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The History and Development of the ECCE in Ireland Essay

A, The History and development of the ECCE in Ireland

The environments in which our youngest children live, grow and play have changed dramatically over the past century. For the best part of the twentieth century, young children were cared for in the family home and went to school sometime after the age of three. For much of that time, Irish society was largely agrarian based and children worked on the farm; work which had economic value to the family. Families were large, twice as large on average as those in the rest of Europe for most of the century. Children lived in households which frequently comprised members of the extended family. Emigration was a way of life and many children must have grown up in the knowledge that they would leave and not return. The Catholic Church and the State operated a symbiotic relationship in relation to many aspects of Irish life, including education, following Independence.

In particular, the Church appears to have had considerable influence in terms of family life, a position consolidated by the 1937 Constitution. Changes began to occur in the 1950s when increasing industrialisation and urbanisation began to have an impact. Around this time, too, family size began to reduce. It was not until the 1970s, though, that substantial numbers of women began to enter – and stay in – the paid workforce. This was partly due to the lifting of the marriage bar in the civil service and the beginnings of movement towards parity of pay and rights for women with their male colleagues following Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC). Out-of-home care arrangements for children then became a necessity for some families.

Contemporary experience

With changes in family patterns, more children are now living in smaller families, one parent families or in disparate families. Young children in contemporary Irish families are experiencing substantially different parenting trends, not least of which is that many now have the more active involvement of their fathers as well as their mothers. Traditionally, parents tended to concentrate more on the physical well-being of their children, whereas now they are increasingly concerned with their children’s holistic development, including their cognitive, emotional and social development. Widespread dissemination of research on child development in popular and accessible media formats, such as television programmes and self-help books on child development and parenting, indicate interest among the population on such issues. Such a media profile for child development also suggests an increased awareness among parents of the importance of this stage of life, and of the importance of supporting children’s optimal development. However, there is also the possibility that such media will exert pressure on parents in suggesting that parenting is a complicated and fraught occupation, with the margins for error being frighteningly wide, and the possibilities for success intimidatingly narrow. In fact, parents get it right even in difficult circumstances.

Impact of socio-economic change

While there is greater sensitivity to children’s needs in the holistic sense, there are depleted resources, notably time, within families and communities to meet them. Many aspects of the socio-economic context, including the organization of work and work/life balance, are not child friendly. House prices have risen enormously and consequently, the difficulty in finding affordable housing in central parts of cities such as Dublin has meant that many people, particularly young couples, have had to move out into the surrounding counties. The road and rail infrastructure is unable to meet the new demand and many people have had to succumb to lengthy hours of commuting. Stress and tiredness caused by parents’ commuting and work is likely to put pressure on children’s quality of life within their families.

There is an element of irony in the fact that while children are experiencing more environments in their day-to-day lives in comparison to children even thirty years ago, we now find it necessary to plan for children’s access to, in particular, the outdoor environment. Parental and adult concern for the child’s safety and security means that the range of places in which children can play has shrunk, particularly in urban areas. Traffic volumes, development of green spaces and fear for children being out and about without adult supervision contributes to a contraction of freedom for children. Additionally, it would appear that children are spending increasing time in front of computers and televisions with consequent health risks, including diminished outdoor play, physical inactivity and obesity.

Employment and childcare

While unemployment was endemic during most of the 1980s, Ireland has experienced increasingly high levels of employment over the past ten years or so. Employment growth and a greater demand for labour, coupled with the need for dual income households to meet the cost of housing, impacted on female work force participation rates. Mothers’ employment participation rates in Ireland are comparatively high. Because of relatively short leave entitlements after the birth of a child, more mothers of young children are in employment in Ireland than in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

The obvious consequence of these circumstances is that more children are now being cared for outside the home than heretofore, despite continuing shortages of provision. Much of the increase in supply has occurred in the private commercial sector where costs to parents are among the highest in Europe. Substantial percentages of mothers working full-time and part-time use no paid childcare at all, indicating a reliance on informal provision provided by family or friends. There is very limited information on the nature and quality of the many and varied forms of childcare and pre-school provision for children who attend out-of-home settings.

Implications for ECCE provision

There are several implications emanating from this position, but just one will be considered here; that of the young child’s right to educational provision. To be meaningful, life-long learning must be conceptualised on a continuum which begins at birth. There are good reasons, based on the knowledge we now have on the efficacy of early education and the magnitude of young children’s potential for learning, for making provision for children from birth. However, a more fundamental argument relates to the young child’s right to education in the same way that older children are entitled to educational provision. This position is underpinned by the UNCRC (UN, 1989).

Care and Education

Provision for young children in Ireland has been fragmented and many of the fault lines can be traced to the historical understanding of care and education as being separate forms of provision. It is not difficult to see how this fracture developed historically here in Ireland.

Home and School

The national school system was established in 1831 and there were enough infants (3-5 year olds) in the system by 1872 to warrant a specific infant programme. Figures from the mid-1940s indicate that by then, over 48,000 children between the ages of three and five were in the system. These figures represent substantial numbers of young children in school. It is possible that this indicates that parents placed a high value on their children’s education and may explain why the national or primary school system here in Ireland has, since its inception, been regarded as concerned exclusively with ‘education’. Throughout the period referred to above, children were ‘cared for’ at home up until the point at which they began to attend school.

These two contexts of ‘care’ and ‘education’ were quite different, and that difference seems to have been translated to mean mutually exclusive. While there is very little documented evidence about the care of young children at home, it appears that care was primarily the responsibility of the mother. Families were large and older siblings were involved in looking after younger children. While there were differences in urban and rural contexts, the extended family, particularly grandmothers, who often lived in the family home, were involved. Home and school were the two contexts in which children spent time so, even before the concepts were considered, it is possible to see the genesis of our traditional conceptualisation of care as what happens up to the age of three or so, and education as what happens after that.

Revised Programme, 1900

One of the most remarkable stages in that history was the Revised Programme of 1900 (Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, 1901), though this is a somewhat arbitrary starting point. Even before this time, the philosophies of Rousseau, Froebel, Pestalozzi and Dewey had influenced individuals who put such theories into practice here. In fact, one might locate the provenance of the concept of child-centred practice with these theorists. The Revised Programme is strikingly familiar to the modern reader.

It was influenced by Frobelian principles and incorporated heuristic approaches to teaching and learning. It advocated development from within rather than moulding from without, promoted the integration of subject areas and emphasised the environment as a context for the child’s learning. The Revised Programme advocated teaching content in an integrated manner, breaking with the tradition at that time of compartmentalising knowledge. Unfortunately, however, the necessary finances for equipment, training and implementation were never put in place. While the Revised Programme led to improvements in the dire state of infant education, the Dale Report (Dale, 1904) still found that this was one of the weakest elements of the system. Then, as now, no matter how good the curriculum, it is dependent for effectiveness on resourcing, training and investment.

1922 and 1948 curricular change

A very different approach was taken in the curriculum introduced in 1922 following the foundation of the Irish Free State (National Programme Conference, 1922). This approach moved the focus off the young child onto curriculum content, specifically the Irish language, which was to be re-established as part of the socio-political transformation of Ireland following independence. The curricular changes introduced meant that the restoration of the Irish language became the primary aim of infant education.

Following some years of implementation of this programme, teachers expressed deep reservations about its effect, stating that it inhibited the child intellectually, repressed the natural urge for self-expression and led to some children being mentally and physically damaged. This programme was replaced by the Revised Programme for Infants (Department of Education [DoE], 1948) in 1948, which returned to the values and direction espoused by the 1900 Revised Programme. However, due to continuing requirements regarding the teaching of Irish, it proved difficult to implement the philosophy of this programme.

New Curriculum, 1971

Major curricular change occurred in 1971 with the introduction of the New Curriculum (DoE, 1971). Play was an integral part of this curriculum which was designed to cater for the full and harmonious development of each child, with an inherent flexibility to adapt to the needs of children of varying abilities and cultural backgrounds. However, the economic recession of the 1970s meant that the comprehensive network of supports for teachers which was envisaged did not materialise. Class size remained very large during the period following the introduction of the New Curriculum. Spending on education increased over the following decades, and while class size remained an issue at this time, the number of teaching posts in the system increased substantially. This relates to the introduction of schemes such as Home/School/Community Liaison (HSCL) and the expansion of Special Needs provision.

Revised Curriculum, 1999

The 1999 Revised Curriculum (DES, 1999b) is designed to nurture children in all dimensions of their lives. In-service training is ongoing for teachers and structures (e.g. the Primary Curriculum Support Programme [PCSP] and the School Development Planning Service [SDPS]) have been put in place to support its roll-out into schools. A close study of these consecutive curricula illustrates the evolving understandings of concepts such as childcentred and holistic education in Ireland.

Developments in provision

One of the consequences of the relative economic prosperity of the 1960s was to increase interest and focus on education. From around this period, education became a new catalyst for social mobility, possibly on account of the introduction of free secondary education. Parents became increasingly anxious that their children’s future opportunities would be enhanced through education. Ireland’s increased involvement with international organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Office (UNESCO), the OECD and the UN, allied with the aspiration to become a member of the EEC, contributed to a lessening of the insularity which had been a feature of the previous period. There was a shift in focus from social expenditure in relation to education and children to one of investment in the individual, the economy and society.

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