The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education

Síolta - Introductory handbook

Section 2 - The Development Process
The 'Four Pillars of Research'

The CECDE Programme of Work outlined a three-year work programme based on the objectives and functions of the CECDE (CECDE, 2001). As one of these core objectives, the production of a National Quality Framework for ECCE in Ireland has involved a significant body of research and development work and has, in particular, yielded the production of four specific pieces of research. These were identified as instrumental in underpinning the development of Síolta, as represented in Figure 1 below.

- Figure 1: Elements of research underpinning Síolta
graphic that shows spiral of the elements  of research underpinning Síolta

The main focus of the four pillars of research was on quality in the Irish context, while an international perspective was also included to flavour the Irish viewpoint. An outline of the four pillars is provided here, while the full text of each is available on the CD Rom contained in this pack or at www.cecde.ie. The four pillars are as follows:

  • Talking About Quality is the report of a nationwide consultation undertaken by the CECDE in late 2003 (CECDE, 2004a). Approximately four hundred stakeholders (including practitioners, parents, policy-makers, researchers, health professionals and students) in the ECCE sector were consulted on all aspects of defining, assessing and supporting quality in Ireland.
  • Insights on Quality is a review of all aspects of policy, practice and research in relation to quality in Ireland since 1990 (CECDE, 2004b). It examines in excess of three hundred publications from both statutory and nonstatutory agencies and draws implications and recommendations for the development of Síolta.
  • Making Connections is an international review of quality in ECCE relating to six countries worldwide, namely; Norway, Sweden, Germany, Portugal, Northern Ireland and New Zealand. It examines all aspects of policy, practice and research in these countries on a thematic basis and concludes with implications for the development of Síolta in the Irish context (CECDE, 2004c).
  • Early Childhood in Ireland - Evidence and Perspectives is a thematic consideration of child development and learning in Ireland based on an extensive literature review (CECDE, 2005b).

While important and valuable publications in their own right, collectively these documents provide a solid foundation of research evidence on which to base the development and implementation of Síolta in the Irish context. They were written and researched with this end focus in mind and are tailored to inform the work of the CECDE in achieving this core objective.

The development of Síolta addressed three distinct, but interrelated, elements:

  • The development of a core set of agreed Principles, Standards and Components, which collectively define quality in the Irish context;
  • The development of proposals for assessment/evaluation in the context of the implementation of Síolta;
  • The development of a discussion document on supporting quality in the context of the implementation of Síolta.

Note on cross-referencing:
Before describing the key elements of the development process, it is helpful to outline the primary structure put in place by the CECDE to facilitate the consultative process with the ECCE sector. In September 2003, the CECDE Consultative Committee was inaugurated. The Consultative Committee consists of fifty representative stakeholders in the ECCE sector and its function is to advise on the work of the CECDE (see Appendix 1). For the purpose of consultation on the NQF, the Consultative Committee had three specific functions:

  • To represent the views of stakeholder groups;
  • To mediate the NQF consultative process to colleagues/members on behalf of the CECDE;
  • To maintain a practice focus within the NQF.

While our direct consultation was with fifty stakeholder representatives, it is evident that wider consultation took place within these organisations in furnishing the CECDE with feedback on the various elements of the NQF, as well as submissions on supporting quality (see Section Six). Some organisations, for example, forwarded the draft documents to their entire membership for comment, while others held focus groups or seminars to elicit the views of members.

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Development of the Principles of Quality

Once the research evidence had been gathered, the CECDE began a meta-analysis of the collective findings and implications in order to establish the core principles for the development of Síolta. This involved the generation of in excess of four thousand key words, which were subsequently grouped thematically into ten overarching categories. These categories were then used to identify the Principles of Síolta, while the rich array of associated words gathered formed the basis of the vocabulary used within the Principles and Explanatory Notes.

Consultation process

Once the Principle Statements and Explanatory Notes were generated, a meeting of the CECDE's Consultative Committee was convened in November 2004. The proposed timeline and process of developing Síolta was outlined at this meeting and the role of the Consultative Committee was detailed and agreed upon. Figure 2 below illustrates the timeline for the development of Síolta.

- Figure 2: Consultation timeline 2004-2005
timeline of the Consultation timeline 2004-2005

As illustrated, Síolta has been developed in relation to the three strands of defining, assessing and supporting quality. This approach evolved from initial consultation with the ECCE sector, who identified these as the overarching variables contributing to the achievement of quality in early childhood education settings (CECDE, 2004a).

The main focus of the initial stages of the development process concentrated on the definition of quality, namely identifying and agreeing the Principles, Standards and Components of Quality.

The draft Principles were circulated to all members of the Consultative Committee in early December 2004, with a return date of mid-January. Feedback could be returned in hardcopy or through a specially developed online facility. The response rate was very satisfactory at 48%, as was the high level of agreement with the Principles which emerged.

A number of organisations suggested word changes within the Principles and the Explanatory Notes, a process that greatly enriched and strengthened their meaning and clarity. As a result of the feedback, two additional principles were added to the original ten, while the wording of many was changed to reflect the views of the sector. At the second meeting of the Consultative Committee regarding Síolta in early March, detailed feedback on this process was provided and a forum for discussion and debate facilitated in relation to the revised Principles.

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Development of the Standards

In tandem with the revision of the Principles, the CECDE continued the process of developing the draft Standards of Quality. These represent the practical translation of the vision, contained in the Principles, into the reality of practice. The Standards were generated based on a further analysis of the findings/implications of the four pillars of research. This process identified sixteen key areas of practice. These were proofed against a sample of national and international quality assurance/improvement programmes to confirm the comprehensiveness of the Standards.

Following the Consultative Committee meeting in early March 2005, at which the Standards were introduced, each Consultative Committee member was forwarded the draft Standards on which to consult with her/his organisation. Upon request, Consultative Committee members were also provided with an Irish translation of the materials to facilitate the wider consultative process within their own constituencies.

This second phase of consultation yielded a response rate of 58%, with a very high level of consensus on the sixteen proposed Standards. The process undertaken in incorporating the feedback on the Standards was identical to that for the Principles. While the titles and wording of many of the Standards were altered based on the feedback, no additional Standards were requested.

Components of Quality and Signposts for Reflection

Once again, while members of the Consultative Committee were considering the Standards, the Components of Quality and Signposts for Reflection were being developed. The Standards were further broken down into a number of Components to facilitate implementation in practice. The Signposts were generated to inspire reflection on the provisions of the Components. A number of national and international models of quality assurance in ECCE, identified within the four pillars of research, were also reviewed during this process to ensure compatibility with current practice.

The Components and Signposts for Reflection were disseminated to all members of the Consultative Committee in May 2005 by hard copy and as a link to the CECDE website. The response rate from the Consultative Committee to the consultation on the Components and Signposts for Reflection was a very gratifying 54%. Given the extensive nature of the materials disseminated in this phase of the consultation, and also the difficulties in conducting internal consultation with their colleagues/members, it was anticipated that the response rate might be lower than in previous phases. The achievement of such a high response rate clearly indicates the strong commitment of the ECCE sector in Ireland to the attainment of quality in ECCE service provision. In addition, there is ample evidence that many organisations also conducted widespread consultation with their memberships, thus broadening the scope of the participative process.

In addition to wording changes, other themes that emerged from the feedback included:

  • Reducing the number of Signposts for Reflection - although this was often accompanied by a request to include a number of new Signposts specific to particular organisations! These conflicting requests were dealt with by increasing the number of 'Think about' boxes and reducing the number of Signposts for Reflection.
  • Personalising the language used to each of the settings so that it would have greater resonance with all those engaging with the Framework within a diverse array of settings.
  • Overall, there was general agreement with the inclusion of all Components within Síolta, and beyond a number of wording changes and the merging of two Components within the Standard on Environments, the essence of the original Components remained intact.

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Parental consultation

A specific and focused consultative process was undertaken with parents in March 2005 in recognition of their primary role in the care and education of their children. This consultation represented an additional strand of consultation with parents, who are also represented on our Consultative Committee. This process identified key issues for parents in relation to quality ECCE services. Feedback was also provided on the Principles and Standards of the NQF, which had already been developed at this time. The outcomes of the parental consultation will be published in the near future.

Translation into Irish

The CECDE has been committed from the outset to ensuring accessibility to all stakeholders within the ECCE sector to our body of work, including the provision of Irish translations. Consequently, the translation of the materials became an integral element in the development of Síolta to ensure the English and Irish versions were published simultaneously. Once consensus on the Principles was achieved, they were translated and published on our website. Upon request, the draft Standards were translated before consultation as they were more directly pertinent to everyday practice and so required practical consultation with members using the Standards through Irish. Once the changes and amendments were entered following this consultation, a final draft was once again translated. All draft Components were also translated to enable consultation in the Irish language, as were the Signposts for Reflection for Sessional services, which relate to naíonraí settings. A similar process was then engaged upon, whereby the final draft, incorporating the revisions highlighted in the consultation process, was once again translated.

Expert Working Group

Another important initiative of the CECDE was establishing an Expert Working Group on Irish, which consisted of CECDE staff members, a translator from the DES and an Irish language expert with expertise in ECCE (see Appendix 1). The role of the Expert Working Group was to review the translations to ensure they reflected the high degree of complexity in the shades of meaning used within Síolta and to review the terminology used. This group met on many occasions to ensure that the detail we had endeavoured to include in English was not lost in the Irish translation, and that it was accessible and comprehensible to all stakeholders in the ECCE sector.

Design of Síolta

In recognition of the high priority given to making Síolta materials as user friendly as possible, the CECDE engaged the services of a design company to progress the publication of the National Quality Framework. The CECDE emphasised a number of important qualities which the design of the NQF should promote, such as clarity, ease of use and that it should be engaging and presented in an attractive format. In addition, the materials should be durable, easily identified, clearly organised, simple to use and easy to photocopy.


The development of Síolta has been characterised by a systematic and rigorous process of research and consultation. The research has focused on both the national and international context for quality in ECCE, and reflects best policy, practice and research in the sector. The consultative process has been extensive in nature and has spanned the entire development process. This process has been documented and published to ensure transparency and openness in relation to all aspects of the development of the Framework.

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