The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education

Síolta - Introductory handbook


Welcome to Síolta - The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education (NQF). The materials presented in this pack represent the edited work of a wide range of stakeholders in the early childhood care and education (ECCE) sector in Ireland. The creative process, which has resulted in this publication, has spanned three years, 2002 - 2005, and has been both a challenging and rewarding endeavour.

The publication of Síolta contributes significantly to the realisation of the central objective of the White Paper on Early Childhood Education, Ready to Learn, published by the Department of Education and Science (DES):

"The objective of this White Paper is to facilitate the development of a high quality system of early childhood education. Achieving this objective requires progress across a wide spectrum of areas, including curriculum, training and qualifications and the quality and quantity of inputs (staff, equipment and materials)."
(DES, 1999a:43)

This seminal policy document led to the establishment of the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education (CECDE) under the management of the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra. A comprehensive Programme of Work was agreed with the DES for the CECDE (CECDE, 2001), which focused on the following three objectives:

  • To develop a quality framework for early childhood education;
  • To develop targeted interventions on a pilot basis for children who are educationally disadvantaged and children with special needs and;
  • To prepare the groundwork for the establishment of an Early Childhood Education Agency (ECEA) as envisaged by the White Paper on Early Childhood Education, Ready to Learn (DES, 1999a).

Síolta fulfils the first of these objectives and presents a prototype of the NQF in early childhood education.

The contents of Síolta have been designed to assist all those concerned with the provision of quality early education in Ireland to participate in a developmental journey towards the improvement and enrichment of young children's early, and arguably most critical, life experiences.

Ready to Learn identified clearly that early education takes place in a wide variety of settings in Ireland and indeed highlights the important fact that, "...we must recognise that young children have needs for both education and care and that the focus can never be exclusively on either." (DES, 1999a:3).

This is reflected in the CECDE brief as stated in the agreed Work Programme which, when referring to the development of the details of the NQF, states:

"These guidelines will have to be adaptable for use in a wide range and variety of settings in which integrated care and education is provided to children from birth to six. These settings include relatively informal childminding arrangements, preschools, playgroups, crèches and nurseries all of which can be organised as private enterprises or as community-based initiatives and which may or may not be in receipt of State funding. They also include the infant classes of primary schools where the guidelines will be relevant to initiatives such as Whole School Evaluation and School Development Planning."
(CECDE, 2001:4)

Síolta has relevance for the work of a wide range of ECCE practitioners irrespective of the context of their practice. Furthermore, it can provide valuable information for other professionals whose work requires them to interact with young children and their families. It is also intended that the information should be of value to parents and families, and be of support to them in their role as the primary educators of their children. It is hoped that Síolta will also be valuable at many levels in practice situations. For example, as:

  • A support for individual professional practice and development;
  • A focus for team work and team development;
  • A tool for management, strategic planning and policy development;
  • A common base for the interactions of a varied team of professionals.

It will also support formal and informal assessment processes, or indeed simply serve to promote common understandings amongst the broad range of adults who influence the early experiences of young children.

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As already stated, a central premise of Síolta is that care and education are inextricably linked factors in the young child's learning and development. In Ireland, the term 'early childhood care and education' (with the acronym 'ECCE') has gained currency and has been used widely in discourse relating to early childhood education. This term has gained strong endorsement from the diverse range of stakeholders in the provision of services for young children, as it reinforces the inseparable nature of care and education essential to the provision of quality early learning experiences. The term also has a unifying influence for all those adults engaged in the provision of services and can be identified with, regardless of the context for practice. For these reasons, the CECDE has adopted the term 'ECCE' throughout all publications associated with the development of Síolta.

The contents of the pack collectively form a prototype for a national quality assurance process for ECCE settings in Ireland. It is hoped that this prototype will, in the coming months and years, form the basis for practical implementation of the vision of quality in early childhood education contained in Síolta. This is a vision in which all children are afforded equity of access to early education opportunities that enrich their lives and contribute positively to their optimal well-being, learning and development.

Contents of the pack

Síolta is a dynamic and evolving Framework. It will be updated regularly, initially as a result of the findings of a pilot process, but in the longer term to reflect the changing nature of the ECCE sector in Ireland. It is designed to be useful for both practitioners (individually and in teams) and quality support personnel who will participate in the implementation and assessment process.

The Síolta pack contains a number of elements. These include this introductory handbook, four wirobound manuals, a poster and leaflet relating to the twelve Principles of Quality. Also included is a CD ROM which contains all the previous materials and the four research 'pillars' which provide the main supports for the development process.

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Introductory Handbook

The sections of this handbook are as follows:

  • Section one - Context for Síolta - briefly considers the current national and international context for quality in ECCE that has informed the development of Síolta. This has been framed within the three broad areas of policy, practice and research.
  • Section two - Process of development - overviews the process by which Síolta was developed. This includes the production of the 'four pillars of research' and the extensive process of consultation undertaken within the ECCE sector.
  • Section three - Characteristics of Síolta - describes the unique features of Síolta which have been central to the development process and which will be key to its successful implementation.
  • Section four - Assessment of quality discussion paper - presents a possible model for assessment within the context of Síolta. It is intended to stimulate debate on this important issue, which will be necessary for the pilotimplementation process.
  • Section five - Supporting quality discussion paper - summarises evidence gathered through literature review and consultation exercises in relation to mechanisms and best practice for supporting quality in early childhood education provision.
  • Section six - Conclusion
  • Glossary - contains definitions of a number of key words as they are used in the context of Síolta.

Wirobound Manuals

This Framework is designed to allow ECCE settings to evaluate their level of quality provision and to determine the quality of the service they are providing. Within this context, Síolta will recognise elements of practice that are successful within the setting as well as identifying aspects in need of attention and improvement. In this way, it acts as a tool to promote continuous quality improvement and planning.

The wirobound user manuals contain the core elements of Síolta that will be used by practitioners. Each manual focuses on one of the following settings:

  • Full and Part-time Daycare
  • Sessional Services
  • Infant Classes
  • Childminding

The manuals have been designed to be as user friendly and navigable as possible and each is prefaced by clear instructions for use. The content of each manual includes the following:

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Principles of Quality

The twelve Principles and their accompanying Explanatory Notes are the ultimate benchmark for all quality practice and service provision in early childhood education.

Standards of Quality

The sixteen national Standards cover the areas of practice to be addressed and translate the vision of quality contained in the Principles into the reality of practice.

Components of Quality

These provide quality indicators for all practitioners in implementing Síolta. The Components relate directly to the Standards and act to break them down into more focused and specific parts.

Signposts for Reflection

These act as self-reflection guidelines for practitioners to think about current practice, and to identify elements that are positive as well as those in need of attention. They have been designed to support the process of dialogue referred to earlier in relation to the achievement of the Standards. They can be used by individual practitioners or by groups/teams that are planning for an entire setting. Where applicable, the Signposts for Reflections have been mediated across three age ranges, namely birth to eighteen months, twelve to thirty-six months and two-and-a-half to six years. These Signposts for Reflection and accompanying 'Think about' lists are only provided as examples or prompts. They are not in any way exhaustive and it is expected that all those engaging with Síolta will add their own based on their practice, and in effect, personalise them to their own particular context.

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Resource section

At the end of each manual, we have inserted a brief resource section. This suggests several sources of materials and information to support practitioners as they work with the various aspects of Síolta. It includes advice on relevant publications and videos, support materials, courses, website addresses in Ireland and abroad, and contact details of ECCE organisations that may be of help or interest. This section is not exhaustive; rather, it forms a solid basis of resource materials which, it is anticipated, will be added to and personalised by practitioners and settings as they work through the materials.

Note on cross-referencing:

  • The Standards and Components individually contribute to the achievement of quality. However, it is important to remember that they have been designed to work collectively towards the achievement of quality in all aspects of practice in ECCE settings. As you read through the materials, you will notice links that will identify opportunities to consult or cross-reference to another Component, which also has relevance to the Component you are reading.
  • For example, you might be focusing on a Component that relates to Play and because of the importance of Interactions in the provision of quality play experiences, you will be prompted to cross reference to a Component on Interactions, See 5.2, for additional support and information.
  • The ultimate objective of these materials is to promote a holistic approach to quality provision and practice. Therefore, we encourage you to recognise their interrelated nature and make use of this unique feature to conduct a comprehensive review of your practice.


There are three Appendices in each manual:

  • Appendix 1 gives a sample list of Policies and Procedures for settings to draw on.
  • Appendix 2 gives a sample list of Legislation and Regulation as a guide for settings in considering how legislation and regulation applies to the setting context.
  • Appendix 3, the National Framework of Qualifications Grid of Level Indicators, is included as information on the way in which the various training and qualification levels of those working within the ECCE sector fit together within the Framework devised by the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI).

Additional Materials

These materials have been included within the pack to support the usage and sharing of Síolta with as broad an audience as possible. They include:

  • A Síolta poster (in both Irish and English) containing the Principles of Quality. This is accompanied by a flyer for parents or other interested stakeholders.
  • A CD-rom containing a wealth of valuable information relating to the production of Síolta. This includes the text of the four pillars of research, and the entire contents of the pack, which can be downloaded and/or printed off.

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