Plan for second free preschool year ‘ill-thought through’

Trinity academic warns budget measure misses real investment needs of sector

 Nóirín Hayes: “It’s almost like saying we will build hospitals and people who are sick can go there and they’ll be fine – and we haven’t got any of the equipment, and we haven’t got the trained personnel but sure we’ll mind them.” Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

Nóirín Hayes: “It’s almost like saying we will build hospitals and people who are sick can go there and they’ll be fine – and we haven’t got any of the equipment, and we haven’t got the trained personnel but sure we’ll mind them.” Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

 

The Government’s plan for a second free preschool year for children is “ill-thought through and deceptive” and misses the real investment needs of the sector, a senior academic has warned.

Nóirín Hayes, visiting professor at the School of Education in Trinity College Dublin, said the populist measure announced in Budget 2016 was “easy to say” but comes without any rigorous thought on investment in an area in need of “significant reform”.

“It’s almost like saying we will build hospitals and people who are sick can go there and they’ll be fine – and we haven’t got any of the equipment, and we haven’t got the trained personnel but sure we’ll mind them,” she said.

“I think that perhaps it hasn’t been thought through as thoroughly as it might have been at a policy level and it’s implication for both the children and the sector.”

Speaking to The Irish Times at the Early Educational Alignment: Reflecting on Context, Curriculum and Pedagogy symposium at TCD on Thursday, she said while rhetoric in the area of education for children up to six years old has improved, it lags behind attitudes and tangible investment at primary school level.

Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin announced the second year as an expansion of the Early Childhood Care and Education scheme.

Although agreeing with the measure in principle, Prof Hayes said many of the key issues were being side-stepped and there remained serious capacity issues.

The first year of preschool provision, now in place for five years, is difficult to quantify she said, with no “common standard” for training or practice.

“Many of the people providing the free preschool year actually don’t have any particular training in the application of the curriculum.

“So we don’t know what’s happening for children. And in that context, just adding a second year to the scheme, one asks oneself why one would be doing that without really understanding what’s happening at the moment.”

Conspicuously absent

Where consultation with the medical sector was acknowledged as required as part of the extension of free GP care to the under-12s, Prof Hayes pointed out the same consideration was conspicuously absent for practitioners of preschool education.

There were “stresses” on the current structures to consider too, she said. After the Prime Time “Breach of Trust” programme – which in 2013 raised concerns over creche care standards – a number of regulatory measures were introduced by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs including inspections and reporting.

“And this is all happening without a contract that goes beyond the three hours that [practitioners] were working directly with the children. That’s all that the staff get paid for,” she explained.

“You have to try and think about the quality of provision that somebody can give within a three-hour timeframe for which they are being paid, with no time for planning, no time for reflection, no time for training and very little time for administration.

“These decisions are being made without any concomitant concern for the implementation of what they are seeking and the support of the human beings that are actually being asked to do this.

“It was an easy thing to say and it was said with really very little resources to back it up.”