It has been quite some rollercoaster to be part of the Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) sector since the announcement in October 2009 of the ECCE Scheme – known to the public as the “free preschool” scheme (a phrase I refuse to use because it doesn’t acknowledge the many hours of unpaid labour that goes in to delivering it). Eleven years on, we as a sector are dealing with the fall out of the onslaught of policy decisions: the burden of extra administrative work, multiple inspections(i) , multiple agencies, contracts, and deadlines to contend with, and financial and well-being crisis like none other.
Many have asked, if there is so much public money being pumped into the sector in the various schemes, grants, and government funded courses, then how could the childcare / ECEC sector possibly be saying they need more money? It is not an easy question to answer. Firstly, the sector was always underfunded and was seen as a quaint little cottage industry which gave some women a bit of pocket money and allowed other women to go out to work. It was not considered a part of the education system. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and the European Union began to put some pressure on the Irish Government about investing in childcare / ECEC to allow women to access the workforce. This combined with a knee jerk reaction to the Primetime exposé A Breach of Trust (ii) that aired on tv in 2013, led to a tsunami of legislative and policy decisions that wiped a lot of the elders of early childhood out of the sector. These elders are women who worked in, and operated, creches and preschools their whole lives – local women who contributed to their communities - who watched as generations of the same families grew up under their care. These elders saw themselves as “just childcare workers” who could not keep up with the increasing complicated paperwork and online systems, who did not have it in them to go back at night to college to complete the new minimum qualification. These women who oozed professional love (Page, 2019) and an ethic of care (Noddings, 2013) out of their very being were increasingly being told by policy makers “you are not needed anymore”. We saw over a short number of years that the history of our sector, the inherent Irish way of caring and nurturing children, was wiped out in favour of youth with shiny new degrees offering knowledge of theorists and curricula from many countries. Let me be clear – I understand and value the depth of knowledge a degree can bring. I actively strive towards increasing professional practice every day and qualification is a huge part of that. However, I think – reflecting on the past ten years - it should go hand in hand with learning from our elders.
Many local small creches that had been operating for generations in the community were bought out or replaced by big chains with shiny new equipment, massive purpose built buildings, plastic grass, employing a young workforce who accepted minimum wage or slightly above to enter a profession. Those local creches and preschools that could adapt and keep up with demand and workload survived – however the majority survived on goodwill and partnership. Staff taking home children’s files to complete at home and staying later than they are paid to clean rooms or write up observations became the norm. Unpaid, emotional labour of a workforce became the norm. Without our elders for advice and knowledge of the community bad practices started to slip in to an overworked, underpaid, young workforce. Precarious contracts became the norm. Working 38 weeks a year and signing onto the dole for the summer was “just what everyone does”. Interruptions in service means that these young women (and the very few men that work in the sector) do not qualify for mortgages, for loans, cannot afford rent or to move out of their parents’ houses. Having a second job became the norm. Being highly stressed and anxious became the norm. Worrying about money became the norm. Employers leaving extra food in the cupboards for their hungry employees became the norm.
Each round of policy implementation caused an improvement to services. Each improvement cost money. Renovations to old buildings, new walls put into houses that were turned into creches in the ‘90’s, new gardens, new computers and printers to keep up to date with online communication for the various departments, new fire escapes, wired in fire alarm systems, extensions for baby cots, new sinks for baby changing areas, new or retrospective planning permission, architects, increased pay for graduates, increasing demand for staff courses such as first aid, manual handling, child protection, adrenaline pen procedures, insurance. Each round of policy implementations was announced with a fund for providers. To apply for these grants can take weeks of unpaid labour and time away from running a service and caring for children. Each time the funding fell far short of what was needed and was competitive. Only some services qualified – usually those who could employ the services of people with savvy and experience in writing grant applications. Human Resource and inspection compliance companies have never been busier. The cottage industry had turned into a sector and that sector had to keep up to date with health and safety legislation, employment legislation etc. At this stage if creches and preschools could afford it, a hands off administrator was needed to keep up with the paperwork. In an industry that is dictated by regulations as to how many staff they need per children sometimes hard choices need to be made. “If I take on that family of two, I will have thirteen children in that room which means I need another employee. Two children’s fees do not cover the cost of another employee so I will have to refuse them a place”. “A mother has lost her job and is pulling her three children from the service. Those fees are the equivalent of Jenny’s salary. I am going to have to let her go and do the cooking myself. I can catch up on paperwork at night when everyone has gone home.”
Employers have had a ridiculously hard time of it over the last eleven years. In fact, that could almost be the most under stated comment I have ever written. The last year has been unbearably torturous. Anxiety and fear are at an all time high. People’s livelihoods, the businesses that they have plunged all their money into (some have re-mortgaged their houses or taken out loans), put their heart and soul into, and have spent sleepless nights worrying about, are at risk. Staff turnover is at an all time high. Insurance is at an all-time high. Public opinion is at an all time low. Business closures are at an all time high. And yet, Government investment is also at an all time high.
Clearly, it is not enough. It is not happening quickly enough, and those big international chains run by vulture funds for maximum profit are buying out more and more businesses. However, here is how I see the situation. Currently, employers have seven representative and advocacy groups at the table (so to speak) in Government talks. With only two of them, Association of Childhood Professionals and Siptu, representing both employers and employees. There are approximately 3,500 employers if you count employers who own more than one service and there are approximately 27,000 employees. So, the smallest group with an invested interest have the largest say in negotiations and the largest group are, if not unrepresented then they are, underrepresented. This is not to say that employers do not have employees best interest at heart – they do – but it is not equal representation, equal voice.
I have always been an advocate of coming together no matter what your beliefs, no matter what the circumstances for the betterment of the sector and the children who are cared for and educated every day – in fact, the whole premise of our community of practice is predicated upon that ideal. However, increasingly, over the last six months I, and the other administrators of MECPI, have been snowed under with private messages from distraught or confused employees who are looking for advice and reassurance but who are terrified to post on the page because the power dynamics between employer and employee or potential employer and employees. Many of these queries have been of a nature so severe that we have had to recommend professional advice and sometimes legal advice. Some organisations have been helping us with that, and we thank them. We have tried to make more room for the voice of the employee in the group for these types of conversations, but this has resulted in us being tarnished with an anti-provider stance.
I have no doubt, that many employers made many mistakes during this process. I have never seen an atmosphere more stressful in nearly two decades for them to operate a business in. I could not begin to imagine the stress of running a business, keeping up to date with the avalanche of announcements and paperwork coming from every direction while trying to keep families, children, and staff safe during a once in a life-time pandemic, and remaining sane. If mistakes were not being made, I would worry! However, this has only served to highlight for me why there is a need for sole employee representation. I cannot believe I just typed that, but it is something I have been contemplating for months after every message, and after every conversation I have had. It is not just for the employees good, but also the employer. In order to have a true, honest conversation without the power dynamic tipped in any one group’s favour we have to have a dedicated employee representative body – not to further splinter the sector – but to offer an equal voice in negotiation.
(i) I would like to note that I am in favour of inspections but I think that a partnership approach such as the whole school evaluation model in primary schools is one model which would suit the sector better and cause less stress for providers and employees.
(ii)The Breach of Trust programme was an undercover expose that exposed inhumane, abusive practices on children in a small number of creches that resulted in shaking the Nation to its core and a demand that the Government step up and never allow this to happen again.