It’s quality versus quantity in battle for hearts and minds of preschool children

Government Ministers want to extend the free preschool year to two years, but is it too early given the variable quality of existing services?


One of the key things Dara Hogan has learned over the last five years working with early years experts is not to judge a childcare facility by its appearance.

The neatness of a room, the standard of drawings on the wall or how well-behaved the children are don’t reveal much. Instead, he says, everything hinges on the quality of education and the programmes offered to children.

High quality early education, says Hogan – manager of Fledglings Early Years, a social franchise in early education based in Tallaght – can instil the kind of confidence, independence and self-esteem that helps children reach their potential.

“The children have a say in structuring their own learning through play. They plan what they’d like to do and our educators facilitate it,” Hogan says. “Sometimes you go into other services and see children all sitting very quietly around a table engaged in the same activity. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

“Quality is about encouraging and supporting children to develop at their own pace, and taking the time to observe and support them . . . I’m much more impressed when I see children actively playing and being curious about who’s just arrived into the room.”

Hugely popular
Quality preschool education lies at the heart of the Government decision to invest €175 million in providing a year’s free place for every four-year-old child in the country.

It has proven hugely popular: almost 95 per cent of parents have availed of it, with 68,000 children taking part each year.

In recent weeks, some Ministers – such as Frances Fitzgerald and Ruairí Quinn – have expressed support for the expansion of the scheme to include a second year.

On the face of it, it makes perfect sense. The benefits of early years education have been well documented over the past 40 years or so.

A major study in the US, for example, found that children from poorer backgrounds who benefited from HighScope – a form of high-quality childcare – were more likely to have higher earnings, stay in employment, have higher academic achievement and commit fewer crimes. Overall, it found that for every $1 invested in the programme, the overall return to society was some $16.

New research is helping to explain why. It indicates that a child’s brain is at its most sensitive during the first three years. A lack of stimulation, for example, can have lasting effects and affect cognitive capacity, as well as behavioural development. In short, quality early education can make children smarter and improve their quality of life.

Troubling indicators
But there are indicators which raise troubling questions over the quality of tuition in many services and whether the investment is as effective as many might like to think it is.

Unpublished inspection reports into the free preschool year reveal “significant weaknesses” in the quality of tuition. “It is of particular concern that the extent to which the programme of activities and its implementation supports the children’s development was effective in less than half of the settings observed,” states a report by a joint inspection team from the the Department of Education and the HSE.

While pilot inspections found generally good standards in areas such as personal care and the physical condition of buildings, the findings over the quality of tuition are likely to cause some alarm.

In addition, new research by the State agency Pobal show there are significant gaps in the number of staff qualified to provide suitable education in the free preschool year.

For example, one-in-four educators in preschools either did not have any qualifications or had completed unaccredited training.

Síolta, a national framework was published six years ago, with the aim of guiding the development of early education. But new figures indicate just 3 per cent of childcare services were fully implementing it.

Over at Fledglings, staff know all about the challenges of providing a quality service on a limited budget. The early childhood education and care service is part of the An Cosán community organisation in west Tallaght.

It operates eight preschools around the country – mostly in disadvantaged areas – which provide education and care to more than 250 children.

It prides itself on the fact that all its staff are qualified above the levels required for the free preschool year.

Fledglings’ emphasis on quality has been possible due to a wide range of factors such as its status – it’s a not-for-profit social enterprise – as well as An Cosán’s ethos, philanthropic funding and strong leadership.

But Hogan says across the wider childcare sector, State funding isn’t sufficient to support a quality service.

“It’s not sustainable to deliver quality early education on the current level of funding available,” he says.

Hogan maintains that resources are badly needed to train staff up, to ensure that a quality curriculum is being followed and to provide planning time and observation time for early years educators. “A failure to do this can result in more care than education of children in preschools.”

Early Childhood Ireland is the representative group for over 3,300 preschools and daycare centres nationwide which support over 110,000 young children.

‘Building blocks’
It has started a nationwide consultation process regarding what it calls the “building blocks” for a second free preschool year. But many in the sector feel rolling out a second year could be premature.

“The question of whether the sector is ready for a second preschool year is being asked and we see the key building blocks for the discussion as qualifications, capacity, curriculum and capitation,” says Teresa Heeney, the head of the organisation.

“Children’s lives matter and so do the adults who work closely with them, and measures to support quality assurance and workforce development must go hand-in-hand with any extension of the free preschool year. What we need is a training fund and a workforce that is not only qualified to do the job but is also paid properly to do so.”

In practice, childcare is seen as a low-wage, low-status occupation. Increasingly – say many on the ground – those who go on to complete a degree opt to transfer to primary level teaching, where at least there’s the prospect of climbing a career ladder.

Political support
Minister Frances Fitzgerald, meanwhile, is in favour of expanding the free year.

“The current climate of fiscal constraint should not deter us from having this important debate given the increasing body of evidence highlighting the economic and societal returns on investments in early intervention,” she said recently.

She told Senators in an Oireachtas briefing that she wished to put in place the training and workforce supports that would allow for the introduction of a second universal free preschool year.

“This would cost an additional €200 million per annum but could be introduced on a phased basis. Is this an investment worth making? That’s the debate I want to have. It’s a debate I believe is worth having.”

Ms Fitzgerald has pointed out that quality is key and points to numerous developments aimed at incentivising the upskilling of staff.

For example, more funding is now available to services where the free preschool year is delivered by an educator with a graduate qualification in early care and education.

There is also a new requirement for preschools taking part in the scheme to use Aistear, a widely-praised curriculum which places a big emphasis on creative thinking and communication.

A spokeswoman for the Minister insisted that better quality would go hand-in-hand with any expansion of the scheme.

“She absolutely believes in developing a high quality childcare system, but it’s a step-by-step process,” she said. “The free preschool year is only in its second full year of operation, so this won’t happen overnight.”

Some children’s groups, however, are sceptical about whether it’s possible to expand a scheme – and improve quality at the same time – on very limited resources.

Groups like Start Strong – which supports the development of early years education – say there are faultlines underpinning the system that need to be tackled. For instance, there’s no dedicated funding scheme for the continuing development of staff, or to support staff to train for higher qualification.

It also maintains there is little meaningful engagement with national policies and curriculums among most childcare services.

“Early care and education is an investment in children – and an investment that can yield large economic returns,” says Start Strong’s Toby Wolfe. “But it only benefits children if it’s of high quality.”

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