As whispers of an imminent childcare announcement circulate, parents' hopes are once again being raised.

The Education Minister briefed the press at the weekend that a paper with his proposals would be going to the Executive for sign-off shortly.

However, before you breathe a sigh of relief, it’s important to couch this in economic reality: the funding we need just isn’t there.

The Minister had previously suggested £400million was required to deliver the Early Learning and Childcare strategy, but the budget has set aside just £25 million.

With many people’s childcare bills outstripping mortgage costs, parents and carers struggling with the strain of juggling careers and childcare, and providers struggling to keep their doors open, you don’t need to look far to see the impact of crippling childcare costs on our children, parents and carers, our economy, and wider society.

I’ve long championed the cause of childcare reform, emphasising its importance as critical infrastructure for our economy and society.

The lack of affordable childcare in Northern Ireland was at the heart of my decision to run for the Assembly back in 2022, and to not have been able to deliver a better system due to the lack of a functioning Assembly and Executive has been deeply frustrating.

Now that the institutions are back, it is time for delivery.

This is a cross-cutting policy issue that requires co-ordination between Departments, and we need serious engagement from the Education Minister and a long-term plan to develop a system of childcare that puts children first and creates more affordable options for families.

The benefits of investing in high-quality, accessible childcare are wide and varied – from improving educational outcomes to boosting workforce participation and economic growth.

So, if we only have £25 million, how do we spend it in a way which contributes to childcare reform and provides immediate interim support?

Firstly, we don’t copy failed Tory policies.

The 30 free hours initiative they have in England doesn’t work. While it sounds appealing, in practice, it’s a flawed system.

Across England, the cracks in this model are evident, with providers struggling to sustain services and parents facing continued challenges in accessing quality care.

It’s a cautionary tale we warned against when others hastily adopted this approach and advocated for 30 free hours.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve consulted extensively with a wide array of stakeholders – parents, providers, staff, academics, and businesses – to develop a comprehensive and sustainable childcare model.

I have been inspired by Employers for Childcare and the innovative funding models in the South.

It has been clear to me for many months that we need a bespoke approach for Northern Ireland that prioritises children’s needs, and delivers affordable, high-quality, and accessible childcare.

The child-centred subsidy model that has been developed by Employers for Childcare and implemented in the South stands in stark contrast to the failed free hours policy in GB, aiming to deliver tangible improvements in outcomes, costs, and accessibility.

Our paper, ‘Children First’, sets out a bespoke approach for Northern Ireland, taking the best of the approaches from around these jurisdictions to deliver a world-class childcare system that will improve outcomes, reduce costs and improve accessibility.

We have engaged with officials within the Department of Education around the perils of the free hours model and worked hard to engage with them and others on the benefits and value of a bespoke model.

News that the Minister is considering a subsidy scheme is welcome.

Secondly, we need to remember that pre-school is not childcare. The Minister has been clear that Standardisation of the pre-school offer is something he wishes to achieve.

And while an important part of the Early Years offer, pre-school is not childcare.

Other aspects we can expect is supporting valuable schemes such as Sure Start.

Any notion that there is a quick fix to this crisis, such as providing some more free hours, is not rooted in reality, and demonstrates a detachment from the lived experience of families and the sector.

A model based purely on the provision of hours also centres around parental employment, rather than the child.

It drives demand for childcare, whilst failing to create any means by which government can influence the supply of childcare in relation to areas such as workforce planning, standards and quality.

An Affordable Childcare Scheme such as we have proposed would operate through government payments to registered childcare providers to limit the costs paid by parents.

Essentially, childcare costs would be subsidised – however, this would be delivered through providers as opposed to directly to parents, as in England.

In practice, this would significantly reduce households’ childcare costs and at the same time deliver substantial public investment in the childcare sector.

In strengthening the childcare workforce through new training and qualification opportunities, staff morale and retention should improve, therefore delivering better outcomes for children.

This investment in the sector would also allow providers to enhance pay and conditions for their staff, further combating the workforce crisis we are currently seeing in the sector.

Without investment in the sector, there will be no childcare provision.

This will require significant investment in order to deliver long-term transformation that benefits children, parents, employers and the wider economy.

Whilst we acknowledge this could be costly, we are also conscious that it would be extremely costly not to invest in expanded childcare support – research has shown that it is one of the highest-returning investments a government can make.

It could cost hundreds of millions of pounds to replicate a 30 free hours scheme for Northern Ireland, and if the best we can do for families in Northern Ireland is to replicate failing Tory party policy, something has gone seriously wrong.

Our families, children and providers deserve the very best possible system that will deliver child-centred, affordable, and high-quality childcare.

One of the first things the Minister did was set up a cross-Departmental Task and Finish Group to look at the childcare strategy and identify means of supporting people whilst the long-term plan was developed.

That group has only met twice since its inception, which hardly inspires confidence.

An announcement on childcare is a step in the right direction, and it is imperative that we recognise the limitations of current funding and the shortcomings of existing policies.

However, while we might only have limited funding, it is vital that we establish the foundations of a model that actually works for children and families.

If we set out on the wrong approach, it becomes incredibly difficult to correct our course down the line.

What we need to see is a paradigm shift towards a subsidy model that genuinely puts children at the centre.

Only then can we lay the foundation for a world-class childcare system that benefits all – children, parents, and society at large.

Kate Nicholl is an Alliance Party MLA for South Belfast and is the party’s spokesperson on Early Years & Childcare.