign literature. This can refer to one of the public policies in England, described above; note that “30 hours” is not universal but restricted to qualification criteria (e.g. working families, with each parent earning the equivalent of at least the National Minimum Wage or Living Wage for 16 hours a week on average and less than £100,000 a year); 15 hours a week is available to all 3 to 4 year olds in England. A similar scheme, with criteria, exists in Wales. However, in Scotland the equivalent of 30 hours per week is available to all 3 and 4 year olds.

In Ireland, the equivalent could be phrased as “15 hours free childcare”.

In Northern Ireland, there is 12.5 hours per week pre-school provision, delivered at set times, that excludes any childcare provision by registered childminders, or day nurseries or other providers not funded to deliver the pre-school places.

State subsidies for childcare

In addition to wholly state-funded childcare provision, the British government also offers various UK-wide subsidised childcare schemes. People in Northern Ireland can apply to the tax-free childcare scheme, where the government gives a financial contribution to working parents towards childcare in a range of approved settings, such as with a registered childminder, play scheme, nursery, club, a school registered to provide childcare, or an approved home childcarer. For children under 12, parents and carers can set up an account to pay for approved childcare, and the government will top this up by 20%, up to a maximum of £2,000 per child, per year (£4,000 if the child has a disability). NI Direct explains that “for every £8.00 you pay in, the government adds £2.00 to your account”. The eligibility criteria for this scheme are the same as for the “30 hours free childcare” scheme in England, applied to families in Northern Ireland.

For people working over 16 hours a week, the Childcare Element of Working Tax Credit was a means-tested contribution towards childcare costs. This scheme is being phased out across the UK, and replaced with Universal Credit. Some people in Northern Ireland continue to receive the Childcare Element of Working Tax Credit. Universal Credit also has a childcare element for working families for children up to 16. Subsidies are means-tested, and neither scheme pays the full cost of childcare (the maximum that can be awarded under Universal Credit is 85% of childcare costs).

In Ireland, the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) provides financial support for childcare costs. This is in the form of subsidies awarded to parents/guardians but paid directly to registered childcare providers, which apply the subsidy as a reduction in the fees charged to the user. The subsidy can be up to €1,170 per year per child, and is available to all children under 3 and certain children aged 3 to 15 (i.e. income-assessed, means tested).

Summary

Childcare can take place in informal as well as formal settings, with state-funding in part or whole to families, universally or with eligibility criteria (such as working status and income).

In Northern Ireland, there is no government-funded childcare programme for children under 3 years of age. There is a Northern Ireland government-funded Pre-School Education Programme for 3–4 year olds, which covers at least 12.5 hours per week for all children, delivered at set times over a 38-week fixed term.

State funded childcare varies across the UK and Ireland. For example, Scotland offers 1,140 hours per year for all families with a child aged 3–4, while in Wales only certain families meeting criteria can avail of any state funded childcare.

State subsidies for childcare exist in both the UK and Ireland. As a part of the UK, households in Northern Ireland are able to access subsidies in the form of top-ups to user accounts.


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