Talking Early Years: June O’Sullivan and Teresa Heaney

November 21st 2022

Thank you for listening to my Podcast with Teresa Heaney, CEO of Early Childhood Ireland, the largest membership and advocacy organisation for Early Years in Ireland.  

Listen as Teresa explains how the Irish government has agreed to a number of positive actions following the publication of their evidence-based strategy, called First Five. This strategy is based on the principles of Better Outcomes for a Better Future and is a government-wide approach to providing services for families. It is therefore, wide-ranging and covers maternity leave, quality of childcare, and wrap-around care as well as community services such as libraries; in effect, everything relevant to families. Every strategy reviews the operational model and their review resulted in the first single statutory agency for children.  I know many people in Ireland who will welcome this model reducing fragmentation and dual inspections. Teresa tells the story of the many people behind the strategy, the progress so far and the challenges ahead.  For example, ensuring there is a mechanism for the staff rates of payment to include pensions and grow in line with cost-of-living increases and inflation, while guaranteeing that parents’ fees reduce. 

Ireland is, like us, facing a recruitment and retention problem and has been looking at addressing pay and benefits and the status of the sector. I was very interested to hear their latest action called rather snappily as an Employment Order – this is a request that employers pay a minimum agreed hourly rate in return for more Government support and funded training options, plus a willingness to agree to a fee freeze for parents. It is an idea that has interested me for a while, especially if it can address inequality and services in poorer communities. However, it needs the buy-in from the sector as a deal made with the government now risks the imposition of requirements which may not be so happily welcome in the future.  

What can we learn from it?  

Well, we all agree we need a national strategy so that the service is truly a part of the national infrastructure. Our UK Early Years Strategy finished in 2007 and since then it has been replaced by piecemeal initiatives driven by political ideology and band aid repairs. The state needs to acknowledge its responsibility for children under 5 and for the staff who educate them.  This is a conversation we need to have particularly as much of the support we offer is left to the market. We know the market can help address poverty and inequality but only when it is supported by appropriate state support, otherwise you have a very divided service with a big gap between children from disadvantage and affluent backgrounds. That poses some deeper questions about the structure of the service and how you balance the market led service with state responsibility; access to affordable high-quality childcare is a feminist issue and we have yet to achieve that!