The active involvement of parents at all stages of the policy formulation process is recognised as vital to the quality of education policy development and the effectiveness of its implementation. This partnership and consultation approach is now well established in the education field and represents an essential ingredient for effective policy-making. The important role of parents in the education system was given statutory underpinning in the Education Act, 1998.
Parents bring with them a vast quantity of expertise and different perspectives on the needs of their children. Parental involvement is particularly important in the case of pre-school children, where, as this White Paper has already acknowledged, parents are the prime educators and experts on children’s needs. Chapter 2 illustrates the value which other countries attach to active parental involvement. In particular, involving parents in the management and delivery of provision outside the home is a key feature of the systems in countries such as New Zealand and Norway. A range of supports is also provided for parents in the home, including a visiting teacher service, “drop-in” centres and (in the case of New Zealand) a distance education service.
Parental involvement in early childhood education is important for a number of other reasons. Firstly, (as outlined in chapter 1) brain research findings indicate that the first three years of a child’s life are crucial in terms of development. Parents play the central educational role in the early years and provide the stimulation, care and interaction required to ensure their children’s rapid development. It is important that this parental involvement be continued through to the period of more formal education. Secondly, parents prepare their children for the transition to formal education. Effectiveness of formal education is linked to the acquisition by a child of certain skills, such as socialisation skills and readiness to learn. These skills are developed, not only in the formal education system, but also in the home environment. Thirdly, the benefits of participation by parents in a child’s education outside the home are also significant. “Even when high-quality public child care is provided, the weight of research indicates that parents make an irreplaceable contribution to the child’s development, and their active involvement in their children’s programmes outside the home greatly increases the likelihood of the child’s success in later life.”2
Two-way communication between the parents and the more formal pre-school system enhances the quality of the early childhood education received by the child. Each child is unique and has specific needs, qualities and characteristics which parents are best placed to identify. By participating in meaningful and regular dialogue with teaching staff, parents may communicate such information to schools and pre-schools. Dialogue also enables teaching staff to make parents aware of any areas where they may be able to assist their children’s learning; teachers will also be in a position to notify parents of any issues or difficulties which are arising in the formal education setting.
A positive attitude in the home towards education is linked to improved performance by the child. As the Hargreaves Report notes: “parental commitment is a cornerstone of the school’s success. If parents are interested in their children’s schooling, … are supportive of the school’s endeavours, … act in partnership with teachers, then the children will achieve more in school.”3
Recent research highlights the “positive association between the extent of such involvement and pupil outcomes” present in Irish second-level schools.4 The importance of partnership between parents and teachers in the education endeavour is recognised in existing Department of Education and Science programmes, such as the Home School Community Liaison Scheme, which operates at both first and second levels. Research also shows that involving parents from minority or disadvantaged groups in provision helps to raise early childhood education participation rates among those groups.
Parents also derive some benefits from their participation in their children’s early childhood education. Parents involved in pilot early education programmes have reported improved self-confidence and better relationships with their children. Parental involvement also creates scope for further educational and career development in the early childhood education area.
Substantial benefits from parental involvement in early childhood education are shown by international research. As shown in previous chapters, these benefits are particularly significant for children with special needs or who are disadvantaged. However, some studies suggest that parental participation may not make a difference in all cases. For example, an evaluation of the Even Start Programme shows that supports for parenting skills lead to positive gains in learning activities, story reading and parent-child interaction; however, similar gains were recorded for the non-participating control group.5 White, Taylor and Moss “examined the belief that early intervention programmes that involve parents are more effective than those that do not. They found no convincing evidence … ”6 These are, however, relatively isolated incidents: O’Flaherty concludes that “There is general agreement in the literature to support the view that participation by parents in the development and education of themselves and their children is a positive and perhaps necessary force.”7 and that further research on the issue is required. The interventions proposed in this White Paper will seek to build on the identified positive aspects of parental involvement in early childhood education while, at the same time, through the research strand, examining aspects of parental involvement with a view to identifying positive aspects and building on these in later interventions.
Mention must also be made of the Constitutional provisions in regard to parental involvement in education. Article 42.1 of the Constitution enshrines the role of the family as “the natural and primary educator of the child”. The reference in the article to the right and duty of parents to provide for their child’s education confers on them the right to active participation in the child’s education. This view is reflected by the Commission on the Family: “ … parents are the first educators of their children. The role of the State … is to support parents in carrying out these responsibilities … The Commission’s approach is underpinned by a belief that children are generally best looked after within the family …”8
The previous section noted the essential contribution which parents make to the development and effectiveness of education policy. Education policy and the education system generally has become increasingly parent-friendly in recent years. Parents are becoming centrally involved in the development of education policy at a national level; at individual school level, parents are involved in the school’s activities through their involvement in the school’s parents association.
Despite this, several factors combine to inhibit the active participation by parents in their children’s early education. Representative bodies at national and local levels represent the interests of parents at first and second level. Further development of the roles of these bodies is envisaged by the Education Act, 1998. The interests of parents of children in infant classes in primary schools are represented by the National Parents Council, Primary. However, the absence of a formal representative structure for other parents of pre-school children hampers their involvement in the policy process and limits the quality of policy development. This is particularly unfortunate in the early childhood area given the primary role of parents.
Unlike some other countries, Ireland lacks a mechanism to involve parents in the management and organisation of services, other than school-based services, outside the home. As stated earlier, parents are best placed to understand and meet the early educational and development needs of their children. Their input in a management/supervisory/advisory capacity would enhance quality of provision and increase participation, particularly (as experience in the Netherlands and elsewhere shows) among minorities and the disadvantaged. In addition, some parents would gain in terms of increased self-confidence and greater understanding of early education approaches and methodologies.
For a variety of reasons, associated with changing family structures and increasing economic and social pressures, many parents may not be able to care for their children in the home setting for substantial periods each week and much of the care of young children may be provided by a third party. Families in this situation may face a range of additional problems. For example, the Commission on the Family notes that low educational attainment and less secure housing tenure are characteristics of lone parent families.9 Such families also face a greater risk of poverty and have lower rates of participation in employment. As a consequence they may lack the confidence, or in some cases the skills, to assist with their children’s education. The need to deal effectively with these issues is pressing, given the ongoing change in family structures in Ireland.
Other parents may not be obliged, but may choose to send their children outside the home for pre-school education. However, such parents may equally not have the opportunity to play an active role in early childhood education. Even where parents have the time to devote to their children’s education, practical constraints of the environment in which education is provided (space, access) and policy of providers may effectively prevent their involvement.
Other factors, which apply equally in the home and out-of-home situations to inhibit parents from effective involvement in their children’s education, include lack of confidence, lack of skills (for example in literacy or numeracy areas) or lack of awareness concerning how children learn and how they may play a useful role.
9.3 Strategies to enhance
A multi-faceted strategy is proposed to facilitate and encourage parental involvement. This involves greater involvement of and consultation with parents in the development of early education policy, support for parents providing early childhood education in the home, enhancing parental skills, improving access to and dialogue with providers and research on best practice concerning the involvement of parents.
The State will seek to involve parents at every stage of the early education process. This will ensure strengthening of the parental voice and the development of a strong and expert interest group which will participate in the consultation/partnership process. As a result, early education policy will be better informed, of higher quality, have greater acceptability among the public and achieve greater participation.
The simplest and most direct approach to enhancing parental involvement in their children’s early education is to facilitate greater provision in the home or in parent-child groups. This would involve progress on two fronts. Firstly, parents would have to be facilitated, through a combination of financial support (to cushion the impact of loss of earnings) and continuing improvements concerning access to flexible working arrangements (such as jobsharing, term-time working and career breaks) to provide some or all of their children’s care and education in the home setting. These issues are linked to wider policy matters which go beyond education; they are being considered in depth by the Government and will not be pursued further here.
Secondly, appropriate supports would have to be made available to parents in undertaking their children’s early care and education at home. One option, which has been explored in other countries, and in Ireland by private providers, concerns funding the establishment of mobile units with equipment, materials and books. These units could serve as a resource for community groups or individuals, or in some cases, could be used as mobile pre-school premises. The production of information packs and provision of advice on how children learn and how parents may assist their children, is another important support. The provision of such supports at maternity hospitals to parents of newborn children, and through the community health service will be pursued by the ECEA. In addition, parents will, in connection with the revised primary school curriculum, be sent newssheets outlining how they may best assist their children’s acquisition of literacy skills.
As indicated earlier, some parents may feel ill-equipped to deal with the early education needs of their children and this inhibits their involvement in it. One way to address this issue would be to increase the availability of, and access to, appropriate parenting courses. Courses would also have to cater for different levels of prior parental education and for the diverse needs of those with special requirements. Introductory courses would have to be pitched at a suitable level, where necessary, either linked to, or including basic literacy and numeracy components.
To facilitate maximum participation, courses should be provided in a flexible manner and in a variety of settings. This is not unexplored territory and it should be possible to build on existing provision for adult education and on courses run in the private sector and by community and umbrella groups. The National Forum “learned of several examples of good parenting programmes which hold great promise for the future.”10 It is understood also that the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs is developing a Parenting Awareness Programme. In addition, the Department of Health and Children is developing (in conjunction with the Health Boards) strategies for family support (including parenting programmes). The recent publication of the Children Bill, 1999, with its provisions for the introduction of Family Welfare Conferences, is relevant in this context. In keeping with the principle of building on existing provision and structures, arrangements will be made to incorporate additional material into these programmes concerning the learning process in young children and how parents may contribute to this process.
Early education may also be built in as part of more general parenting programmes: the Forum report notes that “There is a need … to avoid patronising and stigmatising labels with regard to ‘parenting skills’.”11 There is also an argument for using more ‘upbeat’ terminology to raise the profile of courses: use of titles like “Child Development” or “Early Years”, or other titles with a more specific education focus should assist in this regard.
The importance of meaningful dialogue and exchange of ideas between parents and teachers was highlighted earlier. Formal arrangements for dialogue are already in place in the national school sector. In accordance with the provisions of the Education Act; similar arrangements should be facilitated and encouraged in the pre-school sector generally. Important in this context is a general raising of the awareness of the mutual benefits of such arrangements. Existing structures provide for the involvement of parents in the education of first and second-level children. However, it is essential that parents of pre-school children should have significantly more involvement than parents at other levels. The development of an appropriate structure to facilitate and encourage the involvement of parents in their children’s early education will be considered by the Early Childhood Education Agency.
In seeking to promote parental involvement in early education sectors, the Government is aware of concerns expressed that the goals and objectives of parents, teachers and schools may not always coincide. However, in light of the arguments earlier, genuine partnership is essential to effective early childhood education. Nevertheless, in promoting participation by parents in their children’s education, it will be important to strike a balance between the needs of teachers, parents and, most importantly, pupils. Unfettered access to the classroom is neither sought by parents nor desirable for teachers and pupils. However, designating specific days or introducing a rota system for access should ensure that parental participation can be facilitated while minimising disruption in the classroom.
Further research is required into best practice on parental involvement. This will be undertaken as part of the research and development programme which will be overseen by the Early Childhood Education Agency. The Agency will also be responsible for developing and implementing the broad strategy outlined in this chapter, to enhance parental involvement. In consultation with parents and providers, the Agency will develop mechanisms to support greater involvement of parents in the management and delivery of provision outside the home.
10 Inspection and Evaluation
The White Paper strategy seeks to raise and support the quality of early childhood education provision. In order to ensure that this objective is met, and that enhanced quality is being achieved both at an aggregate level and among specific providers, a system of evaluation and inspection is required. This chapter outlines the importance of effective inspection and evaluation and sets out the aims of the proposed system. It describes the levels at which inspection and evaluation will take place and outlines the mechanisms which will be used to implement the evaluation and inspection strategy.
Providers in receipt of State funding for developmental places and other providers who wish to obtain the Quality in Education (QE) mark will be subject to inspection. The purpose of inspection will be to determine whether provision meets the developmental and education standards set by the Department of Education and Science and the Early Childhood Education Agency (ECEA). Inspectors will also assist providers to attain the QE standards by identifying the areas where improvements are required and by suggesting approaches which providers could take to achieve the improvements.
A system of inspection is already in place to ensure compliance with the Child Care Regulations, 1996. Under the existing system, inspection staff from the relevant Health Board visit the premises of each notified provider (provider who, within the terms of the Regulations, notifies the Health Board that they are providing childcare services) to determine whether the provider is complying with the Regulations and to offer advice concerning compliance. Where a provider is in breach of the Regulations, the deficiencies noted are communicated in writing and a further inspection is carried out later to determine whether the problems have been addressed. If a breach of the Regulations continues, the provider may be obliged to close or (in the case of overcrowding) to scale down operations.
The Child Care Regulations cover matters of health and safety and standards and do not extend to the developmental or educational component of services or the training and qualifications of staff. The inspection staff, most of whom come from a public health background (either Public Health Nurses or Environmental Health Officers), are selected and recruited by the health boards.
To simplify matters for providers and to improve coordination between the various State agencies involved, the inspection of early childhood education provision outside of the primary school system should, where possible, be linked to the existing framework for inspection under the Child Care Regulations. Where a provider does not, and is not required to, offer an early childhood education service, the inspection would relate primarily to health and safety matters and would remain the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children. However, where an early education service is provided or required, inspection under the existing Child Care Regulations and of educational provision will both be required.
This approach raises two structural issues: the composition of the inspection team and the allocation of responsibility for inspection between Government Departments and agencies. The Report of the Partnership 2000 Group recommends that “one member of the inspection team should be trained in the area of Early Childhood Care and Education”1 and suggests that a two-person team is required. This approach allows for flexibility in qualifications and each team may comprise a health specialist and an education expert. However, the Department of Education and Science sees advantages in a single person inspection system. The use of two person teams is more unwieldy and less efficient than inspection by a single official with dual health and education expertise. In addition, it is understood that health boards are already stretched in complying with their inspection obligations under the Child Care Regulations. The use of a single person system would ensure a rapid and responsive inspection system, which in turn would enhance the level of care and protection available for young children.
It is interesting that a switch from dual inspection to a single inspection system has recently been introduced in the UK where OFSTED (the Office for Standards in Education) will now be responsible for inspections of health, care and educational aspects of provision for young children, the aim being to “help to create one consistent and uniform set of standards for all providers offering early years services” and to deal with “the confusion, the duplication and the unfairness which two separate regimes have created.”2
Where no education service is provided or required, the existing arrangements will remain unchanged. However, it is proposed that where early educational services are provided, in accordance with the quality or developmental provisions outlined earlier, one inspector with expertise in both public health and education should carry out the inspection and provide a single report on all aspects of provision to the health boards and the Early Childhood Education Agency. The use of a single person system will require the provision of training in both public health and early education. Consultations on this matter will first be undertaken between both Departments, the Health Boards and the Early Childhood Education Agency.
The ECEA will be authorised to recruit its own inspection staff. By drawing on a wide and varied pool of expertise, the ECEA will maximise the range of skills and competencies within its inspection corps. Recruitment should be organised through open competition and might include arrangements for secondment or for employment on a contract basis.
The ECEA inspectors will be independent of the Department’s Inspectorate. However, exchange of information and staff placements will be encouraged, since there will be many parallels in the areas covered by both groups. To ensure that the expertise across the education system, which currently resides in the Department’s Inspectorate, is available to the early childhood sector, members of the Department’s Inspectorate will retain responsibility for inspection of the infant classes in primary schools. Personnel involved in these inspections must acquire appropriate expertise in other areas, relating to both care and developmental/educational aspects of early education. Expertise in the Irish language will also be necessary for inspection of Naoínraí.
To ensure quality, the ECEA’s inspection service will itself be subject to independent, expert review. This review may involve observation of inspection visits as well as assessment of inspection reports.
The new arrangements for inspection will be phased in, following consultations between relevant Departments and their agents and pending the development of educational standards and the training and recruitment of inspection staff. As indicated in Chapter 5, childcare or early childhood education providers will continue to be bound by the standards applicable under the Child Care Regulations. Providers in receipt of State funding for developmental places will be inspected for compliance with the educational standards as they are phased in and applicants for the QE mark will be inspected once the relevant standards are in place. Inspection will take place on application and, subsequently, every two years. Provision may also be made for special inspection where the ECEA or a health board has reason to believe that there is a serious breach of standards.
As in the current system, providers in breach of the standards will be informed of the deficiencies which they must address. Continued failure to comply with the standards may lead to funding (in the case of State-funded providers which seek to tackle disadvantage) or QE recognition (in all other cases) being withdrawn or withheld.
The White Paper seeks to support and develop quality early childhood education, while maintaining an adequate supply of provision. Accordingly, efforts must be made to prevent loss of supply where possible. Thus, in addition to their inspection role, inspectors will be available to support providers and suggest ways of remedying deficiencies. This may involve assistance with staff recruitment, training and curriculum, and analysis of the most common breaches of standards, together with dissemination of the results and design of strategies to tackle issues arising. It may also involve the visiting teacher service, advice help-line and other services proposed in earlier chapters. The supportive role of the inspection staff is at least as important as its monitoring role.
Under the existing system, standards for many providers are developed and promoted by their national “umbrella” organisations. These organisations are well placed and have a duty to assist their membership in meeting standards. The development of a parallel system of self-regulation for providers would be beneficial. This could complement and operate in tandem with the ECEA inspections and would provide an additional safeguard for quality. Funding will be provided to national organisations to promote the development of a self-regulation system. In addition, secondment of qualified personnel from these organisations to the inspection and evaluation teams in the ECEA will be considered.