Education Talks: The question of quality in early years education

Maresa Duignan, Assistant Chief Inspector at the Department of Education and Skills, Ireland, discusses what ‘quality’ means in the context of early childhood education and care, and how it can be improved – both for children and for their teachers.

What is the significance of the EU Quality Framework on early childhood education and care?

Children's experiences in early-year services across Europe have the potential to be really influential in their current lives, in their future lives, and, in fact, throughout their life. So it is really critical that we make those experiences the best quality that we possibly can – for children, and for their families. When the Quality Framework came out in 2014, it was a proposal, a draft set of statements, and even in that format, it has already made some impact in policy across Europe.

What does ‘quality’ mean? How can families, communities and local services contribute?

Children develop best in an environment where all stakeholders – all adults who work in the support of their care and education – work in partnership, with a common, shared set of goals and understandings, and so those really important relationships are the starting point of quality. It is really important that staff, practitioners, teachers, parents, and wider families and societies and communities work together to share their understanding of how children best develop and learn. We also need a shared vision of what quality looks like in practice. That can be expressed through curricula or programmes of learning that are informed by best evidence around how children develop and learn. We also really importantly need to find support at the macrosystem level – so policymakers need to provide the resources, the governance infrastructure, and all of those elements that are going to create what has often been described as a competent system, which supports quality at all levels: from the top at policymaking, right through to the experiences that children have.

Can quality ECEC have an impact on the inclusiveness and efficiency of education systems?

Early childhood education can lay foundation stones that really give children the potential and build their capacity to benefit from the offer of education right throughout the education system, and indeed into their professional lives and in their personal lives, as well. In early childhood we build strong foundations through fostering learning dispositions such as creativity, self regulation, problem-solving. We create children who understand each other, who can be members of communities and societies. We foster empathy – and unfortunately, in the current climate across Europe, we could do with a lot more empathy and compassion.

How can the status of practitioners working in early childhood education be improved?

But what is really important, as well, is the fact that you need highly qualified skilled adults to work with those young children, to support those really positive learning interactions, to find those teachable moments where children make that breakthrough in their learning and development. Those adults need to be qualified appropriately, but they also need to find the work rewarding. They need to be recognised and valued for the work that they do. Unfortunately, too often across Europe, the early childhood workforce tends to be the poorer relations in the education system, and that is something that we must change. We really need to understand that the starting point for improving the quality of experiences for young children is to ensure that we have a strong, competent, confident workforce who feel fulfilled in their work, so they come in with that positive attitude that models learning for young children. We need to recognise that the work that early childhood professionals do is critical. If they cannot do a good job working with our youngest children, then we are always going to be catching up in the remainder of the education system. They need to be given parity of status and parity of recognition and value.

What is your view on the transition from early years to primary school?

Transitions are something that is positive, if they are supported correctly. Our first transition from the close, warm connectedness of our families into an early-year service is becoming more and more common for children across Europe. In recent times, the numbers of children being funded to attend free earlier services has increased quite dramatically. This presents challenges for the next stage, the next transition: the one into primary school. Because now we have a cohort of young children across Europe who have had – hopefully – the experience of high-quality early education and care, and this has developed their capacity, their learning dispositions, their skills, their empathy, their ability to communicate. And primary schools and primary teachers need to be ready for that: they need to understand that there has to be continuity, both in the experiences, but also in the way in which children are recognised as competent, confident learners.