Two years ago the then Executive parties signed up to the New Decade New Approach initiative. One of the commitments was to produce a Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland.
Two years later on and we are still waiting. We have no strategy and we have no Executive.
Currently parents in England, Scotland and Wales can benefit from 30 hours of free childcare, for thirty-nine weeks each year. Not in Northern Ireland though. Neither it, nor any similar scheme, has ever been introduced by the Assembly.
The Assembly’s lack of urgency and action demonstrates the value the main parties here place on the contribution of working parents and on the development of society’s greatest asset: its children.
Early childhood is a key period for brain development. During the early years of life, and especially in the first 1000 days, a child’s brain develops rapidly. What happens in the early years, matters for a lifetime.
Now, the Westminster government is proposing to reduce the ratio of childcare workers to children from 1:4 to 1:5. Although this currently will apply only in England, it is nonetheless a dangerous and retrograde step that others might find attractive to include in their long overdue childcare strategy.
Just like health, education and housing, childcare is viewed and treated as a commodity which can be successfully exploited and profited from.
Northern Ireland has some of the lowest levels of childcare provision in these islands, and many of our near neighbours could make significant improvements in their provision.
Compared to many other European countries we are light years behind, in our funding, our services and our understanding of the significance universal, flexible, accessible and affordable childcare services can have for a child’s early and future development, for parents and for the economy.
If and when the Assembly ever gets around to progressing a Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland, it could do worse than to look at the Cuban model. In its recent report on ‘Early Childhood Development in Cuba’ UNICEF praised its world class approach and noted that 99.5% of Cuban youngsters had a nursery placement.
In the meantime, yet another generation of children here will go without the benefits, the opportunities and the enhanced development that progressive childcare brings.