Creches face 'school inspections' to ensure they're up to standard
Creches and other pre-school providers are to be subject to new school-type inspections to check on the quality of education they offer.
Currently, inspections in the early childhood sector are concerned with health and safety issues, but Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan also wants to ensure that they are centres of quality teaching and learning.
The new inspections regime is part of a wider drive by the minister to use the pre-school years to lay the foundations for a good education, particularly building numeracy and literacy skills and exploiting the use of play as a basis for learning.
Ms O'Sullivan told the Irish Independent that she was preparing to recruit the equivalent of between eight and 10 full-time pre-school inspectors to work in the area from early next year. The minister, a former pre-school teacher, has made early childhood education a priority and has already announced a review of the qualifications necessary for those working in the area.
Ms O'Sullivan is also setting up an advisory group on early years education issues, with a view to developing a co-ordinated policy response.
The minister said she would be working with the Department of Children, which has primary responsibility in this area, and the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, which acts as a watchdog for the sector.
She said while Tusla inspections were concerned with issues such as physical infrastructure and protection of children, she was "more about encouraging good educational content and outcomes so that children will go into primary school with a good basis".
Ms O'Sullivan said the proposed educational inspections were "about being supportive and not judgemental".
She said "children at that age are so ready to absorb so much, and if they do at that age it is so much easier for them when they go on to deal with literacy and numeracy in a more formal structure - and not just literacy and numeracy.
"If you don't get concept of numbers when you are very young you can get left behind right through school".
A particular focus of the new inspections will be the educational experience of children in the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme, the Government-sponsored free pre-school year for children aged between three years and two months and four years and seven months. There are about 4,500 creche-style providers in Ireland, over 90pc of which offers ECCE places.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has produced an education programme called Aistear for the 0-6 age group. However, pre-schools are not required to implement it and practice varies widely between providers.
Ms O'Sullivan said the job of the inspectors would be to support providers in improving standards.
Comment: Early start boosts young learners
In most countries in the developed world, the education of children now begins well before they are five, a common starting age for primary school.
There are good reasons for it. The naturally curious minds of babies and young children are ripe for learning, which, at these ages, is done through play.
Giving children an early start in education leads to better performance in school later on, according to the recent 'Education at a Glance' 2014 report from the international think-tank the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Another OECD survey, PISA, which every three years compares the performance of 15-year-olds around the world in key skills such as reading and maths, shows that those who attend at least one year of pre-school education perform better than those who do not. And the longer they spend in pre-primary education, the better.
Early years education is particularly valuable in helping children to overcome social disadvantage, and the educational inequalities associated with that, by laying a more level playing field for them before they enter formal schooling.
Ireland has lagged behind many countries in this area. According to the OECD, in 2012, 42pc of three-year-olds in Ireland were in early childhood or primary education, compared with an EU average of 79pc, and an OECD average of 70pc.
The introduction of the free pre-school year in 2010, known as the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme, represented a starting point in state provision. Each word in that title is key - education is just as important as care, which had been the focus of much of what was on offer by various providers.
Now, we are seeing Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan, herself a former pre-school teacher, embark on a series of long-overdue initiatives to include pre-school inspections of educational quality - to ensure that all children get off to a good start.