What does equality have to do with childcare?
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has long called for an effective Childcare Strategy that ensures appropriate, accessible and affordable childcare provision. The COVID-19 pandemic has helped to show the fundamental importance of good quality and affordable childcare to families, the economy and society.
But what does equality have to do with childcare?
You may well think of gender equality in the workplace – and it is clear that availability of appropriate, accessible and affordable childcare is a fundamental part of the process of assisting parents (particularly mothers) to enter, remain in, progress in and return to work.
Gender stereotyping and social attitudes to mothers’ parenting and work undoubtedly impacts on the numbers of women in work. There is need for acceptance and recognition of a greater emphasis on both women and men taking childcare responsibility (including parental leave) and building appropriate, accessible and affordable childcare around this. Flexibility offered by employers should be maximised, with improved understanding of the position of parents.
Valuing the roles of providers of childcare and early learning, who are mostly women, will also further gender equality. Society does not sufficiently value care work – we have called for this to be addressed and more consideration given to the economic impact of care work. A more diverse childcare and early education workforce would both improve the quality of care for children and address some of the gender stereotyping around caring roles and responsibilities.
We also know that high-quality early learning can have significant benefits for children, especially those from particular equality groups such as children from minority ethnic communities and disabled children. It is vital that childcare is accessible and appropriate, to meet the diverse needs of all children. It is important we monitor how different equality groups, particularly those experiencing educational underachievement, take-up early years provision, so action can be taken to address any shortfalls.
We welcome the recent commitments made to develop an Early Learning and Childcare Strategy. The Strategy should provide for the diverse range of children using childcare services, as well as promoting equality of opportunity for parents. In turn, this will help benefit wider society and the economy.
While recognising the current context and cost of living crisis, including pressures on available resources, there remains a need for prompt action. Join us in urging decision-makers to prioritise actions that will extend appropriate, accessible and affordable early education and childcare provision in Northern Ireland.
Senior Policy Officer Equality Commission for NI
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland is a non departmental public body, and attends Childcare for All meetings as an observer.