The SDLP says while it welcomes the creation of 6,000 new funded childcare places announced yesterday, it is worried that some people increasingly classified as the "working poor" will miss out.
Half of the 6,000 new school age childcare places to be created by the Executive over the next three years will be targeted at families living in the most disadvantaged areas.
The other 3,000 places available in the £15m scheme offering quality childcare at affordable prices will be targeted at new facilities based in schools and rural areas.
The Bright Start grant scheme, which was launched yesterday by junior ministers Jennifer McCann and Jonathan Bell, also expects to create 750 new childcare jobs from the autumn onwards.
The scheme, which will sustain around 1,000 currently funded places, is viewed as a kick-starter to aid some parents either returning to work or extending their working hours.
While the announcement has been positively received by some leading parenting and child development advocates, SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly said she was worried that people struggling to work and pay childcare would be left behind.
"While we welcome the creation of these new places, we are not satisfied that there is enough of a safety net for those people increasingly categorised as the working poor, who pay out the equivalent of a salary every month and who then struggle to keep working.
"I remain concerned that Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is failing to adequately respond to the cost of childcare for families across Northern Ireland.
"This is one of the single biggest issues facing families as childcare is vital to early years development for children and access to education, training and employment for parents and guardians," said the MLA.
However, the chief executive of Northern Ireland's lead agency on the development of children's play, Playboard NI, said she was delighted with the announcement, although her organisation had been lobbying for 12,000 new school age childcare places over the last nine years.
Jacqueline O'Loughlin said: "There is clear evidence from parents that the biggest barriers for people getting back into work are inaccessibility and cost. We said to ministers that if you want to encourage economic regeneration you really need to put the infrastructure in place, and this is a key component."
Speaking at the launch at Carryduff Playcare Group in Carryduff Primary School, Ms McCann said: "The decision to create up to 6,000 new places and support existing places was informed by our consultation on childcare services.
"Affordable, accessible, quality childcare services enable parents to work and to train for work, improving a family's living standards and life chances. Good childcare services are an investment in both the present and the future."
Iris Warnock, manager of the Carryduff Playcare Group, which cares for up to 50 children every day, estimates that it should be able to take an extra 25% of children aged 8-11 should its funding application prove successful later this year.
She said: "We would hope to benefit for this funding to help sustain us, and yes, we probably will apply. I suspect that it will work similar to other funding schemes in that it will go towards some of our salaries, which means we can continue to provide low cost quality childcare, and that's the real aim of this."
'Pre-school funding has slashed my bill from £500 to £200 a month'
Janine McClure (41) is the mother of four-year-old Luca and is a self-employed partner in a printing business in Carryduff. Her son currently attends Carryduff Playcare group but will be starting primary school in September.
She said: "I work full-time and it costs me about £200 a month now in childcare costs as I get a funded pre-school place from 8.45 to 11.30am and then Luca is looked after all afternoon until I pick him up. His grandparents look after him a couple of afternoons a week, too.
"Once Luca goes into primary school that will change, and I will need him looked after five afternoons a week and also outside term time.
"I was paying close to £500 a month when Luca was in a private nursery, so getting the funded pre-school age place made a big difference, it was a great help. It's not just cost but quality childcare too that counts, Luca is extremely happy at Carryduff."
Q. What does the Bright Start school age childcare funding cover?
A. It will cover the costs of successful childcare providers providing breakfast clubs, after-school, summer schemes and full wraparound childcare cover, which means a seamless service for parents to cover pre and post-school cover for children aged 4 -14. It aims to sustain or create 3,000 places addressing the childcare needs of disadvantaged communities; create 2-3,000 new places in new facilities based on the school's estate, and thirdly, to create up to 1,000 new places addressing the needs of rural communities.
Q. What happens now and what do I need to do as a parent?
A. The primary aim of the fund is to support the development of school age childcare services. Therefore at this stage it is up to providers and potential providers to submit an application for funding to allow them to develop local services. Parents will be able to apply to individual providers for childcare spaces as they become available.
Q. Is my child guaranteed a place?
A. Not at all, 7,000 places does not equate to 7,000 children. Not all parents require a full-time place therefore one place may actually meet the needs of more than one child in one week.
Q. How is a disadvantaged community defined?
A. Postcode information will be used to determine whether a project is based in the top 25% most disadvantaged areas.
Q. When will I know if my child has got a place.
A. As a parent, your contact will be your local childcare provider so make sure you co-operate with them by telling them of your childcare needs. Providers will then contact parents as a place becomes available.
Q. Are childminders eligible to apply for Bright Start childcare funding?
A. Childminders provide more than three-quarters of registered children providers in Northern Ireland. A rural childminder start-up package creating up to 1,000 places and roll out of a social enterprise model potentially creating an additional 1,000 school aged childcare places is also planned.