Education inspections alone won't assure quality in pre-schools
In my opinion by Teresa Heeney
Last week, the Department of Education called for 50 early-childhood settings across the country to participate in a pilot pre-school, education-focused inspection scheme. They are inundated with more than willing volunteers. This is a sector that welcomes inspection, particularly inspection that is helpful in guiding them towards improvement. They want to do their best for children and families and these inspections will focus on the learning journey of the very young child through an appropriate early years' curriculum.
Every parent wants their child to be safe and happy and getting opportunities for overall healthy development. In these early years more than at any other time, children need warm, caring, supportive relationships in order to learn. So the gatekeeper to a quality experience for the child is the skilled, qualified and motivated early-childhood educator. This is not about the transfer of banks of knowledge - it's about encouraging their nature-driven eagerness to learn. In high-quality settings, children are not just discovering the world of language and numeracy and science, they are discovering their own sense of themselves as socially, emotionally and mentally able. Extensive research tells us that it is this emotional and social well-being that predicts future academic success and the groundwork is firmly laid in the first three years. Why then are we starting these inspections when children are three-years-plus old? Do we not care what happens in the even more important first three years? Do we not see that children are learning then, too? Think of a two-year-old you know before you answer that question.
Let's give credit where credit is due. The Government has responded to the demands of the sector and recruited 10 inspectors with qualifications in early years' education - a real breakthrough for a sector that has been hitherto inspected by public-health nurses. Imagine if hospital wards were inspected by pre-school teachers - there'd be uproar.
Furthermore, the language and approach being proposed by the Department of Education is refreshing. It refers to "co-professional dialogue', in other words, the early-childhood educators will be listened to, in a new system that is strength rather than deficit-led. So, yes, the Department of Education is heading in the right direction, but we've got to look at the whole wheel of inspection in order to really move forward.
The sector also has the regulatory TUSLA inspection and Pobal audits. At the heart of the problem is the lack of co-ordination between the different agencies involved, resulting in childcare operators being tangled up by red tape and bureaucracy. Tusla's chief has already expressed publicly his concern at the fragmentation. The consequence is pressure on early-childhood educators to facilitate and prepare for multiple inspection visits under threat of negative reports and sanctions.
These expectations are being imposed on a sector where most people work for less than the living wage and 14pc go on the dole for the summer. It is both unbelievable and unacceptable. They are qualified professionals who carry the responsibility for educating and caring for the nation's children and they earn less than unskilled workers. The time has come for us to match our expectations with investment in pay and conditions. It is time to show some respect.
So while the education-focused inspections are a good thing, they can't be viewed in isolation.
The Department of Education, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Tusla, Pobal and all the agencies involved in inspection must collaborate on a plan and procedure that works. We need clear leadership from one department, a well co-ordinated plan, clear roles and responsibilities and timelines for making it happen. And we need to pay people for the important work they do. That's if we are committed to real progress.
Teresa Heeney is CEO of Early Childhood Ireland