Mr Patsy McGlone (Mid Ulster): (AQW 28471 17-22) To ask the Minister of Education what plans does she have to match the number of hours of free childcare or pre-school education provided in England, Scotland, and Wales;
(AQW 28472 17-22) To ask the Minister of Education when was the last independent review of the provision of free childcare or pre-school education by her Department carried out;
(AQW 28473 17-22) To ask the Minister of Education what plans does she have to commission an independent review of the provision of free childcare or pre-school education by her Department;
(AQW 28474 17-22) To ask the Minister of Education what is the average cost per week of providing an additional 2.5 hours childcare in the private sector for children aged 2, 3 and 4 years old, broken down by constituency; and
(AQW 28566/17-22) To ask the Minister of Education what assessment has been made of the cost of extending the provision of free childcare or pre-school education provided by her Department from 12.5 hours per week for 38 weeks to 15 hours per week for 38 weeks.
Minister of Education: The New Decade, New Approach agreement, published in 2020, included a commitment to publish a Childcare Strategy and identify resources to deliver extended, affordable and high quality provision of early education and care initiatives for families with children aged 3-4.
Work to develop an Executive Childcare Strategy is underway and this will identify costed options for additional childcare support. While consideration will be given to provision available in other jurisdictions, proposals will take account of the specific Northern Ireland context.
As part of any extended provision, it would be my aim to standardise the pre-school education session length, an action that was included in the recently published ‘Fair Start’ report, which stated that provision should be standardised to 4.5 hours per day including access to a free school meal for eligible pupils. A detailed scoping study will be required to accurately assess the costs of this and implementation timeline.
Stakeholder engagement with MLAs, parents and providers on the Childcare Strategy as a whole has already taken place through a Strategic Insight Programme in October to December 2021. Further engagement with key stakeholders will continue over the coming months. It is also envisaged that an independent Review of Childcare Services in NI will be commissioned to inform the development of the Strategy. The last independent review of this nature was published in 2014 and the landscape has changed significantly in the intervening period.
Ultimately, decisions on the coverage and content of the Childcare Strategy, including the number of hours provided will require Executive agreement and a commitment to provide the associated funding.