Positive change – so why am I disheartened?

Dr Nóirín Hayes, Professor [Emeritus], Centre for Social and Educational Matters, DIT

Dr Nóirín Hayes, Professor [Emeritus], Centre for Social and Educational Matters, DIT

I was reflecting on the state of Irish early education while at the recent Global Gathering of Early Childhood Education.

Hosted in Dublin by Early Childhood Ireland and opened by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, the Global Gathering brought together over 600 delegates from around the world and offered us the opportunity to hear keynote speakers and presentations on various aspects of quality play, practice and policy in early childhood education. The energy, interest and enthusiasm of the delegates were palpable and no more evident than in the Saturday session attended by mainly Irish delegates. The day saw excellent presentations and informed discussion and debate.

I am fortunate to have been a lecturer, researcher and activist in early childhood education and care for close on thirty years. I have seen a lot of changes and positive developments. And yet at the end of the Gathering I was left feeling a little disheartened. Why? Because I believe that at a policy level we are making only minor shifts with no significant reform, no sense that as a society we now recognise the value and importance of early learning experiences for all young children. There is little evidence that we, as a sector, have really caused a serious change of thinking in relation to early childhood education – what it is, why it is important and how it needs support.

Most of us working with young children do so because we value children, we enjoy their company and we feel we can contribute to their overall development, health and wellbeing. While early childhood has been slow to gain recognition in Ireland as a key educational sector, it has now matured to the point where we have both a national curriculum [Aistear] and quality [Síolta] framework which have emerged from within the sector. These frameworks focus on the first stage of education (0-6 years) and have introduced a shared language which can break down barriers in the sector and bring together those who work across the different settings from childminders through to primary teachers in infant classes. This emerging common language has derived from a shared vision and set of principles.

There are many people in the sector, including within the departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Health and Education and Skills, who are anxious to see reform. But the problem is complex and bigger than individuals and is hampered by the lethargy of structures, systems and legal limitations. Most of us know that Síolta and Aistear provide a sound basis for the education and training of adults working in Irish early educational settings. However, they have not been appropriately resourced or implemented. By ignoring the need for appropriate and quality training and support to those providing early educational services the relevant departments are collectively failing young children.

It is the people more than the spaces that matter to the quality of experiences young children have in their early lives. It seems to me – given what we know about the critical role of the early years in children’s development and the existence of such powerful national frameworks for practice – that this is simply not good enough for young Irish children; neither is it good enough for those who provide the care and education they need in the first six years of their lives.

Apart at all from the fairness and justice of ensuring that all services for children are of high quality, there is also the fact that the structural barriers to cross-departmental, integrated and coherent action create inefficiencies; the various departments spend and continue to spend substantial amounts of money on the management and organisation of the early years sector but in a way that replicates actions across different policy spheres and yet fails to support the key aspect of quality provision – namely the people who, day to day, are providing early childhood education to our youngest citizens. Structures, systems and legislation are failing to support the needs of a changing society and they are acting as barriers rather than enablers. Structures, systems and legislation can be changed when there is the will to change them.

Despite the lip service paid to the importance of quality early childhood education and care by our politicians and policy-makers, there is still an absence of serious engagement with the task of improving and sustaining quality through training and qualification. This is particularly the case in respect of the role of the Department of Education and Skills. This is the departmental ‘home’ of Síolta and Aistear, this is the department that has responsibility for the quality of the various early childhood education and training programmes provided in our colleges and universities; this is the department that has been largely silent in taking on its responsibilities and leading the changes necessary to enhancing and ensuring the quality of Irish early childhood education.

So yes – I am disheartened.  As the Department of Children and Youth Affairs prepares to publish an Early Years Strategy I believe it is high time to demand more active, visible and engaged involvement of the Department of Education and Skills in the training and support of all early childhood practitioners. Its involvement is crucial to supporting quality in the varied early childhood education settings so that our youngest children can be assured the best possible early learning experiences.

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