The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education


Síolta - Introductory handbook

Section 5 - Supporting Quality

The CECDE has recognised, from the earliest stages of the development of Síolta, that practitioners should receive support in engaging with the Framework in pursuit of quality improvement. This has been made very clear throughout the four pillars of research, already described in Section Three, and in the very structure devised for the Framework, namely, Defining, Assessing and Supporting Quality. The CECDE has always promoted an integrated and holistic view of quality, in which all stakeholders have a part to play in ensuring quality services for our youngest children. We do not view the provision of such high quality services as the responsibility of practitioners alone, but as a mutual effort, undertaken co-operatively and involving all facets of the system - individual, local, regional and national. All of our efforts must be focused firmly on the child, whose well-being lies at the heart of quality practice.

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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Elements of Support

This analysis takes as its starting point the results of the consultation seminars which the CECDE held in late 2003 (CECDE, 2004a). Participants were asked to enumerate the elements of support required to enhance quality provision, and the outcome of their responses is illustrated in Figure 5 opposite.

- Figure 5: Supporting Quality - Consultation Findings
Bar chart of the consultation findings

For the purposes of establishing a comprehensive picture of current views from practice, policy and research in ECCE, this initial analysis was augmented with information from a number of other sources. The implications for supporting quality which emerged from the research undertaken for the national review (CECDE, 2004b), the international review (CECDE, 2004c) and the review of child learning and development (CECDE, 2005b), were considered. Input from a number of other recent and relevant policy documents, for example, the OECD report (DES, 2004b), the report of the NESF (NESF, 2005) and DEIS (DES, 2005), has also been considered. Finally, as part of the CECDE consultation process on the development of Síolta, submissions were requested from the Consultative Committee on the subject of the supports members viewed as necessary to the implementation of the Framework. These four sources - consultation, research, current analysis and submissions - are synthesised here to provide information on the supports for quality provision deemed necessary by the wider ECCE sector.

From this analysis, two separate levels of support were identified. The first concerns the macro level of support for quality and highlights issues that need to be addressed at national level, and which are identified as fundamental to the overall development of quality ECCE provision in Ireland. The second relates more specifically to supports which stakeholders have identified as necessary in order for practitioners and services to successfully implement Síolta in practice settings.

National Issues

1. Funding

In the course of the CECDE consultation with stakeholders in the sector, and reflecting a major concern among providers, funding and financial support emerged as the main support required to promote and safeguard the delivery of quality provision. Participants proposed a number of ways in which this could be facilitated, including direct funding for childcare, capital grants, capitation grants and tax arrangements. The OECD (DES, 2004b) has, likewise, emphasised the economic and social benefits of investing in ECCE, and have recommended a shift in investment towards services for young children in Ireland, while pointing out the costs of not doing so.

Consistent with this view, the CECDE analysis of quality related material in the national context noted that sustained long-term commitment to adequate financial supports (on the part of the State) emerged as essential to the development of quality ECCE service provision. Throughout our consultation process and in our national review, it has been acknowledged that Ireland has started from a very low base-line investment and that substantial improvement has taken place in the past number of years.

Implications for Síolta - The implementation of Síolta will require adequate funding, with security of funding assured into the future, in order to enable services to engage fully, and with confidence, in the quality development process.

2. Co-ordination

Participants in the consultation seminars acknowledged the critical influence that government policy and practice exerts upon the provision of ECCE services. They highlighted the significant improvement in recent years in the priority afforded to ECCE in policy commitments by a number of government departments, in particular, the DES, DHC and DJELR. However, there were calls for the implementation of policies already devised or ratified by the government, a call reiterated by the NESF (NESF, 2005).

In addition, participants were anxious to see greater coordination between government departments and organisations dealing with ECCE. This latter point has gained prominence in recent times. The OECD, in particular, has drawn attention to the gains which would accrue to Ireland by taking an integrated approach to ECCE. The OECD proposes, in fact, that one ministry or designated funding and policy agency be the focus for such integration, as is becoming the norm in many OECD countries (DES, 2004b). Additionally, the CECDE international review has identified that, among the six countries surveyed, a clear, coherent co-ordinated policy framework is essential for the promotion of quality ECCE (CECDE, 2004b). The White Paper on Early Childhood Education, Ready to Learn (DES, 1999a) also supports the need for such coordination of ECCE provision. The White Paper on Early Childhood Education, Ready to Learn (DES, 1999a) also supports the need for such coordination of ECCE provision. Indeed, the CECDE was established as the forerunner of the Early Childhood Education Agency (ECEA), as posited in the White Paper.

Implications for Síolta - Síolta will be supported by designating a lead Department or agency with responsibility for driving forward implementation in the context of co-ordinating existing infrastructure to meet programme requirements.

3. Training and qualifications

Levels of staff training and qualifications are recognised internationally as a major contributor to, and support for, the quality of service provision (CECDE, 2004c). Training and qualifications encompasses pre-service education, leading to accredited and standardised qualifications, and continuing professional development.

Issues of concern for the ECCE sector in this area include access to education and training and flexibility of training pathways. As described by the participants in the CECDE consultation seminars, this must involve access to ongoing training and development for practitioners which dovetails with their work and personal commitments (CECDE, 2004a). Flexibility in the provision of continuing professional development is important, with measures such as release time from work, as well as the provision of modular or part-time courses. Such a professional development infrastructure would permit a career path to be clearly identified, attracting and retaining young practitioners and strengthening the emerging identity of the ECCE sector.

The CECDE's national review concurred with the views expressed by the participants in the consultation seminars. Furthermore, it identified the availability of a qualified workforce with clearly defined career structures, good terms and conditions of employment and regular opportunities for continuing professional development as fundamental to the development of quality in ECCE (CECDE, 2004b). Considerable activity is underway in this regard - the NQAI and the Awarding bodies HETAC and FETAC, who have responsibility for setting standards for national awards in all fields of learning, are developing policies and procedures to resolve many of the concerns raised in relation to access to and participation in education and training. These agencies have also been engaging with the CECDE in regard to the specific requirements of the ECCE sector. While the baseline level of pre-service education amongst a significant proportion of practitioners in the ECCE sector remains low, the NESF has noted improvements in recent years as practitioners have engaged with additional training. This report also notes, however, that difficulties persist with regard to access, flexibility and the accreditation of prior learning (NESF, 2005). Currently, as the OECD has pointed out, staff may - or may not - have one of a variety of qualifications achieved through various courses, accredited or not, delivered by a range of training providers (DES, 2004b). However, as the White Paper on Early Childhood Education stated, any changes to the requirements regarding qualifications must be phased in over time, to ensure that practitioners with considerable expertise developed through experience have the opportunity to gain the qualifications that reflect that expertise (DES, 1999a).

Implications for Síolta - The training and qualifications levels of practitioners will impact on the capacity of services to engage with the quality improvement process. A related programme of professional development will support the implementation of Síolta.

4. National practice frameworks

The potential role of national frameworks in the support of quality in early childhood education provision emerged in the course of the CECDE consultation with stakeholders in ECCE. The NCCA, in their consultation document, Towards a Framework for Early Learning (NCCA, 2004), has also noted that the development of such a framework is an important step in supporting existing ECCE services. The potential of practice frameworks was identified in relation to the need for harmonisation of practice in the ECCE sector. Shared benchmarks were identified by participants as central to ensuring that all children had an equivalent experience of quality in all early years' settings. This last view is very clearly incorporated into Síolta, as the Principles, Standards and Components of Quality are common to the four settings to which the Framework applies. In fact, in the case of this particular identified need, considerable progress has been made: A National Quality Framework is now available andwwork is continuing on a national Framework for Early Learning.

Implications for Síolta - A synergy of both the Framework for Early Learning and Síolta will provide a coherent context for quality practice with young children.

5. Parental and community involvement

It is clear from the discussion on parental and community involvement and the relationship between ECCE services, the family and the community, that a clear consensus emerged about the ecological nature of the relationships between all three. As a measure of the commitment shown by the ECCE sector to, in particular, parental involvement, participants in the consultation held that parents would need to be supported to actively participate in this role. DEIS (DES, 2005) renews the DES commitment to supporting parents in their children's learning and development. The White Paper on Early Education, Ready to Learn (DES, 1999a), emphasises the importance of partnership with parents, and highlights their position as the prime educators and experts on their children, while the National Children's Strategy (DHC, 2000) proposes that the family should be supported and empowered within the community. The Standards on both 'Parents and Families' and 'Community Involvement' in the NQF establish these aspects of practice as central to quality provision.

Implications for Síolta - Specific measures will be required during the implementation of Síolta to make sure that services and children can benefit from the contribution of parents and families, and that services can contribute to their communities and, in turn, gain from the relationship.

6. Data Strategy

The need for a national data strategy to gather and provide accurate, reliable information to support the development of all aspects of ECCE emerged from the national review relating to quality. The CECDE had identified the same need in On Target (CECDE, 2004d) following an audit of services targeting disadvantage among young children in Ireland. Similarly, the OECD has pointed to the challenge for Ireland to develop reliable statistics and data on young children (DES, 2004b). Such data is necessary for the co-ordination of policy and provision and, most importantly, will make children in the birth to six years age group visible within society.

Implications for Síolta - The optimal allocation of resources in support of Síolta can be made more effective in the context of a national data collection system, focused on young children from birth to six years, providing reliable information to facilitate planning and policy development.

7. Research, evaluation and dissemination

A number of the submissions received by the CECDE in relation to supporting quality recommended making up-todate research and information available to practitioners. Such information is viewed as essential for ongoing professional development. Structures to facilitate this are suggested in the following section. Information will also be required on the Framework itself. A comprehensive and long-term research project will be necessary to ensure the validity of Síolta in the Irish context. This research should include:

  • A comprehensive evaluation of the impact of Síolta at all levels of provision and practice
  • A report of children's experiences of and views on the Framework
  • Mechanisms to facilitate practitioners responses to the implementation of Síolta.

The evaluation project should reflect all perspectives on quality, in keeping with the CECDE Research Strategy (CECDE, 2003b) and should report at agreed intervals. Information gleaned from evaluation should be shared with the ECCE sector and the implications for practice debated widely. The CECDE Audit of Research, which is updated on a regular basis, has revealed significant knowledge gaps on quality practice in ECCE in Ireland and has recommended that this situation be redressed in order to support the development of quality practice into the future (CECDE, 2003a). Síolta provides an excellent opportunity to focus research and evaluation efforts on issues of quality and to use this information to inform policy and practice in ECCE in Ireland.

Implications for Síolta - A long-term evaluation programme, providing evidence of best practice and quality improvement methods, will be essential to support the effective implementation of Síolta.

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Suggestions for specific supports for services and practitioners implementing Síolta

The following suggestions for specific supports for services implementing the Framework are gleaned from the submissions received from the CECDE Consultative Committee as part of the consultation process on the development of Síolta. There was a general view that any supports offered must, ultimately, help services achieve the measures of quality outlined within Síolta and must relate closely to the assessment processes associated with establishing levels of achievement in this regard. In the absence of agreed processes related to assessment, the nature of these suggested supports for the implementation of Síolta is, therefore, general.

1. Support and advice

Settings and practitioners engaging with Síolta will need support and advice during the implementation process. A number of suggestions were made through the submissions on how this could be achieved. Great emphasis was placed on the availability of on-site support from an advisor with practice experience and expertise. Additional suggestions included telephone support, where the advisor would be available to respond to telephone queries from settings and practitioners.

2. Information Services

There are a number of possibilities for the provision and dissemination of information to services engaging with Síolta. The first possibility is a dedicated web page on the Siolta website. These web-based supports could offer, among other things, access and links to online resources and downloads to support various aspects of practice. Another possibility is a dedicated newsletter for services taking part in the implementation. The content could include information from the various Síolta Networks (see below), contributions from services and practitioners taking part, and ideas and information for working with children. As a further support to implementation through the provision of information, the CECDE will publish additional materials to support various aspects of practice, e.g. assessment, play and parental involvement. Dissemination of information could take place through providing access for settings and practitioners to seminars on specific issues related to Síolta at local, regional and national level. Such seminars might also facilitate networking, another aspect of the supports suggested for Síolta.

3. Networks

Opportunities for networking among practitioners was emphasised in several of the submissions, and, again, there are a number of possibilities for facilitating such activity. For example, an on-line network, with a link from the dedicated web page, would allow settings and practitioners implementing Síolta to engage in dialogue with each other, to share information, ask questions and exchange ideas. This could be a solution for services that operate in rural or isolated areas, or where population density does not support sufficient service numbers to enable meetings. Where meetings are possible, there are already many examples of practitioner networks under the auspices of statutory or voluntary groups. Quality support networks, or cluster groups, are another possibility, where practitioners from all setting types can meet to exchange information, share expertise, engender new ideas and promote co-ordinated approaches. To promote cohesion, both the quality support networks and the on-line networks will run in parallel, with information shared across both.


This section on the possibilities for the provision of supports for the implementation of Síolta has drawn on the views of stakeholders, policy analysis, CECDE research and the submissions of members of the CECDE Consultative Committee. It considers the variety of measures which experience and current practice indicate will be central to the successful implementation of Síolta. It reiterates the view that the implementation of quality improvement processes is a project which must include all stakeholders across the ECCE sector, and not just practitioners. Supporting quality must be a shared effort with the ultimate goal of providing our youngest children with the best services possible.

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