Avril Sweeney - Putting children first in Donegal

Carolyn Farrar


Carolyn Farrar

Avril Sweeney, manager of the Donegal County Childcare Committee, was never satisfied with the terms used to describe people who worked in childcare.

Avril Sweeney, manager of the Donegal County Childcare Committee, was never satisfied with the terms used to describe people who worked in childcare.

There was the straightforward “childcare worker”, or the word “practitioner”, but neither captured the way Avril saw the occupation. Rather she favours the term, “early childhood educator”, a description already in use in Europe.

That is also an example of Avril’s addressing what she believes is one of the most important issues facing childcare: the need for professionalisation of the sector, something she called, “a major, major deal”.

“A big challenge for the sector is to be visible and to be recognised,” she said. “The only time we’re recognised is if we’re needed by other people.”

Ireland’s childcare infrastructure was formally developed around the year 2000 as part of a government initiative to help women enter the workforce or training during what was then a booming economy: There had to be childcare to assist women who wanted to work outside the home.

Through the 500 million euro Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme, tens of thousands of childcare places were created in the republic. A follow-on project, the National Childcare Investment Programme, was intended to create 50,000 additional places from 2006-2010. But the recession interceded in 2008, and that programme was curtailed after 25,000 new places were created.

While Avril recognises the importance of childcare for working parents, she said the service needs to be respected as a social and economic good in its own right, and an important element in children’s education and development.

“It’s about getting childcare recognised as the top of everybody’s agenda, not a spin-off of someone else’s,” she said. Research has also indicated that investments in early childhood education pay off tenfold, she said: Early childcare and education should be considered as a factor in economic policy.

But early childcare is not treated like early education in Ireland. Childcare providers must do training and professional development on their own time. In the same way, unlike teachers, childcare providers must perform their non-contact duties on their own time, such as planning curriculum and assessment.

“I recognised very early on this is a sector that is grossly undervalued,” said Avril, who has always had an interest in early childcare and education. Professionalisation of the sector, for Avril, is not just about changing the way these early childhood educators are viewed, though that is a big part of it. One of her pet hates is when people seem to consider childcare one of the “fluffy” occupations, as though all someone needed for the job was a love of children.

At the same time, Avril encourages early childhood educators to change the way they view themselves. She tells Donegal childcare providers, “You are professionals. You do a very important job and you should ask for and expect the respect that is due to you.”

Originally from Inishowen, Avril managed a pre-school in Derry and lectured in early childhood care and education at the North West Institute before joining DCCC in 2003 as a childcare development officer.

In 2006 she was seconded to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment in Dublin, where she spent the next 18 months as part of the four-person team that developed Aistear, Ireland’s first early childhood curriculum framework. The framework employed a holistic approach to early childhood education and a more contemporary view of how children learn, Avril explained. The initiative was intended to dovetail with Ireland’s primary-school curriculum, but there was no formal national roll-out.

“It’s not about the fact that we need more policy – we do have the policy,” Avril said. What’s needed are the resources to assist with implementation, she said.

Avril became DCCC manager in 2008 and said the committee has always been proactive. Even now, they link training programmes to the Aistear framework, relating what is in that document to everyday practice.

The Donegal manager also produced, “Building Pictures of Learning”, a DCCC resource developed to assist early childhood care and education services to implement a meaningful assessment practice. The child-centred approach integrates all aspects of learning and development to inform, support and enhance the child’s future learning. Avril adopted her master’s dissertation from Queen’s University Belfast into a user-friendly framework.

“It takes every child from their unique, individual position and builds on their learning,” she said. The work also takes into account the learning children bring to preschool with them, rejecting the idea of young children as a “blank slate”.

“This takes that back a step,” she said. “It looks at how you value the work parents are doing at home.”

Fifteen county childcare committees around the country have asked Avril to do a “training of trainers” programme on the work.

“I don’t have the time,” she said. “I’m interested in taking it nationally, but I don’t know where I’d get the resources.” Avril is also closely overseeing the roll-out of the assessment programme here in Donegal and still has three groups waiting for training.

The regular assessments “Building Pictures of Learning” promotes are part of the monitored approach Avril favours toward the development of early childhood education. She supports the regulation of childminders and the review of subventions for child care. Working parents receive no support for childcare expenses, a situation Avril called “a disgrace”.

She is encouraging anyone with an interest in early childhood education to contribute to the department’s public consultation on the Children and Young People’s Policy Framework. The consultation is open until July 6th, and interested people can respond through the Department of Children and Youth Affairs web site.

“It’s really important,” Avril said. “It will shape childcare infrastructure and the sector for the next 10 to 15 years.” She wants the resulting policy to be ambitious and target-focused, as opposed to broad and aspirational. She wants it to include targets that can be monitored and measured.

“It’s about looking at every scheme we have and making sure it’s fit for purpose,” she said. There’s nothing fluffy about that.