My name is Amy McArdle and I have been the Policy Officer in Early Childhood Ireland (ECI) since May 2016. My background is in law, human rights and politics, but I have been working in policy for over 10 years.
There are a lot of policy issues relevant to early years services like those inspected under the Regulations. ECI also develops our own policies and positions around practice in services. This type of policy belongs to the Training and Practice and Support Point sides of the ECI house. The policy I work on is more about national government policy on early years, and trying to influence decision makers.
As a member of the Policy, Advocacy and Communications team, it is my job to develop and communicate ECI’s key advocacy pillars: quality; sustainability; and affordability to Ministers, politicians, and policy makers in government departments. I make the case for investment and argue for where it is needed and why. As you can imagine, Budget time, when government departments reveal how much money they have secured and how they plan to spend it, is a very important time in my work and our Pre-Budget Submission and post Budget analysis are good examples of the types of things I write. I also write ECI’s submissions to the government on various issues and I play a key role in our work with other organisations in Ireland who are working on issues which affect the lives of young children.
I have learnt an incredible amount in my time in ECI so far. In putting forward our policy positions, I rely on the wealth of knowledge and experience throughout ECI’s management and specialist teams and I work closely with our Policy and Implementation Panel of ECI members to ensure that my work reflects the reality on the ground. However, I am still very conscious that I have no personal experience in operating, managing or working in a service. To counter this, and to get a better sense of the incredible work being done, I visit different ECI member services. Most recently, I spent the first of two days with our Panel member Valarie Gaynor, Manager of Creative Kids in Walkinstown, Dublin.
What I learnt shadowing Valerie on a very busy day in late September was invaluable. It transformed my understanding of the administrative demands on services from theory to reality. This is what I need to get through to the decision makers who, like me, are not familiar with the practical workings of early years services, even though they are in charge of developing the policies which services are expected to implement and which have a huge impact on all providers.
The Administrative Burden
I write all the time about the growing administrative burden services face with the introduction of new and revised Government funded childcare programmes. I thought I got it until I spent a day living it.
The idea that a service could pin point the number of hours per day or per week dedicated to the management and administration of the numerous childcare schemes, in addition to their compliance and governance requirements, is completely out of touch with the reality of daily life in a service. There is a wonderful vibe in Creative Kids. It is warm and inviting and accessible. It’s everything a parent would want from a service that educates and cares for their young children. But warm and inviting and accessible can also mean hectic from a ‘structured work’ perspective. I don’t think I saw Valerie complete a single task without an interruption: PPS numbers being rejected on PIP; continuous calls and texts from parents and staff; knocks on the door from parents wanting to pay fees, ask questions, have a chat; needing to nip out to manage breaks and ratios and step in where staff were out sick. The list goes on.
Managers in early years services simply do not have the luxury of uninterrupted time in their offices, and in a sector where space is at a premium many don’t have an office, to get their administration work done. Furthermore, this isn’t their real job. It is certainly a part of it but the most important role of an early years’ manager to ensure children in the service are having the best experience possible and that staff are supported to make this happen.
I asked Valerie if she gets frustrated at how difficult it can be to get things done. I certainly can’t imagine meeting any deadlines in her circumstances. Everything gets done eventually she said, often at home at the end of a busy day in the service. Her frustrations lie elsewhere: the lack of understanding DCYA has about the environment providers are operating in; the lack of flexibility with the PIP system; the amount of paper that is generated for every child registered; the need to track down parents whenever a clarification is needed; the lack of a detailed breakdown with Pobal payments. Again, the list goes on and it all serves to slow down the day to day work even further.
Linking in with providers is one of the ways ECI seeks to underpin our policy and advocacy work on behalf of our 3,800 members and it is vital to us that we can do this. Having seen the reality of the so called ‘administrative burden’ with my own eyes, I will now be able to articulate these problems with more assurance and authority in the future.
I want to say a huge thank you to Valarie and all the team in Creative Kids, Walkinstown for hosting my visit. ECI is so grateful for the opportunity and the trust placed in us to be facilitated in this way. I really look forward to my second day shadowing the Early Years Educators and children at their work and in their play. I will write about these learnings in a future blog.