Creches to focus on early learning, not child-minding
Creches and nurseries are set to leave behind their traditional image as child-minding services.
Education minister Jan O'Sullivan has announced a review of the qualifications necessary for staff working in such centres, as part of a wider plan to put a structure on children's learning as early as possible.
It is the first time such a review has taken place and it may be no surprise that, as a former pre-school teacher, the new minister is making it a policy priority.
The pre-school years are regarded as key in maximising a child's education potential, but the nature and quality of what is available in individual centres can vary widely.
Early childhood education covers the period from birth to six years, but putting a focus on learning for little ones is not intended to take the fun out of their day - rather to use play as a foundation for learning.
There is a universal recognition of the importance of play in education, because it allows children develop verbal communication and social skills, to be creative in the use of materials and to develop problem-solving capacities.
With many children starting school at four or five, there is a significant overlap between early childhood education and the infant years at primary school.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has published a curriculum called Aistear to guide practice in either setting.
There are about 4,500 creche-style providers in Ireland, over 90pc of which offer places under the Government's Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme free year. The pre-school sector has received increased attention in recent years, such as through the introduction of minimum requirements for those delivering the free ECCE year.
But Ms O'Sullivan wants to take it a step further by strengthening the education side, starting with ensuring that all those working in the sector have minimum qualifications.
"This review will make sure that we are equipping graduates with the necessary knowledge, skills and disposition to enable them to support children's educational development," she said.
The minister said she also wanted to ensure that early years education was effectively integrated into the overall education continuum.
The review will cover issues such as the extent to which relevant education and training programmes are being delivered by appropriately qualified experts, the quality of work placements and whether graduates are prepared for workplace challenges such as social diversity.
The most common qualification in the sector is a further education, Level 5, typically offered by a post-Leaving Certificate course (PLC), while a higher, Level 6 qualification is necessary to be a centre leader. In some cases, staff have higher qualifications.
By comparison, all teachers in primary and post-primary schools must have a minimum Level 8 honours degree.
In a further step, later this year the minister will establish an advisory group on early years education issues, with a view to developing a co-ordinated policy response to children's early educational needs.
Welcoming the review, Teresa Heeney of Early Childhood Ireland said it must include the training provided for all of those working with children from birth to six years old, and not concentrate on those delivering the ECCE year.
The organisation also wants inspectors to be qualified in early years education.
The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) said it welcomed any proposal for an increase in the professional qualifications of educators.