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How hard-pushed parents can’t afford to work due to the spiralling cost of childcare

Mums and dads take fight for free nursery places to Stormont. Stephanie Bell reports

Ulster parents are in revolt over soaring childcare costs and a shortfall in free nursery places. Instead of looking forward to September when their children will benefit from a preschool year of structured play and education, hundreds of parents are in despair after their children were turned away from their local nursery.

Others have been offered places further afield creating a logistical nightmare for busy working mums and dads. It’s a situation which parents fear will only get worse in the years ahead as more social housing is built with no plans for increasing nursery provision.

With childcare costs reaching a record high here, the free nursery year is also a welcome break for hard-pushed parents whose finances are stretched to the limit paying for their children to be looked after when they return to work.

Such is the concern and strength of feeling that parents have now got together to form a lobby group — Local Kids 1st — with the aim of forcing the Government to make a free pre-school nursery place the statutory right of all children.

More than 50 mums and dads heeded the recent call to set up the new parent-led pressure group taking their fight into the very heart of Stormont.

Worried parents from all over Northern Ireland gathered with their children in the Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings just before the summer recess in June to voice their concerns to MLAs over pre-school provision and its fragmented nature.

The group has just launched a petition and is now meeting throughout the summer months to plot how to step up their campaign when Stormont reconvenes in the autumn.

They have welcomed an announcement by the Education Minister of a review into the criteria of nursery allocation which they argue discriminates against low income working families as currently those on benefits are a priority.

West Belfast man Colm Burns, a policy officer for the charity NICVA and dad to Evie (1) and Aidan (3) is chairperson of Local Kids 1st.

He says: “For many parents, the anguish of not getting a place this year has instilled fear that their other children may be in the same situation when they approach the start of their education.

“We are asking our MLAs to work with us to ensure we do not face this situation again next year.

“Some parents have even been forced to change their working hours.

“ The whole system is fragmented and all we ask is for locality and equity for all pre-school children to be a priority for our MLAs”.

Charities, too, have highlighted the financial stresses with Save the Children and the Daycare Trust claiming that our childcare costs are now among the highest in the world.

Earlier this year they joined forces to conduct their own investigation into how the costs are affecting families everyday lives and discovered that many parents are being “priced out of work” by fees which have risen every year for a decade.

The local charity Employees for Childcare carried out a cost survey in 2010 which revealed parents are paying £157 a week a child at a day nursery and £153 for childminders. “Childcare is so expensive it is becoming a luxury that only families earning a very good wage can comfortably afford,” says Sally Copley of Save the Children.

“For families on low incomes, they simply will not earn enough to cover childcare bills — effectively pricing them out of the labour market.”

We talked to four working parents about how they cope juggling childminding with full-time jobs and how the burden of cost impacts on them.

If you have concerns or want to support the new parents’ pressure group you can contact Colm Burns at localkids1st@gmail.com

Just what do mums and dads pay out?

Decided to work part-time

Belfast solicitor and mum-of-three Sinead Steel (38) and husband Declan (41), a consultant with the Sports Council, have experienced a roller coaster of stress and worry trying to sort out childcare for sons Se (3), Oisin (2) and seven-month-old Senan.

After their first child was born, Sinead decided to go back to work as a family law solicitor on a part-time basis as she didn’t want to leave her son in a crèche all week.

On the birth of their second son, the couple decided that they would both work part-time so that the boys could spend the majority of their week at home.

Now with a third child, they embarked on what proved to be a difficult search for a childminder who was prepared to mind the boys in their own home.

Sinéad says: “Ideally I would prefer to stay at home but unfortunately with a mortgage that is a luxury we just can’t entertain.

“My employers have been very good but sorting out childcare has been a nightmare.

“Putting Se and Oisin in a creche two-and-a-half days a week costs around £800 a month, to have had them in full-time would have cost £1,400.

“It’s a lot of money and for a lot of people it is prohibitive. Sometimes a lot of mothers are working for nothing after paying childcare costs because they want to protect their careers for the future.

“Even though we both worked part-time we found the crèche inflexible.

“If either of us had to work an extra day they could not look after the children on this additional day.

“As a result we would have to ask my sister to take a day off work or ask my parents-in-law who are both in their mid-70s and ,while they are accommodating, it is unfair to ask them to look after three small children.”

The couple needed to make other childcare arrangements but Sinead did not like the idea of sending her boys to a childminder’s home.

With her primary concern to provide the best care for her children she decided to look for a child minder to come into her home to look after the boys, a search which proved very difficult.

She says: “I rang numerous registered childminders from a list given to me by the Belfast Trust but none of them would come to our home or wanted to take children on a part-time basis.

“It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. In the end another child minder got us someone who amazingly turned out to be a girl I know and we are very happy now.

“I know so many parents in the same situation and I personally was astonished at the lack of availability of child minders.

“There seems to be no cohesion in the system in relation to childcare and I really think more needs to be done for working mothers and the law needs to be relaxed.”

Mum and partner helped look after son Ciaran

Aislinn Blacker (24), from the Antrim Road, Belfast, was studying to become a teacher when she became pregnant with son Ciaran (3).

Without the help of her mum, Moira, who gave up her business running a newsagents shop to look after her grandson, Ailseen would have had to miss out on her university education.

Her partner, who is setting up his own business, was able to look after Ciaran in the evenings when Aislinn attended classes.

Aislinn graduated this year with a BA in Liberal Art with History and has another year to do to complete her Post Graduate Certificate of Education.

Her plans for completing her final year before embarking on her career as a primary school teacher were thrown into complete confusion when Cairan was refused a place at his local nursery.

She examined the possibility of placing him part time at a local daycare nursery but couldn’t afford the £111 a week fee.

Fortunately after several anxious weeks Ciaran was finally given a place at nursery when another child dropped out.

With no support available from the government, Aislinn appreciates that she could never have got her degree without her mum.

“Mum has been a Godsend and without her there is no way I would have been able to study.

“As a student I couldn’t even have contemplated paying for child minding.

“I thought at least when he turned three he would get a free place at nursery and was gutted when he was refused.

“Training to be a teacher I realise the importance of that pre-school year for him to get the chance to interact with other kids and to prepare him for P1.”

She was told her local nursery at Ligionel was oversubscribed but fortunately a family moved from the area creating a vacancy which Cairan was offered.

Aislinn says: “The pressure before that was immense, I just didn’t know what I was going to do in September.

“It’s a terrible position to be put in and I know now we were lucky to get the place and there are a lot more children who haven’t.

“They system isn’t fair when one child gets in and another doesn’t. As well as extortionate childcare costs for parents, it’s the children who are ultimately missing out.”

Full-time daycare nursery

Joanne Vennard (32), a school teacher, and her husband Paul (40), a lorry driver, from Maghaberry, have a 20-month-old son Ryan who is in a day care nursery full-time.

Joanne teaches history and politics in Bangor Academy and has to leave home for her one hour commute to work at 7.30am while Paul has to leave at 6.30am for a 7am start.

The couple couldn’t find a childminder prepared to take Ryan before 8am. Her local nursery doesn’t take children under the age of two part-time so even though Joanne is off work on a Wednesday, she still has to pay for Ryan to be cared for full-time.

It costs the couple a hefty £628 a month.

Joanne says: “It’s a lot of money and is actually more than our mortgage. I don’t know how people with a large mortgage do it, they must be just working to pay childminding fees.

“For us it has meant cutting back on luxuries. We used to go out for meals at weekends and have the odd mini-break but we can’t now. When Ryan is two I will be able to put him into the nursery part-time but it will still cost us £455 a month.”

Joanne favoured nursery because of the benefits of structured play and the opportunities for Ryan to socialise with children his own age.

“Living in a rural area she doesn’t feel the same pressure about the shortage of free preschool nursery provision but says it is a concern.

“The nursery Ryan is in is currently applying for government funding to provide pre-school places and I’m hoping that by the time he is ready they will have succeeded,” says Joanne.

“It will mean they would deduct the hours that the Government is paying for his nursery place but it’s not just about the money, it will also be more convenient for us because we both have such early starts.

“If Ryan has to go to another pre-school nursery, I would still have to drop him off at the day care nursery and then pay them to take him to pre-school and pick him up again.”

Childminder three days a week

Belfast SDLP Councillor Tim Attwood (47) and wife Gemma (37), who works with the Community Relations Council, have a son Eoin (3) and four-month-old twins Michael and Feargal.

As full-time working parents, Gemma and Tim know the struggle of meeting childcare costs every month.

Their oldest child Eoin spends three days a week with a childminder which costs the couple £400 a month.

With young twins, they are now dreading the extra cost when Gemma has to return to work after maternity leave.

Although they are relieved that Eoin secured a place at his local nursery in north Belfast, Tim has joined the pressure group Local Kids 1st to lobby on behalf of those who didn’t.

He says: “Eoin spends one day with his grandparents, Harold and Moya Buller, Gemma is off on a Friday and on the other three days he is with a childminder.

“She has become part of our family and it has been great for Eoin to get the chance to mix with other kids some of whom are younger and some older.

“Eoin got into his local nursery but we are very conscious that the way things are going by the time the twins are ready for nursery they might not be so lucky.

“In terms of demography, unless something is done to increase provision, there will be even fewer places by then.

“There are many involved in the new campaign whose children did not get a place this year which has put a lot of stress on them.”

Mr Attwood believes there is a need for a more flexible and urgent response by government to what he sees as a problem that can only get worse in the coming years.

Childminding fees, too, are a concern. Although the couple have a good income, childminding puts a huge strain on their finances.

Tim adds: “Finances are a real issue. We have to anticipate what will happen when Gemma goes back to work and the expense of having the twins minded.

“Their grandparents wouldn’t be able to mind both of them and it will be more expensive to have two children cared for than one.

“You have to manage that against your job and at the end of the day you won’t be working for a hell of a lot of money.”

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