The White Paper seeks to promote early childhood education for all children. As indicated earlier in this chapter, priority will be given to the greater needs of disadvantaged children and of children with disabilities. This is necessary to ensure equality of opportunity and equitable treatment.
l “Consistent with long-term economic objectives – the envisaged early care and education system should be seen not only as preparing young children to enter successfully the formal education cycle, but also as a significant investment in human capital. It would be an educational mechanism to help parents to move from home to work.”
The economic and other benefits for individual children have already been discussed at great length. In addition, as indicated earlier, although the White Paper is child-centred, implementation will result in spin-off benefits to parents and the economy.
l Educational – the unifying thread through the system would be education. The integrated service would be a privileged locus for early education and the personal development and further education of parents.
Improvement of educational achievement of children is at the heart of the White Paper’s core objective. Parents will benefit from educational, training and employment opportunities as spin-off benefits.
Provision will accord with best international practice. “International comparisons confirm that the salient features of good practice in the direction and management of the provision of Early Childhood Services include:
l The integration of education and care.
l Unified responsibility for provision.
l Targets for growth by a specified year.
l Coherent and thorough training of early years staff.
l A curriculum based on the principle of ‘purposeful play’.
l Effective linkage between the home and pre-school and smooth progression between pre-school and primary school.
l Adequate resources.”8
Previous discussion has outlined how the White Paper will support integration of care and education, the involvement of parents and linkages between pre-school and primary school (points 1 and 6). Chapter 11 will outline the proposed assignment of responsibility for early childhood education to an executive agency and will set out the proposed structures to enhance co-ordination between Departments (point 2). Chapter 10 will propose a system of evaluation and inspection which will include specific performance indicators (point 3). Training and the curriculum (points 4 and 5) are outlined in the next chapter.
4 Issues of Quality
The link between quality of provision in early childhood education and the nature and extent of benefits to children is, as outlined in chapter 1, well established. Quality may often be considered as a rather vague term, the definition of which will vary according to individual perspectives. This chapter first considers the meaning of quality and identifies some of the important variables which determine the quality of early childhood education provision.
A key element of the White Paper strategy to raise and maintain quality of provision concerns the development of a Quality in Education (QE) mark, which is discussed in section 4.2. The awarding of a QE mark to a provider will signify that provision meets defined quality standards. A system of supports, evaluation and inspection will be introduced to assist providers to meet these standards and to ensure that standards are maintained among funded providers and those applying for the QE mark.
The areas to be covered by the quality standards - curriculum and methodology, qualifications and training and inputs - are set out in the second half of the chapter. Quality will also be enhanced through the development and dissemination by the State of models of good practice.
Quality of provision in primary schools and for children with special needs or who are educationally disadvantaged will be dealt with in chapters 6, 7 and 8 respectively.
4.1 Definition of Quality
Qualitative aspects of early childhood educational provision are difficult to define. Interpretations of quality vary and are linked to individual perspectives and circumstances. What might be seen by some as a quality service may be seen by others as poor quality.
“Any definition of quality depends upon which values are given priority. Quality can be defined from the perspectives of parents, child care workers, employers and children.”1 The White Paper is child-centred. It seeks to achieve lasting educational and developmental benefits for children and quality must be viewed in this context. This corresponds with the “child development perspective (which) is concerned with the potential effects of children’s experiences … on their intellectual, physical and motor, social and psychological development.”2
It is recognised that quality is no longer viewed as one standard of excellence identified for all children in all services, but rather as a set of core criteria towards which services may progress and against which their progress may be measured. Different children will have different needs which must be addressed in a variety of ways. Consequently, the nature and extent of provision may vary according to the target group.
Although there is no universal definition of quality in early childhood education provision, a number of variables are generally associated with it. Some of these concern inputs such as staffing ratios, equipment and premises, and are easily quantified. The existing Child Care Regulations, for example, require that pre-school providers comply with minimum standards concerning adult-child ratios, insurance, size and condition of premises. These factors affect the quality of provision in various ways. For example, high adult-child ratios mean that children receive less intensive and individualised attention which may have a detrimental effect on the quality of the service they receive.
Such quantitative factors are of crucial importance to children’s services, but they tell only half the story. It is necessary to look beyond the quantitative factors for a more comprehensive view of quality: “In seeking to measure quality, it is not sufficient to focus on static, tangible variables such as space, ratio and toilets at the expense of more dynamic, intangible aspects of quality such as interaction between adults and children and the developmental appropriateness of activities and expectations. While it may be a difficult task to legislate for or assess such quality criteria, they must be discussed and debated if effective early education, that will impact positively on the later educational experiences of children, is to be provided.”3
Factors which are not currently covered by the Child Care Regulations, but which influence quality of provision and the scale and duration of benefits to children, include: curriculum and methodology, staff qualifications, training and retention, the extent to which parents are involved and the nature of the setting (non-physical aspects). Minimum standards will be recommended concerning some of these factors, while, in other cases, recommendations will be made concerning best practice. Providers who receive State funding for developmental/educational places will be required to meet these standards. Other providers who satisfy the required standards may obtain special recognition through the awarding of a Quality in Education (QE) mark.
4.2 The Quality in Education (QE) Mark
Many providers have consistently sought to deliver quality early childhood education to their young clients and their parents, while other providers would like to achieve higher standards but may lack the necessary skills and materials to do so or may be unsure of an objective standard against which to measure their provision. In recognition of these matters, a QE (quality in education) mark will be developed. The QE mark will be available to providers who reach minimum standards in a number of key education-related areas.
The QE mark will fulfil a number of functions. Firstly, it will improve the quality of early childhood education provision generally. Secondly, the QE mark will signal that a provider has achieved certain standards and is subject to inspection and evaluation. At present, the absence of a national system of education standards in the pre-school sector means that parents and guardians often cannot make an informed choice of pre-school. In choosing a provider with a QE mark, parents can be confident that their child will receive a quality early education.
Thirdly, as far as providers are concerned, availability of the QE mark will provide an incentive to them to raise and maintain quality in line with the standards. The awarding of the QE mark may be used by providers in their advertising, giving them an advantage over other competitors who have failed, or opted not to meet the standards. This in turn should provide an added impetus for their competitors to achieve standards, and lead to a general improvement in quality of provision, a target which is at the heart of the White Paper.
The QE mark will apply only to educational standards concerning curriculum, methodologies, staff qualifications and training. These standards will operate in tandem with the Department of Health and Children requirements under the Child Care Regulations, 1996. The definition of appropriate educational and developmental standards will be undertaken by the proposed Early Childhood Education Agency (ECEA) and the Department of Education and Science, following extensive and ongoing consultation.
The mechanism for introducing the QE mark is discussed as part of the description of the intervention model in the next chapter. The requirement for funded providers to meet defined standards will be phased in gradually, following consultation with the various interested parties. This will allow early childhood education providers and staff sufficient time to upgrade their skills, qualifications and provision to the required level.
An evaluation and inspection mechanism (discussed in more detail in chapter 10) will be introduced to support and assess standards of early childhood education among funded providers and among non-funded providers seeking a QE mark. This will involve an initial inspection and subsequent periodic visits to ensure maintenance of standards. In keeping with the principle of building on existing structures, set out in chapter 3, it is proposed that the assessment of compliance with existing Child Care Regulations and with minimum educational standards will be undertaken as part of a single inspection. This will limit the amount of red-tape and minimise disruption for providers, improve coordination between Government Departments and contribute to the integration of childcare and early childhood education.
Continuous review of the quality standards will also be a function of the ECEA. The review will cover the extent of adoption of the standards, their impact on quality and supply, and the need for ongoing updating of standards in the light of new research and models of good practice. The ECEA will also oversee the provision of support and advice to providers on the attainment and maintenance of good practice.
“While educators are more likely to believe in the superiority of the curriculum in which they have been trained … research appears to show that curricula … are similar in their short-term effects so long as they are consistently of a high quality … we cannot state that the specifics of the actual curriculum employed by any pre-school are a significant factor in terms of positive gains for the child.”4 It is only where a curriculum fails to conform to basic principles - lacking quality or structure – that a difference in effectiveness may be observed.
Various curricula are followed by existing providers and, in keeping with guiding principles, this diversity of provision and choice should be maintained. Moreover, a “one size fits all” approach is not suitable for young children since “ …curriculum has to be matched to children’s developmental status. Curriculum design must take a developmental approach, showing a cognisance of the qualitative differences in children’s behaviours at different periods in development and recognising those behaviours and skills which are typical for a particular stage or period in development.”5
The aim of establishing curriculum standards, therefore, is to ensure that early childhood education provision is structured, developmental, of high quality and designed to create in young children a readiness to learn. Thus, curriculum guidelines, rather than prescribing specific curricular details, will outline the broad principles with which curricula should comply. Individual providers will have discretion to design and modify their particular curriculum within these guidelines.
The development of guidelines on developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood education will be undertaken by the Early Childhood Education Agency (ECEA) and the Department of Education and Science in consultation with all of the agencies currently working in the field. In accordance with the provisions of the Education Act, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, which has recently completed the development of the revised primary school curriculum, will also be consulted.6 The guidelines will have regard to the need to provide a range of experiences and learning opportunities to enhance all aspects of a child’s development – cognitive, emotional, linguistic, moral, physical, sensory and social. They will also take account of the need for structure and for learning through play.
As well as drawing up curriculum guidelines, the ECEA and the Department, in consultation with the various agencies, will also develop a recommended or “specimen” curriculum for pre-school children, which will provide more specific detail on content and methodology. This may be used by providers who may not wish to follow, or have difficulty in selecting, one of the established curricula, and who, despite the availability of the guidelines, do not feel able to develop their own curricula. It will also be valuable as a template for parents who wish to help their children in their early childhood learning. The “specimen” curriculum will develop over time in light of the outcome of research and development undertaken by or on behalf of the ECEA.
The Forum highlighted concerns at the lack of a curriculum for very young children: “Within the age range 0-3 years … the absence of guidelines on developmentally appropriate curriculum (was) identified as a major concern.”7 To address this concern, development of a less formal curriculum, for children up to 3 years, will also be undertaken by the ECEA, in consultation with interested parties, and in light of the best international research in this area. The emphasis at this level will be on how children learn and how parents can help their children to learn.
In order to be effective, even the most comprehensive curriculum must be accompanied by appropriate methodologies. Although the Early Start pilot programme was based on the Rutland Street curriculum, it has not so far yielded the gains which were recorded in the initial Rutland Street evaluation; this outcome was ascribed to a number of factors. Areas identified by the evaluation as offering scope for improvement (see chapter 8) included teaching practice. The work on curriculum will, therefore, be accompanied by analysis and development of best practice in the area of methodologies since “ … it is the teacher’s responsibility to create a learning environment that is appropriate for (a child’s) development …”8
4.4 Qualifications and Training
“The task of ensuring that high-quality education and care services are made available to young children depends, in a crucial way, on the quality and training of the personnel involved …”.9 The system of training and qualifications for early childhood workers, like the pre-school system generally, has developed in a somewhat ad hoc manner in Ireland. This has resulted in certain weaknesses in the existing system. These weaknesses, outlined in chapter 2, concern duplication of provision, inconsistency in standards, lack of consumer awareness as to the skills which courses develop, and difficulties regarding progression between levels of qualification. To tackle the weaknesses, a strategy will be developed, which will include the designation of suitable qualifications, establishment of clear routes of progression between qualifications and improved provision of information on all aspects of qualifications.
Tackling these issues will be done within the framework of the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act, 1999. The Act provides for the setting up of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, which (section 7) will have three objectives:
l to establish and maintain a framework for the development, recognition and award of qualifications in the State based on standards of knowledge, skill or competence to be acquired by learners
l to establish and promote the maintenance and improvement of the standards of further and higher education and training awards
l to promote and facilitate access, transfer and progression.
The national qualifications framework envisaged will include a qualifications framework for the early childhood sector. This framework will be designed in consultation with the Early Childhood Education Agency, existing early childhood education providers and organisations involved in the provision of early childhood education courses. It will identify the core competencies required for early childhood education teachers and childcare workers and determine which courses can equip participants with those skills. Clear routes of progression will be established between the various courses.
The ad hoc development of the existing systems of qualifications means that some persons employed in early childhood education may not have acquired formal qualifications. However, their accumulated experience will have equipped them with the necessary skills to deal effectively with children’s needs. An emphasis on qualifications as the sole criterion of suitability would place such individuals at a disadvantage and would imply that their experience counted for nothing. Concerns that this matter should be addressed in any new system were voiced strongly at the Forum.10 The framework developed in accordance with the Act will address this issue. Part VII of the Act sets out arrangements for the protection of learners including (section 46) whether and to what extent a programme of education is accommodated through procedures in the Act for access, transfer and progression.
Phasing in of the new arrangements will be important to allow early childhood education providers and staff sufficient time to upgrade their skills to the required levels and to take account of the risk of initial skills shortages in an expanding area.
The State agrees with the consensus expressed in the National Forum report that a uniform approach to provision of training is not desirable.11 Thus, apart from the arrangements set out above, the State does not propose to introduce compulsory rationalisation of courses. Supply and demand, particularly in the context of the improved level of information which will be made available, should ensure the survival of the most effective courses. Flexible delivery of courses - including course times and entry requirements – will be encouraged, to maximise the options available, including for parents, to acquire skills and competencies relevant to the needs of children. Dialogue and exchange of ideas between course providers will also be encouraged to improve coordination and quality.
An ongoing process of training will be required to facilitate updating of qualifications and skills to take account of developments in best practice. A programme of training and development will be devised under the aegis of the ECEA, with input from parents, existing early childhood education providers and other partners in education.
Standardisation of training should lead to the creation of career ladders and movement between the different areas of the early childhood education system, resulting in improved retention and professionalisation of the sector: “Status is also an important issue. Ireland has been fortunate in having a highly professional and well-respected teaching profession. Research shows that we shall do well to extend this profile to early education.”12
Low esteem can be tackled by raising awareness of the importance of early childhood education and the qualities required in those who provide it. The measures set out in the preceding paragraphs will help to enhance the career status and structure for early childhood education staff. In addition, growth in demand for services and the proposals in this White Paper to develop the sector, should provide scope for improvement in overall career prospects. This should lead, in turn, to lower turnover of staff and enhanced quality of provision.
Some of the inputs which have a bearing on the quality of early childhood education provision are already covered by the existing Child Care Regulations. These Regulations set down minimum standards for adult-child ratios, insurance, and size and condition of premises. All pre-school providers currently covered will continue to remain subject to the Regulations.
The Regulations set down a recommended staffing ratio concerning sessional services for children aged from birth to 6 years, of 1 adult to 10 children. 13 Lower ratios, which vary by age group, are specified for other settings. These ratios are seen as necessary to ensure that the care and welfare of children is safeguarded. Adult:child ratios for educational purposes may differ. In certain cases, lower ratios may be appropriate. These might, where supported by research, include children from disadvantaged backgrounds or settings which include children with special educational needs. These particular cases, and the specific circumstances of the infant classes in national schools, will be discussed in later chapters of this White Paper.
The Regulations do not cover the provision of educational equipment and materials and minimum standards in this area will be drawn up by the ECEA in consultation with interested parties. Size and quality of premises are, however, covered in detail in the Regulations. As a result of falling enrolments, some schools will have spare capacity which could be made available to early childhood education providers. Schools may also be in a position to make accommodation available outside of regular school hours. To assist providers to acquire suitable premises, incentives will be provided to schools to release accommodation. This approach, which is supported by the Commission on the Family, will improve the quality of premises and strengthen the links between early childhood education and primary education.14 It will also complement broader strategies (for example, tax allowances for capital investment) to improve supply and quality for provision of childcare places.
4.6 Research, Development
Research and development is vital to ensure best practice and improve quality of provision. It is particularly important in the early childhood education area, given the extent of variation in effectiveness of interventions and the somewhat ad hoc nature of the development of the provision in Ireland to date.
A significant research and development programme will be funded and overseen through the Early Childhood Education Agency. In devising the programme of research, the Agency will take account of the views of international experts in the early childhood education field. Co-funding of research projects of common interest, with other agencies and Departments, will also be pursued.
The programme of research will involve an element of provision aimed at key groups, through which models of best practice in curriculum and methodology may be implemented and evaluated. Evaluation of the various initiatives proposed in this White Paper will be undertaken as part of the research programme. Dissemination of the research findings will help to encourage best practice and raise standards. Particular emphasis will be given to longitudinal studies of early childhood education participants and to projects which focus on the disadvantaged and children with special needs.
This chapter builds on the material in previous chapters to set out a general model of provision of early childhood education for children from birth to 6 years. Proposals concerning three specific groups are discussed in later chapters. Chapter 6 outlines the early childhood education model for children in primary school, chapter 7 considers children with a special educational need and chapter 8 deals with proposals regarding children who are disadvantaged.
The model described will adopt a child-centred approach, with the aim of improving the educational achievement of children and enhancing all aspects of their development, through high-quality early childhood education. There will be a particular focus on tackling the educational needs of children who are disadvantaged. Although the main focus in the chapter will be on children aged 3 to 4, catered for in a formal childcare/education setting outside of the home, consideration will also be given to younger children and to children whose parents opt to care for them in the home.