June 2012: Submission on Literacy and Numeracy

Early Childhood Ireland response to the report ‘Better literacy and numeracy for children and young people’ (DES, 2010)

June 2012: Submission on Literacy and Numeracy

Early Childhood Ireland response to the report ‘Better literacy and numeracy for children and young people’ (DES, 2010).

 

About Early Childhood Ireland

Early Childhood Ireland is a new organisation which builds on a combined 66 years of experience and expertise developed in the early childhood care and education (ECCE) sector by two voluntary bodies, IPPA and NCNA.
Their almost 3,500 members provide playgroup, full day and afterschool services, working with approx. 100,000 children and families from every corner of the country.
Early Childhood Ireland is uniquely positioned to support education strategies at a local level because of our experienced and qualified staff on the ground who work directly with services and who have built trust with practitioners. This direct work provides Early Childhood Ireland with an understanding of the opportunities, issues and challenges that emerge in working with families and their young children.
 
Responding to the strategy
Early childhood Ireland appreciates the opportunity to respond to this report ‘Better literacy and numeracy for children and young people’. We recognise the need to improve levels of literacy and numeracy for children and wholeheartedly welcome the strategy. We recognise the significance of these skills in children’s lives and appreciate that this report serves to refocus our attention and motivate us to be more proactive in this area. While much of the report focuses on school, we appreciate the inclusion of the preschool sector in the plan and the inherent recognition of the critical importance of the early years in lifelong learning, and particularly in bringing children into the practices of literacy and numeracy.
We begin by sharing with you our vision for a literacy and numeracy strategy, some core beliefs that underpin the vision and some key recommendations that we wish to make. We then describe the influential position of Early Childhood Ireland within the early childhood sector and the role we can play in mediating and driving the elements outlined in the strategy. Our wealth of experience supports these proposals. Finally we respond to some issues in the understanding of early childhood education and the sector arising in the strategy, before concluding.

 

1. Our vision, beliefs and recommendations

Our vision
Every child will be able and eager to share ideas, feelings and discoveries with others so that they have a sense of well-being and belonging in their communities and a confidence in their ability to make a meaningful contribution to the life of the community.
 
Our Beliefs
  1. Language, literacy and numeracy are all part of communication. The biggest lessons in communication are learned in the child’s first four years of life. In that time children not only become competent in language and its nuances but they also learn the subtleties of what Goodwin (20066) calls ‘fully embodied practices’ such as gesture and expression. They become skilled communicators.
  2. Oral language is critically important to children’s ability to engage with learning. It underpins all literacy and numeracy in early childhood, through primary school years and beyond. The ability to talk, listen, express ideas and connect with others is linked to outcomes in child cognitive ability, literacy , social and emotional development and child behaviour (Dockrell et al, 2008),
  3. Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) services are best placed to create rich environments where speech, communication and language are nurtured. This strategy can serve to recentralise it in the early childhood curriculum. It can be supported through play, through stories, through playing with sounds and rhymes and art.There is an exceptional opportunity to work with parents and create respectful and empowering spaces where language has context, relevance and meaning.
Our Recommendations
With additional resources, Early Childhood Ireland could realise this vision through a national programme of training and mentoring with early childhood services and the families they serve. For us the strategy for early years should include:
  • Development of language, literacy and numeracy modules for all levels of accredited training – from Level 4 to level 8. Funding is required to allow practitioners access these programmes as they are not in a position to carry any other training costs.
  • A national programme of in-service training to ensure a programme of language, literacy and numeracy is part of all early childhood curricula. A literacy and numeracy leadership programme could be included.
  • An education programme for parents and communities, utilising the early childhood services as a hub for accessing, engaging and guiding the key players in children’s lives.
  • Additional supports for services facilitating children and families with additional literacy and numeracy challenges
  • A series of publications and a web portal that translate theory into practice for the sector
  • A mentoring and evaluation system, integrated into the Síolta QAP.
  • Research on how early childhood services support literacy and numeracy.
  • Strategies to support transition between early childhood services and school

 

2. Early Childhood Ireland’s position within the early childhood sector equips them to play a significant role in promoting a literacy and numeracy strategy

First and foremost, the organisations wish to commit to collaboration with the DES in meeting the objectives of the strategy as they relate to the early childhood sector. There are three defining characteristics of the organisations that position us as extremely influential brokers for a national strategy on language, literacy and numeracy: (i) over 80% of centre-based early childhood care and education (ECCE) services are members of the organisations and (ii) within the OMC strategy for ECCE, we carry the brief for pedagogic support to early childhood services (iii) we have extensive experience and expertise in the area of teaching and learning through play in early childhood.

Here we briefly outline how Early Childhood Ireland can contribute towards achieving the targets as outlined in the plan, in a way that draws on our experience, research and learning and that is appropriate to the distinctive nature of the sector.

The report identifies the need to:

  • Improve early childhood practitioners’ professional practice – through recruitment, initial teacher education, rigorous assessment, robust systems for development of new teachers, high quality continuous professional development and developing the new opportunities within Aistear and Síolta for improving literacy and numeracy. Early Childhood Ireland is a training organisation providing initial practitioner accredited training and on-going professional development. We are the trainers/educators and mentors of choice for our members – specialising in adult approaches and bringing an expertise that marries both the theory and practice of early education in a meaningful way for practitioners. We deliver accredited training at FETAC Level 4, 5 and 6. We have developed several modules at Level 5 and 6 that have proved extremely successful. Our Trainer of Trainer programmes accredited by City & Guilds prepare trainers to work effectively with groups. In partnership with Maynooth University and Froebel College of Education, we are ready to deliver a Level 8 Degree in Early Childhood Education, beginning April, 2011. We offer professional development workshops and mentoring in all areas of early childhood pedagogy. We have also been progressive in developing flexible approaches to professional development, including learning on-line education programmes.
  • Build the capacity of school leadership – ECCE services generally employ 2 or 3 practitioners.Early Childhood Ireland through their Síolta Coordinators and Early Childhood Specialists (ECS) act as mentors, motivators and leaders for the playgroup sector. We have the expertise, with limited resources, to broker between research and practice and between government targets and practice and to introduce and disseminate models of good practice within the sector.
  • Give priority to the development of language skills, literacy and numeracy – Early Childhood Ireland has already developed approaches to language, literacy and numeracy that are particularly appropriate to the early childhood sector. Using play as the core context and medium for children’s learning, we specialise in such evidence informed programmes as the Penn Literacy Network and the Marte Meo approach (Aarts, 2000)
  • Continue to target additional resources at disadvantage – Early Childhood Ireland has 500+ community based services, providing ECCE in disadvantaged areas. We have worked with them on the DEIS, NEYAI and other projects. These relationships position us well for supporting a language, literacy and numeracy strategy in disadvantaged areas.
  • Promote a culture of continuous quality improvement – Early Childhood Ireland works with the Early Years Education Policy Unit (EYEPU) in supporting continuous quality improvement through the Síolta quality programme. Our Síolta Coordinators train and mentor service providers nationally. The Síolta programme provides an opportunity to evaluate and develop provision in an integrated way within services in terms of language, literacy and numeracy.
  • Enable parents and communities to support their children’s literacy and numeracy development – Early Childhood Ireland through their members are in a pivotal position for targeting parents and communities with advice and support on developing language, literacy and numeracy with their children. We can support our members to offer training and advice to parents and deliver training directly ourselves.
  • Ensure a consistent focus at system level on the prioritisation of literacy and numeracy in the educational system and beyond – As central players in the early education field, Early Childhood Ireland would appreciate the opportunity to be part of the Implementation Group so that we can bring the distinctive issues of the early childhood sector and our expertise to the table. The organisations have long years of experience in the field and a high level of educational attainment including both doctorate and masters levels.

Early Childhood Ireland sees themselves as the gateway to working with early childhood practitioners, in much the same role as the teaching council in the primary sector. As already stated, the vast majority of services are affiliated to our organisations and recognise us as mediators of policy, research and regulation in the field of pedagogy in particular. We believe we can play a significant part in developing this strategy. We also bring a wealth of experience in evidence informed language, literacy and numeracy teaching approaches as outlined here.

Our Experience
Early Childhood Ireland has experience of delivering a variety of programmes that support language, literacy and numeracy. We have a long history of learning and teaching through play. We have also engaged with a number of evidence-informed programmes such as Marte Meo (Aarts, 2001), Penn Literacy Programme from Penn State University, the learning from the English National Strategy programme ‘Every Child a Talker’ (ECAT) and from the Scottish approach in ‘Learning Together: Developing Literacy and Numeracy across learning’ which is part of their ‘Journey to Excellence’ programme. The following gives a sense of actions that could support this strategy.
  • Modelling communication strategies for children using Marte Meo (Aarts 2001) strategies – leading, following, registering at action, verbal and emotional level, naming etc.
  • Building the practices and artefacts of literacy and numeracy into children’s play roles and themes designing environments that are rich in language and opportunities for engaging with mathematical and scientific concept development
  • Environments that are conducive to collaboration and conversation
  • Penn Literacy Programme – an evidenced informed programme from Penn State University
  • Story-telling and story-acting as proposed by Paley (1991)
  • Story sacks – that engage children in building narrative and are shared with families.
  • Treasure baskets and chatter boxes that include materials that stimulate enquiry, conversation and mathematical and scientific exploration
 

3. The Strategy’s understanding of and relevance to the ECCE sector

The report recognises the contribution of Síolta and more particularly Aistear, the national curriculum framework to the capacity and effectiveness of the early childhood sector. Early Childhood Ireland is very proud of their contribution to the development of these frameworks and to their dissemination among their members. The work has led to the development of a very collaborative relationship with the OMCYA, EYEPU and the NCCA which we can confidently build on in progressing a language, literacy and numeracy strategy among EC practitioners. These agencies are relatively new to the preschool sector and consequently the expertise of Early Childhood Ireland has and can be of enormous value.
 
Arising out of the Síolta and Aistear work the sector has agreed a set of philosophical principles that articulate core understandings about early childhood learning that guides practice in the sector. We now guard these principles with great care and are concerned that they may be eroded in any way by a more school based strategy. Since the theory of education underpinning this strategy is not clear, we consider it important to reiterate these principles and relate them to this strategy. In summary, they include:
  • Children are individuals who learn and develop as members of families and communities. Any approach to literacy and numeracy development must recognise children’s individuality but also recognise and respect the values and practices of the communities to which they belong. Children learn with the important people in their lives. They will value and want to learn the skills of language, literacy and numeracy, if they are valued by their families and communities. In early childhood services, we try to create ‘communities of learners’ (Bruner 1996) where we collaborate with parents in co-constructing learning together.
  • Children learn in relationships. Their principle motivation for learning is that they want to be valued and useful members of their communities. They want to learn the valued practices, skills and knowledge of the people around them so that they can participate in and contribute to community activity. The implications for learning language, literacy and numeracy are that children must see these skills as authentically useful in their everyday lives. The learning therefore must be situated in contexts that children relate to. For this reason, in early childhood we integrate these practices into children’s play, where they can test their usefulness, develop and practice them.
  • Learning is holistic. We cannot realise cognitive targets without due consideration for the emotional, social and physical child. As Aistear identifies, children’s learning should lead to well-being, identity and belonging, communicating and exploring and thinking. These are learning outcomes that recognise that in the process of learning, through their participation in activities with others, children are learning how to see themselves and the world around them. Any strategy for the early years in particular must prioritise these learning outcomes. Within this perspective, language, literacy and numeracy must be taught as helpful aids towards these learning goals.
These principles must guide our educational aims, our definitions, our curriculum planning and implementation and our assessment. On a very positive note, this strategy clearly values an integrated approach to learning literacy and numeracy, names play as a key context and medium for learning and recognises the need for adults to be guided by children’s interests. However, for early childhood practitioners, this conflicts with the stated need for ‘unambiguous learning outcomes’ and ‘rigorous’ assessment. The pathways to learning and development are multiple and diverse in early childhood and the standardisation of learning outcomes generally favours some children and discriminates against other. Such standardisation is unfair and restrictive. We are committed to an emergent curriculum that is guided by children’s interests. We appreciate that the focus in this report is on schools but we are concerned at any tendency towards a ‘push down’ curriculum that would channel children’s learning in a school direction in the preschool years.
 
The school focus is also responsible for the omission of the birth to three age group, which is regrettable. These are the years when the foundations for language, literacy and numeracy are laid. Parents teach children how to communicate in the ways that people around them understand and share. Their communication is infused with lessons about feelings, attitudes and motives and they carry powerful emotional messages and have a major bearing on every child’s sense of well-being and identity. This strategy needs to be alert to the holistic, integrated nature of learning. How we teach language, literacy and numeracy impacts on well-being, identity and belonging.
 
In early childhood services, we believe that children must be encouraged to express themselves in multiple ways – using the ‘hundred languages of children’ (Edwards, Gandini, Forman, 1993). The strategy reminds us that there is far more we can do to support language, literacy and numeracy but we also have to be careful about the unintended consequences of a ‘relentless focus’ or the ‘prioritising’ of literacy and numeracy skills over social and life skills, environment studies, arts and music education etc. (p25). In an integrated approach these other areas of learning provide contexts for advancing the skills of literacy and numeracy.
 
Again in reference to the early childhood sector, the strategy needs to take into consideration the way the sector is staffed. We have made enormous strides in the last 10 years in terms of professionalisation of the sector, in particular. Nevertheless, the sector remains relatively under- resourced, with low pay and low levels of qualification. Any approach to educating, up-skilling and evaluating staff practice must be cognisant of the constraints in the sector. We need to remember also that children and families benefit when childcare practitioners come from the local community and are in a position to act as role models to which children and their families can relate. Suggestions in the strategy about selecting ‘best students’ (p15) for teacher training betray a value on exam achievement while in early childhood we believe the non-negotiable characteristic of a good teacher is her/his interpersonal skills. These abilities to communicate, to connect, to share emotionally with children are skills that are not easy to mandate and difficult to subject to ‘rigorous testing’.
 
The assessment approach proposed for young children also needs to be clarified. While the strategy does not identify an assessment strategy for preschool children, we are concerned about the push down impact of assessment in junior infants on the preschool curriculum. Furthermore we believe that standardised normative assessment using age and stage targets is not appropriate for young children who develop in multiple ways and directions and are entitled to the freedom to do so. In early childhood we focus on the process of learning rather than targets and products.
 
The report draws particular attention to the difficulties that children from disadvantaged communicates face, because of inadequate literacy and numeracy skills, in terms of early school leaving, unemployment, inadequate job skills and poor emotional and physical health. Certainly this is an issue that needs to be addressed. However a focus on language and literacy often positions children from disadvantaged communities as deficient and therefore is not good for their sense of identity and belonging within the education system. For children growing up with disadvantage, literacy and numeracy is not a priority. They use their competencies to develop other more important coping skills. We believe that we must always build on children’s strengths and interests and that this is the best approach to improving skills in literacy and numeracy. In the interest of equality of participation and opportunity, we believe that all children with additional needs should have the opportunity under the ECE scheme to attend preschool for 2 years.
 
As the strategy identifies, building partnerships with parents is critical to its success. We know that the early childhood sector offers an unparalleled opportunity for this partnership. Early childhood practitioners are generally in daily contact with parents and are recognised as a source of advice, guidance and support to young parents in particular. At little extra cost, they can also immediately be a centre for accessing learning resources such as books and educational supplies. The early childhood centre is therefore the best hub for parental education and support – and can play a significant part in this strategy. While aids (referred to in the strategy) such as the NCCA tip sheet for parents on play are helpful – to be effective they must accompany face to face education. The strategy would benefit if childcare practitioners were incentivised and up-skilled to play this role.
 

Conclusion

Firstly, again we wish to reiterate that we welcome this strategy and the inclusion of the early childhood sector. We are committed to ensuring its effectiveness. We believe that we are strategically and uniquely placed in the early childhood sector to be key players.
 
We maintain that early childhood is separate and different to school based education and believe that any attempt to impose school based learning methods and outcomes on young children would have a negative effect. We are committed to a play-based approach to learning in early childhood and have the research, expertise and experience to further the goals of the strategy within this ethos.
 
We would like to see this strategy give the same importance to early childhood education and to the professional development of early childhood practitioners as it gives to teachers in the other sectors. We believe the strategy offers an opportunity to create better continuity and synergy between the work of both groups.
 
We look forward to working in partnerships with all the stakeholders in this strategy and to very positive outcomes in terms of improved language, literacy and numeracy for children and their families.
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