Presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee – “Me and my Two Hats”

Michele Akerlind, Co-Director of Cheeky Cherubs Early Years Schools, gave a presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health & Children, on Thursday, 11th June 2015.

Michele was part of an Early Childhood Ireland delegation highlighting key issues in early years care and education and detailing the challenges in driving quality for early childhood educators. This Committee will then write its own report to feed into the analysis currently being undertaken by the Inter Departmental Group appointed by the Minister for Children, James Reilly. Teresa Heeney, CEO of Early Childhood Ireland, attended this Committee meeting to support Michele and the rest of the delegation. Please see below for Michele’s script.

Michele Joint Oir

Statement from Michele Akerlind, Cheeky Cherubs Early Years Schools, Cork

To Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health & Children (JOCHC) along with services from Tipperary and Kildare – 11th June 9.30am.

Titled: Me and my two hats

My name is Michele Akerlind and I am the co-founder of Cheeky Cherubs Early Years Schools in Cork.

When my business partner Sarah and I opened the doors of Cheeky Cherubs Cork, in 2005, we made a conscious decision to employ only qualified staff. Ten years on we have a highly motivated and dedicated team. 18 out of the 30 practioners have either a level 7 or level 8 degree with the remainder having FETAC level 6. We have our level 4 Siolta accreditation quality mark and use many different blends of methodology including Highscope, Reggio Emilia, Marte Meo and Aistear.

As a private provider I wear two hats AT ALL TIMES, all decisions are made with both hats on. My first hat, as owner and provider for quality care to children and families and liaison officer to all the bodies I interface with TUSLA, the PRESCHOOL Inspectorate, The Environment Health Officers, POBAL, Better Start, Dept., of Education and Skills Inspectorate

My second hat as an employer, that has to have the funds for payroll, dealing and negotiating with financial institutions, the constant tweaking of business plans and the massive stress that comes with that. I don’t know any other educational body in the primary, secondary or third level sector that must be PROVIDER and EMPLOYER. We also have inspections from NERA, The Revenue Commissioners and other Employment and Business authorities.

By not funding this sector properly you are allowing every individual to take their own path, some will take the quality route and others will not, or cannot, due to critical financial constraints. There is a vast discrepancy that needs to be addressed in order to streamline quality. And only quality counts for children, but quality costs for employers like me. We use our integrity and are very proud of the quality experience the children under our care enjoy.

The perception out in the public domain is that we are earning an absolute fortune. I get that, I understand why there is that perception. We as a provider are an SME, ten years in business with a wait list as long as our arms, and huge academic research behind us. We’re that success story. Why shouldn’t we have a healthy bank balance? Sarah, myself and our partners jumped off a cliff together, to work for ourselves, to make a difference in a sector we are so passionate about, to earn a good living. We should have been rewarded for those risks.

But I can tell you now categorically that had we opened a café ten years ago, my bank balance would be in much better shape today.

Yes the capital allowances have helped keep our heads above water but they ran out in 2014, and this year will be a game changer for us, personally, financially and professionally.

The advice of our financial advisors is: cut costs, don’t hire such qualified staff, reduce their wages, cut back on Non-Contact Time, Continued Professional Development, and many other resources. That’s what advisors say when a company is struggling not when it is thriving! And there have been many weeks that we as directors have not been paid.

In fact, I’d say I’m one of the only people around the table here who isn’t getting paid for time input today perhaps? No mileage, no hotel expenses for last night. That’s not the case for the deputies and Senators who sit before me today. And I would hazard a guess that not one of you would give up your job here and swap it for mine, based on terms and conditions, rewards and recognition.

Ireland is well known for its highly skilled teaching profession, they are well up there with their European counterparts. And many have come into this House. So why is it that we are nearly at the bottom of the European table when it comes to the Early Years Investment? Why is it that the UK and our European neighbours GET IT and WE DON’T?

Why are we putting our children at such a disadvantage when it comes to competing for jobs in the European market in the years to come?

Cheeky Cherubs has played their part but we have been let down.

We have huge mortgages and have not received any support or investment to date. We are solely a private enterprise. But yet it appears to be perfectly acceptable to knock on our doors and have layer after layer of inspection. I have no issue with an inspection but it is extremely important to note this point; excess layers of inspections will not enhance or drive quality. It will create distrust and a lack of respect for the sector with no Early Years qualified inspector. I don’t think the nursing profession would take kindly to an Early Years inspector knocking on their door.

We pay our rate bills on time every year which has a direct impact our team not receiving decent pay rises and recognition for what they do. Our rates bill for 2015 is just over 13K. I have been informed that I cannot be exempt as I’m not an educational institution, THEIR WORDS NOT MINE.

I’m tired of listening to comparisons between us and our European counterparts. The curriculum in place in our centres is just as good as the curriculum in places like the Nordic countries and the UK, which has really come up the ranks. Yet their governments see the value in what they do and invest in them but the Irish government won’t invest in me. It’s an embarrassment when you say you work in the Early Years, there is no puffing out of chests or pats on the backs for the difference we are making to our young Irish Citizens. Often there’s a snigger or eye rolling for working as a glorified babysitter, well actually, how much do you pay your babysitter? I suspect more than a level 7 or 8 Early Years Practitioner. After all we only care for children, where’s the value in that? We expect to be valued as a profession, and today we are not.

Our staff rates vary from €9.50 to €15 per hour; this includes the director’s salary. Many of our practitioners can’t secure care loans or mortgages. I am always deeply frustrated and saddened when I complete the paperwork for members of my team to financial institutions. It’s not unusual for a staff member, after putting in a 40 hour week to have a second job just to make ends meat. Or worse than that, leave the sector with a level 8 degree to work in a different industry for a better income.

Children are not born on their third birthday, investment needs to happen much earlier in a child’s life.

The ECCE scheme benefits children and their families, not Cheeky Cherubs; there is no funding for the provider. This scheme fails in supporting working families who work 48 weeks in the year, 8am-6pm.

Interesting stats on the Early Years graduates from UCC that completed their finals in 2014:

  • 42% Primary Teaching
  • 23% Early Years
  • 35% did not pursue work in the Early Years

It is our view that tax credits won’t work. This will not ensure quality. Investment needs to be provided to services that have proved themselves by investing time and money in their team and the children in their care, services like ours.

Additional needs for children are not met and put the team and centres under huge pressure. This government must step in for children with additional needs. Early intervention works, but it costs.

There needs to be planning for sustainability and included in these plans a focus not just on the child but the practitioner. Cheeky Cherubs have proven that by hiring qualified motivated individuals and supporting them in the workplace with Non-Contact Time, Continuous Professional Development, enhanced annual leave and permanent contracts you can then get the real work of supporting the welfare and education of young children done.

The good news is Cheeky Cherubs has an Irish model with ten years academic and hands on research. We have the tools to drive quality and motivate a team, we have the whole package, but like any other SME that pays their bills and taxes, the state will need to invest in us or it will be lost.

Thank you

Michele Akerlind