Have you paid the childcare this month? When will that amount drop? Do you think you could change your hours next year to reduce a day’s childcare? What will we do about the summer time? 

If your house is anything like my own and thousands of others across Northern Ireland, these are ongoing discussions and questions.

Very often, the sums simply do not add up. On April 20, from 10:30am, Melted Parents NI will March for Childcare from Writer’s Square in Belfast.

You need only take a quick glance at their Instagram account to absorb the scale of the financial crisis impacting parents and families as a direct consequence of childcare costs and lack of provision.

For example, for a full-time private creche place at a cost of £55 per day, you are looking at a bill of £275 per week – that’s £14,300 a year, if placed every week, or an average cost of £1,191.66 a month.

Multiply that by two, and that’s similarly potentially an average cost per month of £2,383.33, noting that in Fermanagh, the average monthly wage in 2023 was £1,951 – the lowest in Northern Ireland.

The purse strings are particularly tight for single parent families (of which the overwhelming majority are headed up by women), and those with two or more children under primary school age, where – as you can see above – in essence, the cost of childcare for two children (or more) is more than one average salary in Fermanagh – and that’s before you even put the heating on, put fuel in the car, food on the table, buy a new PE kit, or face any other expense.

When issues are raised, there are the usual calls of: “Don’t have them if you can’t afford them”, “Young ones now, expecting the rest of the world to pay for what they want”, and so on.

Let’s have a quick chat about those statements rather than going with our first instinct to eye-roll and sigh heavily.

Between 2008 and 2021, Northern Ireland’s birth rate has dropped from 14.4 per 1,000 to 11.6 per 1,000.

Across 13 years, this is a 20 per cent decrease. In 1971, our birth rate was 20.6 per 1,000. Fewer people are having children – because they cannot afford them.

In an ageing population in a region already experiencing recruitment issues, the economic cost of this reduced labour market cannot be underestimated.

The entitled ‘young ones’ (usually anyone born after 1981) are described by some as expecting a handout, driving fancy cars, paying for Netflix, crying about not being able to afford childcare, thinking the world owes them a living.

However, those born after 1981 are the first generation to be worse off than their parents. Not by a little – by quite a way.

Those in their late 30s and early 40s now have lower household incomes than those born just a decade earlier.

That’s not according to me – that’s according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

Do not misunderstand me. Often, when parents discuss the significant financial burden of childcare costs, they are pitted against childcare providers who are facing steadily increasing costs along with the need to increase wages.

More and more, Northern Ireland is a hostile environment for those families wishing to work and raise children – a luxury reserved for those on the best wages with a cost that is not well reflected in the wages of those working in the sector.

This low pay has been named by Employers for Childcare as a major risk to the childcare sector, impacting financial sustainability, and the quality of provision.

A reframing of the childcare discourse would be helpful. Instead of examining the issue as one of individual families expecting the rest of Northern Ireland to pay for their kids, let’s look at this as the social and economic issue it really is, and invest in it on that basis.

By 2025, the UK’s population is set to decline. We are set to become reliant on immigration if we are to maintain workforce levels while the cost of elderly care, pensions and health continue to rise.

Jonathan Portes, Economics Professor at King’s College London, is clear: “If your economic and social infrastructure isn’t such that young people can have as many kids as they would otherwise want to, you’re doing something wrong ... we need to make this a society where low- and middle-income young people feel they are supported to have kids.”

In Northern Ireland, patterns of childcare type are strongly associated with family income, with the bottom third of earners more likely to have no formal childcare.

The issues surrounding childcare are not the responsibility of government or parents alone – the future of our children is a shared responsibility between parents, government and employers, one which is in all of our interests to get right.

Northern Ireland is already finding revenue raising difficult, but with fewer and fewer people to raise revenue from in future, and the increased costs of an ageing population not too far away, childcare investment now makes economic sense for future growth.

More than making sense, it is non-negotiable.

What is needed is a childcare strategy rooted in our understanding of the importance of the providing of at least 22 hours of funded Early Years education in the pre-school year, a core funding subsidy for providers meeting statutory guidelines which could be set out in legislation for the delivery of Early Years education, an expansion of Sure Start, and a workforce strategy to attract and retain skilled staff for fair wages.

None of this is rocket science – these are recommendations made by Employers for childcare, NICMA, Melted Parents NI, and others which have long been advocated for.

It is worth mentioning the uncalculated cost of childcare provision. Increasingly, families are forced to reduce their working hours whether they want to or not.

This also applies to grandparents who are providing childcare in order to help their struggling adult children.

Levels of informal relative childcare are much higher in Northern Ireland, which depends heavily on family structure and the ability and willingness of other family members to provide long hours of care. (Social Research institute report – Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland and Northern Ireland 2023.)

Again, this takes skilled people from the workforce, and reduces revenue.

If we hope to create a vibrant Northern Ireland with a strong economy, reduced pressures on our healthcare systems and increased opportunities for children and families, a childcare strategy is not an optional extra.

It is an essential support with long-term consequences for each and every one of us.

Kerrie Flood is Development Manager at Fermanagh Women’s Aid.