Academic journal article International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education

Early Childhood Education in Ireland: Change and Challenge

Academic journal article International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education

Early Childhood Education in Ireland: Change and Challenge

Article excerpt

Introduction

While the importance of early childhood care and education (ECCE) has been widely acknowledged in policy documents in Ireland since at least the mid-1990s, it is only in recent years, and in response to public concern about the affordability of ECCE and the quality of some of what is on offer, that major initiatives have been taken to improve both. In the last fifteen years, policies have been introduced and efforts have been made to increase the number of early years places available, and to some extent, this had the desired effect. However, as the OECD (2012) points out, expanding services without paying equal attention to quality will not bring the desired benefits either to individual children or to society as a whole, and may indeed have detrimental effects on both. While initiatives to improve quality have also been launched, there is concern that these have not always had the desired effect. In part, this may be due to inadequate funding and support, as well as the historic fragmented nature of ECCE in Ireland. Much of the ECCE sector outside of the formal education system was starting from a very low base in terms of staff qualifications and working conditions as well as the physical environment and facilities, all of which are important in attaining and maintaining a high quality environment for young children.

Recent media reporting on non-compliance with standards in nurseries and crèches have led to calls for tightening up of the current inspection regime, and a much closer scrutiny of the day-to-day operation of childcare services. While regulation and enforcement is important, it is only one element of quality, and on its own, is unlikely to lead to the kinds of improvements that it is desired to bring about. The Childcare (Pre-school) Regulations (1996, revised 2006) set out minimum standards for health and safety, and the introduction in 2006 of Síolta, the national quality framework for early childhood education, and in 2009 of Aistear, the national early years curriculum framework for children from birth to six (NCCA, 2009), set out the standards that ECCE services should meet. However, neither Aistear nor Síolta is compulsory and the implementation of both has been slow. The introduction of the Free Pre-school Year (ECCE Scheme) in 2010 was a landmark in early education, and for the first time meant almost universal access to at least one year of ECCE for all children. In the 2011/2012 school year, 67 000 or 94% of eligible children were enrolled in pre-school services under this scheme. It 'transformed national social policy in relation to the provision of childcare as, for the first-time, the objective of the investment was the impact on children ... rather than the provision of places' (CEEU, 2014, p.6). The ECCE Scheme also offered a financial incentive to services to ensure that staff had a least a minimum qualification, and in this it has succeeded to some extent, though not perhaps as well as had been envisaged (CEEU, 2014).

Within the formal school system, while the 1999 Primary School Curriculum espouses a developmental approach to learning especially in the early years, the 2004 OECD review found that an overly didactic approach prevailed in the majority of classrooms catering for four to six year olds. Among the reasons that have been put forward to explain this are large class sizes, lack of space and facilities and an over-dependence on workbooks (Nic Craith & Fay, 2007). Regrettably therefore, it cannot be said that early years provision, either within the formal school system or outside it, has reached the kind of standards that all of us would wish for our children, and without a concerted effort at national level, this is unlikely to change.

This paper will first consider how national policy has both influenced and constrained the development and accessibility of ECCE in Ireland, and second, it will discuss the issue of quality in ECCE, using as a framework the five policy levers for quality identified by the OECD (2012): (i) quality goals and regulations; (ii) curriculum standards; ( iii) improving qualifications, training and working conditions; (iv) engaging families and community and (v) advancing data collection, research and monitoring. …

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