Last week, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY) published the End of Year Three Evaluation Report of the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM). The independent evaluation, undertaken by the University of Derby, involved almost 2,000 stakeholders – parents, educators, providers and representative groups.
The Access and Inclusion Model (AIM) has been received positively, with participants in the evaluation viewing it as an effective strategy for change. The model has enabled many young children with disabilities to attend, be fully included, and meaningfully participate in the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme in mainstream pre-schools. AIM has spurred the development of more inclusive cultures and practices in pre-schools and developed the confidence of the workforce in their capacity to include children with disabilities.
There are high levels of participation with over 27,000 children benefiting across 4,400 settings. For AIM level 7 there have been 19,354 awards since the programme began. Surveys demonstrated that parental/carer awareness of AIM Level 7 is the highest of all levels, and it was identified as the most beneficial and impactful aspect of AIM. Receipt of Level 7 support was associated with more positive perceptions of AIM’s impact. Parent/carers regarded good quality Level 7 support as crucial to their child’s full inclusion and meaningful participation. In the survey, 90 per cent of providers agreed that additional assistance had helped children with disabilities to get the most out of their ECCE provision, and the majority (75 per cent) reported benefits from it. From a provider perspective, 96 per cent of respondents reported that AIM had a positive impact [on inclusion] at their Early Years setting.
AIM has been effective in achieving its intended outcomes of full inclusion and meaningful participation for the majority of the children it supports. However, the impacts are not reported by parents/carers to be equal for all children, and those with less visible disabilities (Autism Spectrum Disorder, and to a lesser extent, emotional issues and speech and language difficulty) and complex disabilities are not perceived to be gaining as much from AIM, as those with other types of disability. Almost all parents/carers of children with physical and sensory disabilities perceive AIM positively. This signals a need for continual vigilance in the development of AIM to ensure that all children are supported. There is a need to sustain and build all parents’/carers’ trust in AIM’s ability to meet their child’s needs, and to work with them in ways that strengthen the impact of AIM on children’s inclusion.
Further challenges remain on resourcing the model. Options for remedying these include:
- The need to increase the financial support provided for Level 7,
- The development of a database for additional staff available for Level 7;
- Enhancing the setting’s access to specialist professionals;
- A call for providing AIM support from an earlier age, and the need for continuing training for Early Years staff in inclusive practice.
Recruitment to Level 7 posts had been challenging for some settings, and this was a risk for AIM’s sustainability. The main cause was perceived to be poor pay and working conditions for staff. Difficulties with recruitment had caused distress to parents/carers and had created barriers to inclusion. Moreover, Level 7 continues to be conceptualised by some parents/carers and providers as a Special Needs Assisting (SNA) rather than a distributed model. AIM was designed to implement a distributed model of additional support, so that an adult would not be assigned to a child in a 1:1 model, rather It can be used by the provider to recruit additional support, to reduce the staff / child ratio, or for other specified purposes, all centred on supporting the room leader to ensure the child’s optimal participation.
Regarding transitions to primary school, the evaluation found some evidence of difficulties for parents/carers of children with disabilities at this transition point, particularly when mainstream school was the goal. There is a need to consider how cross-sectoral collaboration through AIM could support the transition of AIM-supported children at this important point in life.
The Expansion of AIM
There is support for AIM across varied stakeholders who are also broadly in favour of AIM’s expansion to a) hours outside the ECCE programme entitlement including full days where needed, b) extending AIM support to children who were younger than the qualifying ECCE age, and c) extending AIM support to School Age Care (SAC). A range of reasons for supporting these expansions was given. These included the potential for earlier identification, improvements to parent/carers’ opportunities for work/study, and as support for an effective transition to primary school, where additional support could continue into SAC. The report states that AIM should be scaled up and out to include all age groups throughout Early Years and School Age Care. Despite the support for its expansion, there are concerns among stakeholders about the practicality and impact of reducing the adult-to-child ratio even further in younger age groups.
Next Steps and Conclusion
Early Childhood Ireland welcomes this report and calls on the recommendations for expansion to be implemented without delay, so that more children can be supported to engage fully in high-quality Early Years and School Age Care provision. In our Budget 2024 Submission, Early Childhood Ireland called for a 5-year plan with requisite investment in the EY and SAC sector. This plan would have particular relevance now. A 5-year plan, coupled with an increase in investment, would go some way in addressing the issues of recruitment, training and transitions. With the expansion of the AIM programme to begin on a phased basis in September 2024, a robust plan for the sector will mean that the rollout of any expansion is properly planned and managed, so that more children can be supported to access to high-quality Early Years and School Age Care. In our Budget Submission, we also called for a full implementation of the Better Data recommendations as outlined in Partnership for the Public Good. Better understanding and use of the data will allow the Department to plan more effectively for the needs of children, as well as for transitions to primary school in local communities.
Get in touch
Early Childhood Ireland will continue to monitor the expansion of AIM. If you would like to know more about our work, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.