Speaker: Maresa Duignan, Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education (CECDE)
The Department of Education and Science (DES) established the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education (CECDE) in October 2001 as a direct response to the recommendations of:
'Ready To Learn - the White Paper on Early Child Education (DES, 1999)'.
This paper introduces the CECDE and briefly reviews the policy and legislative context related to special education that informs the CECDE work programme. It then considers the importance of early childhood in terms of both education and early intervention and finally, it describes the work of the CECDE, which has particular relevance for provision for children with special educational needs.
This includes a brief review of 'On Target?: An Audit of Provision of Services Targeting Disadvantage and Special Needs', the development of the National Framework for Quality and relevant aspects of the CECDE research programme.
In early 2001, the Minister for Education and Science invited the Dublin Institute of Technology and St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra, to jointly establish the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education (CECDE). CECDE was launched in October 2002 to develop and co-ordinate early childhood care and education in pursuance of the objectives of the White Paper in Early Education Ready to Learn (Department of Education and Science, 1999).
The CECDE is intended as the forerunner to the country's first Early Childhood Education Agency. Towards this end, its key functions are to:
The CECDE brief is concerned with all children aged from birth to six years old. This means that for the first time, early education is being given specific policy attention and that the educational "grey area" between age 4, when many children actually enter primary school, and age six, when they reach compulsory school going age, is given particular attention.
Central to CECDE's work is the view that care and education are not two separate entities, as many believe they have been regarded in Ireland up to now. It is CECDE's view that the two are inextricably linked. This view is reflected in 'Ready to Learn, The White Paper on Early Childhood Education', which states, "..we must recognise that young children have needs for both education and care and that the focus can never be exclusively on either". (DES, 1999: 3).
Research has shown that 75% of brain development occurs between birth and the age of two. Early experiences have a long lasting impact on quality of later life.
Early intervention is commonly understood as an intervention undertaken to influence the development and learning of young children (birth to 6 years) with or at risk of developing disabilities (McCollum 2002), or of experiencing educational disadvantage. Early intervention is also remedial or preventative in nature - re-mediating existing developmental problems or preventing their occurrence.
Early intervention has been shown (from US research tracking two similar control groups over 40 years, with one of the groups in receipt of a high quality school pre-school programme) to help with income, quality of life, even the stability of relationships. Children with special educational needs benefit disproportionately from early childhood education (Feldman, 1997).
An Audit of Research on Early Childhood Care and Education in Ireland 1990-2003
CECDE has carried out the first ever audit of research conducted in the field of early childhood care and education in Ireland. The main aim of the research, which examined 1,082 wide-ranging publications divided into 12 different categories, was to assess "what was out there, where the gaps were and what was needed to be done."
Within the area of special needs, 125 documents were included in the audit, including 49 documents specific to educational intervention and development; 24 on general disability; 22 Government policy documents; 3 relating to inclusion and integration; 17 on intellectual disabilities and 10 relating to physical and sensory disability.
On Target?' is conceptualised as a systematic review of specific categories of provision of early childhood care and education services for development purposes. Through this publication we raise issues for subsequent discussion with stakeholders and issues which the audit process has brought to light and which impact on the delivery of services. One of the key findings of the audit is the need for a national access strategy to identify disadvantage and special needs as soon after birth as is possible. Another key finding is that it is virtually impossible to get access to information about all the services available on disadvantage and special needs.
The audit shows: a lack of co-ordination between government departments dealing with disadvantage and special needs. (This was also a finding of the recent OECD report on the education system in Ireland). It also shows that there is no definitive criteria for targeting disadvantage, and that there is particular difficulty in accessing supports for both disadvantage and special educational needs, even though many previous research projects show that there is often a close correlation between the two.
Work on the Centre's first objective, the production of a national quality framework (NQF) for early childhood care and education, is nearing completion. Within the NQF, three distinct elements will be identified. Firstly, a set of standards will define what is understood as quality for children in the Irish context. Secondly, a system of inspection or assessment will be devised to ensure that quality is achieved and maintained. Finally, a support infrastructure will be devised and implemented to support all those working in early childhood care and education.
Four key 'pillars' of research underpin the national quality framework , thus ensuring it is evidence based and relevant to early childhood care and education provision in the Irish context.
The first pillar illustrates the CECDE commitment, from the beginning, to move forward only in consultation with stakeholders. In late 2003, a series of consultation seminars were held around the country on the issue of quality ECCE provision. Almost four hundred stakeholders, including parents, practitioners, health professionals, teachers, academics and so on, attended the seminars. They were asked to address questions under the headings of defining, supporting and assessing quality. This consultation process generated an enormous amount of data, and the executive summary, Talking About Quality was published in 2004 (CECDE 2004a).
The second pillar, a national review of policy, practice and research related to quality in the Irish context, reflects the intention of the CECDE to build on the expertise and experience of the existing ECCE sector. This extensive review process, covering an enormous range of documentation related to quality, both published and unpublished, produced in Ireland between 1990 and mid-2004, resulted in the publication of Insights on Quality (CECDE 2004b).
The third pillar is an international review of quality initiatives in six countries, again in terms of policy, practice and research, published as 'Making Connections' (CECDE 2004c). This review allowed us to place our own development work in an international context and to learn from experience across the world.
The fourth pillar was designed to ensure that the child is at the heart of the NQF. It examined the historical place of early childhood in Ireland, reviewed recent developments and the current situation of children, and commissioned an extensive literature review of early childhood learning and development. A discussion document based on this very large review document and entitled Early Childhood in Ireland - Evidence and Perspectives resulted from this process (CECDE, 2005).
These four documents and, more importantly, the research they represent are crucial to the development of the NQF. Each document has distilled the implications of the original research for the framework under the headings of Defining, Supporting and Assessing Quality. In developing these three strands of the framework, we have returned again and again to these documents and the original material on which they are based.
The NQF documentation will be completed and presented to the Department of Education and Science in September 2005.
The CECDE has commissioned two further pieces of research specifically related to the ECCE provision for children with special needs. The first is being conducted by the Mid-Western Health Board to examine early intervention for children with special needs in diverse settings in North Tipperary. The aim is to isolate and identify the factors that contribute to quality over a diverse range of settings and ensure optimal outcomes for children and families. This research will report in October 2005.
The second is designed to map knowledge of factors contributing to good practice and effective early years provision for children with special educational needs to an Irish context. The Special Education department of St. Patrick's College in Drumcondra is carrying out this research.
Further aims of the research are to; document examples of practice; draw conclusions about the practices observed and what is considered to be best practice; identify implications for future policy; and research developments in early years provision for children with special needs in Ireland.
Finally, CEDCE will contribute to the work of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the National Council for Special Educational Needs, and the Departments of Health and Children and Justice Equality and Law Reform.
The establishment of the CECDE represents an important milestone in the development of early education services for children aged birth to six years in Ireland. It begins to realise the policy commitments made in Ready to Learn, the White Paper on Early Childhood Care and Education, to address the gaps in provision and to provide a coherent and coordinated strategy for future developments. The early education experiences of children are arguably the most critical in their lives. This is especially true for children at risk from disadvantage or with special educational needs. The CECDE research strategy will begin to redress the absence of information and evidence regarding the situation of young children in Ireland and thereby provide the essential data necessary to ensure that early education provision is meeting the real needs of our youngest children.