The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education

Síolta - Introductory handbook

Section 4 - Assessing Quality

The main rationale for assessment within Síolta is found in the White Paper on Early Childhood Education, Ready to Learn (DES, 1999a). A core principle of this document is the recognition of the fact that the quality of service provision is of critical importance in the lives of young children and their families (DES, 1999a:43). To support the development of quality services, it was proposed to devise a national quality assurance system, which would be mandatory for all state funded services and voluntary for all other services. Assessment would form an essential part of this system and would ultimately lead to an award where providers reach pre-determined quality standards.

It is evident from the White Paper on Early Childhood Education that achieving recognition through an award mark will involve participation in a developmental process that will require support and guidance (DES, 1999a:121). It was envisaged that assessment associated with an award system would take account of the developmental processes that services were engaged in:

"Inspectors will also assist providers to attain the QE [Quality in Education] standards by identifying the areas where improvements are required and by suggesting approaches which providers could take to achieve the improvements."
(DES, 1999a:121)

Such a developmental model is not without precedent in Ireland. Many of the community and voluntary organisations (see Section Two) operate a support system for providers engaged in meeting their own specific quality criteria (CECDE, 2004b). International quality assurance schemes also employ developmental models of quality assessment and assurance (CECDE, 2004c). Australia and New Zealand have some of the more evolved statutory models of quality assurance whilst, in the USA, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has also developed a programme, which has been widely adopted (NAEYC, 2005; National Childcare Accreditation Council Inc., 2004a; 2004b; 2004c).

Síolta has drawn on both national and international models of assessment for quality in ECCE. It has also been informed by the national consultation research conducted by the CECDE, which asked for specific opinion about assessment in ECCE in Ireland. The outcomes of this consultation revealed that there was strong agreement that any assessment of quality must be informed by the multiple dimensions of, and perspectives on, quality itself. In addition, great emphasis was placed on the need for both internal and external assessment, and on both formative and summative assessment processes. The importance of openness and transparency in assessment processes to ensure validity and reliability and 'fairness' of the criteria for quality was emphasised (CECDE, 2004a).

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Assessment processes

Assessment for quality within Síolta will play a fundamental role in stimulating and reinforcing change processes. In many contexts, we can observe that what is to be assessed will drive the nature of practice. This statement regarding curriculum reform also has resonance for quality development:

"Assessment is the tail that wags the curriculum dog. If we want to see real curriculum reform, we must simultaneously achieve reform of assessment practices."
(Bredekamp and Rosegrant, 1992:29)

It is essential therefore that assessment practices focus energies on developments which realise the vision of Síolta as articulated in the Principles, Standards and Components.

Figure 3 below illustrates the NQF quality spiral which envisages the quest for quality in ECCE services as a continuous process stimulated and reinforced through cycles of assessment, development and action.

- Figure 3: The Síolta quality improvement spiral
graphic that shows spiral of achievement from start through to achievement of standard

Assessment within Síolta may be loosely categorised, depending on time or context, as being formal or informal, external or internal. Whilst each of these descriptors can be associated with distinctive characteristics, as outlined below, it is important to note that in the context of Síolta, they are interdependent and of equal value.

Formal assessment is planned, conducted at regular intervals, documented and results in summary data being generated. This type of assessment is associated with inspection or validation systems that culminate in the making of an award. In the case of Síolta, it refers to the achievement or completion of a process, e.g., a particular Component or Standard or ultimately to an award.

Informal assessment will also contribute significantly to achieving these targets or goals; however, it is much more likely to be continuous, self reflective or discursive. Again, whilst it may involve keeping records, these are more likely to be narrative and provide information for either the individual or group on progress towards the achievement of goals and objectives.

A balance between external and internal assessment processes was highlighted through consultation with stakeholders in the ECCE sector, as critically important in the development of quality provision (CECDE, 2004a).

External assessment is understood to represent the considered findings of outside parties on internal practices. It could be argued that parents engage in some form of external assessment of services when exercising choice of ECCE setting for their child. The act of enrolling a child in an ECCE setting may indicate that the parent has conducted a form of external assessment based on any number of personal criteria. However, whilst there may be correlation between parental choice and the quality of the service, it must be noted that constraints upon parents (such as geographical location, accessibility or affordability) may exert more influence than the perceived quality of the service. More commonly, external assessment will take the form of statutory inspection systems or evaluation and monitoring processes by individuals or agencies such as training supervisors, funding bodies, etc. It is necessary that such external assessment is perceived to be consistent, objective and fair. To tthis end, it must be based upon open and transparent criteria and processes and should be conducted by suitable, qualified persons. In addition, it should take account of the variety of approaches to assessment which may be employed in the achievement of quality.

Internal assessment refers in general to reflective processes which can be conducted by an individual practitioner, by groups and/or teams within settings and even by a cluster group of settings who have formed an alliance towards the development of quality practice. A wide range of methods may be employed, e.g., observation, action research, journal keeping, etc. However, regardless of the methods, the information generated will usually contribute to a developmental dialogue on the processes of service provision.

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Síolta as a framework for assessment

Síolta is designed to facilitate and support all forms of assessment. The richness and diversity of practice in ECCE in Ireland cannot be appreciated through a narrow assessment lens. Multiple assessment methods will be necessary and it is envisaged that an essential aspect of the proposed support model for quality (see Section Six) will focus on preparing practitioners and assessors to engage with a wide variety of assessment methods and approaches. This flexibility regarding the ways in which practitioners assess and evaluate their service is only possible because of the strength and solidity of the core elements of Síolta, i.e., the Standards and Components of Quality. These are the benchmark for all assessment and, as such, will inform and be the focus of developments in practice.

For example, an individual practitioner, keen to assess her/his own practice may draw on a range of assessment data. These could include keeping a practice journal, inviting peer observation, participating in formal educational examinations or testing. As long as the benchmark for assessment in all of these processes is the core Standards, then the data will provide valuable evidence for the practitioner on her/his level of performance in relation to Síolta. Indeed, it is good practice to draw upon more than one source of assessment data as consistency across all methods means the overall outcome of assessment is more likely to be accurate and reliable. Figure 4 represents this central premise diagrammatically.

- Figure 4: The relationship between assessment methods and the Standards of Quality
graphic that shows assessment methods and the Standards of Quality

Proposed model for assessment under Síolta

The following section discusses processes that should be included in any possible model for assessment in the context of Síolta. It is understood that at this stage of development of the NQF, assessment processes are not fully finalised and will benefit from discussion and consultation with stakeholders. However, these suggestions do reflect a synthesis of best practice both nationally and internationally in relation to assessment that foster developmental processes of change towards the achievement of quality.

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Stages of assessment

There are a number of distinct processes that services could engage with in relation to assessment under the NQF. These processes could include:

  • Registration
  • Evidence collection and portfolio building;
  • Validation.


At this point, service providers are indicating their interest in engaging with Síolta. Information giving more details of the initial assessment processes may be sent to the service provider and may include:

  • Overview of the NQF process
  • Set of Principles, Standards, Components and Signposts for Reflection appropriate to the type of setting
  • Guidelines for evidence collection
  • Application form for registration

On receipt of such materials, the service provider is able to read and reflect upon the Standards. Clear guidelines would be necessary at this point to assist the provider to decide whether to proceed with registration. These guidelines should include:

  • The minimum requirements for registration
  • Evidence of compliance with relevant legislation and regulation
  • Details regarding the content of the portfolio of evidence to support the application for registration.

To complete any registration process, it is envisaged that it would be necessary to conduct a baseline external assessment visit to the setting. On the basis of this visit, the setting would be given a baseline rating and, providing it met the minimum requirements and wished to continue with the NQF process, formal registration would be completed.

Assessment scale - The successful implementation of Síolta will require assessment decisions to be made regarding a setting's implementation of the Standards and Components of Quality. The scale outlined below is one possible mechanism for achieving this objective:

  • Level 1. There is no observed, reported or documented evidence of progress towards the achievement of this Component within the setting.
  • Level 2. There is some observed, reported or documented evidence of progress towards the achievement of this Component within the setting.
  • Level 3. There is significant observed, reported or documented evidence of progress towards the achievement of this Component within the setting.
  • Level 4. There is extensive observed, reported or documented evidence of progress towards the achievement of this Component within the setting.

This scale should facilitate implementation of the Quality improvement spiral. (see Figure 3)

Evidence collection process

In order to achieve the Standards and Components of Quality, a setting must be able to produce a portfolio of evidence which can be externally assessed. It is envisaged that completion of such a portfolio would require external support. A discussion on the possible nature of these supports is included in the next section.

Validation processes

The final process in the quality assurance model relates to external validation of the internal quality development processes. In addition to the review of the portfolio of evidence submitted by the setting, other validation activities could include interviews, observations and review of documentation, etc. These validation processes would culminate in the production of both summative and formative reports. A summative report is based upon the awarding of merit according to scale (see assessment scale). In addition, a formative report, presented as a narrative, should focus on areas of strength and target areas for future development within the setting. At this point in the process, a decision may be made regarding the making of an award.


This discussion has been based on widespread consideration of established views in both national and international literature and extensive consultation with a broad range of stakeholders on best practice in relation to assessment processes in support of quality in ECCE settings. It is anticipated that the next phase of the development of Síolta will facilitate further refinement of this model towards the implementation of Síolta in a pilot process.

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