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Placing the Child at the Centre of Quality in Early Childhood and Primary Education

By: DR. CLAIRE REGAN AND DR. LEAH OTOOLE

Monday 20 April 2020

What does a high quality Early Childhood Educational setting look and feel like? What does ‘quality’ mean for a young child? Is this the same thing that is defined as ‘quality’ by the governmental institutions? Both of us recall that when our children were starting in Early Childhood Education this was a question that preoccupied us, mind, heart and soul, for many months. This was despite the fact that or maybe precisely because we are both psychologists and so we understand the fundamental importance of early life experiences and how they shape our future selves.

Discussions on what constitutes quality in early childhood education abound. There are few issues that are more emotive for parents of young children and Early Childhood educators. We know that good relationships with children and their families are fundamentally important, that play is key, and that we should embrace diversity and cherish difference. So why then have we got a “one size fits all” approach to assessment of quality in our Early Childhood Education and Care system? And why across Europe are we increasingly moving towards standardised testing with predefined outcomes which leave no room for difference and for children’s voices?

The increasing national and international focus on “accountability” and quantitative measurement of “quality” ignore some key aspects of quality that we know from both rigorous scientific research and from our gut instinct to be of the utmost importance: good relationships, inclusive environments and holistic learning. Why is this? Is it because “good” relationships are too hard to define and measure? Or because we’re not sure how to support practitioners to improve relationships when they are challenging? What does an inclusive ECEC environment actually look and feel like? When are we being truly holistic and thus maximising children’s learning across domains?

The THRIECE (Teaching for Holistic, Relational and Inclusive Early Childhood Education) project is an innovative, multidisciplinary Erasmus+ research project, coordinated by Marino Institute of Education, with partner institutions in Ireland, Poland and Portugal working together to try to answer some of these questions. We have partners across three levels of education: Higher Educational Institutions, Primary Schools and Early Childhood Educational settings.  We set out to draw on the expertise of all members of our project team, to use our multi-theoretical understanding of children in context, of developmental psychology, of personality formation and of education and pedagogy, to propose an alternative view of what constitutes quality early childhood education. We believe that understandings of learning and quality in Early Childhood and Primary Education should be based on three pillars:

  1. Relational education: emphasising the fundamental importance of early relationships and interactions between educators and children, children and peers, educators and parents and settings and their communities and societies in which they are rooted;
  2. Holistic education: recognising the interrelatedness of domains of development and the importance of drawing on children’s own talents, emotions, experiences, culture and interests;
  3. Inclusive education: welcoming sociocultural diversity and valuing children’s cultural, linguistic and social backgrounds.

With THRIECE we define, describe and elaborate in detail on how to augment quality in each of these areas. We argue that such approaches could promote transformative education that offers a powerful vehicle for social inclusion, supporting “provision that encourages participation, strengthens social inclusion and embraces diversity” (EC 2014: 9) We argue that education that is holistic, inclusive and relational enables children to develop communicative, mathematical, technical and social competencies as well as cultural awareness, expression and understanding.

We presented the findings of our research at our international conference “Placing the Child at the Centre of Quality Early Childhood and Primary Education” which took place in Visual, Carlow on 16th January 2020. We were delighted with the enthusiasm of the conference participants for these fundamental practice concepts and with the wide range of presentations given by our conference speakers. There is no doubt that there is a strong appetite in Ireland, across Europe and, indeed, internationally, for putting the child back at the centre of what is understood as constituting quality in Early Childhood and Primary Education. We want to support this movement, by providing a strong research evidence base, combined with practice expertise and a shared language in a newly, integrated theoretical framework.

We will be shortly publishing our three Free online Continuous Professional Development modules: one in Relational Education, one in Inclusive Education and one in Holistic Education. They will be available to you, open-source, for use by anyone working in or interested in Early Childhood and Primary Education. See our website.  You can also follow us on Twitter @ThrieceProject

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