The development of policy proposals has been informed by an examination of the systems which operate in a number of other countries. Particular attention was paid to four countries: France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. There were selected in order to obtain a broad cross-section of the spectrum of provision:
l France has a long established State-run system
l New Zealand has a similar geographical (peripheral location, beside a larger neighbour) and economic context (strong emphasis on agriculture) to Ireland
l Norway is widely seen as having an extensive, comprehensive and progressive system
l The UK has a similarly structured education system, which has undergone significant change in recent years.
An extensive system of early childhood education in France has been provided by the State in nursery schools since 1870. The majority of nursery schools are publicly funded. In urban areas, they are usually separate from primary schools, although there are some fully-integrated schools. In some rural areas, where there may not be a sufficient concentration of pupils at younger ages, infant sections may be integrated into primary school classes. Alternatively, several communes/locales may join together in order to recruit sufficient numbers of children to open a nursery class. This may involve children being brought together to a single location and the provision of transport.
Teachers may be helped by nursery assistants, who are recruited by the local authorities and whose functions vary depending on their skills and teachers’ requirements. The average number of pupils per class was 27.1 in the public sector and 26.7 in the private sector in 1995.
Responsibility for early childhood education is divided according to function: policy development and implementation (Ministry of Education), support to providers (Early Childhood Development Unit), children with special needs (Specialist Education Service), national qualification framework (Qualifications Authority) and quality assurance and evaluation (the Education Review Office).
A wide range of early childhood education services is available, with strong emphasis on active involvement of and support for parents. Play centres and community playgroups are mainly organised by parents. Kindergartens, which provide for children aged 3, have parents’ committees linked to regional and national associations. Support is provided for parents of very young children (birth to 3) through regular home visits, designed to assist parents to help their children to develop the language, intellectual and social skills on which to build learning. Family service centres offer additional early childhood services and self-help programmes to help educationally disadvantaged parents to prepare their children for school. Support is also provided, through a distance education service, to parents of young children who, for various reasons (such as remote location) are unable to attend provision. Trained and registered teachers work closely with parents to plan home-based early childhood education and materials are provided on loan for use with children.
Special provision is also available for minorities. Te Kohanga Reo are community-based early childhood education programmes delivered through the medium of the Maori language while programmes are also offered based on the values and languages of the Pacific Islands cultures.
Early childhood education and care is provided by three types of day care institutions. These are required to be educationally oriented and to operate within a framework plan prescribed by the State.
Ordinary day care institutions open at least 41 hours per week and children may attend full time or part time. There are no formal links between day care institutions and primary schools, but there are plans to provide a gentle transition from day care to primary schools. Family day-homes provide care and education in private homes, for small groups of mainly younger children. Groups of homes are supervised by pre-school teachers. Open care institutions are drop-in centres where parents can bring their children whenever they choose within the opening hours of the institution and meet with other parents and pre-school teachers.
Parental involvement is actively encouraged and each day care institution must have a parents’ council comprising all parents and guardians of children attending the day care institution. Parents are also entitled to be members of the coordinating committee, which establishes an annual plan for the educational activity of the institution.
The Department for Education and Employment is responsible for early childhood education. The education of children between the ages of 2 and 5 is provided for under the Education Act, 1996. A wide variety of services is available in different settings, including nursery schools, nursery centres for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, day nurseries, playgroups and private pre-schools.
In general, provision of pre-school education emphasises early literacy, numeracy and the development of personal, social and other skills. Specific “Early Learning Goals” were published in October 1999 by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. By the age of 6, children should have learnt to count to ten, know the alphabet, have gained confidence in their ability to learn and have learned to concentrate on their own play.
A national framework to rationalise hundreds of qualifications available in early childhood education and care is also being developed.
Notwithstanding the variety of delivery methods employed internationally, there are some common themes. These include the move from targeted provision to universal provision, from separate education and care to seamless provision, a trend towards allocating responsibility to a single Department for the education element and from centralised administration to local community-based provision.
The Scope of Provision
A variety of pre-school services is available in each of the countries reviewed. This may be simply the consequence of provision developing as early childhood needs evolved. It may also be indicative of the importance each country places on early childhood education or a recognition of the importance of providing for parental choice in this key area. In several EU member states (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Germany and Spain) a national commitment or statutory entitlement to a place in a publicly-funded service was introduced or extended for certain age groups, although this commitment was not always delivered in full. The model outlined in chapter 5, by building on the infrastructure already in place, seeks to emulate this principle of high-quality provision for all children.
Seamless provision for under 6s
Countries with developed childcare services have tended towards an evolving relationship between schools and services providing care and recreation for school-aged children. In France, nursery schools have long been integrated into the formal education system, providing children from the age of 2 with the opportunity to acclimatise to the daily routine of education and care. In Norway, day care institutions plan to provide a transition from childcare to formal schooling. In line with this international trend, the proposed model will give priority to the integration of education and care, both by building a high-quality educational element into State-funded childcare and by providing priority in funding to providers to develop strong links with local schools.
A coherent and integrated system, offering flexible and multi-functional services, is considered more able to adopt a holistic approach to children and families, recognising the breadth and inter-connectedness of their needs for, for example, care, education, health, socialisation, support and recreation.
Effective coordination is crucial to the success of a multi-disciplinary approach and the choice of supporting structure in this regard is of key importance. Two approaches to the structures issue are followed internationally: allocating responsibility to a single Department/agency or retention of responsibility within a number of separate Departments accompanied by high-level coordination.
With the exception of New Zealand, the countries reviewed have opted for a single State Department responsible for early childhood education. In New Zealand, policy development remains in the Department of Education, while implementation and support is the responsibility of the Early Childhood Development Unit. It is understood that the Netherlands is moving away from a dual Department system towards allocating responsibility for early childhood to the Ministry of Education. The development of appropriate structures in Ireland is considered in chapter 11.
Local Community Based Provision
Across each of the countries reviewed, local community involvement is encouraged. This involvement takes many guises, with, in many countries, provision being based in local communities, which come together to pool their resources in providing services. Increasing parental involvement is widely viewed as a vital part of drawing the local community into the delivery of early childhood education and is an approach that is adopted in each of the featured countries. The model proposed in chapter 5 emphasises local community involvement in the delivery of early childhood education while proposals to involve parents in all parts of the process are set out in chapter 9.
3 Guiding Principles
This chapter considers in more depth the objective of the White Paper and briefly outlines the strategy designed to achieve it. The strategy is underpinned by a number of guiding principles, set out in chapter 1, which are also examined in detail throughout this chapter; these principles are:
l Quality will 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.
The core objective of the White Paper, as stated in chapter 1, 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 primary focus of the White Paper is on enhancing child development and educational achievement. Chapter 1 showed how quality pre-school provision can have beneficial effects on children’s educational performance. The nature and duration of the effects may vary. Some programmes yield short-term gains in IQ and attainment, which dissipate in the medium to long term.1 Although the gains made are important in terms of easing the transition from home to school and in moderating the influence of educational disadvantage,2 they are, essentially, transitory in respect of IQ. Other programmes record long-term benefits, in terms of higher participation rates beyond compulsory schooling age and in third-level education, lower incidence of grade repetition, and higher probability of taking a public examination.3
This White Paper seeks to ensure lasting benefits in terms of educational achievement for all children. In this context, it focuses on supporting and developing early childhood education which prepares children for the transition to school and creates in them a disposition and state of readiness to learn. These concepts are discussed in more detail in the opening chapter (section 1.5).
Education seeks to enable individuals to develop to their full potential in a wide variety of areas. Accordingly, the proposed programme of early childhood education will involve curricula, methodologies and settings designed to maximise children’s potential, not only in purely educational areas, but also in areas such as socialisation and personal development. Children’s related needs for care and support will be addressed in an integrated way, in line with the discussion in chapter 1.
The policy outlined in this White Paper is centred on the needs and rights of the child. Proposals will seek to enhance the education and development of children in their early years and to secure lasting benefits for these children in later life. Although early education also yields benefits for participants’ families, the economy and society, as set out in chapter 1, these benefits are additional, and supplementary to the benefits to children. They are, in some sense, a spin-off, rather than the driving force behind the provision of quality early childhood education. “Social and economic arguments in favour of early education … should not blind us to its inherent educational value. A substantial body of literature now points to the effectiveness of early childhood education for the future development of the child … The primacy of the discipline of early childhood education over and above its social and economic benefits was a concept that was frequently emphasised in many of the submissions to the Forum”.4
3.2 Strategy to achieve the Objective
Given the diverse nature of the needs for early childhood education, coupled with the variety of measures available to meet these needs, it is clear that the policy adopted must be comprehensive and multi-faceted. The implementation strategy proposed involves facilitating and supporting the provision of quality early childhood education for all children. Providers of early childhood services will be facilitated and supported to enhance the quality and increase the quantity of their education provision. Supports will be both financial and technical: the former might include, for example, financial assistance to schools and other institutions to assist them to enhance their early education facilities; the latter could include guidelines on curriculum and methodologies and support for pre-service and in-service professional development. Where funding for early childhood services is provided for developmental places by the State, providers will be required to provide early childhood education to defined standards.
The main model of intervention is outlined in chapter 5, while later chapters deal separately with other key elements of the strategy. Primary school education for infants is covered in chapter 6. A range of proposals concerning children with special educational needs is envisaged and set out in detail in chapter 7. While many educationally disadvantaged children will participate in existing programmes operated by other Government Departments, the Department of Education and Science will continue to make direct provision for disadvantaged children. Proposals in this regard are outlined in chapter 8.
The quality of the early childhood education provided determines, to a very great degree, the nature and duration of the benefits obtained. The objective of this White Paper is to facilitate the development of a high quality system of early childhood education. Achieving this objective requires progress across a wide spectrum of areas, including curriculum, training and qualifications and the quality and quantity of inputs (staff, equipment, premises).
Enhanced quality will be achieved through a combination of supports and regulation. Providers, both State-funded and non-funded, will be eligible to apply for a Quality in Education mark, to certify that they have reached certain standards relating to quality. State-funded providers which seek to meet children’s developmental needs will be required to meet prescribed standards while others will be supported and encouraged to meet them.
The development of suitable measures of performance and a system of inspection and evaluation is also essential to ensuring high quality of provision. These issues are discussed in more detail in the next chapter and in chapter 10 (inspection and evaluation).
3.4 Building on existing
Provision and Structures
The White Paper seeks to underpin and support the growth of, rather than replace, the wide range of existing provision in the early childhood area (summarised in chapter 2). Existing providers have developed a substantial expertise in early childhood education and their input at the National Forum was invaluable. Many provide high quality services. However, not all providers reach these standards and State intervention will be aimed primarily at raising standards in these cases so that all children can receive a quality early education. In this way, diversity of provision and parental choice will be retained while quality is enhanced.
Providers will have the benefit of access to the State’s work in technical support areas: development of curricula and materials, research and development of best practice, inspection and evaluation service and development of recommended standards of good practice. A proposed Early Childhood Education Agency (chapter 11), following consultation with existing providers, parents and interested parties, will advise the Department of Education and Science on the development of these standards. Agreed standards concerning quality will mean that parents can have confidence that the provider they select for their children will offer a quality service.
The use of existing administrative structures will also be maximised so that:
l red-tape for providers and parents will be minimised
l co-ordination of provision and policy-making will be enhanced
l administration will be more effective and cost efficient.
3.5 Maximising Effective Implementation
The nature of provision required in any individual case will vary according to the target group and local circumstances. In addition, the many needs of organisations and individuals already providing services, at both national and local levels, must be taken into account, and their expertise built on, in planning for national policies and local implementation strategies. The following key principles will, therefore, be vital to success:
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, existing providers and other interested parties.
Given the nature and complexity of the issues involved, and the range of interests concerned in provision, implementation of the measures (discussed in more detail in chapter 11) set out in this White Paper will take place incrementally. The Forum Report refers to “A Gradualist Approach to Planning and Funding” and suggests “a series of interim steps … which would prepare for the creation of a national system.”5
Phasing is also necessary to:
l Ensure that, where necessary, providers have sufficient time to prepare for the implementation of the new strategy.
l Ensure that, where necessary, providers and staff have adequate time to enhance their education/skills base to the required levels.
l Minimise the risk of short-term labour shortages.
Consultation has been fundamental to the process of educational reform and policy formulation in recent years. Consultation with concerned interests enhances mutual understanding and enables the State to benefit from the cumulative expertise of both experts and practitioners in the area. The National Forum for Early Childhood Education, which took place in March 1998, provided a forum for consultation and exchange of views on many of the issues discussed in this White Paper and the report of the Forum has informed the development of the Paper. Consultation with parents, providers and other interests will remain central to the implementation phase of the White Paper.
Partnership and consultation between Government Departments will be promoted through the mechanisms proposed for delivery of educational support, which are outlined later in the White Paper.
3.6 The Disadvantaged and
Children with Special Needs
All children should have the opportunity to reach their full developmental and educational potential. For a number of reasons, associated with educational disadvantage, and circumstances, including the presence of a special educational need, some children have less opportunity than others to reach their potential in the education system. The policy set out in this White Paper seeks to address as a priority, the needs of children with special education needs and the educationally disadvantaged.
Addressing the needs of the disadvantaged through early childhood education is necessary in order to:
l promote equality of opportunity
l tackle the cause of disparities in attainment and opportunity early (this is more effective and cost-efficient than later intervention)
l maximise the private and social returns on investment.
Ensuring that opportunities are equal does not mean that the same form of provision must be introduced for all participants. Equality does not mean uniformity and it is important to allow for positive discrimination in favour of those most in need. The principle of positive discrimination to tackle disadvantage was supported by the Educational Research Centre’s report “Educational Disadvantage in Ireland”, whose authors considered that the elimination of disadvantage must involve more than just a “levelling of the playing pitch” and, as a consequence, recommended concentrating resources on a limited number of schools where there is a high concentration of disadvantage.6
Appropriate early childhood education programmes can be expensive to provide. Extending education provision generally to children aged less than four would have significant resource implications for other educational sectors. In this context, finance available for pre-school education is finite and must be allocated in areas of greatest inequity. Moreover, research has shown that the benefits of early childhood education may be greatest for the disadvantaged.7
These factors support targeting of early childhood education on children from backgrounds of educational disadvantaged and on children with special educational needs. However, in giving priority to disadvantaged children, it is important, for two reasons, to avoid setting them apart from other children or stigmatising them in any way. Firstly, there is a risk that early childhood education may be perceived as something for the disadvantaged and this may affect participation rates. Secondly, identifying disadvantaged children as a separate group may result in labelling of such children and reinforce rather than alleviate the divisions in society. While priority for the disadvantaged is necessary, efforts will be made (in line with international trends) to promote participation in integrated settings with a mix of abilities and social classes.
3.7 Criteria for Provision
As noted previously, early childhood education will be child-centred and will promote all aspects of children’s development. Its primary aim will be to engender in children a disposition and state of readiness to learn and it will also address the related areas of socialisation and personal development. Early childhood education will, where possible, be provided as part of a seamless provision of care and education.
The nature of the proposed model of early childhood education broadly satisfies the desirable criteria identified at the Forum. The criteria and the extent to which they are addressed by the model are outlined below.
l “Universal – covering all children from 0-6 years.”
The White Paper sets out a range of proposals in respect of children from birth to 6 years. The nature of the provisions will vary according to age and circumstances, with support being directed in particular to those with a special educational need or in situations of disadvantage.
l “Two-generational – focussing on the development of young children and the health, welfare and education of parents, in particular of mothers.”
The development of young children is a central objective of the White Paper. The involvement of parents is considered to be basic to the achievement of this objective and chapter 9 will outline strategies to involve parents in provision and to support them in providing early childhood education in the home. There are likely to be considerable benefits for the health, welfare and education of parents, and for their employment and educational opportunities. However, the White Paper is child-centred, and the proposals contained herein can be justified solely on the basis of the benefits which they will bring to children.
l “Mixed – with differing levels of responsibility, with both home and centre-based modes of delivery and with a variety of service delivery providers including statutory, local authority, voluntary and private sector bodies.”
A guiding principle is that the White Paper build on (not replace) existing provision and this principle is central to the proposals made. The policy set out in the White Paper also recognises the importance of diversity in the provision made.
l “Integrated – health, welfare and education services working together at central and local levels.”
Integrated provision is a cornerstone of the White Paper. In addition, coordination between Government Departments at central level will be vital and coordination between schools and other interests at local level will be encouraged and supported. Proposals for coordination are outlined in more detail in chapter 11.