Early Childhood Education Pn. 7939 00

Importance of Early Childhood Education

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8.2 Importance of
Early Childhood Education

Chapter 1 provides a detailed account of the range of benefits which may accrue from quality early childhood education. These include benefits to the individual child, his or her parents, as well as the wider economic and social returns. The benefits may accrue to all children, but as in the case of children with special needs, research shows that they are particularly significant for disadvantaged children.

An OECD review cites research in the USA which shows that early intervention “can produce long-term cognitive and academic benefits for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.”1 Further American research shows clearly that interventions which tackle disadvantage may yield significant financial returns in terms of savings and may be much more cost-effective than equivalent interventions for other children. Assessments of savings to Government from the Elmira Prenatal/Early Infancy Project vary substantially according to the risk factor involved. Analyses indicate savings of $24, 694 per child for higher-risk families to $3,775 for lower risk families.2 In Ireland, evaluations of the Rutland Street project have shown that quality intervention can yield lasting benefits.3 O’Flaherty notes that “the benefits are strongest in children from disadvantaged backgrounds.”4 The results of the interim evaluation of the Early Start pilot pre-school programme (discussed in the next section) show that, as is the case for all early education programmes, careful planning and review are required to achieve benefits for disadvantaged children.

Brain research, discussed in chapter 1, indicates that during the early years most children will benefit from a supportive, caring home environment and will receive sufficient stimulation to assist rapid brain development.5 However, this environment and support will not be available in some homes and children’s development may be hampered as a result. The research further suggests that if intervention is not undertaken early, lasting damage may be caused, and that if children fall behind their peers at an early stage, it becomes extremely difficult to close the gap.

8.3 Existing Provision for
Disadvantaged Young Children

Intervention by the Department of Education and Science comprises the Early Start pilot pre-school project, the Rutland Street project, pre-school provision for Travellers and, at primary school level, the Breaking the Cycle pilot programme.

Rutland Street Project

In 1969, a pre-school was established and attached to the Rutland Street primary school in Dublin. The project, which is still in operation today, aims to ease the transition for young children from home to primary school. A purpose-designed curriculum is in operation and parents are actively encouraged to participate in the education process by attending at the pre-school. Advice is also provided to parents in their homes as to how they may best assist their children. The importance of active parental involvement has since achieved recognition in a number of other schemes operated by the Department, most notably the Home School Community Liaison Scheme.

Early evaluation of the impact of the Rutland Street Project showed that, over the course of their two years in the pre-school, participants made good progress in acquiring school-related skills and knowledge. However, “they failed to keep pace with the achievements of children in the general population when they transferred to primary school.”6 Later follow-up of the participants showed that they stayed longer at school and were more likely to take a public examination than were non-participants from the same area.7

Early Start

The Early Start pilot programme aims to tackle educational disadvantage by targeting children who are considered to be at risk of not reaching their potential within the education system. The programme was introduced in 1994 and catered initially for 368 3 and 4 year old children. It was expanded the following year and now caters for more than 1,500 pupils in 40 schools. The approach is to establish groups of 15 pupils in existing primary schools in disadvantaged areas. Each class is run by a primary school teacher and a qualified childcare worker. While the Early Start curriculum emphasises the development of cognitive and linguistic skills, due recognition is also given to personal and social development.

The Early Start programme seeks to draw on the Rutland Street Project curriculum and methodologies. Staff visited the Rutland Street pre-school to observe its modus operandi and to discuss activities and curriculum with pre-school staff.

An interim evaluation of the pilot programme undertaken by the Educational Research Centre found that “On a range of objective tests which involved an assessment of children’s cognitive, language and motor behaviour, no differences were found between the performance of … Early Start pupils when they reached Junior Infants class and the performance of Junior Infant pupils who had not experienced Early Start. … While … we might not be too surprised that participants did not show any benefit on assessments of higher order skills, it is somewhat surprising that the emphasis placed in curricula on perceptual skills was not reflected in the test performance of pupils.”8 The evaluation also records surprise that the emphasis on language skills was not reflected in participants’ test performance. However, potential improvement in this area was noted: “the language performance of the second cohort of … pupils was significantly better than the performance of the first cohort. This may indicate that the emphasis on language development … was gaining momentum.”

Teachers’ perceptions of Early Start pupils when in Junior Infants were more positive than the test results. Teachers also considered that participants were superior in terms of a range of non-cognitive characteristics including self-determination, adaptation to classroom procedures, ability to concentrate, creativity and originality. However, it must be noted that the number of teachers interviewed was small (17) and that views differed within this group. Moreover, the correlation between teachers’ ratings of pupils’ cognitive ability and objective tests of ability, although statistically significant, was moderate in size.

The test findings on cognitive ability run counter to evaluations of similar programmes, including the Rutland Street project, where an initial immediate impact on test performance was found. The evaluation identifies a number of possible causes for the difference in impact between Early Start and the Rutland Street project:

l There was less emphasis on cognitive development in the Early Start classrooms than in the Rutland Street project.

l Early Start is administered in a number of schools while the Rutland Street project is located on a single premises. The opportunities for Early Start staff from all of the schools involved to meet, while considerable by normal standards, were much less frequent than in Rutland Street. This has had implications for the implementation of the programme and particularly for achieving homogeneity of practice across all of the Early Start centres.

l A review of the in-career development for the programme has led to a revised approach which includes a series of classroom visits from experienced trainers.

The effectiveness of Early Start was also affected by:

l Poor attendance (attendance is voluntary)

l Methodologies: “The fact that the teachers had a lot of experience of teaching … language probably also contributed to … the high level of quality in language teaching. The development of broader cognitive abilities was not as well handled.”

l Despite the existence of a universal commitment to parental involvement on the part of all staff, a need for greater clarification of the role which parents might play in the classroom.

l “Lack of involvement and different expectations about procedures led to frustration among some Child Care workers … There is an obvious need for greater clarification of the roles of teachers and Child Care workers and for procedures to ensure that the roles are adequately and harmoniously implemented.”

Whether the Early Start programme will lead to gains in the longer term remains to be seen. A follow-up analysis of participants to be undertaken will illustrate whether the programme has had more lasting effects on literacy and numeracy.

Pre-school Provision for Travellers

Fifty-four pre-schools provide special preparation for approximately 660 Traveller children before enrolment in national schools. The State provides 98% of the tuition costs for a maximum of three hours tuition per day for the regular national school year. Transport costs, where necessary, are also almost fully-funded by the State, while additional support is provided for the purchase of equipment. The health authorities contribute toward the cost of care assistants and the provision of meals. In some cases, the local authorities provide accommodation for the pre-schools.

Voluntary groups such as Barnardos, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and Traveller Support Groups undertake the management and administration of the pre-schools, including accommodation, recruiting and employing staff, content of the education programme and the general delivery of the service.

Breaking the Cycle

The Breaking the Cycle pilot project, which is an integral part of the national school system, targets disadvantage in primary schools through the provision of enhanced capitation and special grants for equipment and consumables. Class sizes are reduced in the first four years of primary school and significant emphasis is placed on school planning and teaching methodologies. The Breaking the Cycle pilot project is currently being evaluated and the results of this evaluation will inform any further developments in this area.

Other State Intervention

A range of programmes aimed at alleviating disadvantage, run by other Departments, is summarised in chapter 2. These include support from the Department of Health and Children for nurseries and the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Lessons from existing provision

The difficulties outlined in chapter 2 concerning the need for coordination, greater involvement of parents and raising quality also apply to provision for disadvantaged children. Increased participation of disadvantaged children in early childhood education is vital for the children concerned. Disadvantaged groups generally have lower participation rates, are least able to afford private provision and have most to benefit from participation.

Targetted early education provision for very young disadvantaged children in this country is still at an early stage of development. All of the initiatives supported by the Department of Education and Science are still at pilot stage and this should be borne in mind when evaluating the effectiveness of the existing system. Significant improvement in terms of coverage and impact should be possible as lessons are learned from the pilot programmes.

Scope for improvement exists in a number of areas. The method of selection used, while satisfactory for pilot projects, would require refinement. In particular, the use of schools could be seen as a blunt selection instrument. The need to address qualifications and training is also apparent from the Early Start evaluation.

Opportunities for parental involvement, although more significant than in other sectors, have been limited to date. Parental involvement, as chapter 9 will show, helps to raise quality and participation rates and leads to benefits for children and parents alike. These benefits are particularly strong where educational disadvantage is concerned.

Although priority for and targetting of the disadvantaged is necessary, care must be taken to avoid stigmatising children. It is also important to avoid giving the impression that early childhood education is only for the disadvantaged. Accordingly, where possible, provision should take place in integrated settings.

8.4 School-based Interventions

Chapter 2 highlighted research which showed that the benefits of smaller class sizes are strongest for children who are disadvantaged. The existing pilot Breaking the Cycle initiative, which provides for smaller class sizes in the first four years in schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils, will be continued. The future development of support for pre-school initiatives will be informed by the results of evaluation of the programme and other (including international) research.

It has already been noted in chapter 6 that, in the allocation of support to primary schools, priority will be given to infants classes. The introduction of a new grant for equipment for infants classes is evidence of this commitment. However, within this group, particular emphasis will be given to the needs of disadvantaged children.

The extension of a remedial service to all schools with effect from September 1999 will permit greater attention to the needs of all children in primary school with learning difficulties, including those in infant classes. New guidelines and reforms, along the lines of the report on the remedial service, are crucial to improving the effectiveness of this scheme.

The benefits of involving parents in early childhood education are outlined in detail in chapter 9. These benefits are particularly significant for both parents and children who are educationally disadvantaged. Structures are already in place to allow parents to become involved in their children’s primary school education. These include the Home School Community Liaison Scheme. Under the Scheme, schools provide a range of training opportunities for parents, including parenting courses and classes to advise parents on the primary curriculum and how best to assist their children’s work. Home visits are also undertaken. The Early Childhood Education Agency will assess the effectiveness of these arrangements, insofar as the infant classes are concerned, and will make proposals, where necessary, to strengthen parental involvement.

8.5 Provision for Children Aged 3-4
Outside Primary School

As indicated earlier in this chapter, a number of schemes are already in place to cater for the pre-school needs of disadvantaged children. These include the Rutland Street project, the Early Start pilot programme, and pre-schools for Travellers.

The Department will continue to support and improve a range of programmes for the disadvantaged. As part of the research and development programme proposed in chapter 5, particular attention will be given to addressing the weaknesses identified by the Early Start evaluation. The programme will also focus on development of best practice for early childhood education for the disadvantaged.

In addition to improving existing programmes, the Early Childhood Education Agency (ECEA) will encourage disadvantaged communities and groups to establish their own pre-school programmes. Many such groups already receive assistance from other Government Departments. Communities’ circumstances will vary widely and they are best able to identify their own needs and strategies. For this reason, programmes may take a number of forms. Local schools will be encouraged and given incentives to make premises available to community-based groups and to develop links with them. Assistance will be provided by the ECEA in the form of advice, a Visiting Teacher service, materials and support, while inspectors will be available to assist groups to raise standards and quality to the levels required for awarding of the QE (Quality in Education) mark.

Some local communities may not be in a position to develop services themselves. In such cases, a more proactive role will be undertaken by the ECEA to stimulate and develop a strategy for early childhood education. As well as the range of supports outlined above, start-up funding will be made available to “kick-start” programmes.

The Department of Education and Science will also become involved in direct provision in disadvantaged areas, where gaps exist. Provision will be in a variety of settings, depending on the circumstances. Provision will be put in place only following full consideration with schools and communities.

Where demographic (small numbers of children), geographical (remote location, dispersed population) or cultural (ethnic minorities) factors prevent the development of conventional strategies, the ECEA will seek to develop innovative approaches to providing an early education service. Options may include the provision of a distance education service, a mobile pre-school and provision of transport for disadvantaged children and parents. As shown in chapter 2 (particularly in the case of New Zealand), these approaches have been developed elsewhere, and the ECEA will take account of international experience and best practice in this regard. Where small numbers of disadvantaged children are located in advantaged areas, the ECEA will also fund provision of early education by private providers for such children. In order to qualify for such funding, providers must qualify for the QE mark discussed in chapter 4. The placement of disadvantaged children in mixed settings will be in keeping with the need, referred to earlier, to avoid stigmatising such children or labelling early education as something for the disadvantaged only.

8.6 Children under 3

Assistance to parents is crucial for this age group. The rationale for intervention and the range of services and assistance outlined in other chapters will also apply to parents of disadvantaged children under 3 years of age.

8.7 Traveller Children

The Report of the Task Force on the Travelling Community and the Report of the National Forum for Early Childhood Education draw particular attention to the importance of early intervention for children of the Travelling community. Traveller children and their parents who have a positive experience of pre-school provision are better prepared for primary school and are, therefore, more likely to obtain maximum benefit from their primary and post-primary schooling. The management and staff of Traveller pre-schools should, in co-operation with the staff of local primary schools, develop and maintain close links to ensure more effective participation of Traveller children in primary schooling.

The Report on the Forum makes reference to the fact that provision has developed on an ad hoc basis and is bewildering in its variety in terms of quality of accommodation, staffing programmes and accountability. The current arrangements for funding (both current and capital), staffing and management are inadequate to meet the needs of the children attending the pre-schools. The voluntary agencies that are involved in this area are finding it increasingly difficult to meet the costs associated with the organisation, administration and maintenance of pre-schools. At the same time, the White Paper seeks to underpin and support the growth of, rather than replace, existing provision in this area. Existing providers have developed expertise in early childhood education for Travellers. The role of the State will not be to undermine their expertise but rather to raise standards so that all Traveller children can receive early education of a high quality.

Parental involvement

The important role of parents in the early education of all children has been emphasised earlier in this White Paper. Traveller parents should be encouraged and empowered to become involved in the management and administration of Traveller pre-schools and, where State-funded mainstream provision is available, Traveller parents should be able to exercise choice between integrated and Traveller-specific pre-school education.


The Early Childhood Education Agency (ECEA) will be responsible for all aspects of early childhood education for Traveller children, including standards of quality, materials and curriculum, research, development and inspection/evaluation. In carrying out its role in this area, the Agency will consult with existing providers, parents and Traveller organisations on the range of issues affecting Traveller pre-schools.

8.8 Research and Development

The research and development programme outlined in chapter 5 will have a particular focus on the priority groups: children with special needs or who are educationally disadvantaged. The development and initial implementation of best practice will be undertaken primarily through direct provision by the State. Analysis of effectiveness and dissemination of findings will be vital components. Particular attention will be given initially to tackling the weaknesses identified by the interim evaluation of the Early Start pilot project. The input and cooperation of schools and staff participating in the pilot programme will be an essential component of the ongoing review and improvement of strategies to tackle educational disadvantage at pre-school level. Non-governmental organisations, particularly in the case of pre-schools for Travellers, have developed extensive experience and expertise concerning the education of disadvantaged children and will have a significant input into the development and improvement of programmes. Longitudinal analyses, particularly important to determine whether intervention is effective in combating disadvantage, will also be undertaken.

8.9 Other Matters

Educational intervention to combat disadvantage will not be effective unless accompanied by initiatives from other sectors such as health, housing, social welfare and employment. Accordingly, cross-sector coordination of effort is particularly important in this area. Structures to enhance coordination are outlined in chapter 11.

Some structures additional to those proposed in chapter 11 will be required to develop services for disadvantaged children. In particular, structures must focus on the identification of disadvantage and must provide a means of tracking disadvantaged children through the education system.

As noted earlier, educational disadvantage may stem from many causes and the identification of disadvantage may be complex and difficult. The use of proxy indicators for disadvantage, such as the catchment areas of designated schools, will provide some measure of need in an area. However, since designated primary schools capture about 30% of disadvantaged pupils, significant refinement is required.9 Census data and other sources, including surveys of the extent of poverty by area, may be drawn on. The input of local knowledge and the perspectives of the various Health Boards will also be valuable.

A tracking system for disadvantaged children will also be necessary for two reasons. An effective strategy to combat educational disadvantage requires a continuum of support through the education system. Also, longitudinal studies of the effectiveness of early education will involve follow-up of assisted children, creating the need for some means of tracking these children and assessing their progress.

9 The Central Role of Parents

The importance of involving parents in their children’s early education has been highlighted in earlier chapters. Chapter 1 outlined how most young children benefit from a supportive and caring home environment and receive sufficient stimulation to assist rapid brain development. However, chapter 2 noted that the absence of appropriate support structures and, in some cases, a lack of skills and awareness as to how to help children to learn, may hamper effective involvement by parents in the early education of their children. The chapter also noted that existing systems of provision of early childhood education may limit parents’ scope to become involved in provision outside the home.

This chapter focuses on parental roles in more detail.1 It explains why the contribution of parents is crucial and considers aspects of provision which may have the effect of preventing parents from being involved fully in their children’s early education. A strategy to enhance parental participation is then discussed, with the emphasis on:

l providing advice and support to parents regarding the learning process and how they may assist their children.

l facilitating and encouraging parental involvement in provision

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