This article critically examines investment, quality and outcomes in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) in Ireland and analyses the impact of policy making in this area.

The rationale for investment in ECEC is notably articulated by James Heckman, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago where he states:

Quality early learning and development programs for disadvantaged children can foster valuable skills, strengthen our workforce, grow our economy and reduce social spending...it can prevent the achievement gap and investment in quality early childhood programs is more effective and economically efficient than trying to  close the gap later on. (Heckman, 2015, p.1)

This view is reflected in a range of recent Irish policy documents, such as the Right from the Start:Expert Advisory Group on the Early Years Strategy (DCYA, 2013), which highlights the economic benefits of early intervention. Similarly, the Interdepartmental Working Group on the Future Investment in Childcare in Ireland (2015) concludes that investment in early years improves outcomes for children and families, not only leads to developmental benefits for children ‘but also compensates, to a degree, for other factors relating to disadvantage and parental income’ (DCYA, 2015, p.9). There is thus a high degree of consensus on the need for early investment in children’s lives and its potential to positively impact outcomes for children. The nature of such investment, including current policy and practice and the measurement of quality are discussed further in this short article.

Investment

Drawing on Heckman’s rationale for early investment, the question can be posed as to whether current Government investment reflects such priorities. A broad overview of annual Government investment in education demonstrates that the amount of money per capita invested in pupils at secondary level is approximately three times greater than that invested per child in pre-school. 

A significant increase in investment in ECEC is needed if it is to be a key priority for the Government. At the announcement of the Inter-Departmental Working Group (IDWG) on childcare the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr. James Reilly, gave a commitment to invest, but made no reference to the amount of investment needed; “It’s time to plan a clear and coherent strategy for future public investment in childcare” (O’Reilly, 2015, p.3). There is also some confusion as to the possible focus of this future investment as the IDWG’s definition of childcare also includes after-school provision. Such provision caters for children of primary school age.

This reluctance on behalf of Government parties to specify the investment to be made in ECEC is reflected in the comments of Heckman who claims that Government Investment of USD 5,000-8000 per child is needed whereas:

Politicians are talking the talk but investing far less maybe one or two thousand. They get the good headlines that say they are doing something but without the long term results. They haven’t realised that bad childcare can be worse than none at all (Heckman, 2009, p.31).

It is also to be noted that outcomes for children cannot be claimed based on poor investment or without evidence based, high quality services (Heckman 2009).

Evidence-based, High Quality Services

How is Ireland faring in relation to the provision of high quality early years services? In the UK a key study measured the quality of early years provision and linked the level of quality to outcomes for children (Melhuish et al., 2010). In the Irish context a number of studies examined the quality of Irish early years settings (Neylon, 2012; Collins, 2014; McKeown et al., 2014).

Neylon’s (2012) study of pre-school practice and pedagogy used the international Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale Extended (ECERS/E) to examine quality in a randomly selected sample of early years settings (n=26), one from each county in Ireland. This study provided clear evidence of a modest standard in most aspects of pedagogy with average scores of 3.5 on the ECERS/E scale of 1-7.

This standard cannot be said to be of sufficient level to ensure improved outcomes for children as Melhuish et al. (2010) demonstrated. Their study also used ECERS to measure quality in early years settings. The researchers then linked the quality of the setting to child outcomes. They found that higher pre-school quality, as measured by ECERS, was associated with improved scores for language and communication in children aged 3-5yrs. However, positive outcomes could only be predicted where quality was rated at 5 or above on ECERS.

McKeown et al. (2014) also conducted a study of child outcomes in pre-school. They note that there are beneficial effects of pre-school education only when it is of high quality, multi-year and accompanied by support services for vulnerable families. They conclude that there is insufficient evidence to prove the effectiveness of the Free Pre-School Year as:

It is not a multi-year programme, it does not meet the same standards of quality found in landmark studies of effective pre-school programmes and additional support services for vulnerable families are not a routine part of the programme (McKeown et al., 2014, p.10).

At the bottom end of the scale there is also the evidence of abusive and damaging practice that was aired on RTE’s Prime Time programme ‘A Breach of Trust’ (2013). This is likely to be a systemic issue as concerns about similar poor practice and the role of the inspectorate had previously been raised internally within the HSE:

Young children, particularly in full daycare services, are at risk due to a failure of the early years inspection service to apply appropriate standards and to enforce these standards when required (Bernard, 2012, p.2).

On the positive side, Collins (2014), in her evaluation of the implementation of the HighScope model of practice in forty one early years settings in Co. Mayo, found an average score of 3.89 using the HighScope Programme Quality Assessment (PQA), which is rated on a scale of 1-5. While there is no existing comparison between these two assessment tools i.e. ECERS and the PQA, this is a promising finding as HighScope is an evidence-based model.

Contradictory Messages in Policy Making

The findings of a study of international childcare systems (Pascal et al., 2013) provide an important context for this discussion on policy making. In a comparison of fifteen European and other childcare systems the study examined what structural aspects of early education operate to improve educational outcomes for all children and particularly the disadvantaged. Five key structural indicators are considered: i) staff: child ratios; ii) staff  training and qualifications; iii) regulation and data collection; iv) government strategy; and v) national pre-school curriculum requirements.

The study finds that the high performing countries have higher ratios of staff to children and higher levels of regulation than other countries. Staff training and  qualifications, a government strategy and a national curriculum were seen to be of less significance.

There are several contradictory messages from Ireland’s policy makers in terms of ensuring system wide quality. In 2011 the DCYA decreased the staff to child ratio to 1: 11 in services participating in the Free Pre-School Year scheme. This was a cost saving measure. However Pascal et al. (2013, p.31) have noted that:

There is some evidence that a higher adult: child ratio (i.e. a smaller group of children per adult) in early education programmes is helpful in ensuring the quality of interactions between educators and children. Higher ratios are seen to help create a climate of emotional security allow practitioners to be responsive to the needs of children.

As far back as 1985 the first Department of Health Working Group on minimum standards recommended a staff: child ratio of 1: 8. Also the Early Start programme, under the aegis of the Department of Education, operates with a staff: child ratio of 1: 8 (DoH, 1985).

In relation to strengthening regulation, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (2013), in direct response to the RTE Prime Time programme, set out its Pre-School Quality Agenda. Six of the agenda’s eight actions are directly related to the pre-school inspection system. The publication of inspection reports online and the recruitment of additional inspectors have been implemented. However other more important actions such as  implementing new national pre-school standards and the legislated for registration system are not yet operational. Moloney (2014) provides a detailed critique of the pre-school quality agenda. Commenting on the other two actions, she points out that the problem actually lies in how the previous  inspection system operated rather than the need for increased powers. She concludes that “equally disconcerting are the increased inspectorate powers in the areas of enforcement, prosecution and closure of settings. The inspectorate already had these powers but did not use them.” (Moloney, 2014, p.82).

In relation to staff training and qualifications, while making a fund available for training and qualifications, the DCYA recently announced that the September 2015 deadline for all early years practitioners to be qualified at Level 5 or Level 6, one of the key points in the Pre-School Quality Agenda, has now been extended until September 2016. This may have further repercussions for quality.

Conclusion and Implications for Policy

Policy makers in Ireland have accepted in theory that investing in quality early learning and development is a wise investment showing significant returns. The evidence, however demonstrates that universal high quality early years services and programmes have not yet been delivered. A redesign of early years services in a way which improves outcomes for all children, while narrowing the gap in outcomes between children is now required. Early years’ centres which do not meet required standards and are potentially harmful to children should no longer be allowed to operate.

The inconsistencies of DCYA policy with regard to staff ratios and qualifications should be corrected as a matter of urgency. The Government should seize the opportunity to deliver on its rhetoric of early investment in the lives of young children and do so in a way that delivers high quality outcomes for all.

References

Bernard, J. (2012) Internal HSE Report of Concerns re the Early Years Inspectorate. Unpublished. Available from Author.

Collins, K. (2014) The Implementation of HighScope in County Mayo. HighScope Ireland Available online at http://www.early-years.org/hig...

Department of Children and Youth Affairs (2013) Right from the Start Report of the Expert Advisory Group on the Early Years Strategy, Dublin: Government Publications.

Department of Children and Youth Affairs (2015) Report of the Inter-Departmental Working Group: Future Investment in Childcare in Ireland. Available online at http://www.dcya.gov.ie/documen...20150722IDGReportonEarlyYrsInvestmentReport.pdf

Department of Health (1985) Minimum Legal Requirements and Standards for Daycare Services (Unpublished) Report to the Minister for Health.

Heckman, J (2009) An Interview with James Heckman, We Have to Understand more the Relationship between early Childhood Programmes and the Role of the Family, Safeguarding Young Children’s Care Environment, Early Childhood Matters, Vol. 112, pp. 24-30.

Heckman, J. (2015) The Economics of Human Potential. Available online at http://heckmanequation.org/content/resource/4-big-benefits-investing-earlychildhood-development.

McKeown, K., Haase, T., & Pratschke, J. (2014) Evaluation of National Early Years Access Initiative and Siolta Quality Assurance Programme: a Study of Child Outcomes in Pre-School Dublin: Pobal

Melhuish, E., Belsky, J., MacPherson, K., Cullis, A.,(2010) The quality of group childcare settings used by 3-4 year old children in sure start local programme areas and the relationship with child outcomes UK Department of Education Research Report Ref: DFE-RR068.

Moloney, M. (2014) Breach of Trust-Getting it Right for Children in Early Childhood Care and Education in Ireland NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 17, pp. 71-88.

Neylon, G. (2014) An Analysis of Irish Pre-school Practice and Pedagogy using the early Childhood Environmental Four Curricular Subscales, Irish Educational Studies, Vol 33 (1), pp. 99-116.

Pascal, C., Bertram, T., Delaney, S., & Nelson, C., (2013) A Comparison of International Childcare Systems Centre for Research in Early Childhood. Available online at https://www.gov.uk/government/...attachment_data/file/212564/DFE-RR269.pdf

Reilly, J. (2015) Early Investment Best Cure for Child Poverty, Irish Examiner. Available online at http://www.irishexaminer.com/v...analysis/early-investment-best-cure-for-child-poverty-312956.html

Start Strong (2015) Policy Brief. Available online at http://www.startstrong.ie/file...

Author Information

Jenny Bernard is an Early Years Consultant with considerable experience and expertise in the field of Early Years, having held key positions in both the statutory, voluntary and community sectors. Upholding children’s rights is at the core of her work. She has developed a number of innovative services  designed to achieve children’s successful participation in high quality early education and care, including the implementation of the HighScope model of practice in County Mayo. As Early Years Services Manager in the Child and Family Agency (formerly HSE), she was responsible for managing Early Years Inspections and the development of Early Years Family Support.