Poverty is most often described as having low or no income, a lack of food, shelter or heat. However, looking at poverty and its effects through childcare provision and early years education is less common.
The availability and cost of childcare are key factors in the struggle against poverty. High quality and accessible early education and early years support can play a significant role in combatting the effects of poverty for children and families. Research and practice have shown that by supporting children’s development can significantly improve their educational outcomes.
Affordable, accessible and flexible childcare provision is vital if parents are to be supported in securing employment or in accessing education and training.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where parents are not offered 30 hours of free childcare. Yet another failure by a Stormont Executive more concerned with pursuing their self-interests than addressing poverty.
The first five years of any child’s life are amongst the most formative. During this period a child’s brain develops more rapidly, than at any other time in their life. The quality of a child’s experiences in the first few years of life – positive or negative – helps shape how their brain develops. These experiences have a lasting impact on their health and ability to learn and succeed in school and in life.
Children born into and living in poverty are at an immediate and lasting disadvantage; one that will stay with them and affect them for the rest of their lives.
Germany, France, Finland and Sweden all provide varying forms of free early years / pre-school education. In Northern Ireland parents can access two-and-a-half hours of free pre-school education a day, well short of the rest of the UK and nothing like the availability of some other European countries. To make matters worse, the scheme only operates in term time.
It is totally inadequate for the pre-school needs of the children and woefully insufficient for the needs of working parents, even those in part time employment.
The creation of a comprehensive social system for pre-school age children, preparing children for school and life, was one of the major achievements of the socialist countries.
Poverty blights the lives and denies the opportunities for thousands of local children, parents and families. Failure to address the importance of children’s early years and provide all the necessary support condemns generation after generation of working-class families to a life time of misery, underachievement, mental illness and lack of self-worth.