You say you want a revolution. Well, you know, we all want to change the world…
John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s ‘Revolution’ was released in 1968, half a century before the 10th anniversary of Montessori and Early Childhood Professionals Ireland provides us with an opportunity to take stock and reflect on a decade of change in the Irish early childhood sector. Yet it is as an apt soundtrack to the developments past, present – and even more so for the future. As other contributors to this collection of blogs have pointed out, there has been a fair amount of change. In fact, going back to the late John Coolahan’s 1998 Report on the National Forum for Early Childhood Education, the Early Childhood sector in Ireland has been subject to constant and substantial policy changes for not one but (at least) two decades. Like in other countries, early childhood policy developments in Ireland have responded to, and reflect, wider societal and socio-economic processes both in the national and international (e.g. European Union) context. Welcome progress has been made, e.g. in relation to orientation and guiding principles, access, governance and professional qualifications. Yet, as external (e.g. OECD, EU) and internal (e.g. contributors to this blog) observers continue to point out, serious challenges remain: fragmentation (of services and governance), disunity and contradictory vested interests of a multitude of actors, absence of a shared vision and identity across all levels of the early childhood system, and, most critically, the unsustainable structure for the funding and provision of services for all children and their families. Change, as Toby Wolfe, Bernie O’Donoghue and Nóirín Hayes remind us in their paper Rapid change without transformation, published in 2013 in the International Journal of Early Childhood, does not necessarily equal progress.
As someone who has only recently crossed the Irish Sea to take up a role in the Irish early childhood sector (after many years as a sympathetic external observer and collaborator), I don’t want to dwell too much on the analysis of the past. As important as it is to understand how we got to where we are, we need to act in the present and look ahead. What are the challenges and what can be done? Here is my short suggestion what should be on the agenda for the next 10 years, starting now:
- We cannot continue as we are. We could start with a reality check and acknowledge that the way early childhood services are structured, funded and provided is simply unsustainable. Yes, we certainly need a substantial increase in public funding to bring Ireland in line (at least) with other countries. Ireland occupies the place at the very bottom of 35 OECD countries (in terms of public spending as percentage of GDP). Spending would have to increase fourfold to bring us in line with Colombia (still near the bottom), eightfold to meet the OECD average, and nearly twentyfold to match the early childhood spending of Norway. Despite welcome increases in the early childhood budget in recent years, the bucket (to use a simplistic image inspired by the water crisis at the time of writing) is still nearly empty. However, understandable as simple calls for more public spending are, they are also misguided considering the state of the bucket. We need more water, for sure – but we also need a bucket without holes.
- Public good and public responsibility. We should engage in a broad public and democratic debate about the purpose and underlying values of early childhood services in Ireland. One of my favourite nursery schools from my previous professional life, in Tottenham, North London, asks new parents about their dreams and hopes for their child while they are attending the service. All the collected dreams are on display in the hall for all to see. I think this is an exercise we need as a country: what are our dreams, hopes and aspirations for young children? Who, and what, do we think, as a society, early childhood services are for? Who benefits from the status quo (and therefore resists change)? What do we want early childhood services to be and to achieve in our society? In this debate we are required, individually and collectively, to clarify our position and take a stand. To start with, we should recognise that early childhood services are a common good that benefit all children and families, and the entire society. As a society, we have a shared public responsibility for the lives of all children from birth, and for the cohesion of the present and future society we want to live in. There is no such thing as ‘other peoples’ children’.
- Deprivatise. Dare I say the ‘D’ word? If we can agree that the current structure of the Irish early childhood sector is not fit for purpose, the question arises what are the alternatives? There is plenty of international evidence that a sector that relies on a business model cannot, in the long term, deliver the common good. Quality (as experienced by children and families) tends to be low (variable at best), access and outcomes unequal, costs high, working conditions for staff unsustainable, governance and regulation overly onerous. Now is the time to fundamentally re-think the way services are provided in Ireland. What would a deprivatised, genuinely public sector look like? Soviet-style kinderkombinat institutions in each county? Certainly not. An Irish solution would build on the strengths of the system: on the profound connectedness of services and early childhood professionals to the local community and on their knowledge of the rights, hopes, aspirations, capabilities and needs of the community that is often their own. Services would be decentralised and diverse (as they currently are) but publicly resourced and coordinated.
- Integrated services. While necessarily grounded in the local community, services will also have to be highly integrated in order to cater for the rights of all children, families and communities. What do I mean by highly integrated? In Ireland (indeed in most English speaking countries) we are still struggling to overcome the deep conceptual and institutional divide between childcare and early childhood education. Some good progress has been made; it is now widely accepted that learning starts at birth and care does not stop at the primary school door. Now we need to make sure this holistic, rights-based approach to caring for and educating all young children is reflected at all levels of the system, including governance. However, if we take seriously our public responsibility for all children, we will have to think integration of services on a much broader scale: health, nutrition, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being should be brought into the picture – they can and should be an integral part of the services available to all young children and their families.
- A strategy for the strategy, but first a vision. At the time of writing, we are awaiting the publication of the Early Years Strategy. It will, we expect, provide much-needed and welcome orientation for the next decade. The time frame is important because it opens the possibility to escape the short-termism of electoral cycles and the temptations of quick fixes and election giveaways. Welcome to a strategy not for the government (governments change) but for the country! A strategy can give long-term direction to our actions – but before actions lie questions of purpose and values: what is our vision for the relationship we, as a society, want to realise with all children and families? The (preliminary?) title of the early years strategy gives a hint: It will be a Strategy for Babies, Young Children, and their Families. What are the implications of such an orientation? I want to be radically positive and say that such a broad orientation can become the road map for the system change I genuinely believe we need: from a fragmented, marketised (but dysfunctional) system to a fully integrated, public service for all children and families. In case you should have wondered about my persistent and italic use of all children: it is because all means all regardless of their legal status, ethnicity, colour of skin, perceived ability, size of their parents’ wallets or any other artificial distinction. Exclusion is not an option. How about this for a collective aspiration: five years from now (in 2023) there will be a fully integrated early childhood development, education and care hub in each county. The hubs will offer some services ‘in house’, and will proactively network and coordinate the following services in the region (which may be provided in a diverse range of settings): pre- and postnatal care, parental support and advice, infant health care, sessional and drop-in childcare and early childhood education. They will proactively reach out to all families in the area and work closely with other services and professionals providing child and family support.
Without doubt the implications of such an aspiration are huge: to start with, we need to overcome silo mentality and competition. We will need a highly qualified (and sufficiently paid) professional workforce, capable of collaboration across professional and disciplinary boundaries. We will have to recognise that coordination and communication across differences are essential systemic competences and will have to create new support structures and professional roles to reflect the task. But Ireland is not alone in facing these challenges. We can learn from and with similar aspirational policies in other countries.
At Dublin City University, we are in the process of setting up an international centre for early childhood research. Our mission is to be a globally connected, locally grounded, interdisciplinary hub for critical thinking in early childhood practice, policy and research. This can’t and won’t happen behind closed doors – so here is an invitation to join the debate and realise the aspiration.
Paulo Freire once wrote: ‘the future isn’t something hidden in a corner. The future is something we build in the present’. Or, as John Lennon put it: ‘imagine …’
Dr Mathias Urban is Desmond Chair of Early Childhood Education, and Director of the International Centre for Early Childhood Research at Dublin City University, Ireland (DCU). He works on questions of diversity and equality, social justice, evaluation and professionalism in working with young children, families and communities in diverse socio-cultural contexts. Before joining DCU Mathias held the position of Froebel Professor of Early Childhood Studies and Director of the Early Childhood Research Centre at the University of Roehampton, London, United Kingdom. From 2010 to 2011 he coordinated the European CoRe project (Competence Requirements in Early Childhood Education and Care). His current and recent projects include collaborative studies on early childhood professionalism in Colombia (Sistemas Competentes para la Atención Integral a la Primera Infancia), studies on Privatisation and on the impact of Assessment Regimes, and an 11-country project on Governance and Leadership for Competent Systems in Early Childhood. Mathias is an International Research Fellow with the Critical Childhood Public Policy Research Collaborative, a member of the PILIS research group (Primera Infancia, Lenguaje e Inclusión Social), Chair of the DECET network (Diversity in Early Childhood Education and Training), a member of the AERA special interest group critical perspectives on early childhood education. Mathias is the President of the International Froebel Society (IFS).
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Urban, M. & Swadener, B. (2017). Democratic accountability and contextualised systemic evaluation. A comment on the OECD initiative to launch an International Early Learning Study (IELS). International Critical Childhood Policy Studies, 5(1), 6-18
Urban, M. (2016) At Sea: what direction for critical early childhood research? Journal of Pedagogy 7(1) 107-121
Urban, M. (2016, ed.) Resisting ‘normal science’ in educational research. Journal of Pedagogy. Guest-edited special edition
Urban, M. (2016) Sufficiently well informed and seriously concerned? European Union policy responses to marginalisation, structural racism and institutionalised exclusion in early childhood. Alberta Journal of Educational Research (61) 4 399-416
Vandenbroeck, M., Urban, M. & Peeters, J. (2016, eds.) Pathways to Professionalism in Early Childhood Education and Care. London: Routledge Jones, L., Urban, M., Osgood, J. & Holmes, R. (2016, eds.) Reimagining Quality in Early Childhood. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. Guest-edited special edition (17) 1
Urban, M. (2015) Compromiso y Responsibilidad de Todos. Europe and Latin America learning with and from each other for competent early childhood systems. Recíprocamente.net 28 December 2015. http://reciprocamente.eurosocial-ii.eu/en/
Urban, M. (2015) A pedagogy based on critical consciousness and democratic values. In A. Fortunati (Ed.), TALE. Tuscan Approach Learning for Early Childhood Education and Care. Activities, results and perspectives. Florence: Istituto degli Innocenti.
Urban, M. (2016) Starting Wrong? The trouble with a debate that just won’t go away. In Cannella, G., Perez, M. & Lee, I. Critical Examinations of Quality. Regulation, Disqualification and Erasure. New York: Peter Lang
Urban, M. (2015) From ‘closing the gap’ to an ethics of affirmation. Reconceptualising the role of early childhood services in times of uncertainty. European Journal of Education (50)3 293-306
Urban, M. & Rubiano, C. (2015) Privatisation in Early Childhood Education. An explorative study on impacts and implications. Brussels: Education International
Urban, M. (2015) Starting wrong? A critical perspective on the latest permutation of the debate on the quality of early childhood provision. In: Heys, Matthes & Sullivan Improving the Quality of Childhood in European Union - Volume 5. Brussels: Alliance for Childhood
Urban, M. (2015) A Competent System? Nursery World. 16 April 2015. http://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/nursery-world/opinion/1150651/a-competent-system
Urban, M. (2014) Not solving problems, managing messes: competent systems in early childhood education and care. Management in Education (28) 4. 125-129
Jones, L., Osgood, J., Urban, M., Holmes, M. & MacLure, M. (2014) Eu(rope): (Re)assembling, (Re)casting, and (Re)aligning Lines of De- and Re-territorialisation of Early Childhood. International Review of Qualitative Research, Vol. 7, No. 1. 58–79
Urban, M. (2014) Learning from the Margins: Early Childhood Imaginaries, ‘Normal Science’, and the Case for a Radical Reconceptualisation of Research and Practice. In: Marianne N. Bloch, Beth Blue Swadener, and Gaile S. Cannella (eds.) Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Care and Education: Critical Questions, Diverse Imaginaries and Social Activism. New York: Peter Lang Publishers
Urban, M. (2013) Sistemas competentes en la educación de la primera infancia. In: Romero, R. F. & Torrado, M. Ch. (eds.) Primera infancia, lenguajes e inclusión social: una mirada desde la investigación. Bogotá, Universidad Santo Tomás
Urban, M. (2013) Professionalität und Kompetenz in der frühkindlichen Bildung, Betreuung und Erziehung: systemisch, politisch und dialogorientiert. In: Schronen, D. : VALIflex – les expériences. Personal mit niedriger Qualifizierung im non-formalen Bildungssystem. Luxembourg: Caritas
Urban, M. (2012) Researching early childhood policy and practice: a critical ecology. European Journal of Education (47)2012) 494-507
Urban, M., Vandenbroeck, M., Van Laere, K., Lazzari, A. & Peeters, J. (2012) Towards competent systems in early childhood education and care. Implications for policy and practice. European Journal of Education (47)2012 508-526
Murrray, C. & Urban, M. (2012) Diversity and Equality in Early Childhood. Dublin: Gill& Macmillan
Miller, L., Dalli, C. & Urban, M. (2011) Early Childhood grows up. Towards a critical ecology of the profession. Dordrecht and London: Springer