March 2013: National Early Year’s Strategy (NEYS)

Early Childhood Ireland made this submission in March 2013 in light of our work at practice, policy and academic levels.

March 2013: National Early Year’s Strategy (NEYS)

Early Childhood Ireland makes this submission in light of our work at practice, policy and academic levels and is informed directly by:

  • Regional Consultation sessions with members on the themes and strands (Safe and Protected; Healthy and Active; Learning; Economically Secure; Move Confidentially into Adulthood) outlined by DCYA – listening to our members face to face
  • Online survey which linked with and fed back into DCYA – listening to the sector supported by technology
  • The work of ECI with services and practitioners; with families and children; with trainers and teachers – listening and learning through our experience in and of the sector
  • Collaborations with international partners (BECERA; EECERA; Pen Literacy Network; Reggio) – listening and learning through relationships with others from different cultural backgrounds
  • Partnerships with academic institutions (NUIM; IT Sligo) – listening and learning through academic collaborations which require stepping into the shoes of the other
  • Participation on local and national bodies (CCCs; NVCC; NCCC; CFSA) – listening and learning from the experience and context of others within a national context

The Development of a National Early Year’s Strategy that is ambitious for our children and our society requires champions and commitment. Early Childhood Ireland believes that The NEYS presents a real opportunity for leadership, to re-think the structures, policy context and resource allocation across departments and agencies. We need to be brave and be willing to direct and redirect resources where they have the greatest impact. In working to develop and implement the NEYS, the approach must:

  • Have agreement, coherence and buy-in across all stakeholders
  • Harness existing services, expertise and resources across voluntary and statutory agencies
  • Focus on engaging with and empowering families and children
  • Set ‘quality’ as the standard for all services (less than quality will not suffice)
  • Put play at the heart of children’s services
  • Listen and learn from ‘others’

Mapping The Early Years Strategy

Early Childhood Ireland believes that a strong vision and a robust set of principles will provide direction and underpin the strategy (some thoughts are included at the end of this submission). We identify four key goals which must be addressed within the strategy, each of which is mapped out below.

 

1. Supporting children, families and communities

Children grow up in the context of family and community. To support children, we must first plan to support parents and families in all their diversity with different capacities and economic possibilities. The strategy must consider and support, family life, health and community.
 
 
Family life
  • Focus on maternity/paternity/parental leave with a commitment to a goal of twelve months paid maternity leave
  • Support and recognise the involvement of Fathers and Grandparents
  • Promote home as a safe place minimising domestic violence
  • Facilitate a work/Life balance for parents and families
  • Subsidise high quality childcare for parents after paid maternity leave has ceased
  • Provide affordable, flexible, high quality childcare and out of school care appropriate to the needs of children and their parents
  • Support in the form of refundable tax credits /subsidy available to low income families (to ensure that parents are incentivised to engage in the workforce and are not caught by inequalities in the social welfare system)
  • Ensure services available to parents are accessible, within reach, and are delivered in a reasonable timeframe.
  • Provide services that are universal and are non-stigmatising for parents
 
Health
  • Update the National Breastfeeding Strategy (1994) in line with recent research
  • Ensure sufficiency and accessibility to good antenatal care and subsequent developmental checks for infants
  • Develop physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines for the early year’s population.
  • Focus on birth to 2 years as a critical and sensitive period of development that shapes future outcomes

 

Neighbourhoods

  • Provide safe and maintained neighbourhoods that promote civic engagement and facilitate children’s engagement in community life
  • Ensure that planning laws/guidelines provide for child and family friendly living, with particular attention to Apartment living
  • Improve play opportunities and addressing barriers to play

 

2. Ensuring quality and responsive early childhood care and education experiences/services

There is emerging recognition of the importance of early childhood, the need to invest heavily in these years (particularly for the Under 3s) and the benefit of shifting from crisis intervention to early identification and prevention. Research clearly highlights the importance for children of participating in quality early education and childcare. Quality matters. Evidence suggests that where children attend higher quality settings, there is a positive impact on their speech and language, on their cognitive development and on parent-child relationship.

So much is possible for children and families where quality is core to all aspects of provision. Envisioning the early childhood care and education setting as a hub of possibilities and a space for connecting with others is powerful. The EECE service can act as a hub or gateway, where parents can talk with practitioners, where health (physical and psychological) services can be available to children and families, where speech and language therapy can be delivered on site in conjunction with both families and practitioners, where first time and new parents can meet and find support, where families new to the neighbourhood can connect with others and develop a sense of community.

 

Quality in Practice

  • Every registered service should provide a two year universal, funded early childhood care and education (ECCE) programme, which is linked to quality criteria
  • Services that participate in Government funded schemes have a minimum of 3 CPD days per academic year included in the allocation of days. Agreed targets and areas for CPD are set and agreed with the sector. This would mean that aspects of CPD could be directed nationally and locally (e.g., 2 days could be allocated to the service to support local need and 1 day of training/CPD could be channelled to curriculum, literacy, numeracy or science for example).
  • Every service is graduate led (Level 7/8 with specific child development and pedagogical strands)
  • Each room is headed up by a practitioner with a minimum Level 6 (Infant and Toddler; Wobbler; Montessori; Pre-School)
  • Higher capitation is graduated and tiered in a way that incentivises graduates and those with Level 6. The matrix for all schemes must become more sophisticated, weighted against bands of qualifications
  • Qualifications are linked to funding across all schemes, ECCE; CETS; CCS; SAC. In other words qualification levels are determined and required for every service and each room of the service (this would provide an even playing pitch for children is all types of services and would also ensure that infants/toddlers do not have unqualified or under-qualified staff)
  • All services engage with Aistear and Siolta, or have access to preparatory support (pre-Siolta)
  • Services have access to an Early Childhood Specialist/Siolta Mentor (model of the Pedagogista in Reggio, which sees one Early Childhood/Curriculum Specialist working consistently with clusters of early childhood services)
  • Speech and language support is delivered in the settings – HSE Speech Therapy resources should be redirected into services. This approach has been evidenced through CDI as being effective use of targeted resources.
  • Special Needs Assistants (SNA) made available to services. As sites of learning and education, pre-school settings should have access to SNAs through the Department of Education and Skills in much the same way that primary schools do. Children with Additional Needs require the assistance of SNAs to take up and fulfil their rights to early education (which is now afforded to all children)
  • Child protection training and refresher courses are available for all early years services
  • Parent support is delivered through and in partnership with the preschool services. (The focus of this support could be in the areas of behaviour, language, literacy, numeracy, etc.). Practitioners that meet the required levels of qualifications (Graduate led with Level 6 staff heading up each room) register to participate in training which uses an evidence-based model (Learning at Home) to help parents support children’s learning. In return the practitioner undertakes to deliver a series of sessions with parents over the academic year (at no cost to the parents). The practitioners receive an element of support / CPD to promote a quality intervention with parents. This approach should be targeted initially at pre-school practitioners in DEIS areas, evaluated and further disseminated over time.
  • Community services are supported and have strong voluntary boards of management with clear governance models (supported to engage with the National Code of Governance)
  • Childminding is regulated
  • School Age Childcare is regulated

 

3. Developing the workforce and building leadership

A highly skilled, responsive workforce is core to achieving good outcomes for children. Initial training and qualifications provide a solid foundation, but work with children and families require support through CPD (both in-house and external). The capacity and effectiveness of the workforce is significantly influenced by the skill of the trainer. The quality of accredited programme, the subject matter, expertise and experience of the trainer or lecturer is vital to increasing quality in the sector. We in Early Childhood Ireland believe that the following must be inscribed in the NEYS to impact positively on children’s learning and development:
  • A Transformation Fund is available to the sector – a form of co-funding that would enable staff attain higher qualifications (this approach in the UK indeed transformed the workforce / Scotland’s local authorities have also supported practitioners in attaining higher level qualifications).
  • Paid non-contact time is an integral part of employment contracts – potentially part funded by employers, practitioners and government funding programmes
  • Practitioners have access to enhanced qualifications – accessible, affordable, part-time (and full-time) across levels 5, 6, 7, 8 and beyond
  • A post-graduate qualification (focusing on child development and pedagogy) would be available to those holding degrees (other disciplines)
  • Access to on-going professional development/learning is available in a planned way
  • Practitioners are well qualified and supported to roll out curriculum and national frameworks
  • The workforce has access to Early Childhood Specialists, who work with clusters of services to enhance curriculum and pedagogy
  • The adoption of a graduated approach to increasing levels of qualifications (Level 6 – higher capitation)
  • Leadership capacity within services is developed systematically with training that is tailored to the sector and fit for purpose (not solely focussing on leadership in the context of business and management but in the context of relationships)
  • Trainers who deliver childcare/education training must have qualifications and experience of and relevant to the sector
  • Trainers are supported to engage in CPD (mandatory) which keeps them up to date with developments and thinking, renewing energy and enthusiasm

 

4. Shaping systems that are fit for purpose (regulation and governance)

Quality does not relate solely to practitioners and services, it is dynamic and systemic. Services for children and families are dependent on systems that are robust, responsive and open. Systems of regulations, inspections and governance must be fair and equitable, interpreted and applied with consistency. The NEYS provides an opportunity to review systems and to include: 
  • Extension of the EECE scheme to two years free universal provision – 15 hours, 38 weeks for two years (prior to entry into formal education)
  • Registration of services is linked with targets, timeframes and resources. A planned and graduated approach will be implemented through progressive realisation
  • Transparent Regulation and Inspections – inspection process are appropriate for the early childhood care and education sector
  • Inspectors to have experience and expertise (a background) in the area of early childhood care and education. Inspectors should be recruited or drawn from the early childhood specialist community
  • Reform the regulation and inspection regime to improve standards and to give parents better information.
  • Fair and equitable funding and administration for services – changes to systems are agreed and signposted in advance to facilitate effective roll out

 

Conclusion

To achieve and do well by our children in the context of a national strategy, we must ensure quality services and supporting systems that are fit for purpose. The capacity, qualifications and infrastructure of the sector has developed significantly over the past decade and a half. In this new NEYS, we must push on. There is a real opportunity now to transform the services we provide for children and families.

  • Extend the ECCE scheme for two years and use it as a dynamic mechanism to build quality within the sector.
  • Build integrated services for children and families – invest in support and preventative initiatives
  • Increase qualifications – move beyond Level 5 and work towards a graduate led sector
  • Support quality in practice – provide on-site mentoring (Siolta/Aistear) to all services
  • Attend specifically to our Under 3 population (which is growing)

The reality is that quality costs and these key actions require investment. Those working in the sector must have access to a Transformation Training Fund, see additional remuneration for increased qualifications and continuing professional development must be stitched in to funding (ECCE) contracts to enable new thinking and an inquiry based approach to practice.

There appears to be acceptance by policy makers and politicians of the importance of early childhood, something we in the sector have known for many years. The NEYS is timely and in Early Childhood Ireland we believe that aligned with the recent referendum, children, their families and the services that positively influence and impact on their lives are embedded in the national agenda.

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