Case study on Early Years policy development in Ireland

Case study on Early Years policy development in Ireland

This week, our Policy in Focus outlines the main recommendations from a recently published study entitled The Early Years Sector: A Case Study in Policy Development, written by Dr Fergal Lynch from the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre, University Galway, who is also the former Secretary General of the Department of Children.

Overview

For anyone searching for an overview of how Early Years policies were formed in Ireland over the last twenty to thirty years, The Early Years Sector: A Case Study in Policy Development is an excellent resource.

As part of his research, Dr Lynch interviewed key stakeholders in the Early Years (EY) and School Age Care (SAC) sector, including Ministers, policy officials, Early Years service providers and practitioners, and academics. Their input provides us with valuable insights about Early Years and School Age Care policies that have been developed and implemented in Ireland over the last number of years.

The case study seeks to answer one overarching question:

What lessons for policy development, implementation and evaluation in Ireland can we take from the recent experience of the Early Years and School Age Care sector?

Lynch answers this question with nine “reflections on the lessons to be learned for policy making and delivery generally”, these are:

1. Develop policy within a clear overarching framework.

The Early Years and School Age Care sector has benefitted from strategies that were developed with an overarching framework:

  • First 5 (2018)
  • Nurturing Skills (2012) and
  • Partnership for the Public Good (2021)

Lynch recommends focussing on a small number of key objectives and concentrating on their implementation.

2. Prioritise the use of research and evidence to help inform effective policy decisions.

Lynch rationalises the need for evidence-based research. “Harnessing national and international evidence, and good use of data is highly persuasive for government when choosing between competing priorities for resources.” He adds, “a strong message from the case study interviews was the importance of close collaboration between researchers and policy makers in the development of public policy.”

3. Support the work underway to promote greater research impact on policy making.

Dr Lynch proposes the introduction of practical supports in higher education institutions to help broker closer contact between researchers and policy makers. He suggests the new Evidence for Policy Unit that was set up within the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is a good place for collaborations between researchers and policy makers.

4. Pay careful attention to the feasibility of implementation.

The implementation of public policy should be realistic i.e. it “must be designed with the feasibility of implementation to the fore”. Lynch supports the use of timelines and cautions against the use of over-ambitious timelines which can “create a perception of failure.”

5. Emphasise strong leadership and management action.

The role of leaders in building effective teams, fostering a positive and inclusive culture, and keeping focused on objectives was seen as vital to achieving change.

6. Support intensive stakeholder engagement and consultation.

Ongoing engagement and transparency with stakeholders are necessary to building trust and ensuring that policy makers have a good understanding of the sector’s concerns and ambitions.

Participants were generally very positive about consultations in the Early Years and School Age Care sector and felt that the approach could be applied in other policy spheres.

7. Ensure continuous communication.

Continuous engagement with stakeholders is important, not only to keep them informed but also to “deal rapidly and clearly with incorrect information.”

8. Maximise collaboration with other Departments and agencies.

Cross-departmental working is vital to the development and implementation of public policy in an area as broad-ranging as the Early Years and School Age Care sector. An example used in the study is the collaboration between the Department of Education and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, in the development of Aistear and Síolta, and a range of other policy issues in the sector.

9. Combine rigour of analysis with pragmatism and agility at all parts of the policy process.

“Innovation and creativity – ‘that spark of recognising what’s possible’, as one Minister put it, can be key to achieving progress in a challenging environment.” The introduction of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme at a time of financial hardship is referred to as a good example of an agile reaction to changing circumstances.

Early Childhood Ireland’s response

Early Childhood Ireland’s CEO, Teresa Heeney, was delighted to respond to this study last month at The Institute for Lifecourse and Society (ILAS) Public Policy Innovation Series at the University of Galway, where she highlighted the importance of leadership and a clear allocation of leadership roles when impactful public policy for children is being implemented.

Get in touch

If you have any questions or would like to engage with Early Childhood Ireland’s policy team, please contact us at policy@earlychildhoodireland.ie

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