Early Childhood Education Pn. 7939 00

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Ready to Learn

White Paper

Early Childhood Education



© Government of Ireland 1999

ISBN 0-7076-6411-X

Designed by Metaphor

Printed by Cahill Printers Ltd.
Published by The Stationery Office

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Molesworth Street
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or through any bookseller


1 Context 1

1.1 What is Early Childhood Education? 3

1.2 Policy Debate on Childcare in Ireland 5

1.3 Why a White Paper? 6

1.4 Why do we need Early Childhood Education? 7

1.5 Objective 14

1.6 Outline of the Remainder of the White Paper 16

2 Existing Provision 19

2.1 Department of Education and Science 21

2.2 Early Childhood Programmes of other Departments 22

2.3 Non-Governmental Provision 24

2.4 Analysis of the existing Irish System 26

2.5 Provision for Early Childhood Education in selected Countries 34

2.6 International Trends 36

3 Guiding Principles 39

3.1 The Core Objective 41

3.2 Strategy to achieve the Objective 42

3.3 Quality 43

3.4 Building on existing Provision and Structures 43

3.5 Maximising Effective Implementation 44

3.6 The Disadvantaged and Children with Special Needs 45

3.7 Criteria for Provision 46

4 Issues of Quality 51

4.1 Definition of Quality 53

4.2 The Quality in Education (QE) Mark 54

4.3 Curriculum and Methodology 56

4.4 Qualifications and Training 57

4.5 Inputs 60

4.6 Research, Development and Dissemination 61

5 Intervention Model 63

5.1 Overview 65

5.2 Framework for Provision 65

5.3 Building on Existing State-funded Provision 66

5.4 Direct State Intervention 67

5.5 Facilitating Quality Early Education for all 68

5.6 Children aged 3 to 4 cared for in the Home 69

5.7 Children under 3 Years 70

5.8 Research Strand 70

5.9 Implementation 70

6 Early Childhood Education in Primary Schools 73

6.1 Existing Provision 75

6.2 Curriculum and Methodology 75

6.3 Qualifications and Training 76

6.4 Inputs 77

7 Children with Special Needs 81

7.1 Definition of Children with Special Educational Needs 83

7.2 Rationale for Early Education for Children with Special Needs 83

7.3 Identification and Assessment 84

7.4 Existing Provision for Children aged 4 to 5 Years with

Special Needs in the School System 86

7.5 Provision for Children with Special Needs under 4 Years of Age 86

7.6 Developing a Policy for Early Special Needs Education 87

7.7 Elements of an Early Intervention for Children with Special Needs 90

7.8 Structural Matters 92

8 Children who are Disadvantaged 95

8.1 Definition 97

8.2 Importance of Early Childhood Education 97

8.3 Existing Provision for Disadvantaged Young Children 98

8.4 School-based Interventions 103

8.5 Provision for Children Aged 3-4 Outside Primary School 103

8.6 Children under 3 105

8.7 Traveller Children 105

8.8 Research and Development 106

8.9 Other Matters 106

9 The Central Role of Parents 109

9.1 Why should Parents be involved in Early Childhood Education? 111

9.2 Factors which inhibit Parental Involvement 113

9.3 Strategies to enhance Parental Involvement 115

10 Inspection and Evaluation 119

10.1 Inspection 121

10.2 Evaluation 124

11 Structures 127

11.1 Structural Challenges 129

11.2 Meeting the Challenge 130

11.3 Role of the Department of Education and Science 132

11.4 The Early Childhood Education Agency (ECEA) 133

11.5 Coordination Structures 134

11.6 Implementation – Next Steps 135


Micheál Martin, TD.

Minister for Education and Science.

High-quality early education can make the crucial difference in helping each child develop to their full potential. In recognition of this, the Government included a clear commitment to early childhood education in its Action Programme for the Millennium.

Quality of provision is the key theme of the White Paper. Its aim is to support the development and educational achievement of children through high quality early education, with a particular focus on the disadvantaged and children with special needs. The Paper sets out a comprehensive strategy to raise and maintain standards in respect of professional competencies, curriculum and methodologies. It seeks to support providers by providing expert advice and support, access to the very latest research findings on children’s development and education and a range of tangible supports such as curriculum guidelines and subsidies to promote availability of suitable premises in our primary schools for early childhood education providers.

The White Paper focuses on children from birth to six years. It covers the whole spectrum of educational needs: the development of very young children in the home, supports to parents concerning how best to help their children to learn, a wide range of supports for private providers and voluntary/community groups and a strategy to enhance the quality of infant education in primary schools. The vital role of parents in their children’s education is recognised and as a fundamental principle, the State seeks to support and strengthen, but not to supplant this role. Specific additional measures are also set out in respect of the priority target groups – the disadvantaged and children with special needs.

In formulating and developing the proposals, particular attention was paid to the need to build on existing provision. We must take what is best in existing provision, both nationally and internationally, and incorporate it into our early childhood education system. The Paper recognises the need for coordination of the range of State services for young children and acknowledges that consultation will be crucial to ensure a consistent and effective approach.

Implementation of the White Paper proposals will ensure that quality becomes and remains the hallmark of early childhood education. Its publication marks a milestone in this regard, but does not represent the end of the process. Change cannot occur overnight and a planned, phased approach will be necessary. Progress will be achieved in consultation and partnership with all the interests involved and channels for this partnership approach are outlined in the Paper.

An intensive process of consultation, the National Forum for Early Childhood Education, preceded the development of the White Paper. The White Paper has been informed by the Report on the Forum and by extensive research.

1 Context

This chapter outlines the context within which the White Paper has developed. It summarises the recent policy debate on childcare in Ireland and sets out the rationale for the White Paper and for an increased focus on early childhood education.

1.1 What is Early Childhood Education?

The purpose of this White Paper is to set out Government policy on all issues relating to early childhood education. An essential starting point is to define what we mean by early childhood education.

The Department of Education and Science’s mission is to support the development of a high quality education system which will enable individuals to develop to their full potential as persons and to participate fully as citizens in Ireland’s social and economic development. For many years, it was considered that education began when children went to school and ended when students left the formal education system at the end of first, second or third level. There is growing recognition of the importance of lifelong learning and the idea that children learn from the earliest moment and continue to learn throughout their lives. Education is concerned with all the phases of life, including the very early childhood phase.

At the same time we must recognise that young children have needs for both education and care and that the focus can never be exclusively on either. For very young children, their education and care needs are closely intertwined, and must be met in a unified way. The Report of the Partnership 2000 Expert Working Group on Childcare acknowledges this, noting that “Care and education are inextricably linked elements in a child’s holistic development – this reality must be reflected in the ethos and programme of all services”.1

Depending on children’s level of development and circumstances, their care and education needs may be met in a variety of ways. In certain situations, for example in the home, education and care may be provided simultaneously in a seamless fashion, with children exposed to a variety of stimuli and experiences which enhance their development, knowledge, disposition and readiness to learn. The nature of provision in external settings will vary across a spectrum from a primarily care-orientated environment to the provision of a substantial component of early childhood education. The location of a provider on this spectrum will depend on the aims, objectives and duration of provision, the developmental ages of the children involved and the skills and competences of staff. Early childhood services provided to children will usually encompass both care and education, with the distinction between the two increasingly blurred as the age of the children decreases. Formal education, generally speaking, tends to become more important for older children.

This White Paper sets out Government policy on education for young children. It is concerned chiefly with the formulation of policy concerning the education component of early education services, whatever the context, while, at the same time, taking account of the care needs of children when planning education provision in a variety of contexts. Kellaghan issues a warning on this issue:

“First of all, there is the need to consider the balance between educational and child-care provision. It is perhaps unfortunate that child-care and educational programmes have grown independently of each other and that communication between the two traditions has been rather limited since, viewed from the child’s point of view, it is unlikely that either type of programme on its own can fully meet the needs of the child”.2

Accordingly, while the focus of the White Paper is on education, one of its key underlying principles is that, for young children, education and care should not be separated, but should be provided in a complementary, seamless fashion.

It is also necessary to define the age group covered by early childhood education. Although the choice of any age group may, to an extent, be seen as arbitrary, some parameter must be set to clarify the scope of this Paper. In line with national and international thinking, therefore, early childhood will be taken to mean children who have not yet reached their sixth birthday.3 Six years of age also corresponds to the statutory school starting age as set out in the Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999.4

Although the age range is very short, international research and practice, as well as practical considerations, suggest that different policies apply to children under the age of 3 years and children aged between 3 and 6 years. Care is the dominant requirement of children aged less than 3 years and, because education is a more significant need of older children, the principal, though not exclusive, policy focus of this White Paper is on children aged between 3 and 6 years.

More than half of 4 year olds and almost all 5 year olds benefit from an established system of early childhood education provided by State-funded primary schools. The White Paper focuses (in particular in chapter 6) on improving the quality of such provision. However, most of the policy initiatives set out in the Paper will seek to develop and raise standards in the pre-school sector. In particular, proposals will focus on meeting the developmental needs of children aged 3 to 4. Neither sector, though, can be treated in isolation and the need for greater continuity and links between the pre-school and primary school systems will also be addressed.

Early childhood education is very important for children aged 3 and under, given the long-standing research evidence that the pace of development is most rapid in the earliest years. However, “The rationale for early childhood education for children under 2 years of age is not as well established as that for 3-, 4-, 5-year old children”.5 This difference in need will be reflected in the differing nature of the interventions and supports recommended for this age group.

1.2 Policy Debate on
Childcare in Ireland

The inextricable linkage between education and care means that early education comprises just one element in an all-encompassing policy concerning the rights and needs of young children. A number of factors has combined to bring early childhood issues to the top of the policy agenda in recent years. Firstly, there is growing recognition of the benefits for all children of good quality early childhood education. Secondly, the importance of early education in addressing socio-economic disadvantage and the contribution of education to economic development have given rise to demands for improved early education for all children. Thirdly, the needs of employers for increased numbers of workers, as well as increased participation in the labour force, have simultaneously increased the demand for and reduced the supply of childcare places.

As a result of the increased focus on early childhood issues, these issues have been considered in a number of fora. One of these was the National Forum for Early Childhood Education, a week-long consultation process which took place as part of the process of preparing this White Paper. The aim of the Forum was “to provide an opportunity for all interested groups to engage in a full exchange of views, to put forward their own particular concerns and objectives while, at the same time, taking account of the objectives and concerns of the other partners in the process”.6 Other recent studies dealing with early childhood issues were the report of the Commission on the Family7 and the Report of the Partnership 2000 Expert Working Group on Childcare. The development of early years policy will continue with the preparation of a coordinated national children’s strategy, work on which has recently commenced.

The conclusions and recommendations of the various groups which have reported to date are considered as part of chapter 2 and inform this White Paper as a whole. While the Paper will focus on the education aspects of care and education for children under 6 years, the policy proposals made herein will obviously feed into the wider debate and policy formulation process. In particular, in line with the discussion in the previous section about the importance of a seamless provision of education and care, the White Paper will set out the policy for early education in the context of an integrated provision of early education and care. It should, however, be emphasised that early education is important in its own right. As will be outlined later in this chapter, experience of early childhood education is a key factor in a child’s capacity to learn and in determining a child’s life chances. In this connection, it has been noted:

“Educational research stresses the importance of the preschool period for a child’s later educational development and performance. This suggests that a policy of extending pre-primary provision, especially to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, would probably yield high private and social returns. However, it would be important to emphasise education in any such strategy as opposed to one of simply extending childcare.”8

1.3 Why a White Paper?

The Government is committed to developing a national policy framework for early childhood education and the Programme for Government includes a specific commitment to “The provision of a specific budget for pre-school education”.9 The publication of this White Paper is a core part of the fulfillment of this commitment and seeks to point the way forward for the future development of the sector.

Addressing the National Forum on Early Childhood Education, the Minister noted that “it is clear that over the years the public policy response to this has been inadequate and piece-meal. Recognition of this was central to the Government’s decision to place this issue on the political agenda ”.10 This White Paper seeks to address this deficiency by developing an overarching policy framework which will build on existing provision and improve the extent and quality of service provided. The State’s role in this regard is central. “In most countries, the provision of services for children under 3 years and providing care and recreation for school-age children depend on local authorities and private organisations. What these high growth developments mostly have in common has been the role played by national governments or legislatures in stimulating growth”.11

Apart from primary school provision for infants, the Department of Education and Science’s involvement to date in early childhood education, has focussed principally on pilot interventions for children who are disadvantaged or have special needs. Traditionally the focus in education has been on schools and third level institutions, but in recent years there has been a shift in emphasis towards a continuum of lifelong learning. In line with this, the education system is being broadened at a number of levels; for example, adult learners are becoming more and more part of the mainstream education system. The need to broaden the coverage of the education system at the lower age range was highlighted in the Background Paper to the National Forum for Early Childhood Education. “The concentration of policy in developed countries, over a sequence of past generations has meant that the age range of 6 to 22 has been the predominant beneficiary of investment in educational provision. As society plans for a new future, this is no longer regarded as an adequate or satisfactory response in the light of greatly changed social conditions. As well as developments in adult and community education, much new thinking has been taking place regarding early childhood education which emphasises its vital importance, in contemporary circumstances, for individuals, families and society.”12 Accordingly, just as adult education policy will shortly be set out in its own White Paper, this White Paper sets out Government policy for early childhood education.

1.4 Why do we need
Early Childhood Education?

This section assesses the value of early education under a number of headings, including its importance in preparing children for the challenges of formal primary education, longer-term returns to the individual in terms of life chances and earning power, and the broader returns to society which flow from investment in the area. It also highlights the crucial importance of quality of provision.

Enhancing Disposition and Readiness to Learn

Most children enter the primary school system well-equipped to learn and to cope with the transition to formal education. However, for various reasons, some children have problems coping with this transition. Such children do not have a solid foundation upon which to accumulate knowledge and build their education. Without this initial foundation, the gap between these children and their peers tends to widen over time, and this creates the need for subsequent intervention to narrow the gap. This intervention is considerably less cost-effective than preventive action prior to entry to the education system: “Prevention of educational failure and social exclusion beginning at the pre-primary level is less expensive and more effective in solving a wide range of social problems than treatment after problems have emerged.”13

Studies have shown that quality early education can have a significant impact on children’s capacity to cope with the transition to formal schooling and to develop a capacity to learn. Large-scale studies undertaken in the UK in the early 1990s showed that, at the age of 7, children who had experienced pre-school out-performed their peers in several subject areas.14 Early intervention is also seen as vital in preventing reading difficulties later in life: “Research provides ample evidence of the importance of cultivating cognitive, language and social development during children’s early years… it (is) critical that the preschool opportunities … be designed in ways that fully support language and literacy development.”15 In Ireland, significant improvements in attainment at pre-school level were recorded in an evaluation of the Rutland Street project.

Some studies have indicated that the IQ gain in attainment as a result of pre-school education may be transitory.16 Research has shown that the attainment differential was lost following the transfer to primary school.17 The use of IQ in assessing the value of pre-school intervention, however, takes a narrow, short-term view of the educational benefits for individuals of early childhood education. Longer-term improvements in academic achievement have been identified in various studies, with improved retention rates, higher participation in third level and lower rates of grade repetition recorded among the benefits. Evaluation of intervention programmes in the USA showed that academic performance gains were recorded even after the initial IQ differentials had faded.18 Similar conclusions have been drawn in Ireland in respect of the Rutland Street project. Follow-up evaluation has shown that participants stayed longer at school and were more likely to take a public examination than were non-participants from the same area.19

An in-depth review of evaluations of nine American programmes concludes that “Although the IQ effects produced by early intervention programs may be short-lived, there appear to be strong and longer-lasting benefits in terms of educational outcomes, such as academic achievement and other aspects of school performance … the gains in academic success … may be stronger the longer the duration of the intervention program”.20 In the same vein, an OECD review of international research notes that findings suggest that participants “in a quality ECEC environment are likely to develop reasoning and problem-solving skills, to be more co-operative and considerate of others and to develop greater self-esteem. … Even if their IQ advantage fades, many of these positive effects may linger and contribute to children’s positive classroom learning behaviour, motivation and academic achievement. Early learning experiences may help ease children’s transitions through compulsory schooling, … leading to long-term school success”.21

Returns to the Individual on Investment

Limited long-term follow-up of pre-school participants means that findings are less extensive concerning the impact of early childhood education on employment patterns and earning power. However, there are indications that participants in quality pre-school education achieve long-term returns to the individual. Summarising the research literature, O’Flaherty notes that “the most rigorous studies … showed that high-quality early education leads to lasting cognitive and social benefits which persist throughout adolescence and adulthood”.22 These benefits include increased probability of completing high school and of securing employment.

Benefits to Parents

Parents may benefit from involvement in early childhood education through improved self-confidence and better relationships with their children. Opportunities for further education and career development will also arise.

Social Returns on Investment

Significant benefits to society as a whole accrue to investment in education. Research has shown that the rate of return is greatest at lower levels of education.23 Returns may be in the form of increased economic growth: better educated workers yield higher productivity. Indeed, in a review of the Irish situation, the ESRI identified an increase in human capital as one of “five medium-to-long term factors which have … made a considerable contribution to the growth of the economy”.24 Similarly, the OECD noted that “the growth in human capital … is estimated to have contributed 0.8 percentage points to the average growth rate of Ireland between 1960 and 1985.”25

Social returns may also accrue in the form of measurable savings on Government expenditure. In particular, improved levels of education lead to reductions in costs associated with unemployment, crime and healthcare. A recent analysis compared the costs of two American pre-school interventions with the savings accruing to the Government.26 Extensive long-term evaluations of both projects had been carried out, including assessments of their impact on juvenile crime rates, health care and welfare.27 Cost-savings analysis showed that both projects “generate more than enough savings to offset program costs”.

Analyses of costs versus savings to Government are more easily quantifiable and receive attention because the Government is likely to be the principal source of funding for the relevant interventions. However, “This is not to say that programs for which the measured costs are greater than the measured savings should not be funded by the government. Early childhood intervention programs might be deemed worthy even if their costs exceed their savings to government, because not all their benefits can be monetized. For this reason, measured net savings to the government should not be the sole basis for deciding whether to fund a program or which of a set of competing programs to fund. However, positive net savings should help allay the concerns of those troubled by the potential budgetary burden of government-funded early intervention”.28

When wider benefits are added in to the equation, the scales tip even more in favour of early intervention. However, the benefits may be widely dispersed and difficult to quantify. For example, a reduction in crime rates attributable to intervention will lead, not only to measurable benefits to the State (custodial, security and administrative savings), but also to less pain, suffering and property loss by victims. “It is difficult … to monetize the benefits of improved behaviour or IQ … (we cannot) determine … the monetary value to society of greater academic achievement … (or) for many of the health benefits realized”.29 Despite these difficulties, some estimates are possible. Cost-benefit analysis of the Perry programme is cited by (among others) the National Forum Report: “ …the ratio benefit-to-cost of a well-run early education programme can be high - in the case of the Perry Pre-school Programme, seven to one in terms of educational and social expenditure savings”.30

Benefits are greater for Disadvantaged Children

Research suggests that the benefits of early childhood education are more significant for children who are disadvantaged. This issue is discussed in detail in chapter 8.

Quality Matters

All early childhood services must encompass, not only childcare, but also education. Put simply, care without education cannot succeed in promoting educational objectives. Moreover, the benefits of early childhood education accrue only where interventions are of sufficiently high quality. Researchers consistently preface findings on the benefits of early childhood education with the word “quality”, and a forthcoming OECD review of the area notes that “studies uniformly show that the quality of provision has an important impact on children’s development” and that benefits are more marked and “less likely to ‘fade out’ in well-designed forms of early childhood education and care …”.31 Moreover, early childhood services, if they are to tackle the problems of educational disadvantage, must encompass quality.

Similarly, the evaluation of the Early Start pilot project (chapter 8) shows that investment of resources alone is not sufficient to guarantee effectiveness.32 Careful planning and review is required to ensure that quality is maintained and real benefits for participants achieved. The lessons learned from the Early Start pilot project have been used to inform the policy proposals in this White Paper.

Intervention Must Be Early

The early years of life are central to a child’s education and development. As far back as 1964, it was noted that 50% of mental development takes place in the first four years of a child’s life.33 In more recent years, significant advances have been made in the field of brain research and neurologists have determined that 90% of brain growth occurs by age 3.34 Research indicates that brain growth results from changes in cell size and maturity and from changes to the connections among brain cells. These changes are influenced by environmental factors and everyday experiences: “The more areas of the brain which are stimulated and used, the more neuronal pathways and networks are established.”35 The nature of the opportunities and the supports provided for a child’s development during the formative period, and the quality of the educational experiences over this period, can have a far-reaching effect on the individual’s long-term development and prospects: “Experiences may alter the behaviour of an adult, but experience literally forms the mind of a young child.”36

Most children will benefit from a supportive and caring home environment and, during these vital early years, will receive sufficient stimulation to foster rapid brain development. However, children are also vulnerable in the early years: the early years constitute a “period of both opportunity and vulnerability”.37 Without adequate levels of care and support, without exposure to everyday experiences and stimulation, a child’s development may be damaged: “once the critical period (0-4 years) is past, that system of the brain will never be able to develop or function normally”.38 This concern was echoed at the National Forum for Early Childhood Education. “In the early years of life, brain maturation and neurological development proceed at a pace never equalled at later stages of development … As childhood comes but once in a lifetime, these years are irreplaceable and the opportunities they provide for the satisfactory life of the child … should not be missed”.39

It is clear, therefore, that quality education intervention is vital at a very early age, particularly for those who are disadvantaged.

Supporting Parents

The most important educators and carers during a child’s first years are the parents. In recent years, however, parents have increasingly sought to have their children cared for and educated outside of the home from a very young age, and this must be acknowledged in Government policy for the area. The aim of this White Paper is to support parents’ role in their children’s care and education, not to supplant it. This is not merely a legalistic acknowledgement of the parents’ constitutional role as the primary educators of the child, but a recognition of the fact that parents are best placed to choose the most appropriate form of care and education for their children. At all times, the aim will be to maximise parental involvement and choice. Chapter 9 sets out the strategy to achieve this aim. This will include involving parents in the consultation and partnership process and in the development of curricula and standards. Support will be provided for the establishment of a representative organisation for parents of young children. Parents will also be included on the expert advisory group (chapter 11) and will be involved in the decision-making process where the State funds direct provision. In addition, proposals will seek to improve the quality of the information available, to provide curriculum and materials for use by parents, and to support educational and training courses.

International Experience

The importance of early childhood education is also illustrated by the growth in provision and support for the service internationally. Ireland’s entry into this arena has been comparatively late, as noted by an EU Commission Network: “In most countries, pre-primary schooling or kindergarten provision for children aged 3-6 years is already high, so that there is less scope (than in the case of the under 3’s) for development. An important exception was the introduction of pre-primary education in Ireland …”40 In Ireland’s case, of course, participation in formal education at age 4 and 5 compares very well with the rates in other member states.


There is compelling evidence of a wide range of benefits generated by quality early intervention programmes. The benefits which high-quality early education interventions offer to children constitute the principal argument in favour of developing the early childhood education area, and the policy as set out in this White Paper will reflect that position. These include initial gains in IQ, enhanced capacity to learn, longer-term improvements in educational performance, private returns to individuals (both financial and developmental), economic returns and wider benefits to society. Social and economic returns are additional important benefits which the State must, as guardian of the common good, take into account when considering the extent to which it should become involved in the process.

However, not all early childhood education programmes yield benefits and care is required in designing and implementing an early education intervention. The programme must be high quality, focus on achieving a balance between short-term and long-term gains and take account of the circumstances of children who are educationally disadvantaged, including children with a disability. An effective strategy must also support parents in the home as first educators of a child.

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