The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education

Síolta - Introductory handbook

Section 1 - Context for the development of Síolta

The development of Síolta is timely in the Irish context. It marks a milestone in the quest for quality early childhood education provision for our youngest children that has been underway in Ireland in recent years.

The CECDE has endeavoured to capture this dynamic momentum for quality within the ECCE sector, and informed by international models of policy, practice and research, has created a National Quality Framework unique and appropriate to the Irish context. This section briefly outlines the context for the development of Síolta, focusing on historical, national and international dimensions.

Historical perspectives on 'Quality'

The term 'quality' was not a common word in the lexicon of ECCE services until recently, mainly within the last decade (Kiernan and Walsh, 2004). Our concept and understanding of quality in ECCE services is context-linked and time specific, and this understanding is constantly evolving. This progression in understanding is influenced and tempered by a wide array of factors, including political, social, religious, economic and cultural developments.

Traditionally, the care and education of young children were viewed as separate entities, with 'care' occurring primarily in the child's home and 'education' beginning with the infant classes of the primary school. State supported ECCE services were rare and were largely targeted at children who were disadvantaged or at risk. It is now widely acknowledged nd accepted that care and education are "...inextricably linked..." and inseparable elements in the life of the child (Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform [DJELR], 1999:45).

The period 1960-1990 marked an increased interest in ECCE for a number of reasons. Firstly, research was providing unequivocal evidence of the importance of quality ECCE as an important element in enabling all children to realise their full potential, with particular benefits accruing to children affected by disadvantage. With Ireland's accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 and increased linkages to international organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Irish policy and practice slowly became more influenced by European and international developments.

Increasing urbanisation resulted in families often residing in towns and cities away from the extended family that had proven such an important aspect of ECCE provision in previous decades. Education in this period was increasingly perceived as an investment in the individual and in society, and as an integral prerequisite of economic prosperity.

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Current perspectives

However, it is essentially since 1990 that public and official attention has been paid to quality ECCE in the Irish context. Two separate issues have largely fostered this growth in interest. The first of these is the recognition of the value of ECCE to all children, particularly those with special needs and those affected by disadvantage. Secondly, the growing participation of women in the workforce owing to unprecedented economic growth catalysed interest in the provision of services. In turn, policy can be classified into two categories; the first is equality driven and focuses on facilitating female participation in the workforce and the second is based on the intrinsic value of ECCE. The tension between these two issues is often evident within Irish ECCE policy, practice and research.

There are three main government departments with responsibility for ECCE services in Ireland, namely the DES, the Department of Health and Children (DHC) and the DJELR. All have produced or been involved in landmark publications in recent years, establishing national policy for ECCE services. Overall government policy is cognisant of the importance of ECCE to the economy and society. For example, ECCE is included in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (Government of Ireland, 1999a), Ireland's National Development Plan 2000 - 2006 (NDP) (Government of Ireland, 1999b), in the Agreed Programme for Government of the current coalition government (Department of An Taoiseach, 2002) and in the current Social Partners Agreement, Sustaining Progress (Department of An Taoiseach, 2003).

Changing family forms have also impacted upon the experiences of children in these formative years, with a greater diversity in family compositions which differ from traditional 'nuclear' families. There has been a concentrated number of key socio-economic and cultural developments in Ireland in recent years, which have had a profound effect on the configuration of Irish society. In societal terms, this period witnessed great advancements in the recognition of the rights of children. Most notable is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations [UN], 1989), ratified by Ireland in 1992, as well as the establishment of a number of child advocacy groups to campaign for the rights of children. There has also been a tangible shift in Irish policy and practice relating to the position and treatment of children in society.

Demographics and statistics

In 2004, Ireland's population exceeded four million for the first time since the late nineteenth century. Approximately 10% of this population is composed of children from birth to six years of age (Central Statistics Office [CSO], 2005a). Recent trends towards increased urbanisation have continued apace, while approximately 30% of children are born to lone mothers. Increased economic prosperity has also impacted on the percentage of women in the workforce, particularly those with children. In the last decade, the percentage of women in the workforce has increased from 41.4% in 1995 to 55.8% in 2004 (CSO, 2005a:33). More notably, 76.8% of women aged 25-34 are now in employment, an increasing number of these being the mothers of young children (CSO, 2005c:Table 9).

Growing prosperity has increased our attractiveness to foreign national workers and others, enhancing the cultural and ethnic diversity of Irish society. This sustained economic growth has led to a position whereby Ireland has the second highest GDP per capita within the EU (CSO, 2005a:18). Despite this prosperity, Ireland still has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the EU, with 14.6% of children living in consistent poverty in 2003 (CSO, 2005b:4).

In line with these economic changes, the social fabric of Irish society has also been transformed. Within the last decade, divorce has been legalised, the influence of the major churches on Irish people has declined and there is a general trend towards a more secular society. The impact of the media and globalisation, particularly targeted at young children, has increased significantly, while Information and Communications Technology (ICT) permeates all aspects of work and leisure. Recent high profile sex abuse cases involving children have accentuated the need for improved care and protection systems for children.

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National policy context

A number of landmark policy documents and decisions in recent years have been informed by, and indeed catalysed, Irish society's view of children. The recent CECDE publication, Insights on Quality (CECDE, 2004b), is testimony to the wealth of documentation that has been generated in the Irish context since 1990 on the issue of quality. This vibrancy is particularly evident in the years since the millennium, reflecting the sector's endeavours to provide the highest quality services. This section will briefly address the key milestones in this journey towards quality, while further information and analysis are provided within the aforementioned CECDE publication, Insights on Quality.

These include:

1990 - 2000

  • Ireland's ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992 (UN, 1989).
  • The Child Care Act (1991) (Department of Health [DoH], 1991) and the associated Child Care (Preschool) Regulations that apply to all preschool settings (with the exception of childminders caring for three or less children (excluding their own) in their own home and Early Start) (DHC, 1998).
  • The establishment of the Children's Rights Alliance in 1993.
  • The Report of the Commission on the Family, Strengthening Families for Life (Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs [DSCFA], 1998).
  • The Report of the National Forum for Early Childhood Education (Coolahan, 1998).
  • The enshrining in legislation of the Education Act (DES, 1998) and the Education (Welfare) Act (DES, 2000), which underpins all aspects of practice in primary schools.
  • The White Paper on Early Childhood Education, Ready to Learn (DES, 1999a).
  • The introduction of the Revised Primary School Curriculum in infant classes (DES, 1999b).
  • The National Childcare Strategy (DJELR, 1999).
  • The formulation of guidelines for the protection and welfare of children in the form of Children First (DHC, 1999) and Our Duty to Care (DHC, 2002).


  • The National Children's Strategy, Our Children, Their Lives (DHC, 2000).
  • The establishment of the National Children's Office (NCO) in 2000.
  • The inception of the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme (EOCP) (2000).


  • The enshrining in legislation of the Children's Act, 2001 (DJELR, 2001).
  • The creation of the NQAI and its associated awarding bodies, the Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC) and the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC).
  • The establishment of a network of City and County Childcare Committees in 2001-2002.


  • The publication of the Model Framework for Education, Training and Professional Development in the Early Childhood Care and Education Sector (DJELR, 2002).
  • The establishment of the CECDE.


  • The appointment of an Ombudsman for Children.
  • The foundation of the Family Support Agency.


  • The publication by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) of Towards a Framework for Early Learning (NCCA, 2004).
  • The inception of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act (DES, 2004c).
  • The OECD Thematic Review of Early Childhood Education and Care Policy in Ireland (DES, 2004b).


  • The establishment of the National Council for Special Education.
  • Publication of Early Childhood Care and Education Report (NESF, 2005) by the National Economic and Social Forum (NESF).

This impressive range of policy publications and initiatives serve as markers on the landscape of evolving attitudes and increasing provisions for children in society. They also act as a rich source of data and expertise from which to build future ECCE provisions. However, despite this impressive number and range of publications, and policy and practice initiatives, much remains to be achieved in relation to the provision of quality services for our youngest children.

The recent NESF report (NESF, 2005:33) highlights "...a picture of relative inaction, peripheral implementation and drift" in relation to the implementation of such policies in the Irish context and the need to devise implementation and coordination strategies to realise such policy objectives. In this context, the NESF proposes a 'Policy Framework' for ECCE for the period 2005-2015. Integral to this plan is the principle of quality services and the NESF calls for a regulatory framework for the ECCE sector, within which the existing regulations and the provisions of Síolta will be integrated (NESF, 2005:73).

Most notably within the national context, the DES, through the White Paper on Early Childhood Education, Ready to Learn (DES, 1999a), brought the matter of quality to the fore of policy. Issues of quality were an integral element of this White Paper, which recognised the complexity of identifying and measuring the static and dynamic variables of quality, and the many perspectives from which quality could be viewed (DES, 1999a:53). Ready to Learn proposed the introduction of a Quality in Education (QE) mark for services reaching agreed quality standards. The White Paper on Early Childhood Education specified the inclusion of curriculum and methodology, qualifications and training, and inputs as quality standards, and Síolta has developed these recommendations.

The Primary School Curriculum (DES, 1999b) emerged at a similar time as the White Paper on Early Childhood Education and is of particular relevance as approximately half of all four year olds and virtually all five year olds are enrolled in the infant classes of primary schools to which this curriculum applies (DES, 2004a:15). Quality is cited as the first key issue in primary education and the importance of the curriculum for quality services is stressed (DES, 1999b:26 Introduction). In 2004, the NCCA produced Towards a Framework for Early Learning - A Consultative Document, with the aim "...to provide all children with appropriately enriching, challenging and enjoyable learning opportunities from birth to six years." (NCCA, 2004:14)

The NCCA curricular framework and Síolta will complement one another in the attainment of quality services for our youngest children. More recently, Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) cites early childhood education as an integral feature of ensuring educational inclusion for all (DES, 2005).

Ireland's participation in an OECD Review of ECCE is also further evidence of the societal interest in improving the range and quality of services. This was acknowledged by the Minister for Education and Science in the Foreword to the OECD Thematic Review of Early Childhood Education and Care Policy in Ireland:

"Research has shown that access to quality pre-school services plays a vital role in preparing children for entry into primary education. It also has potentially significant long-term benefits both to the individual and society."
(DES, 2004b:Foreword)

The OECD Review praised many aspects of provision in Ireland, including the presence of an active voluntary and community sector, a well-established early education network within the infant classes of primary schools and a strong spirit of partnership at local level. However, it also identified a number of weak elements within the system, with recommendations focusing on aspects of coordination, access and quality. In relation to quality, the OECD review reiterated the importance of:

"The formulation of a common Quality Framework for centrebased programmes for young children, focusing on agreed standards for services. A Quality Framework would include a description of what families can expect from centres, whether public or private..."
(DES, 2004b:9)

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National practice context

The ECCE sector in Ireland is characterised by a diversity of service provision for children from birth to six years, which has been noted as a major strength in relation to parental choice. This range of services and settings includes, for example, childminding, nurseries, crèches, playgroups, grúpaí naíonraí, preschools, and the infant classes of primary schools. These settings have evolved from a variety of traditions and origins and operate under the auspices of different philosophies, yet are united by their core remit, which is the care and education of the young child.

The majority of these settings (with the exception of schools and certain childminders) are regulated by the Childcare (Preschool) Services Regulations (DHC, 1998). The infant classes of the primary school, catering for the majority of four and five year olds, are legislated for by the Education Act (DES, 1998) and the Education (Welfare) Act (DES, 2000). At present, there is little linkage or points of reference between these two systems of regulation and inspection.

With the exception of the infant classes of primary schools, the majority of these services are community/voluntary or private in nature. They are funded by fees or by support from a range of government departments, most notably the DHC and the DJELR. The DHC is involved in the delivery of preschool services to a targeted number of children affected by disadvantage or at risk. Furthermore, the DHC inspects the implementation of the Preschool Regulations in the aforementioned ECCE settings. The main focus of the regulations is on the health, safety and welfare of the child and in ensuring compliance with legislation.

The DJELR is primarily involved in ECCE through its equality remit in relation to the participation of women in the workforce. In 1999, it produced a comprehensive National Childcare Strategy (DJELR, 1999), some recommendations of which are being implemented through the EOCP. During the period 2000-2006, the EOCP is providing €449 million to develop childcare, to improve its quality, to increase the quantity and to introduce a coordinated approach to service delivery (DJELR, 2004:11).

A specific strand within the EOCP, to which €85 million has been allocated, is devoted to the improvement of quality in ECCE settings through the provision of education and training and the establishment of support networks for childcare providers (Area Development Management [ADM], 2003). This strand is being primarily implemented through supporting the members of the National Voluntary Childcare Collaborative (NVCC)3 and a network of thirty-three City and County Childcare Committees.

The DES provides a number of preschool facilities on a targeted basis for children affected by, or at risk of, disadvantage, most notably the Rutland Street Project, Traveller Preschools and Early Start, and is also responsible for the infant classes of primary schools

Community and Voluntary Organisations

The last decade has witnessed the development of a wide range of out of home ECCE services, largely in the community/voluntary and private sector. These include childminding, day fostering, grúpaí naíonraí, playgroups, crèches, community playgroups, day nurseries and preschools. Traditionally, this non-statutory element of ECCE services has remained under-resourced and under-developed and the current infrastructure is still in an embryonic stage.

Membership organisations have been established to support those providing services, and most membership organisations are now involved in greater cooperation through their participation in the NVCC. These have been instrumental in providing supports and producing documentation to promote quality services among their members (see CECDE, 2004b).

Recent developments in the ECCE sector in Ireland have involved a number of these organisations developing and implementing quality assurance and quality improvement programmes. These have been largely funded under the EOCP (2000-2006). While the composition and implementation style of these various programmes may vary somewhat, an examination of their content and modus operandi by the CECDE revealed remarkable consistency and consensus in their core processes (CECDE, 2004b:81). Síolta has built on this existing consensus to ensure that the expertise developed within the ECCE sector is harnessed and utilised in the quest to ensure quality services for our youngest children. Moreover, it will act as a common reference point and framework within which the variety of other assurance/improvement initiatives can operate.

The CECDE has been delighted with the overwhelmingly positive response of the sector to the development of Síolta. From the outset, the CECDE has received tremendous support from the entire sector and has, in turn, provided a forum for the debate of many issues of quality at various conferences and seminars. Of particular note was the CECDE International Conference in Dublin Castle in September 2004, entitled Questions of Quality (CECDE, 2005a). This brought together a multiplicity of national and international perspectives on quality in ECCE and proved to be an invaluable process for the CECDE in the development of the Framework.

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National research context

Research on ECCE in Ireland has traditionally been underdeveloped and under-resourced. The CECDE Audit of Research noted that all recent government publications in relation to ECCE contain "...the issue of quality as an integral element." (CECDE, 2003a:52). However, in relation to research focusing specifically on the topic of quality, there has been very little activity in the Irish context. The audit revealed that of the 1,082 publications listed, only fifty-three related directly to the issue of quality. This is surprising considering the high level of debate surrounding quality in Ireland, much of which is unsubstantiated by indigenous research. The CECDE Research Strategy (CECDE, 2003b) has begun to address this lack of research by completing, commissioning and supporting research projects regarding quality. This is mirrored in the publication of a set of child well-being indicators (NCO, 2005) and other research by government departments and agencies.

Additionally, there has been an upsurge in interest in the issue of quality in the wider research community, as is evidenced by the increase in recent research publications on quality cited in Insights on Quality (CECDE, 2004b:87-97). Furthermore, the revival of the OMEP Ireland conference since 2002 and the expansion of similar fora for the sharing and dissemination of information have enhanced the utility and accessibility of such information. Ireland's hosting of the European Early Childhood Educational Research Association (EECERA) Conference in September 2005 is further evidence of the growing prominence of the research context. This has coincided with increased opportunities for postgraduate training and education in ECCE in a number of third level colleges and universities, increasing the pool of research expertise available in Ireland.

International context

The rising profile of ECCE in Ireland is reflective of international trends. This was acknowledged by the OECD Report, Starting Strong (OECD, 2001:135), which highlighted that "...quality is high on the agenda...". International research, most importantly longitudinal studies, has proven the link between quality provision and long-term positive developmental outcomes for children (Sammons et al., 2002; Mooney et al., 2003). The benefits of ECCE in relation to positive social, educational and emotional outcomes, in alleviating the detrimental effects of poverty and disadvantage and in promoting equal opportunities for men and women have ensured its prominence in the policies of many countries (Martin, 2001).

One of the pillars of research underpinning the development of Síolta was an international review of quality in six countries, Making Connections (CECDE, 2004c). This study of the international context reveals the range Síolta: Section One Síolta national quality framework for early childhood education handbook and breadth of models of ECCE provision in operation, each functioning with high degrees of success in their respective jurisdictions. The review revealed that there is no single utopian model in evidence and that it is the business of each country to develop an ECCE system consonant with its unique situation. For example, a model completely successful in one context may be completely unsuited to another, and while one can learn lessons from other jurisdictions, the importation of foreign models is highly inadvisable. Some of the overall lessons to be learned, elements that are common to the attainment of quality internationally, include the following:

  • A coordinated policy framework;
  • The use of a broad and flexible definition of quality that takes into account the various perspectives of stakeholders;
  • The presence of an assessment framework that is advisory and empowering;
  • The engagement and involvement of all stakeholders;
  • The close involvement of, and partnership with, parents;
  • The provision of a support infrastructure that ensures quality is achieved and maintained;
  • A focus on the training and qualifications of practitioners;
  • An integrated approach towards children affected by disadvantage or who have special needs (CECDE, 2004c).

Furthermore, the review identified a quality continuum evident across the six countries reviewed, ranging from poor quality provision to high quality universal ECCE services. Norway and Sweden, who now have an enviable ECCE system, have progressed along this continuum over recent decades to achieve their current position. While ECCE services in Norway and Sweden are largely unregulated at present, this follows a period of strict centralised regulation, which impacted positively on their quality. This allows such countries to focus increasingly on the dynamic elements of quality as the standard of the static variables is now assured. Ireland, and other countries within the review, are at an earlier stage of development on this continuum. Síolta has taken cognisance of this continuum of development, showing awareness of Ireland's current position along the continuum and also plans for the further progression of ECCE services.

In addition, Ireland has participated in a number of crossnational reviews in relation to ECCE that have yielded valuable data in this regard (CECDE, 2004b:37-39).


Síolta is published at a time when national and international attention is focused as never before on the issue of quality ECCE services, and their role in enhancing the lives of our youngest children. It distils and captures the concerted momentum of the ECCE sector in recent years towards the attainment of quality and provides a reference point for all those involved in ECCE services in this quest. Great strides have been made in the last decade towards the provision of a policy, practice and research context that supports quality provision for our youngest children. However, Irish investment in ECCE services rests at less than 0.2% of GDP, well below the EU average (OECD, 2004).

Ireland has been an active partner in the European Union in recent decades and has signed up to the conclusions of the Barcelona European Council (2002) to provide childcare by 2010 to at least 90% of children between three to six years of age, and to 33% of children under three years of age (DES, 2004b:20). While much has been accomplished, Ireland is committed to achieving much more in the years ahead, a commitment that will be to the benefit of all the children of Ireland, and ultimately to society as a whole.

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