Families in Northern Ireland more reliant on family and friends for childcare than those in Ireland

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in partnership with the Shared Island unit in the Department of the Taoiseach have published new research that compares early childhood education and care (ECEC) in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The study draws on survey data and interviews with key stakeholders in both jurisdictions.  

Key findings:

  • Children in both jurisdictions are entitled to free universal pre-school provision, which have very high levels of take-up. Entitlement is to term-time, part-time hours in both systems, but hours are somewhat longer in Ireland (15 hours) than Northern Ireland (12.5 hours). In Northern Ireland, some children receive longer hours of free pre-school but this depends on the type of services available locally.  
  • In Ireland mothers of young children work longer hours and are more reliant on formal childcare, in Northern Ireland mothers are more likely to work part-time and are more reliant on friends and family for care. In both jurisdictions, centre-based care is more common when mothers are employed and family income levels are higher.   
  • Social inequalities in cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes are equally prevalent among young children in Northern Ireland and Ireland. In both jurisdictions, social background and home learning environment play a greater role in child outcomes than participation in ECEC.
  • Both systems face similar policy challenges around affordability for parents and the employment conditions of early years staff. Ireland and the UK regularly feature among the countries with the highest costs for full-time care in the OECD, though initiatives such as the National Childcare Scheme in Ireland and Universal Credit in Northern Ireland mean reduced costs for low-income households.
  • In both Ireland and Northern Ireland, early years staff have low pay levels and staff retention can be a challenge. In Ireland, the new Core Funding Model and Employment Regulation Orders have been introduced to address low pay but it is too early to assess the impact. In Northern Ireland, there is a wide disparity in the qualifications, pay and conditions of those working in private/voluntary settings compared to those in the statutory sector.
  • The pace of policy developments in ECEC in Ireland has been rapid in recent years, with substantial government investment, while stakeholders in Northern Ireland expressed frustration that the lack of an Executive has stalled policy progress. For example, extensions in the hours of universal pre-school provision have been implemented in the rest of the UK but not yet in Northern Ireland.
  • There is significant scope for policy learning across the island of Ireland. Stakeholders highlighted the merits of the Sure Start system in Northern Ireland for its wraparound and integrated services for children living in disadvantaged areas. The success of the Northern Ireland system in bringing childminders into the formal system offers a model for Ireland, where only a tiny number of this group are registered. The AIM programme that supports access to ECEC for young children with special educational needs in Ireland was commended by stakeholders from both sides of the border.  

Dr Helen Russell one of the report authors said: 

“High quality services are essential to ensure that children benefit from early childhood education and care. Accessible and affordable childcare also impact on parents’ employment opportunities, particularly mothers. This study as part of the Shared Island research programme shows that childcare systems in Ireland and Northern Ireland can learn from each other in promoting quality and inclusivity. In both systems, there is further scope to improve the level of spending on young children in line with that in other wealthy countries and expand provision for children under three. The overall differences identified in childcare provision and the working patterns of women, Northern Ireland and Ireland, are also notable, with more reliance on formal provision in Ireland, and higher levels of part-time work by mothers of young children in Northern Ireland.”