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National literacy strategy launched

July 28, 2011

Cover of Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and LifeEarlier this month the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, launched Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and Life - the National Strategy to Improve Literacy and Numeracy among Children and Young People 2011-2020. We are pleased that early childhood care and education is threaded right through the document, with recommendations aimed at raising many aspects of the quality of provision of early care and education.

We welcome the Strategy's recognition of the important role of early care and education in laying strong foundations for children’s literacy and numeracy.

In relation to early childhood, a core objective of the Strategy is to "improve the communication and oral-language competence of young children in early childhood care and education (ECCE) settings and their readiness to develop early mathematical language and ideas". While stressing the importance of children's early years, the Strategy succeeds in avoiding calls for children to read and write at an early age and it specifically states that early care and education should "avoid premature formality", which reflects our submission on the draft strategy.

Some of the specific commitments we are pleased to see in the strategy include:

  • Professionalisation. The Strategy commits to continue raising the minimum qualification requirements for practitioners in the Free Pre-School Year over time, and to maintain higher capitation rates for settings with higher qualification levels. These commitments are important, but we would like to see a more detailed roadmap of how the qualification requirements will rise over time. The longer we wait for change, the more young children there will be who miss out on the opportunity to have high quality early care and education.
  • Cooperation between pre-schools and schools. The Strategy aims to "improve arrangements for the transfer of information about the progress and achievement of students between all schools and state-funded ECCE settings by requiring all settings and schools to provide written reports in standard format to schools and settings to which students transfer". The Strategy gives a timetable of 2012-14 for the NCCA to develop reporting templates, and 2013-15 for the transfer of information to be a requirement. Cooperation and the sharing of information between pre-school settings and schools was something we called for in our Children 2020 report.  
  • Inspection. The Strategy commits to requiring self-evaluation in all State-funded ECCE settings, and to carry out pilot external evaluations of quality in conjunction with the Department of Education's Inspectorate. This is an excellent step forwards that offers real potential for making inspections more focused on the quality of services. 
  • Aistear. The Strategy commits to survey and review the effectiveness of curricular practice in settings that deliver the Free Pre-School Year. This too is very welcome, given the lack of resources that have so far gone into the roll-out of Aistear. 
  • Infant classes of primary schools. The Strategy repeats the Government's commitment to roll out Aistear in the infant classes of primary schools, including revising the infant curriculum. The strategy also notes that "Lower adult-child ratios in junior and senior infant classes would help to facilitate the sort of learning that is envisaged in Aistear. If this is to be achieved over time, then it will be necessary to prioritise infant classes in the allocation of available teachers in schools." While this is clearly a complex issue, we would love to see this observation followed through into a commitment.

The final Strategy is stronger than the draft in recognising the importance of children's first three years (described as "of crucial importance") and of supports to parents and families. However, it suffers from the same limitation that affects all ECCE policy in Ireland: the care / education split, with the education focus largely seen as relating to 3-5 year olds, and much less focus on the quality of provision for under-3s. The commitments in this Strategy on professionalisation and on the review of curricular practice, for example, relate to the delivery of "State-funded ECCE programmes", which is mainly the Free Pre-School Year.

While it makes sense that the State funding of the Free Pre-School Year is the main policy lever which the Government is now using to influence standards, the Strategy could have had a stronger focus on children's first three years, which is when the foundations of children's communication and oral language skills are laid. One thing the Strategy does promise is to carry out public information campaigns on how parents can support their children's literacy and numeracy (scheduled for 2012-13). It will be important that such campaigns include a focus on parents with children aged 0-3.

Read the Strategy here.