Quality in Early Childhood Education

Early Childhood October 10, 2015

An International Review and Guide for Policy Makers

This article is the executive summary of the 2015 WISE Research Report “Quality in Early Childhood Education“.

Find out more about the 2015 WISE Research series.

There is strong and consistent evidence that high quality Early Childhood Education (ECE) impacts upon children’s academic development and on their emotional and social well-being more powerfully than any other phase of education.

At the same time, what is understood by high quality is often not well defined. This report argues that, in order to assess and promote quality in ECE, we must identify which aspects of children’s early experience and development support and predict high levels of cognitive, academic, emotional and social functioning in later life.

1. An overview of the young children’s development and learning

Analysis of developmental psychological research suggests that children who are emotionally secure, playful, with well-developed oral language and self-regulation abilities, will be most enabled to develop as powerful learners and emotionally and socially healthy individuals.

ECE settings which support these developments are characterised by emotionally warm and supportive social interactions, by the provision of playful learning opportunities, by dialogic and collaborative talk, and by support for child-initiated activity and children’s autonomy.

2. Quality in Early Childhood Education

2a. Key International Developments in ECE

Interest in ECE in the last 20 years has sprung from a growing body of psychological and educational research demonstrating the benefits of high quality ECE for children’s academic performance and well-being (particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds) and the long-term economic benefits for societies. These programs appear to be one of the most effective investments in promoting sustainable development.

This interest in ECE started with the global United Nations movement on children’s rights to education, in the late 1940s. More recently, the UN Millennium Development Goals set in 2000, which emphasised access of young children to educational provision, have been replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals of 2015, with a much stronger emphasis on quality. It is now recognised that provision in itself is insufficient to ensure the benefits from ECE; these only accrue from ECE which is of high quality.

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2b. Approaches to Quality

Quality of ECE has been measured by either (i) structural quality or (ii) process quality. Structural quality examines physical and organizational features of the ECE setting and the caliber of educational practitioners. Process quality examines practices and educational interactions between the child and their physical and social environment.

A vast amount of research has been carried out on aspects of quality which can be regulated by policy makers. One of the most prominent indicators of quality is teacher education and training. The environment of ECE provision can have a significant effect on quality of the children’s experience. Important aspects here include well-defined spaces and boundaries, the spaciousness of the provision, and generous adult-child ratios.

Further indicators of high quality provision include a broad curriculum facilitating a combination of indoor and outdoor play, and a wide range of types of play, including physical play, play with objects, symbolic play, pretence and games with rules.

2c. Approaching quality from a developmental perspective

ECE quality has often been defined in relation to getting children ‘ready’ for school. However, this approach has often led to the inappropriate and counter-productive introduction of formal literacy and numeracy instruction at too young an age.

A more productive approach to high quality ECE emphasises the support of key skills and motivational stances in young children which have been shown to promote emotional security, playfulness, high level language and self-regulation abilities.

2d. International provision of high quality ECE

There has been increasing recognition that formal and instructional approaches are not the most effective in fostering young children’s development.

A range of alternative ECE approaches, some of which were developed by ECE pioneers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have steadily risen in popularity in countries all over the world. The report reviews a range of high quality ECE initiatives set up by local government authorities, NGOs and social entrepreneurs which put emphasis on children as active learners, with ECE practitioners acting as collaborators, facilitators and partners in the learning process.

In addition, six case studies from Australia, India, China, Qatar, the UK and the USA are presented to illustrate high quality pre-school contexts set in different cultures. Each of these preschools’ approach is unique in their principles, provision, pedagogy and curriculum. However, all the selected schools promote self-regulated learning and learning through play, as well as parent and community involvement.

Section 3: Implications for policy and practise, globally and locally

All countries need to strive towards achieving high quality ECE if their children and their societies are to reap the benefits that this can bestow. The key characteristics of high quality ECE which emerge from this review include:

  1. Principles: playful learning; active, self-regulating learners; educating the whole child, including emotional and social, as well as cognitive and academic aspects
  2. Provision: time and space for playful learning, outdoor play offering the experience of risk, rich resources supporting children’s creativity; generous teacher-pupil ratios, well-trained practitioners
  3. Pedagogy: play-based pedagogy promoting self-regulatory development; emotionally warm adult-child relationships, dialogic and collaborative talk; enquiry-based approach; teachers as facilitators
  4. Curriculum: broad play opportunities including wide range of play types; based on children’s interests and life experiences; child-initiated activities; avoidance of too early emphasis on formal learning of literacy and numeracy.
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