The principal objective of Government policy in regard to early childhood education is:
to support the development and educational achievement of children through high quality early education, with particular focus on the target groups of the disadvantaged and those with special needs.
The objective will be achieved through a strategy of facilitating and supporting the provision of quality early childhood education for all children. Early childhood education should be child-centred, providing children with the opportunity to enhance all aspects of their development. In this regard, the White Paper seeks to take account of Article 29 1(a) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Article notes that
“the education of the child shall be directed to: (a) The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.”
Early childhood education will engender in children a disposition and state of readiness to learn in both formal and non-formal settings. Disposition to learn involves the development of social skills and behaviour patterns in young children which will facilitate their integration into a formal education environment. This will ensure that children will adjust well to the transition to the primary school system and culture and have the capacity and motivation to master new skills and challenges.
Readiness to learn relates to the fact that children who begin schooling with solid foundations in place will be better placed to develop to their potential. It involves many aspects including health, social and emotional development, language use and general knowledge. It is an essential part of the idea that, though not necessarily involving formal education, the early years represent a vital part of a life-long involvement in learning.
It is important to stress that the two concepts – disposition to learn and readiness to learn – are not mutually exclusive and both are vital to the child.
The development of policy for early childhood education, as outlined in this White Paper, is underpinned by a number of guiding principles, of which the following are particularly important:
l Quality must underpin all aspects of early education provision.
l The State will seek to build on existing provision and to use the existing regulatory framework, where possible.
l Implementation will be undertaken on a gradual, phased basis, to allow all the participants in the system to prepare adequately for the challenges which lie ahead.
l Progress will be achieved through a process of consultation, dialogue and partnership with parents, providers and interested parties.
Consultation and partnership are fundamental to progress in the education field. In the early childhood education arena, the National Forum has already provided an opportunity for the various stakeholders and interested parties to exchange views and ideas and to make recommendations as to the development of future policy. This White Paper draws on the views expressed at the Forum and in the Secretariat’s report and on other reports and research in general. Consultation and partnership will continue to be central to the development of the area.
1.6 Outline of the Remainder of the White Paper
The intention in this White Paper is to build on existing provision and chapter 2 outlines the wide range of existing providers of early childhood education. The chapter evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the present system, assesses provision in other developed countries and isolates common trends in early childhood education policy.
The focus in chapter 3 is on the objective and broad principles of the White Paper.
Quality of provision is crucial to the attainment of lasting benefits. There is little point in using childcare as a mechanism for tackling disadvantage if it does not address the educational and developmental needs of children. Chapter 4 gives an overview of some of the factors which affect quality of provision and deals with the concept of the Quality in Education (QE) mark. The QE mark will be awarded to providers of early education who meet standards set by the Department concerning qualifications, training, learning objectives, methodologies and curriculum.
The proposed model for State involvement in the early childhood education sector is outlined in chapters 5 through 8. Chapter 5 sets out the proposed model for State intervention concerning children aged 4 and under who do not attend primary school. The main component of State involvement is facilitating provision and promoting quality. Provision will be encouraged by offering incentives to schools, and also through a broader Government strategy to increase supply of childcare places. Quality will be enhanced through a combination of support, encouragement and regulation. The State will also be involved in direct provision for a number of key target groups of children. Finally, the chapter will consider the early education needs of children and parents in the home.
An extensive State-funded system of primary education is already available for children aged 4 to 6 and it is not proposed to put in place a parallel pre-school system for this age-group. Instead, chapter 6 outlines proposals to improve the quality of provision for infants classes.
Chapter 7 outlines proposals concerning early childhood education for children with special needs.
Chapter 8 considers provision for children who are disadvantaged.
As already noted, parents play a central role in their children’s early education and proposals to support parental involvement in early childhood education are outlined in chapter 9.
Inspection will be vital to help providers to attain high standards and to ensure that these standards are maintained subsequently. Evaluation will be required at various levels to determine and improve the effectiveness of State intervention. The mechanisms proposed for inspection and evaluation are outlined in chapter 10.
Finally, chapter 11 considers the structures which will be required to facilitate effective coordination of provision, regulation and improvements in quality. The chapter considers how coordination may be facilitated at national level. It also sets out the roles and responsibilities of the Department of Education and Science and outlines a strategy to assign all executive functions in the early childhood education area to a new executive agency.
2 Existing Provision
This chapter first summarises the main early education services provided in Ireland and discusses some aspects of the current system. The intention in the first half of the chapter is to highlight and build on strengths and to identify weaknesses and gaps in the Irish system with a view to ensuring that these are addressed in the new framework.
The chapter goes on to consider developments in four countries – France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom and identifies some common international trends.
2.1 Department of Education and Science
The main channel of State support for early childhood education is found in the national school system. Although a child is not required by law to attend school until s/he has reached her/his sixth birthday, virtually all 5 year olds and more than half (52%) of 4 year olds attend primary schools.1 The participation rate among 4 year old girls is four to five percentage points greater than that for boys.2
Provision in national schools for children aged 4 and 5 is an integral part of the regular school system. The Primary Education Review Body acknowledged this, noting that “since children are entitled to enter school in Ireland from the age of four years, much of what is considered pre-schooling in other countries is already incorporated in the primary school system.”3 Children in infants classes follow a prescribed curriculum (a revised curriculum is being introduced on a phased basis into schools starting in September 1999) and are taught by fully-trained national school teachers.
State provision for younger children is significantly less developed. Just over one per cent of 3 year olds were classified as in full-time education on 1 January 1998, and the majority (64%) of these were enrolled in private (non-State-funded) primary schools, with the rest split between ordinary classes and special schools or classes.4 The Department also operates a range of other programmes which a have particular focus on early education: the Early Start Pre-school pilot programme, pre-school provision for travellers and for children with disabilities, and the Breaking the Cycle pilot project. However, its first involvement in the pre-school area – the Rutland Street Project – commenced 30 years ago. These programmes are outlined in chapters 7 and 8 which deal with special needs and disadvantage, respectively.
2.2 Early Childhood Programmes
of other Departments
This section outlines briefly the roles of some of the other Government Departments - Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Social, Community and Family Affairs - in the early childhood area.
Department of Health and Children
Traditionally, the Department’s focus was on children considered to be at risk. In this connection, it provides grants, via the Health Boards, to assist with the costs of nurseries and other day care services (many run by voluntary groups) catering for such children. These services generally involve some early education provision. The Department’s role was broadened by the Child Care Act, 1991. The Act places a statutory duty on Health Boards to secure the welfare of children and to promote the development of children attending pre-school services.5
In December 1996 the Child Care (Pre-school Services) Regulations were introduced under section 50 of the Act. These regulations require that organisations or persons providing a pre-school service to four or more children (there are some exceptions) must notify the local Health Board of their activities. The regulations set down minimum standards (explained in detail in accompanying guidelines) – in relation to adequate space and staffing, record keeping, first aid and safety procedures, equipment and materials and insurance – which providers must meet. Officials from the Health Boards carry out inspections to ensure compliance with these standards.
Under the existing system, there are no minimum standards prescribed concerning the educational component of services or the training and qualifications of staff. The Report of the Partnership 2000 Expert Working Group on Childcare recommends that the childcare sector should aim to achieve the European Commission Network on Childcare target of a “minimum of 60% of staff working directly with children in collective services should have … training of at least three years … which incorporates the theory and practice of pedagogy …”.6 The report also sets out recommended roles for various staff in the childcare sector. The role suggested for childcare worker includes reference to “activities … to provide for children’s physical, emotional, social and cognitive development”.7
There is growing support for an increased focus on the developmental and educational aspects of childcare. This reflects greater awareness generally of the value and benefits of early childhood education and increasing demands from parents concerning the developmental needs of children. However, some concern has been expressed regarding the possible impact on the supply of places of improved standards and quality, and of greater emphasis on development and early education. Concerns have also focussed on the logistics of an inspection process.
While recognising that supply and logistics are important concerns, we take the view, supported by international research, that quality of provision is critical. However, quality enhancement need not mean any reduction in the supply of childcare: quality may be enhanced while quantity is maintained. This issue is addressed later in this White Paper, particularly in chapter 10, where an approach to a proposed inspection process is outlined.
Finally, under this heading, it should be noted that the Department of Health and Children is responsible for coordinating the preparation by an inter-departmental committee of a National Children’s Strategy.
Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform
The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform plays a central role in childcare policy, having chaired the expert working group drafting the Partnership 2000 Childcare Report.
The Department also operates the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme. The programme, delivered on behalf of the Department by ADM Limited,8 aims to facilitate participation by socially excluded parents in training, education and employment, by supporting the development of community childcare facilities in areas of disadvantage. Assistance is provided for capital costs and, in 1998, support was introduced towards recurrent costs of 25 flagship projects which provide childcare in disadvantaged areas.
The Department supports national “umbrella” bodies involved in the childcare area to expand their membership base, encourage childminders to become involved in more structured networks, and promote training and standards among members.
Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs
The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs operates a number of grant schemes for community and voluntary organisations and for women’s groups. The Community Development Programme seeks to support communities in tackling local problems and to foster partnership between parents, providers and the various other interests in the areas concerned. Funding is also allocated by the Department to Family Resource Centres. These centres provide childcare facilities to enable parents to attend adult education and support programmes.
Various other Government Departments are involved in the early childhood area. For example, the Department of Agriculture and Food provides funding for the development of rural childcare. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment supports a number of early childhood programmes, including FÁS training and support for initiatives of the County Enterprise Boards. Pre-schooling in Irish has been traditionally funded by the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Bord na Gaeilge/Údarás na Gaeltachta). The report of the Partnership 2000 Expert Working Group on Childcare lists eleven Departments as involved in the childcare area.
2.3 Non-Governmental Provision
A wide variety of pre-school services is provided by or in association with voluntary and community groups, private business and individuals. The State’s role in existing non-Government provision is confined to: an element of funding (voluntary/community groups), inspection concerning basic standards (under the Child Care Act), and provision of training courses in institutions of further and higher education.
The Constitution recognises that the primary and natural educator of the child is the family. Much of a child’s development and education in the earliest years takes place through normal experiences in the home, although many parents now choose to have their children cared for, from a very early age, outside of the home. Other parents choose to provide their children’s pre-school care inside the family home. Parents have the benefit of unique expertise derived from their intimate knowledge of the child’s development and their awareness of particular needs, interests and circumstances. The nature and extent of education provided in these cases will vary according to individual circumstances, backgrounds and subjective priorities. Proposals to involve and support parents are outlined in chapter 9.
Private Households (other than the family home)
Integrated care and education is provided in many cases by childminders, some of whom are relatives or friends of the child’s parents and others of whom are employed by the parents for the purpose. As in the case of parental care in the home, the nature of care and education provided by childminders will depend on individual circumstances and there is no standardised provision. Some efforts are made to encourage minders to benefit from local networks through the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform’s programme of support for national organisations involved in the early childhood area.
Nursery Schools, Crèches and Playgroups
The objectives of these organisations range across a spectrum from educational services to provision of substitute childcare in loco parentis. Many involve a formal schooling component. Parents generally fund the costs privately, although some funding may be provided by the State through one of the programmes outlined in the previous section, or, in a small number of cases, a crèche may be provided and at least part-funded by an employer.
Playgroups tend to emphasise educational aspects and may be classified into three broad types: private playgroups, community playgroups and naoínraí. Private playgroups are most likely to be organised in private households and parents pay the full costs; community playgroups tend to be run by committees and the costs to parents are lower. In some cases, costs are subsidised by a Health Board, voluntary organisation, FÁS (assignment of Community Employment Scheme trainees) or the State, via Area Development Management. Naoínraí involve pre-school education through the medium of Irish. Support for playgroups is provided by national “umbrella” organisations.
All providers in this category are obliged, under the terms of the Child Care (Pre-school Services) Regulations, 1996 to notify their local Health Board of their activities, and they are subject to the requirements of the regulations concerning staffing and other matters. As noted previously, the regulations do not set out educational standards and, accordingly, standards concerning qualifications, training, content and methodology of provision will vary widely across and within each category.
Relative Significance of Various Providers
A survey carried out for the Commission on the Family reveals substantial variation by age group in the prevalence of the various early childhood arrangements.9 Nearly two thirds of children aged between 2 and 3 are cared for in the home by a parent or relative. The most popular arrangement for 4 year olds is school-based instruction (49%) with nurseries/crèches accounting for one in four cases. Figure 2.1 shows the scale of the change between the two age groups.10
Fig. 2.1 Comparison of Care Arrangements (1998)
2.4 Analysis of the existing Irish System
There are many positive aspects to the provision of early childhood services in Ireland: childcare workers show high levels of commitment and dedication to the children in their charge, many parents become deeply involved in and support their children’s education at this early age and many of the physical facilities, curricula and methodologies employed can be of a very high quality. This said, the provision of early childhood education in Ireland has been described as “limited and patchy”11 while, in a comparison of services in the EU, Ireland is identified as a member state where publicly-funded services for young children are least developed.12
This section considers the principal weaknesses and criticisms of existing early education in Ireland, with a view to informing the nature of the policy proposals which will be made later in the White Paper.
Gaps in Provision
Despite the wide range of early education options available, it is likely that there are some gaps in provision in the existing system. The quality (and cost) of provision is even more likely to vary. The factors which contribute to this variation include:
l geography - remote areas
l demographics - low population density of young children in a number of areas
l affordability – inability to meet increasing costs of private provision due to rising demand and prices or as a result of economic disadvantage
l coordination problems (see below).
The lack of hard data makes it difficult to be more precise about the gaps in provision. However, ADM are in the process of developing a national database of childcare provision. The database, which is scheduled for completion by the end of 1999, will provide details of the extent and nature of provision by location. The availability of these data will improve knowledge of the extent of existing provision and of unmet demand, so that policy formulation in the early childhood area will be more informed and the policy responses more accurate and targeted.
Lack of Coordination
Section 2.2 outlined the involvement of a number of Government Departments in the early childhood area and noted that as many as eleven Departments are involved in the childcare area. The large number of State Departments involved, and the close linkages and overlaps between education and childcare, would suggest that coordination of effort between the various Departments and agencies should be a key element of provision.
However, lack of coordination has been identified by the National Forum for Early Childhood Education, among others, as a significant problem inhibiting the development of adequate systems of early education and childcare. The Forum report pointed out that “the fragmentation and lack of co-ordination of early childhood services are a cause of great frustration to the personnel involved and contribute to much inefficiency and wastage of time and effort”.13 The report notes that Government Departments have “tended to work largely in isolation from each other” and that coordination problems occur within Departments as well as between them. The Secretariat took the view that poor coordination was contributing to various problems, including gaps in provision, lack of awareness concerning services, and dissemination of good practice.
Hayes has noted the importance of coordination of provision: “Coordination is essential to ensure equality of access to early education services … to ensure standards and regulation.” She states that, while “there is no shortage of government commitment and initiative” concerning early childhood education, the involvement of multiple Departments suggests a “worrying lack of coordination which must have serious implications for the quality and effectiveness of such services for young children in Ireland.”14
Deficiencies in Provision for Infants in the
Primary School System
Criticisms of the provision for infants in the existing primary school system focus principally on class size, resourcing and methodology. “Research on the quality of early years provision has identified structural factors such as the quality of human resources, organisation of the physical environment, group size and ratios, as being significant.”15
Although the pupil teacher ratio has improved steadily in recent years, the existing ratio in primary schools remains high compared to the ratios applicable in pre-school settings.16 The fall in the ratio is reflected in a substantial reduction in class sizes and in the proportion of pupils in very large classes.17 There is some evidence that primary schools achieve better class sizes for infants and sixth class. However, the differences are small and 64% of junior infants and 70% of senior infants were in classes of at least 25 pupils in 1997/98.18 Ratios are significantly lower for schools which benefit from the Breaking the Cycle pilot programme and for participants in Early Start. Assessing the relative class sizes in pre-schools and primary schools, Hayes and O’Flaherty note that “Not only is the ratio in the preschool settings more appropriate to the needs of (3 to 4-year-olds) but the presence of a second adult (not a feature of the school settings) has a positive impact on the type of interactions that can occur between adults and children”.19
In terms of class sizes in schools, an extensive synthesis of research undertaken by the U.S. Department of Education suggests that class size matters, but only in defined cases. The analyses show that “A consensus of research indicates that class size reduction in the early grades leads to higher student achievement. … The significant effects … on … achievement appear when class size is reduced to a point somewhere between 15 and 20 students …” 20 They conclude that the key benefit of class size reductions is for disadvantaged young students.
An extensive analysis undertaken at the University of Nottingham also concludes that “The vast body of research … clearly shows that it is incorrect to say that class size does not matter.”21 The authors argue that the principal aim of reductions should be to improve the quality of teaching and learning and that these should be accompanied by consideration of teaching methods and forms of classroom organisation. In particular, the report finds that “the advantages derived from being taught in small classes in the early years of schooling are likely to persist into later years and enhance subsequent learning.” They also confirm the particular benefits of small classes for children from low income families.
Reduced numbers of pupils per class means that teachers have more space to work with and greater flexibility in terms of instruction methods. However, as noted by an extensive US review, class size reductions may facilitate but do not guarantee improvement in the quality of education provided. “In summary, although both the quantity and quality of teacher-student interactions are necessarily limited by large class size … reduction efforts must be accompanied by professional development and planning that supports the desired changes in curriculum, instruction and assessment.”22 Professional development of teachers is discussed in the next sub-section.
Research has also shown that schools and pre-schools differ in the type and availability of equipment. Although schools have been found to be better equipped for pre-academic work and with audio-visual equipment, pre-schools tend to have a wider range of materials generally.23 In recognition of these difficulties, the Government introduced, in September 1999, a special grant allocation to assist the purchase of equipment and materials for infants classes in primary schools. The additional payments are based on schools’ infant enrolments and will range up to a maximum of £1,500.
Training and Qualifications
There are three aspects to this issue: the provision of training for pre-school staff in multiple agencies, the skills and competencies required by early childhood education professionals and the content and duration of the training programme for teachers of infants in primary schools. Training is of crucial importance, since the knowledge and skills of the teacher, which include a deep understanding of the subject matter to be taught and of learning and pedagogical theories, critically influence the quality of education provided. Moreover, the skills required for teaching infants are not the same as general teaching skills in all respects.
The wide range of provision of pre-school services and the absence of regulation on training or qualifications has resulted in the development of “a bewildering diversity of training courses and qualifications”.24 Providers include the university sector, institutes of technology, PLC colleges, Montessori colleges and national representative organisations. Such a wide variety of provision facilitates greater choice and leads to competition, which in turn should ensure improvements in course quality. However, the ad hoc development of the area risks duplication of effort and inconsistency in standards. The Report on the National Forum for Early Childhood Education concludes that: “existing provision is of a fragmented character, with little dialogue or worthwhile exchanges between the different providers. Many of the involved organisations evinced the view … that it was time to bridge any divisions … and to adopt a sharing, co-operative approach.”25 In addition, the absence of regulation of qualifications, together with a low level of awareness by parents concerning the qualifications of staff employed by early education providers, limits the scope for informed decision-making on the part of parents.
Some work has been done in this area. Dublin Institute of Technology, in collaboration with the New Opportunities for Women programme, have developed a core standard in collaboration with stakeholders in early childhood education. This includes developing equivalences of the variety of training approaches with a view to highlighting strengths and gaps in training programmes.
The methodologies and skills required of an early childhood education specialist differ from those required in formal primary education. Effective training of such professionals should develop skills and expertise across a range of areas including the development of very young children, learning through play and traditional education theory. Training should be multi-disciplinary and draw upon the fields of education, care and welfare. Proposals concerning the training and qualifications of early childhood education specialists are considered in chapter 4.
Training for primary school teachers was highlighted by the Forum report, which stated that it was “generally accepted that there was a need for reform and renewal … Existing provision had not kept pace with the changed context of early childhood education.” Teaching is a demanding role. “Today’s teachers must understand a great deal about how children develop and learn, what they know, and what they can do. Teachers must know and be able to apply a variety of teaching techniques to meet the individual needs of students.”26 Teachers of infants have to cope with the additional demands of very young children who, in many cases, have difficulty coming to terms with the transition from home life to school. They must also develop an understanding of how young children learn and of the importance of play in this regard.
Several options available to enhance the quality of teaching for infants in primary school are examined in chapter 6. These include:
l increasing the emphasis in teacher training courses on infant education
l the introduction of an element of specialisation
l flexibility in terms of the qualifications which permit a person to teach infants classes.
As noted earlier, parents have an important role to play in their children’s education, particularly during the early childhood years, whether in the home or in an out of home setting. The Forum report states that “the involvement of parents in early childhood education … is a matter of central importance to the well-being of society”.27 However, in the existing system, the opportunities for parental involvement in provision outside the home are limited by the environment in which education is provided (space, access) and by the impact of other commitments (such as family commitments and work commitments). Parents’ capacity to become actively involved in their children’s education, in pre-school or in the home, may be hampered by a lack of skills (such as literacy or numeracy skills) or a lack of awareness concerning the early childhood curriculum and how they may play a useful role.
Retention of Trained Staff
The current rapid growth in the economy means that more career alternatives and openings are available and skills shortages have emerged in a number of areas. Relatively low pay and status and the absence of a career structure has led to difficulties in retaining qualified and experienced staff within the pre-school sector in other countries. Staff turnover has repercussions both for the extent of training required and, more importantly, for the quality of education and care provided to a vulnerable group of individuals. “Low status of personnel inevitably means high turnover which cannot work for the benefit of young children who rely more than ever before on nurseries and early education for stable relationships and the structuring of personality and values.”28 Hard data are lacking in this area though, and it is difficult to gauge the true extent of the problem. It is noteworthy that the Department’s Early Start pilot programme does not seem to encounter significant staff turnover problems. Despite an initial high departure rate (five care assistants left in 1994) the rate of attrition has since been very low - just five assistants (out of a total cohort of 56) have departed in the last four years.
Lack of Guidelines on Provision
A very extensive revised curriculum is being introduced into primary schools from September 1999. The curriculum builds on its predecessor and was developed through a wide process of consultation between the partners in education. In particular, it draws heavily on the experiences of teachers. The curriculum will focus, inter alia, on content and methodologies for infants.
Under existing arrangements, the form and content of early education provision outside of the primary school system is a matter for the various providers. In some cases, a standardised curriculum and recommendations concerning teaching practice and methodology may be issued by an umbrella organisation to its members. However, no such recommended standards are made available to other providers and the quality of pre-school education varies as a result. The absence of recommended codes of practice concerning methodology and curriculum means that parents may not be in a position to make an informed judgement on the merits of specific providers. It may also limit the capacity of some individuals or groups to enhance the service which they provide. Parents educating their children in the home could benefit greatly from access to recommended approaches and curriculum.
In reviewing existing provision for early childhood, and, in particular, in highlighting the deficiencies in the present system, it is important to emphasise the high quality and standards of service provided by many groups and individuals and the importance of maintaining diversity of provision and choice. However, the State has a duty to promote best practice generally in provision; high standards must be promoted throughout the system, for the benefit of all children and their parents. In particular, where State support is provided, compliance with minimum standards must be ensured.
In this context, the purpose of this section has been to draw on experience to date in Ireland with a view to ensuring that deficiencies are addressed and gaps filled. The following, therefore, is a brief summary of issues which must be attended to in devising a model for future early childhood education provision in Ireland.
The lack of effective coordination between the Government Departments involved in the provision of early childhood services must be addressed in whatever model is adopted. As far as provision for infants in national schools is concerned, there must be some modification of the provision to ensure that the special needs of very young children are accommodated. Although it is unlikely that there will be a standardisation of training and qualifications for those involved in early childhood education, a method must be devised whereby the quality of training/qualifications is maintained and enhanced, where possible. Similarly, consideration must be given to how qualified and experienced staff may be retained in the pre-school sector and may proceed through the sector on the basis of a structured career path. Finally, as far as parents are concerned, any model of provision devised must ensure their involvement in the system to the optimum degree.