Locating quality in early childhood care and education discourse in Ireland: pre-school and infant classrooms as a crucible for learning and development
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This study examines the extent to which national and international early childhood policy becomes embedded as an everyday phenomenon in pre-school and primary contexts. Located within an ecological contextual framework (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), it fuses understandings of policy and practice from various perspectives into policy discourse and debate. It helps to highlight and prioritise issues for children and teachers with regard to quality in ECCE. The study uses a combination of qualitative and quantitative methodologies. A total of 80 interviews and 6 focus group discussions were completed with early childhood students and teachers, infant teachers in primary schools, policy makers, and regulatory and support agencies. 150 hours of child observations were conducted in fifteen settings, 10 pre- school and 5 infant classes. Research instruments developed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement specifically for the Pre-primary Project ((IEA/PPP, 1987-1997) were used for the quantitative component. These instruments were used to analyse the number and types of actions and interventions observed. Data was analysed using grounded theory methodology. The study yielded compelling evidence that children‟s agency, a core tenet of early childhood policy, is bounded by legislative and structural deficiencies in everyday practice. Notwithstanding widespread agreement on the complexity of working with young children, the absence of a mandatory training requirement for the pre-school sector is particularly problematic. There is compelling evidence that the sector perpetuates a strong focus on school readiness. This is directly linked to misunderstandings about the purpose of ECCE as well as a deep rooted desire to redress issues associated with large class sizes and the rigid structure of primary school. Evidence demonstrates that preoccupation with complying with the minimum statutory requirements set out in the Childcare (pre-school services) Regulations, 2006 renders the National Quality Framework; Síolta and the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework; Aistear primarily inconsequential. This study contributes new epistemological insights to the area of inspectorate qualifications. Lack of pedagogical knowledge coupled with the top down approach of the pre- school inspectorate has created an adversarial relationship between the HSE and the sector. This study finds that the sector is characterised by sectoral fear and institutional power which does little to further the quest for quality. Regardless of their levels of professional development, infant teachers are also restricted in their capacity to translate policy into practice. A key issue emerging from this study relates to the appropriateness of infant pedagogy as practiced in infant classrooms. Everyday practice is bounded by pressure to implement the primary school curriculum on the one hand and large class sizes on the other. The process of learning, a key aspect of the primary school curriculum is compromised by expediency. All of these factors preclude both pre-school and infant teachers from facilitating children‟s agency within individual setting contexts.
Early childhood policy