Interview: Inspired EC talks connection, FDC change, and the importance of quality
Inspired EC is a team who prides itself on supporting educators to come up with their own answers.The Sector Assistant Editor Freya Lucas met with one of Inspired EC’s co-founders, Nicole Halton,to talk about the journey into the family day care (FDC) space, and their views on the recent Family Day Care Australia’s (FDCA) campaign promoting FDC as “the natural choice”.
Founded in 2008, the team at Inspired EC work with services around Australia, providing professional development, early childhood consultancy, international guest speakers, overseas study tours, playground design, and family day care (FDC) service management.
Interviewee: Nicole Halton, co-founder Inspired EC
Organisation: Inspired EC
Date: 24 October 2018
Topics: Perception of FDC in the sector, changes to FDC, application of regulatory standards, risk analysis, natural play
Freya: Hi Nicole, thanks for joining me today. Let’s start with learning a little more about Inspired EC – what is it that makes you stand out in the FDC scheme space?
Nicole: Natashja (Tash) Treveton (co-founder) and I started working together in long day care (LDC) over 15 years ago. Local services were soon asking us to share with them what we were doing in our service, and learn a little more from us about our practice. Both Tash and myself are the sort of people who are always keen to try new things, new ways of doing, and that got people’s attention. When I became the Director of the service, with Tash as second in charge, we started doing things which weren’t really done back then – we were doing a lot of risky play, taking children out in to the bush – the type of things that not many services in our area were doing at the time.
As a result, we started getting lots of requests – come and tell us why you do that and how you do that, how do you get around the regulations – all those types of questions. That’s really where Inspired EC grew from.
Initially, it was a way for Tash and myself to fund our own professional development. The service we were in was not-for-profit, and we didn’t have a large budget available for professional development. We thought, ok, we will charge people a small fee and go and do a workshop at their centre, and then we can put those funds towards a conference or something we want to go to.
It came to the point where Inspired EC was bigger than we had ever expected, and over time we ended up taking the leap. Tash took a leap a little bit before me, I stayed and was directing and doing Inspired EC part time, and then there was scope for me to move over when I was coming back to work after having my second child.
In terms of the FDC side of things, that came about because we were doing a workshop at an FDC educator conference, and we were talking about outdoor play, risk, excursions, all those sorts of things, and the educators were looking at us like we were crazy. At the end of the presentation, they said “our scheme won’t let us do that”. We asked why, and the educators told us that the regulations said they weren’t able to do many things. We challenged that, saying that’s not the case, the regulations are so open – especially compared to when we started – they make it possible for educators to do risky things. So we said to them “well, it is possible” and they said “our scheme won’t let us”. We were advocating with them and for them, encouraging them to speak up, and fight back, and they said to us “why don’t you start a scheme?”
Our initial response was “no way, that’s just not happening” – we were so busy – but it just kept coming up, people were saying “if there was an Inspired EC scheme, we’d definitely join it!” We saw some of the educators, we heard them, and we said “yes, ok, let’s do it” and in 2014, we launched, and it’s just grown from there.
We came into the FDC scene at a time when there was a lot of private FDC schemes opening, and it was hard. We got lumped in with the private schemes, and yes, we are a private company, but we don’t view ourselves that way, we view ourselves as being profit-for-purpose.
We want to set ourselves apart. It’s been a tough journey, we have always been trying to show the way in which we are different – in the way that we operate, in our choices of educators. We did have some concerns locally, and further afield from other schemes, about educators leaving their scheme to join ours – it was difficult. Our thing isn’t about coming in and poaching educators – we actually work closely with other schemes and support them.
We aren’t the right scheme for every educator – there are some educators who wouldn’t be at home in our scheme, and would be a better fit elsewhere, and I think that’s probably been a big challenge for us – making sure people know what we’re about, and that we come at things from a different perspective.
Freya: So when you talk about the challenge of getting people to know what you’re about, and to understand your perspectives, your point of difference… what do you consider that to be? Is it about risky play? Excursions? Connection with nature?
Picture courtesy Fox Family Day Care
Nicole: It’s hard to pinpoint – some people come to us and say things like “I’m not taking the children bushwalking – am I still allowed to join?” and it’s important to know that’s not our whole thing. Obviously we’re big nature play advocates, and we’re big on community involvement. That connection to community is really important to us – that’s one of the most amazing things about working in FDC – being at home, being part of the community, but so many educators are in schemes where going out into community is just not possible.
We want people to embrace the magic of childhood – to see it as a special time for connectedness. Educators don’t need to be a “nature play” educator, or say “I’ll go on three excursions a week” – there’s no requirements around that.
It’s hard to put in to words, a lot of it is around a feeling.
Freya: Is it around embracing flexibility, and empowering educators to be the type of educators they’ve always instinctively been, but haven’t been able to because of schemes and regulations?
Nicole: Absolutely, and I think that’s one of the things our educators comment on. We have quite a large group, a private group, on Facebook where all of our educators can chat about what they’re doing, chat with a mentor – it’s a super busy group – and that’s one of the things they say a lot, especially the new ones that join us. After a few months they’ll often say something like “oh my gosh, I finally feel like I can be myself! I can do things in a way that works for me. I can be what I want to be, do the things I want with children”.
They don’t need to have a set style of program, or be ticking boxes all the time – it gives them an opportunity to be individual rather than just one of many. We have a very strong service-wide philosophy, but there’s still individuality within that.
Photo courtesy Fox Family Day Care
Freya: Great, thanks Nicole. I’ve seen you mention on social media about the changes in the FDC sector – can you talk me through what those changes are, in your opinion?
Nicole: There’s been so many – and some of them have been really positive, don’t get me wrong – but as I said, we came to this at a time where private schemes were popping up left right and centre, and we’ve had to watch as some of those high-profile things were happening, in relation to child swapping, and rorting the system in terms of financials. That was really disheartening for us to see, and to be at times lumped into the same category as a private provider.
We would go to community consultations, and there would be comments about private FDC schemes, things like “all private FDC are just in it for the money!” and we really took offense to that.
Not all private services are like that. Yes, there are some schemes that have opened and done inappropriate things, and who need that tough action (in response), and it’s good to see that tough action happening, but the follow on from that is that sometimes other FDC services are hit with arbitrary rules that don’t need to be there.
In the ACT for example, we’ve had a lot of battles around part-time educators. We’ve always had part-time educators, because we believe that flexibility is good for educators, and good for families. Being able to work flexibly, for our educators coming back from maternity leave for example, is a great way to ease back into the workforce.
It came about that we were required to have a certain number of mentors per educator – which is fine – but it wasn’t prorated, which I think was an oversight. We were wanting to do an equivalency – so if we had two educators working two and a half days each, for example, they would equate to one full-time educator.
Unfortunately under the ACT system, we weren’t able to do that, and so the hours that we had to provide, in terms of that support, were significantly higher than what was really needed. That then leads to a financial strain on the service.
Because we work in a few different states, we see that the interpretations and focuses of each different regulatory authority are changing, and what we see in one state isn’t consistent with what’s happening in another.
In one state, we had an educator who essentially had to close down because of fencing requirements on her rural property. The property had a river that ran through it. The regulatory authority in that state was insistent that the river be fenced ‘in line with regulations’ – yet she was allowed to go on an excursion, to the neighbouring property, to the exact same river – as long as she had a risk assessment in place – but she couldn’t have it in her own backyard.
We challenged that, and it came back that in fact the regulations which the authority were falling back on had been interpreted a certain way by the authorised officer. We challenged further, and it transpired that the lawyers for the regulatory authority in question had said that it wasn’t about the regulation, but the level of risk.
So those battles are there, and it makes it hard for people. We know of wonderful educators who have left, because it’s just become too hard. They can’t operate in the way they want to operate, and the way the families want them to operate…they have been the biggest challenges for us.
Photo courtesy Wild Flowers Nature Play Family Day Care
Freya: Spinning off from that Nicole, do you feel like there is inequity in what FDC looks like in a metropolitan area, compared with a more rural setting?
Nicole: Look, it’s a tough one. We don’t have a lot of metro educators. Primarily, our educators are regional, with a few rural settings. There probably is, in terms of what’s expected of them, but as I said, we experience that inequity between states, which is an obvious challenge.
We’ve often said to a regulatory authority “why is this acceptable in this state but not that one, when we’re supposed to be under national regulations?” – it comes down to interpretation, and to the legal advice they seek, and often the legal advice overrules the regulatory environment.
Freya: Obviously there have been some high-profile cases of fraud within FDC of late – what have been the consequences for FDC as a whole of those cases being in the media, from your perspective?
Nicole: I feel like we just don’t see the positives – which is why I was so happy to share the Family Day Care Association’s campaign recently – because you just don’t see it. I see it, in the various parenting groups online, different media things, it’s always really negative, and that can be frustrating. Yes, there are negative things that happen, but there’s also a lot of positive.
Having said that, there’s not a lot of positive about early childhood education and care in general. A lot of what they (the media) report about in LDC services is negative too – about LDC services putting up their prices for example – it’s mostly negative.
“The general narrative about early childhood education in Australia is not a positive one, and that needs to change.”
Obviously the fraud cases, particularly for those of us working in FDC, were disgusting. When we learnt about it, the general feeling was “How do you do that? Why would you do that? What on earth would possess you to think that’s ok?”
It’s frustrating – we’ve worked around Australia – we work with some really high-quality educators. We work with people who are in FDC for the right reasons, for children and for families, and I hate to think that there are people involved in the sector who are there for any reason other than that, but clearly the fraud cases show that there are.
There were people who said “it’s easy for me to do that (commit fraud) so that’s what I’ll do”. Thankfully, there have been changes around that, some of those are really positive. It’s harder to gain provider approval now, and I view that as a positive.
Overall, I don’t know that it’s affected us. We work with amazing educators, and those educators have a solid reputation within their community. So for us, we’ve got educators, families, children, and they are all speaking up and saying “well we think FDC is amazing”. When you have those people speaking up, that’s a real positive, but at times, it’s hard to come up against the negative, and combat it, change the general attitudes about early childhood.
Freya: Hopefully one of the things which has come from the recent Australian Labor Party announcement (in relation to universal access funding for three year olds) will be that it’s created buzz and talk about the value of early childhood, and that’s been featured quite prominently in mainstream media.
Nicole: That’s right – it’s sad that 90 per cent of what you hear on the news is negative, or the good news is tacked on at the end. For some reason, people like the negative stuff. It’s like when you hear people say that they won’t let their child walk to school because of the risk of kidnapping – it’s factually incorrect, children are no more at risk now than they ever were, it’s just that now we hear about it more.
I think what we hear in the media magnifies attitudes and beliefs, and I think we can do wonders with the more positive things we share. We need to share videos, put more positive out there. I know a lot of people aren’t even aware of what FDC is – they think it’s just someone who babysits and stays in their house. We need to get the word out about what FDC is, how it works, why it’s valuable, how it’s different from LDC – it’s a registered profession, and we need to highlight that. That’s what I love about the FDCA campaign, it’s getting that message out there.
For individual children, some of them just thrive in FDC in a way they never would or could in LDC, and I think it’s really important that families are made aware that FDC is an option.
Freya: Hopefully the FDCA campaign will support in that regard. Moving on: talk to me about the difference between NFP and profit-for-purpose – it’s a phrase I’d like to explore with you.
Nicole: It came up the other day, I was speaking with Tash, and she was saying “we aren’t an NFP, we do make a profit, but all of our profit goes straight back into the business – so what are we?” and we decided that we are a profit-for-purpose.
We run our business like an NFP, that’s our background. That was what we did and how we operated for a long time. Inspired EC makes a profit, because we are in here doing the hard yards, just like our team. Our office supports jobs, and any profit pays our staff, who are 100 per cent working parents and women, who work flexibly. We are very flexible and supportive of families. Even with our fees for FDC we keep them as low as possible, it’s about covering cost, but not about making money.
Recently, we had a fee increase, and that involved sitting down with the educators, and working through what the fees cover, and where exactly the increase was going. We like to be as transparent as possible, so there’s no slush fund, there’s no misappropriation of their money. Any profit that is made goes back into the service, into doing things for the children.
Sometimes we run (professional development) sessions at a loss, but we do that because we think it’s valuable. There’s choices we make and we think afterwards “that was really an NFP choice!” These aren’t the choices that make us the big bucks, because that’s not who we are as a business, that’s not what we are about. If it was, I think we’d have given up long ago.
“I don’t feel like profit and children go together very well.”
That’s not an anti-private service thing – there are plenty of private services that are beautiful, and are putting the money back into their services, and you see it in the quality of what they provide for their team. We are the same – we provide as many resources and opportunities for professional learning as possible, and I suppose that’s probably one of the beauties of Inspired EC as a whole, doing what it does – we can support our educators with high-quality professional development.
Sometimes if we have a keynote speaker from overseas, who will be in an accessible area for our educators, we will charge them a nominal fee which basically covers the venue, and they then have the benefit of that professional learning at a more affordable price.
The structure of what we do enables us to do that. Even when this business was just the two of us, we were making donations to charity and things like that. For us now, it starts right here, where we are – making sure our staff, our educators, our families, our children have wellbeing.
We don’t think of this as a business. To us it’s a family. We see this as a family, who has business obligations. We stand by that. We had an example recently when we were contacted by an approved provider, who wanted us to provide some consultancy services, and we started that conversation with “why are you starting this early childhood education and care service?”, and their response was “for the profit”. As soon as we heard that, we said “you know what, we aren’t the right fit for you”.
That’s not how we operate. We’ve talked about opening a LDC service at some point, and that would be exactly the same. Any money we made would go straight back into it.
Freya: You mentioned that at times the media fixate on the negatives of FDC – what are the positives? What are the stories which aren’t being told?
Nicole: How do you choose just one? It’s the little things. One of our educators who’s been with us since the beginning. She lives on an amazing rural property. Tash went out to look at her property, and she was blown away. It was just amazing.
Picture courtesy Wild Child Family Day Care
The educator was telling us she wasn’t allowed to take children any further than the backyard area, the children weren’t allowed to explore the property. We asked her why not, and she didn’t know, she just knew it wasn’t allowed.
Straight away, we knew that had to change. The property was just crying out to be explored.
Four years down the track, we have photos shared from this educator all the time of the children exploring this amazing space, and she still says “I can’t believe for all this time, we couldn’t explore this. I’ve seen so much change in the children”
I love to see things like that. We get photos from Mackay with children on the beach and in the rockpools – for those families, it’s a big part of their life.
Picture courtesy Wild Child Family Day Care
We’ve seen a lot of positives with the educators, they are confident and trusted and empowered by us, and that’s because they are knowledgeable. They know their stuff, they know how to assess risk, they know how to keep children safe, and manage their environments. I think that capability isn’t recognised enough by some schemes.
In terms of the positives for families, you just can’t underestimate the value of having someone who is caring for your child who becomes a part of your family. We see that with our families all the time. They will leave the service, and they still have this amazing connection.
You can’t get the same type of connection in LDC – and I’ve worked in LDC, and you can absolutely have connection and relationship, but there’s something completely different about being that sole person, with that small group of children, that creates a sense of family.
That’s the big benefit I think, as a parent. You know that your child is known, and is recognised for who they are. That educator gets to know everything about them, and that’s just magnified in FDC. That coming to know all the small things about a child, like how they go to sleep, and what soothes them, early childhood educators are great at that in general, but it’s much more powerful in FDC.
Freya: What do you hope the campaign by FDCA will achieve for FDC?
Nicole: More people being aware of FDC as an option, and the positives of it. I think it was a great group visual, and it makes you stop and think “aww,that’s really nice”. Having that visual connection, and seeing it, and that emotional element – I hope it makes families stop and think “yes, that, that’s what I want for my child. That’s where I want my child to be”.
The video wasn’t selling anything, or promising to teach your child to read before they turned five, it was about connection. It was about time being spent with children, and slowing down, and just being with them. I hope that families see that and realise that’s what early childhood education and care should be and that it can be such a positive.
With a lot of schemes closing down at the moment, with educators looking for new schemes, I hope that this positive messaging will keep educators in the profession, and the schemes who are high quality are recognised for that, and that families choose that for their children.
Freya: Wonderful, thanks so much for your time Nicole.
Nicole: You’re welcome
Picture courtesy Fox Family Day Care