Minutes of Evidence 10 October 2002

SESSION 2002/2003


Ordered by The Committee for Education to be printed 10 October 2002
Minutes of Evidence: 01/02/E (Committee for Education)



The Committee for Education is a Statutory Departmental Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of the Belfast Agreement, Section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and under Assembly Standing Order 46. The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department of Education and has a role in the initiation of legislation.

The Committee has the power to:

  • consider and advise on Departmental budgets and Annual Plans in the context of the overall budget allocation;
  • approve relevant secondary legislation and take the Committee stage of relevant primary legislation;
  • call for persons and papers;
  • initiate inquiries and make reports; and
  • consider and advise on matters brought to the Committee by the Minister of Education.


The Committee was established on 29 November 1999 with 11 members, including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of five.

The membership of the Committee is as follows:

  • Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
  • Mr Sammy Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)
  • Mrs Eileen Bell
  • Mr John Fee
  • Mr Tommy Gallagher
  • Mr Oliver Gibson
  • Mr Tom Hamilton*
  • Mr Alban Maginness**
  • Mr Mitchel McLaughlin***
  • Mr Gerry McHugh
  • Mr Ken Robinson

* Mr Tom Hamilton replaced Mr Tom Benson on 29 January 2001. Mr Benson died on 24 December 2000.
**Mr Alban Maginness replaced Ms Patricia Lewsley on 20 May 2002.
***Mr Mitchel McLaughlin replaced Mr Barry McElduff on 1 July 2002.

Reports and evidence of the Committee are published by the Stationery Office by Order of the Committee. All publications of the Committee are posted on the Assembly's website: archive.niassembly.gov.uk

All correspondence should be addressed to the Clerk of the Committee for Education, Committee Office, Northern Ireland Assembly, Room 242, Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast, BT4 3XX.
É(028) 9052 1629; Fax (028) 9052 1371; e-mail: committee.education@niassembly.gov.uk


Committee for Education - Powers and Membership

Terms of Reference

Minutes of Evidence

Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum,
Examinations and Assessment

NIPPA - The Early Years Organisation

North Eastern Education and Library Board and North Eastern Education and
Library Board Pre-School Education Advisory Group

Northern Area Childcare Partnership

Homefirst Community Health and Social Services Trust

Sense: The National Deafblind and Rubella Association

Cllr C Wright (Ballymena Borough Council) individual representation

Southern Education and Library Board and Southern Education and
Library Board Pre-School Advisory Group

Craigavon and Banbridge Health and Social Services Trust

Southern Area Childcare Partnership

Western Education and Library Board and Western Education and
Library Board Pre-School Education Advisory Group

Western Area Childcare Partnership

Primary Principals Association of Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Childminding Association


"To investigate the current position with regard to the nature and type of early years learning provision for 3 to 6 year olds and to make recommendations for improvements."

Specifically the Inquiry into Early Years Learning will:

  • examine the current provision for 3 to 6 year olds and the nature of that provision
  • examine existing policies on Early Years Learning
  • identify and analyse models of best practice
  • take account of current thinking and research on Early Years Learning
  • consider how the provision and nature of Early Years Learning in Northern Ireland could be developed and enhanced to assist in tackling underachievement
  • the implications of any proposed changes
  • report to the Assembly making recommendations to the Department on actions which would improve the provision of Early Years Learning.



Thursday 9 May 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mrs E Bell

Mr Gallagher

Mr Gibson

Mr Hamilton

Mr McHugh


Dr A Walker ) Northern Ireland Council for
Mrs J Hughes ) the Curriculum, Examinations
Mrs J Wright ) and Assessment


The Chairperson: I welcome representatives from the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment - Dr Alastair Walker, Head of Education Services, Mrs Joyce Hughes, Principal Officer and Mrs Janis Wright, Assistant Principal Officer - who are here for the first evidence session of the Committee's inquiry into early years learning. Thank you for giving us your written submission in advance. After your opening statement, Committee members will ask you some questions.


Dr Walker: I will begin by saying that we welcome the opportunity to give evidence to the Committee. I apologise on behalf of our chief executive, Gavin Boyd, who would like to have been here but has unfortunately been prevented from doing so.


We would like to discuss the council's views on early years education in relation to the recently published curriculum review proposals. We have circulated a set of slides that we will speak to. I will say a little about the background to the curriculum review, current research and the aims of the foundation stage curriculum. I will also talk about the review process and key messages, as well as covering assessment.


Mrs Hughes will then talk about the research aspects and the literature review that has already been circulated to the Committee. She will also talk about the pilot project that is currently under way across Northern Ireland.


The review began in 1999, and in 2000 we consulted on broad proposals about its aims and objectives. There was, generally, a very positive response to that and to what we said about the primary curriculum and education in primary schools. As a result, further work was carried out, and the proposals, published on 10 April 2002, have been circulated to members. They include detailed suggestions for the foundation stage curriculum, which we see as relating to the pre-school year, to the first year in primary school and to the second year, which could be considered as a transition year.


In research, from a review of what occurs in several countries, we have demonstrated that in Northern Ireland children are introduced to formal learning at a relatively early age. We have been unable to find any other country which begins the formal learning process with children quite as young as four years of age. Our research shows no clear evidence of a long-term gain from that early start. Indeed, we find the contrary, in that there is evidence of a well-established, long tail of underachievement in Northern Ireland - longer than what occurs in some other countries - and there is evidence to link that tail to a relatively early start to formal teaching and learning.


In addition, the gender gap in Northern Ireland is very wide, and it has been increasing over recent years. It is not so much a matter of boys' underachievement; girls have been achieving at very high levels and boys simply have not quite kept pace. Again it is possible - and quite likely - that the increasing gender gap links back to the early years of education. The aim of the foundation stage proposals is to have a clear focus at the beginning of education on personal social and emotional development. The aim is to build children's confidence and self-esteem, thus helping them to establish relationships with each other and with their elders. Evidence again shows that building that self-esteem increases children's dispositions and desires to learn, and also increases their curiosity. Improvement in oral language skills ought to underpin that. That means allowing children to talk and listening to them. It means encouraging them to express themselves and to use language creatively.


Furthermore, there must be encouragement in physical development for young children, particularly in fine and gross motor skills, using their bodies and their hands. Creativity is an important element, built up through role play, drama, art, music and dance. It has strong links with confidence, self-esteem and developing relationships.


The council's proposals draw on good practice in Northern Ireland. I emphasise that the change proposed in the review is change that builds upon the existing excellent practice in schools across Northern Ireland. We are learning, however, from the curricula in other countries. There is an increasing focus on skills. That is important - not just in early years but through the remainder of the statutory curriculum - and it should begin in early years. At the same time, there should be opportunities and experiences to begin to learn in those early years across all of the curriculum areas. We propose that the primary curriculum should be laid out in five areas: literacy, numeracy, personal development, the world around us, and creative, expressive and physical development. In the detailed proposals, learning outcomes are identified in each of those areas within the foundation stage of the curriculum. In establishing those outcomes we have taken advice from specialists in each of the relevant areas.


I will identify some of the key messages. The first is that the proposals will assist in developing a culture of learning at the very earliest stage in education, giving young children the opportunities to explore, to investigate and to talk, as well as providing them with challenges.


It is extremely important that children are challenged from the beginning and given the opportunity to stretch themselves. A highly structured programme is envisaged, involving less direct instruction than at present. A less rapid move into worksheets and reading books is suggested. Some teachers find the current requirements of the statutory curriculum restricting; they feel that they must stick rigidly to a fixed scheme of work, with little opportunity for flexibility to respond to the particular interests and aptitudes of the children with whom they work. Teachers will have greater flexibility in being able to respond to the children and will have more time to listen to them.


I mentioned the importance of developing oral and language skills. That will happen only if children are taught to talk, and it can work only if people are prepared to listen carefully to them. It is vital for teachers to have the opportunity to focus on skills and learning dispositions, thus increasing the desire of children to learn. Assessment, which is not separate from the learning process but integral to it, is incorporated.


Assessment is primarily to identify the child's strengths and areas for development, to assist the teacher in planning appropriate learning programmes, to provide continuous monitoring, to inform parents of the child's progress and to pass relevant information on to the next teacher who will take the child forward.


The principles of assessment are important, not only in the early years but right through primary education. Assessment should primarily be done by observation - watching the child, talking and listening to the child, and looking at what the child has done. It should involve the whole child. Assessment on some occasions has been perhaps too narrowly focused and has neglected some important aspects of the child's development. It should be positive, which does not mean reflecting strengths without addressing weaknesses and areas for improvement. It means identifying ways in which improvement can happen.


Partnership with parents is critical, starting from the earliest stage. The way in which information is transferred through the system with the child could be improved. At present, more than 80% of three-year-olds have a pre-school year, either in an informal setting or in a nursery setting within a school. We know that it is the intention to raise that to 100% by 2004. There is a requirement that records are kept in whatever pre-school is attended, and that is important. Meeting parents is important, and, in the pre-school year, such meetings should take place at least twice - once at the beginning of the process and again during the second term.


It is important that pre-school settings be provided with a formal means of transmitting observations from the pre-school setting to the school where the child will be admitted to primary 1. The primary school should value that information. A standard transition form was piloted last year as a way of summarising the most important information about a child for transfer from the pre-school setting to the primary school. We intend to repeat that in several schools this year. In years 1 and 2, therefore, if the transition form has come through from a child's pre-school setting, there should be less need for a formal baseline assessment.


We have been piloting baseline assessment in primary 1. We see that as being necessary as a formality for only those children who have not been in a pre-school setting and who have no information passing through with them. In years 1 and 2, it is crucial to have meetings with parents, and we suggest that those should take place two or three times a year.


Schools are already required to keep records. However, we want to work with schools to provide computer assistance and new methods of keeping records that will enhance the nature of the record keeping and reduce the workload on teachers doing so. Written reports for parents at the end of the year are vital, and the assessment system that we would like to see brought in would be based on the annual reporting to parents system. There should also be a summary record passed through for the next teacher to take forward.


Those are our proposals, and we are now undertaking consultation on them. They are based on research, and the Committee has been provided with a review of the literature. We are in the process of piloting them with significant numbers of schools.


Mrs Hughes: I will talk about the enriched curriculum project and some of the research that underpins it, the development of the project, the first year research outcomes, how we hope to extend the project and some of the feedback we are getting from cohort 2 in the study. Research is not complete for year 2.


I will begin by looking at international comparisons of performance, including the Teaching Integrated Mathematics and Science (TIMS) study and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study. The PISA study was published in 2000 and is the most recent one. There is no evidence of detriment to a child's performance if he or she starts formal learning later. In other words, there are no long-term gains from starting learning early. Formal learning is started later in countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and those countries are above us in the study.


There is a low-achievement tail in both reading and mathematics in all the UK countries, and the PISA study would show that we have the longest tail - a tail that is as long as that in any of the 32 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study. However, we have very high achievement as well. We are at both ends of the spectrum. We also have, as Dr Walker said, underachievement in literacy among boys in the UK countries.


The council commissioned Queen's University to do the literature search on recent research in early years. This has been the focus of much vital research worldwide. I have picked out four elements that we have tried to embed in the foundation curriculum. The first is the development of social and emotional skills in the early years, as those are vital to success later on in life. There are longitudinal studies - Dr David Weilcart's study runs for over 20 years - looking at the development of social and emotional skills.


The listening and attention skills are a preliminary to formal work. If children do not have the disposition to listen or the ability to concentrate, they will not be effective learners. Prof Christine Pascal and Dr Tony Bertram are doing a great deal of work on that in England.


Oral language work is a vital part of the curriculum, particularly before the introduction of the formal teaching of reading. Children need to have a good vocabulary and be able to understand sentence structure and the features of language before they can make progress in reading and writing. Much of the oral language work that we are proposing would allow them to understand the sounds of our language and enable them to break words into syllables, et cetera. Language is also essential for the development of mathematical concepts, in that children must understand and be able to use mathematical language. Part of the oral language will focus on that. Children cannot progress in mathematics until they have developed a basic sense of number. They need to understand the relative size of number -for example, the "fiveness" of five.


The project began at a meeting in Ulidia Teachers' Centre on 9 December 2000. A group of principals, teachers and community representatives from the Greater Shankill area came together because they felt that they were not serving local children appropriately. The children were not doing as well at school as they should have been.


The group felt that it needed to focus on the children's oral language development, their social skills development, their emotional development, their dispositions to learn and their physical development, building on the natural curiosity that children have from birth. The group also thought that it was unnatural for four-year-olds, particularly boys, to sit for long periods in one place. It felt that it would be better to get them to move about more.


Mr S Wilson: That is a very sexist remark. [Laughter].


Mrs E Bell: It is not just four-year-old boys.


The Chairperson: And it is not just on the Shankill Road.


Mr S Wilson: Did the Equality Commission clear that remark?


The Chairperson: Order. Enough joking.


Mrs E Bell: Mr Sammy Wilson cannot sit in one place.


Mrs Hughes: Girls seem to respond better to being seated in one place, though increased movement benefits all children. However, considering the underachievement of boys, we think that it is important to focus on what is right for our future gentlemen.


The Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) became partners with the Belfast Education and Library Board, which initiated the project in six schools. CCEA commissioned research and acquired funding to give schools resources such as shared reading books, soft-play equipment and outdoor play equipment, which were essential for the project. Six schools in the Greater Shankill area were involved in cohort 1. There are nine classes in all. Each child's progress is being tracked over a four-year period, from when they entered school until they are eight years of age. We will have hard facts on how those children have responded regarding literacy and numeracy, and in relation to what are equally important, if not more important, elements - their social development, their self concept and their motivation to learn.


Cohort 2 consists of 27 schools - seven in the Belfast Education and Library Board area and five in each of the other education and library board areas. The schools in the other four education and library board areas represent large and small schools from urban, suburban and rural areas. There is a good mix of schools in the research project. The focus for research in the first year was the fluid curriculum, which CCEA was developing at the same time. The researchers documented the nature of the curriculum, carried out three different attainment tests on children and used structured observations, utilising a research instrument developed by Dr Glenda Walsh of Stranmillis University College. It examined what we, as early years practitioners, value, and the views of teachers and parents were also gathered.


The quality learning instrument is an observational instrument with nine scales. Each of those has a three-point scale with descriptions of what the researcher would observe about the sort of learning taking place in the classroom - not about individual children. The researcher observes the children's motivation, ability to concentrate, higher order thinking skills, emotional well-being, social interaction, confidence, independence, respect not only for each other but for adults and materials, and their acquisition of linguistic, mathematical, scientific, problem-solving, creative and physical skills.


The enriched classes - the nine classes in the first cohort of schools - all scored more highly on each scale. The difference is most marked in social interaction and independence. The children are independent learners who are not afraid to fail. They scored significantly higher in concentration, motivation and emotional well-being. The researchers conducted further tests at the end of the year and noticed considerable gains in oral language, which seems to have been maintained in year 2. The researchers believe that the children may be about a year ahead of where they might have been otherwise. Their mathematical concepts are well developed.


More importantly, the teachers have gone through the pain barrier of starting something new. They are now confident in the appropriateness of their approach to teaching and learning. It was not an easy transition. The parents are overwhelmingly confident about the enriched curriculum, even though some were sceptical at the beginning. We hope to extend the project by including a further 50 schools in cohort 3 next year. Many schools want to enter the project, so the education and library boards have sent out a pro forma. When schools apply they have to justify why they believe that they are ready to enter the project. The education and library boards then need to train year 1 teachers and provide some resources for them. Year 2 teachers, who are in cohort 2, will also require some training, and that is currently under way.


We have received initial feedback on cohort 2 from schools. We have had many phone calls and letters from principals and researchers who are amazed with the confident and independent children they see, and they also say that there are fewer children with behavioural problems. They have found that they have happy children wanting to come to school and learn. They have happy teachers and, most importantly, they have happy parents. The children have experienced no sense of failure, and they see themselves as learners, readers and writers. Many parents have said that they wish that their older children had had similar experiences in their first year at school. It is significant that the boys appear to be making similar progress to the girls at this stage. I quote Julie Fisher, an early years adviser in England, who, in summing up a research book, said:

"Foundations take longer to create than buildings. The higher the building, the firmer the foundations have to be. If foundations are inadequate it is very, very expensive to underpin them later on."


The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation. You seem to be leaning towards PISA. [Laughter]. What do you say to those people who perhaps suspect the beginning of a conspiracy to undermine academic testing? I ask that also with regard to the Burns Report and other issues currently under consideration. How would you answer the charge that this is part of a grand plan to remove elements of the testing of children, even from an early stage?


Dr Walker: Our view is that there has to be a great deal of assessment of children, even from an early stage. Our proposals include assessment of the whole child, and that does not exclude the areas currently assessed under the heading of academic attainment. However, it is more inclusive of other areas of a child's development. I do not see any conspiracy to move away from the regular monitoring of a child's progress across the curriculum.


The PISA findings were a little different. They had a particular focus in the nature of the assessments on which they were based. They focused on application in the areas of reading, maths and science, rather than focusing on reading or mathematics or science per se. The outcomes of that research show a slightly different pattern from that of the outcomes of previous research, such as the TIMS studies, which focused simply on the technical capacity to read or undertake mathematical operations. It may be that the findings of PISA reflect the focus on applications to an extent.


That is in the spirit of our curriculum review, because we are emphasising the need for young people not just to learn about different subjects, but also to use those lessons to achieve objectives in real life.


Mr S Wilson: As regards research, if we are to adopt a new approach, we must be sure that the objectives will be achieved, given that money is spent in working towards them. I am not convinced that conclusive evidence can be gained after only one year, especially with an educational experiment such as this. There appear to be some gaps in the evidence that you gave us. For example, you stated in the document that you submitted that teachers, who are the practitioners of the scheme, regard play as an inferior form of learning. I assume that that outlook is based on teachers' experience, so I will be interested to hear whether you make a judgement on professionals' response to the new methods and how they have reached their conclusions.


The Queen's University research is unclear, because in the performance indicators in primary schools scores (PIPS) the children scored significantly on reading, but they did not score highly on maths. You attributed that to a mismatch between the traditional curriculum and the enriched curriculum - was that an assumption, or is there evidence to support that? You stated that you could not compare the scores with the wider population, because there was no attainment test that would allow you to do so.


As regards feedback, only 27% of parents responded. Perhaps, given the small size of the group, only the parents who were happy with the programme replied. Could you really claim that a response level of 27%, from such a controlled group, constitutes enough data to work with?


Mrs Hughes: The response statistics was based on all the questionnaires that were returned, including the focus groups. However, some parents found it difficult to respond or to attend meetings, as they were shy of education. Therefore, the first year's questionnaire was not as appropriate as this year's will be. It was not as user-friendly for parents with low literacy skills. We believed that a response rate of 30% is considered to be quite good, and the response that we received from parents was 27%.


Participating teachers said that most parents, whom they knew well, were very happy. Some parents said that even when their child was sick, he or she still wanted to come to school, whereas none of their older children had enjoyed school so much. Others said that their child would read by choice, by contrast to their other children. That evidence was anecdotal, but that does not worry me. This year, CCEA hopes to get more feedback from parents from a wider social mix.


With regard to your second point, one year is not long enough, and that is why the research is longitudinal, with children being tracked for four years. Cohort 2 encompasses an additional six schools and will track children for three years. We examined other research statistics on the subject; for example, I attended conferences at which Scandinavian experts presented papers on the subject. I was a member of CIDRE, a European working group that examined early years learning.


Some countries test much more than Northern Ireland does. In Sweden, at the beginning of the equivalent of our year 5, six weeks is spent carrying out diagnostic tests with the children. Therefore, we do not argue that children should not be assessed, but we are studying the systems of other countries that do not have as long a tail of achievement. In Denmark, for example, children start school at age seven, and in 12 to 14 weeks their literacy and numeracy skills surpass or are equal those of children who have been struggling for three years in Northern Ireland. Some of our children experience failure at age four because they are not developmentally ready to begin the processes of reading or formal maths.


Mr S Wilson: In cohort 1, you concentrated on schools in the lower Shankill. Many would claim that in such an area, where less parental support is given, due to the inability of parents to do so, or other factors, more youngsters enter school without having gone through the socialisation process.


Has there been any attempt to gauge middle-class parents' reaction to the programme? Some could argue that they already do many of the programme's activities at home, and that they do not want to send their youngsters to school to learn to sing, dance, play, et cetera; they want them to enter a learning environment. Could this programme be inappropriate in circumstances where the socialisation process has already taken place?


You mentioned the extra resources that CCEA provided to participating schools so that they could buy play equipment. How much did the small control group of schools receive? How much would it cost to implement the programme throughout Northern Ireland?


Dr Walker: Those are extremely important issues. Belfast Education and Library Board, when it initiated the project, focused on specific schools, and then CCEA joined in. We arranged with it and the other education and library boards to broaden the scheme deliberately to include as good a mix of schools as possible. We want to explore those issues. How will children who made a good start to the socialisation process at home react to the new early years approach? Is it important that they take part in the new early years programme? We want to explore those questions.


Additional resources have been granted to the pilot schools. If the programme is to work as anticipated, those resources will have to be spread to other schools. CCEA has discussed the level of additional resources with the Department of Education, and it will continue to do so. If extra money is allocated to an area, we must ensure that there will be good returns.


Mr S Wilson: What was the cost of adopting the programme in the six schools in cohort 1?


Mrs Hughes: Each school got £5,000 to spend on whatever it needed - for example, the training of teachers, shared reading resources, maths equipment, et cetera. That covered the costs of obtaining substitute teachers for seven days; much of the money was spent on that.


Mr S Wilson: Did those resources cover all the youngsters who entered year 1?


Mrs Hughes: The schools received the extra funds. The school with three year 1 classes had already begun to take the new approach and had accumulated some equipment. Schools will no longer need to buy the required worksheets and workbooks; they will be able to buy more practical items.


Dr Walker: I stress that the children will be entering a learning environment, even though their learning may begin slightly differently. We must also bear in mind that every education project of this type will produce some improvement, because of the "halo effect". We must be careful to recognise that halo effect - if one invests extra resources, attention, et cetera, a positive outcome will always be achieved. We must ensure that the results of the programme represent a real, permanent outcome, rather than the effects of a new scheme.


Mrs E Bell: We welcome the development of early years learning; however, I am concerned about pre-school and nursery school education. I have some sympathy with the contention that it might be better to delay formal learning. The problem is that until recently there was little or no support for nursery or pre-school groups in Northern Ireland, and I welcome that the matter is now being dealt with. In your summary proposals you said that pre-school provision should be of a uniformly high quality, if the objectives are to be met. As the Deputy Chairperson said, that includes resources; therefore what resources will be put into schools?


Will the legislation relating to pre-schools be extended, so that a high standard of pre-school education exists before the project starts? You are right to say that without a strong pre-school structure, if children are coming straight to primary school, the project will have problems. I am encouraged by your comments on assessment. Is that in keeping with the Gallagher Report? Does the flow continue from pre-school through to the pupil profile stage at third level education? Have you taken that into consideration, and are there resource implications?


Mrs Hughes: I wish to deal with the early years assessment first. We had drawn up our proposals before the Gallagher Report. We had examined best practice in nursery schools and pre-school playgroups. There is a requirement in pre-school playgroups, in both the voluntary and private sector, to keep records on children. However, no legislation requires nursery schools to do that, but the inspectorate seeks those records. Many settings keep lovely portfolios of what is sometimes wonderful work. For example, they may include photographs of the children at work and at play, photographs of their models and drawings. There are observations of them and their interactions with others, a type of learning story, based on practice in New Zealand. That work is then summarised in what would be a summary record. Children are encouraged to take part in the compiling their own file, for example, choosing a picture to include, which self-assessment. Children as young as three and four years can be involved in their own file of attainment.


Mrs E Bell: You mentioned Denmark, where children start school at six or seven years. That country has quite a strong pre-school structure of kindergartens. We need to adopt such an approach, although the situation here is improving.


Mrs Hughes: It is improving, and all Government-funded places are inspected in the same way by the Department of Education Inspectorate. Some of the inspection reports of pre-schools, such as playgroups, are excellent. Much of the credit for that can be attributed to the Northern Ireland Pre-school Playgroup Association (NIPPA), which has many wonderful professionals, training and supporting early education in these settings - their work is impressive. According to studies by EPPE (Effective Provision of Pre-school Education) and EPPNI (Effective Pre-school Provision in Northern Ireland), playgroups in Northern Ireland are of a higher standard than those in England.


Mrs E Bell: Have the boards been carrying out work?


Mrs Hughes: The boards and NIPPA have been working together. They have formed partnerships for early education, and we hope that all early years training will be joined-up.


Mrs E Bell: What about pupil re-assessment?


Dr Walker: We propose an assessment in the early years that leads naturally into the assessment proposals for the remainder of primary school education. These proposals are that teachers should carry out ongoing assessments, as they do at present, and that they should report annually to parents, which they are legally required to do. A merger of key stage assessment with the annual reporting system should be carried out, at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, so that parents get an annual update on their child's progress, using the same eight-level measurement scale that exists already. That should be used across the curriculum, not just in a couple of areas. That should lead in naturally to a more comprehensive system, with increased interaction between parents and teachers as regards pupil progress.


Mr McHugh: Is there evidence to show that the quality of professional ability in the pre-school settings under the aegis of the Pre-School Education Advisory Group (PEAG) is similar to that in the primary schools? There is no doubt that much good work is done. However, some children are unwilling to attend the pre-school, but get on well in primary school. You said that records and notes are kept; what use would those notes be if children had a bad experience at pre-school stage?


Mrs Hughes: Both nursery school and playgroup pre-schools encourage parents to stay with their child if he or she is unsettled. There is less evidence, however, of children being unsettled. There will soon be a pre-school place for every child in Northern Ireland therefore children will be much more settled when they start primary school.


Mr McHugh: I was not referring to children being unsettled, but to the quality of professionals. If pre-school teachers are not of the same professional standard as primary school teachers, they may use inappropriate methods and practices. Are those staff monitored?


Mrs Hughes: Yes, CCEA has published guidance on the pre-school curriculum, which is about the process of early learning. That is the bible of all pre-schools. The inspectorate staff use that guidance when they go into those environments. In addition, funded pre-school settings in the voluntary or private sectors have to have the services of an education expert. Stranmillis University College has started a BA honours degree in early childhood studies. Many graduate with good honours degrees to work in the voluntary and private sectors. It is not a well-paid job, but there are many good professionals. The Northern Ireland Pre-School Playgroup Association (NIPPA), which has highly qualified and trained staff, supports them.


Mr McHugh: How does the low numbers of male teachers entering the profession affect boys' early years education? Sammy Wilson mentioned the ability of middle-class parents to take on pre-school education responsibilities, but parents work long hours, therefore they have much less time to teach their children.


Dr Walker: The gender imbalance in the teaching profession is a real problem. It is increasingly difficult to attract male teachers into teaching very young children. There are good reasons why male teachers think seriously about going into that setting. Society must find ways to overcome that problem. Some of the negative attitudes that boys develop towards education are probably rooted in the fact that men do not become involved in the practice of education.


Mrs Hughes: As regards middle-class children, backed up by the research evidence that we hope to have in a year or two, many teachers assert that children start school with poorer oral language development than that of the previous generation. Children are put in front of televisions, computers and PlayStations, and there is less language interaction in the home. There are no fixed meal times, when families can sit down and talk. Society has changed; often both a child's parents work. There must, therefore, be a greater focus on oral language development in schools.


In addition, children in the leafy suburbs no longer play with others in the streets, so their social skills are not as well developed as they used to be. I met one child - an only child - who could not play with other children and did not go out often. The child was from a good middle-class background, and was beautiful and very competent, but simply could not mix with other children. Social competence is key. Children should be socially competent by the age of six, if they are not to be at risk for the rest of their lives. They must be able to form relationships with adults, other than those in their family, and with children, other than their siblings. The number of children with siblings is falling. The term "siblings" is defined as a brother or sister within five years of the child's age.


The Chairperson: Should additional money be skewed further in favour of early years learning?


Dr Walker: We are conscious that substantial resources are being channelled into schemes to assist children who experienced difficulties with early years learning, particularly reading. Considerable sums are being invested in that. The introduction to early years learning that we propose would greatly reduce the number of children who would require remedial treatment later. It should result in a substantial saving, and therefore redirection, of resources. That redirection would be worthwhile and would pay for itself.


Mr Gibson: Have any health assessments been done to monitor children's well-being? Most psychologists would say that every year, around 50 children enter the education system - pre-school, nursery or primary school - with health problems that could almost be classed as disabilities, whether physical or mental. That could amount to 20% of the children entering the education system. Your presentation did not address that issue.


Dr Walker: It was not included in our presentation, but it is mentioned in the proposals. We have drawn attention to the advantages of a closer working partnership between relevant bodies, including health agencies, health visitors, speech therapists, educational psychologists, and education professionals. The whole system would benefit if such partnerships were developed and became more evident in early stages learning, particularly in pre-school and in the first year of formal education. Although we did not mention it this morning, we have drawn attention to that important matter in the documents.


Mr Gibson: What is the staffing ratio of the pilot schools? If any school were to be given extra funding and resources, irrespective of the curriculum, it would experience the halo effect. The experiment is only two years old, so there is no evidence that the success is permanent. Is it not simply the case that ambitious funding produces good results?


Dr Walker: We will have to study that closely when evaluating the subsequent years of the experiment. For some time, all primary 1 classes in Northern Ireland have had classroom assistants, who make a considerable difference. Teachers have reported that classroom assistants are invaluable, and that they would not be able to undertake the proposed programme without them.


Mr Gibson: I am a bit suspicious of comparisons, because we can never truly compare like with like. The Chairperson mentioned conspiracy, and other, theories. Which works better?


Recently I studied comparisons that suggest that Northern Ireland's university students are better at mathematics than most European university students. What age are students when that comparison done? What are the benchmarks?


Dr Walker: All of the studies have shown that a high proportion of young people in Northern Ireland are high achievers in mathematics. We also have a relatively high proportion of low achievers. We must bear that in mind so that the action that we take will help to ensure that we have fewer low achievers, while retaining the high achievers. That is our objective.


Mr Gibson: Are we producing a nanny state?


Dr Walker: Certainly not.


The Chairperson: That is a good point on which to end. Thank you for your presentation, and we look forward to presentations from other interested parties.


Tuesday 28 May 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr Gallagher

Mr Gibson

Mr Hamilton

Mr McHugh

Mr A Maginness

Mr K Robinson


Mr C Conway ) NIPPA -
Ms S Fitzpatrick ) The Early Years Organisation


The Chairperson: I welcome Mr Colum Conway and Ms Siobhan Fitzpatrick from the Northern Ireland Pre-school Playgroup Association (NIPPA) to this public evidence session of the Committee for Education's early years learning inquiry. It is anticipated that the session will last for 40 minutes, including time for your presentation and questions from the Committee.


Ms Fitzpatrick: My name is Siobhan Fitzpatrick, and I work with NIPPA, the Early Years Organisation, formerly the Pre-school Playgroup Association. We hope to take you briefly through our paper, which we have already submitted. I should like to focus on NIPPA's background and what we have been doing on early years care and education. My colleague, Mr Conway, will highlight some of the key policy and research issues. I should also like to focus on some of the models of good practice, which have a direct relationship to the targeting of social disadvantage and educational disadvantage. I shall finish by discussing some of the key recommendations that we should like the Committee to consider.


We welcome the Committee's decision to look at early years provision in Northern Ireland. It is timely, given the recent investments that have been made through the pre-school education expansion programme and through Sure Start.


NIPPA, the Early Years Organisation, has been working in the early years sector since 1965. For most of those years we were concerned about developing new services in response to a lack of early years provision in the statutory, community and independent sectors in Northern Ireland. Over the last 10 years in particular, our focus has been on the quality of provision for young children, support for parents as first educators, and the training and development of staff in the early years sector.


We were delighted with the new early years policy in the UK, investing in early learning. That recognised, for the first time, that quality care and education could take place in a range of settings, whether in the independent, community or statutory sectors. A common approach to quality, incorporating care and education, support for parents, ongoing professional development for staff and a rigorous approach to ongoing development in self-evaluation, was critical in early learning investment.


Since the pre-school expansion programme in Northern Ireland began, approximately 50% of the settings in the voluntary and independent sectors affiliated with NIPPA operate under that programme. We have been delighted at how those settings have performed against the Education and Training Inspectorate's rigorous assessment of the educational inputs. Seventy to eighty per cent of our settings are rated as "very good" or "good" in the inspection reports. That must be noted because there has only recently been financial investment in the voluntary and independent sector. Prior to the pre-school education expansion programme, there had been little investment, yet this sector has been able to perform as well as other sectors that until now have been well resourced.


The Committee will be aware of the longitudinal research on effective pre-school provision in Northern Ireland (EPPNI), which has been of recent interest to us. In relation to education and care, the voluntary and independent sectors are performing similarly to their counterparts in the statutory sector. An important factor for NIPPA is that they are outperforming the sector in England and Wales. Indeed, the research has cited the support that NIPPA has been providing in the form of training, ongoing professional development and a focus on quality.


Mr Conway will now outline some of the key policy and research issues that influence our work and thinking.


Mr Conway: There is breadth of research in early years; that sector receives much attention. Rather than simply regurgitating some of the key areas identified in the paper, I will highlight two or three important areas that are informing early years now and into the future.


There have been great developments in neurological research that have given us a much stronger indication of how young children learn, the importance of the environment that they occupy and the process of, and disposition towards, learning. This research has been important in helping to develop appropriate planning and a curriculum. The research emphasises the need for a stimulating environment, rich in varied activities for all children from nought to six. Those should operate on the basis of their understanding of the world and whatever creates meaning for the individual child. Early years education is of fundamental importance to all later development. Children learn more during the first years of their life than during any other comparable time span. This learning provides the basis for all later progress.


The research indicates that early years education should provide children with the tools to learn. It should aid with the process of learning to learn through a child's experience of the world and through play and interaction with the child's understanding of the world. Taking a holistic approach to the child through both education and care will make the child predisposed to learning later in life. Content is much less important in early years than that disposition and ability to learn how to learn.


Further research shows the impact that that can have on children's attainment levels. Ms Fitzpatrick has already mentioned the EPPNI research, which is close to us in Northern Ireland. It has shown that the experience of quality pre-school provision has a considerable impact on the attainment levels of children in the early years of primary school as opposed to those children who are home-based and move straight to school, thus missing out on that experience.


European and international studies have also shown the longitudinal impact of quality early years learning. This is particularly highlighted in the best-known international study -High/Scope, a longitudinal study based in the United States. It shows that the early years experience and the quality of that experience can impact on children right through adult life, on the criminal justice system, on unemployment and on attainment in education right through their lifelong experience.


Research has helped develop citizenship ideas in other European policy models, examining children's early years and how to direct them, their families and their communities towards the concept of citizenship instead of education for its own sake. It is therefore important that early years education be based in the community with a very broad range of opportunities for parental involvement so that the parents can take part in the process and increase their engagement in lifelong learning.


Ms Fitzpatrick: In highlighting certain instances of best practice - and in particular how they tie in with tackling disadvantage - I should like to share with you some information on what has been happening in the community, voluntary and independent sector.


In the context of our focus on quality and long-term outcomes for children we examined developing and implementing the High/Scope approach in Northern Ireland; it is currently being executed in 60 settings. High/Scope is a process of early years care and education where children are actively involved in their own learning and where there is a very close relationship with parents, whose role as co-educators is of great significance. Ongoing training and professional development create an extremely tight practice model. That approach has been subject to longitudinal research and, recently, to a 13-nation comparative study. Its long-term benefits are holding out. Often there is a so-called washout effect whereby the positive input from nursery education is somehow lost in the first few years of schooling; the High/Scope research shows that this is not happening. There are gains in the long term.


The cost/benefit analysis is an important factor in the research. For every pound that the state invests in early years care and education, it later saves £7 through lower welfare payments, reduced rates of teenage pregnancy and criminality, and higher levels of educational and economic achievement. We have pioneered the model in some of Northern Ireland's most disadvantaged communities, creating very meaningful relationships with schools, some of which are carrying it through to Key Stage 1. Feedback indicates that children experiencing this type of approach enjoy significant advantages over their peers.


Models examined by our organisation which can be linked with other themes that are current in Government in Northern Ireland include the approach to creativity and citizenship taken by Reggio Emilia in northern Italy. That ties in with the concept of early years care unlocking creativity, resulting in opportunities and an educational disposition which will be carried through a child's entire life, be it in an academic, vocational or creative environment. Reggio Emilia's approach focuses on building the child's self-esteem and sense of connection.


We have also used the early learning model effectively and are working in partnership with colleagues in the statutory sector on its implementation. We have an internationally recognised quality assurance scheme for providers in NIPPA. There is evidence that children in high-quality groups do better at school over a longer period. Mr Conway will discuss some of the recommendations that will be important for the Committee to consider.


Mr Conway: The recommendations are outlined in section five of the submission paper and weigh up two or three key elements. First, there is a need for a more coherent early years education and care policy. Work continues in partnerships across Northern Ireland to address that. It is difficult to establish a coherent policy approach. We recommend that one Department should take on early years education and care as a single remit and provide both accountability and leadership in the whole area, as is happening in other parts of the EU.


There is an urgent need to examine in depth and come to some consistent decisions on key areas such as legislation, where anomalies exist in the education and care sectors. There must be consistency in quality standards and inspection requirements, and equity and choice for all.


There is a need for a strategic approach to the development of partnership with parents. Their involvement in early years education and care is crucial. Early years education and care provides an ideal opportunity to establish and develop community-based family support services that can encourage further involvement of parents and the community.


Quality is a key concept and must be supported across the board. A strategy is required that defines and maintains quality standards. The physical environment is an important element in the disposition to learn. The inside and outside environments for the child are crucial and get little attention. Those are some of the key recommendations.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation. You said that one Department should take on responsibility for education and care. Should that be a new Department, or a lead Department from one of the existing Departments?


Ms Fitzpatrick: In Europe, and internationally, the debate about care and education means that responsibility has fallen between the education authority and the health and welfare authorities. Spain, for example, has adopted a social welfare perspective on early years provision. In Denmark the education authority has taken the lead role. New Zealand has established a Department of Early Education. We have had an interdepartmental early years group since 1994 with the desired aim of joined-up government. However, that is not happening.


The Department of Education is concerned mainly with three-to-five-year-olds. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is concerned with children up to 12 years of age but is focused more on the care philosophy. The Department for Employment and Learning has a role in workforce training, primarily for unemployed people. No single Department takes a strategic approach to the area as a whole, with the result that many things fall between two stools. There is, for example, limited linkage between the Sure Start initiative and early years provision in the statutory sector. That is a shame, and the situation exists because there is no clear departmental lead.


Mr McHugh: I hope that the Committee's inquiry will make a difference to that important subject. You mentioned some recommendations concerning consistency in the quality standards, best practice and parental involvement. Is there a set curriculum, for example, for children in play schools from the age of two and a half or three? Do all schools operate under the same rules, or do they make them up as they go along?


You mentioned that 80% of the settings were labelled as "good" or "very good". However, that implies that the other 20% are doing badly. I have seen parents getting involved in play schools, but not in P1 or in nursery schools. Our schools do not yet seem to have moved towards the idea of unlocking creativity, which is a popular idea in Germany. Our children leave school to go to university without self-esteem or confidence, and we need to sort that out. However, we must look also at consistency in the standards and at school attendance, which is still a massive factor in underachievement and crime rates. The young people who charge through parts of Belfast in cars at the weekend do not come from grammar schools.


Ms Fitzpatrick: I will answer some of your questions, and then Mr Conway will take over. There has been a consistent pre-school curriculum for all settings since the investing in early learning programme, which is very welcome. It applies to the settings that are funded through the Department of Education's investment in early learning and the pre-school education expansion programme.


That does not mean that the other schools do not follow a curriculum. There is a problem with the involvement of several Departments - for example, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety regulates schools in the voluntary and independent sector. We welcome the recent approach by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Education to devise a common set of standards based on best practice and international research.


Given our focus on academic ability in Northern Ireland, we must inform parents and ensure that they know what the appropriate approaches are. One of the problems in the past, which is linked to the current education system in Northern Ireland, was that many young children were forced into an environment that was far too structured. That had an impact on the children's self-esteem and what Mr Conway referred to as "dispositions for learning", which often were knocked out because of inappropriate interventions. We are talking about interventions that are child-centred and based on research, quality and engaging with parents.


Mr Conway: Engaging with parents is one of the reasons why we consider the early years to be from nought to six, as opposed to three to five, which is the specific age group for early years education. Indications from the early excellence centres in the UK suggest that parental involvement begins at the parent and toddler stage. That is the first port of call for engaging parents in group-based provision. It brings them through the early years of nought to six. It is great that the foundation stage is developing here and that parents are involved in the process. The early excellence centres and other research have shown that, if parents are engaged in the early process, they will stay engaged through all the other processes of education. We can do so much in group care, but without the support of the primary educators and primary carers, later education becomes difficult. Therefore, engaging parents at that stage will keep them engaged throughout their child's education.


Mr K Robinson: Thank you for your timely presentation. Much of the focus in child development, such as motor skills, is on areas that are easily recognised as targeting social need (TSN) areas. A problem in primary schools, particularly in the early years, is that many parents from the more advantaged areas expect their children to be able to read and do numeracy tasks within a few weeks. How does your approach help us, as a community, to enhance the quality of provision for children in TSN areas, yet educate the parents in other areas that the fact that Johnny can mimic like a parrot after a week in primary school is not education in the true sense?


Ms Fitzpatrick: Our movement is firmly rooted in partnership with parents. You are correct that we have overdemanding parents on the one hand and underdemanding parents on the other. Parents are the first educators, but we have a strategy to inform them how their children learn best, and that will focus on the importance of play. As part of our group activities we engage in parent support training and, more recently, in supplying information about what constitutes the best start in life. It is turning on its head the notion of flashcards and academic skills and focusing on how play is the natural medium for children to learn and develop. We have relaunched a pack for parents that focuses on what they can do at home, as well as with the group service. We have evaluated the outcome of that relaunch, and the change in attitudes has been quite incredible.


Mr K Robinson: Do parents co-operate when you send packs home or give advice? Is the work continued outside of the more formalised setting, such as a pre-school playgroup?


Ms Fitzpatrick: Absolutely. And that is where the concept of community development is important. Some of our work involves engaging with health visitors in TSN areas, as well as other more affluent areas, where unreal expectations can be as damaging to a child's self-esteem as no expectations.


Mr K Robinson: A childcare worker can be attached to a child from an early age. Is there scope for an educational worker to be attached to a child to help see the process through?


Ms Fitzpatrick: That person should not be seen in silo lines. Care and education are inseparable. Care is education; education is care. That is where we need to focus. For too long in Northern Ireland we have been hung up on whether education begins at five years of age, or at birth, or even before that.


Mr K Robinson: Do you have a pool of people who can develop that expertise?


Ms Fitzpatrick: Initially it was suggested that only teachers could support quality. We made, and won, the argument that our workers, whom we call early year specialists, are experienced, trained and qualified to do that job. Throughout the lifetime of the programme that component of person is adding value to the group experience, the contact with parents and the community development.


Mr Gibson: You mentioned care and education. I am going back to 1998, when there was a meeting between the Department of Education and the Department of Health. However, they could not agree the minutes, and there were no further meetings. Is that still the case? When we talk about co-operation, are we referring to the real world or the world of politics?


Ms Fitzpatrick: The situation is not as bad as it was then. The interdepartmental group on early years learning has been in existence since 1994, since the introduction of the interdepartmental early years policy. There should be a commitment to working together, but Departments still think within narrow departmental lines. For example, the Department of Education will say that it will take the lead on the pre-school element, and there is constant confusion because of the lack of joined-up working and thinking. We have childcare partnerships that bring together health, education, and the voluntary and independent sectors. We also have the pre-school advisory groups that bring the same people together. However, there is no single philosophy or strategy underpinning the work, and so the effectiveness of any action becomes diluted, and we waste money.


Mr Gibson: There is a general theory that 20% of children have a difficulty. Often these difficulties are associated with health problems, and unless the response is co-ordinated and people co-operate, there is the risk that those disabilities will simply be transported into primary education. The idea was to tackle the problems at this stage and eradicate or ameliorate them in some way, but you say this is not happening.


Ms Fitzpatrick: I would not say it is not happening. The Sure Start initiative for children aged nought to four, focuses on health, educational and social gain. That is a practical example of how that can happen at a local level. However, in the absence of a clear strategy for the early years sector, there are still many problems.


Mr Hamilton: In your presentation, you mentioned that early years learning is fundamental to all other levels of education. The move from early years learning to primary school would, for many pupils, be a very big move and change. What changes, if any, would you recommend to improve the transition from pre-school to primary school education?


Ms Fitzpatrick: A key issue in Northern Ireland is that children start formal education at the age of four, which is far too young. We welcome the work of the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) on developing the new curriculum and a foundation stage for three- to six-year-olds. Research has proven the focus on formal education at the ages of four and five to be detrimental to 70% of children. Guy Claxton, who addressed the Northern Ireland Association of Education and Library Boards last year, talked about recent research that showed that, as a result of the focus on formal education at too young an age, 70% of the adult population were functionally illiterate after 11 years of schooling. That is a dreadful situation.


We have always worried about the constant downward push of the curriculum - formalising the curriculum for four- to five-year olds. We would like to see an upward push of the play-based curriculum for children to the age of six at least. That is the hallmark of a quality early years service. That does not mean that children should not have the opportunity to develop a love of reading and writing, but instead of a set curriculum led by an adult educator, the curriculum should be designed with a child's point of view in mind.


Mr Hamilton: What would be the best starting age for formal education? For example, in Denmark it is seven years of age.


Ms Fitzpatrick: Having visited several European countries and having spent some considerable time in New Zealand looking at how early years education has been reformed there, my conclusion is that six or seven is an appropriate age for formal approaches.


The Chairperson: You have examined other models, particularly in Europe. Can you recommend particular examples of good practice? Is it worth investigating the Swedish model?


Ms Fitzpatrick: The Swedish model is excellent; however, it depends on a very high level of financial investment. Denmark, like Northern Ireland, has small rural communities, with problems in providing appropriate care and education for rural children, services to suit ethnic minorities and wrap-around combinations of care and education. The Reggio Emilia model, albeit it is only in a small area of Northern Italy, is recognised as one of the first class in Europe.


Returning to Mr McHugh's point about unlocking creativity, several of our groups in partnership with the statutory nursery sector have a dialogue with the Reggio Emilia approach, and 20 settings are implementing that creativity strategy. What is happening with young children is incredible.


Mr A Maginness: I pay tribute to NIPPA and its significant contribution to early learning and to the debate. You have asked for a more strategic approach, and I understand the arguments and confusion between care and education. Of everything that you examined and now put forward to this Committee in relation to early learning, which is the most important, immediate and practical that you would invite us, or the Assembly, to implement?


Ms Fitzpatrick: I should invite you to implement all of them. However, there is an immediate problem. Pre-school provision is currently a bit of a lottery although, to be fair, the Department of Education's target is pre-school provision with 100% funding. There is a cohort group of children in their immediate pre-school year. Without the resources, there are still children in the 20% of groups in the voluntary and independent sector who are not in the programme. The groups meet the criteria, the children are in their immediate pre-school year, but they have no access to a funded place. Their parents have to pay.


We call for a level playing field for all children in their immediate pre-school year. I am sure the Committee is aware that current legislation allows for nursery schools to have two-year-olds in the setting, yet the voluntary and independent sector is not allowed to do that. Some four-year-olds are not being funded. We call for a common playing field for all sectors to ensure the Executive's target of 100%. We ask that, for at least one year, a 100% pre-school provision be available to all children and that settings be funded equitably, regardless of where those children might be.


Mr Gallagher: You said that the education & library boards are in contravention of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 in taking in two-year-olds.


Ms Fitzpatrick: The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 allows the boards to admit two-year-olds. They are not in contravention of the Children Order and are not subject to its regulation.


Mr Gallagher: Therefore, seats are being filled by two-year-olds, and other children in the relevant age group are not getting any seat at the table of pre-school education. The issue of equality between the Department of Education and the education and library boards must be addressed.


Ms Fitzpatrick: That is a fundamental issue, and NIPPA has been pushing for legislative change on that because I think that the Executive would feel that it was a waste of their financial resources. We carried out an analysis last year in my education and library board area, and the figure for places occupied by two-year-olds ranges from 9% to 20%. That figure would be higher in areas such as the Belfast Education and Library Board. We are told by departmental officials that the only way to deal with this is through legislative change, and that would create a common playing field. If the places are for children in their immediate pre-school year, those children take priority and should be served first.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation and for the answers that you have given. We look forward to publishing the report, and I am sure that you will have an ongoing interest in it. We hope to see you soon.


Ms Fitzpatrick: Thank you very much. It is a very timely and welcome inquiry, and I hope things happen as a result of it. I have also some literature that I would like to leave with the Committee.


The Chairperson: I will ensure that it is circulated.


Thursday 30 May 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mrs E Bell

Mr Gallagher

Mr Gibson

Mr Hamilton

Mr K Robinson


Mrs A Connolly ) North Eastern Education and Mrs U Crossey ) Library Board and NEELB
Mr M Devine ) Pre-School Education Advisory Ms R Nicholl ) Group (PEAG)


The Chairperson: Good morning and welcome. Mr Michael Devine, chairman of the Pre-School Education Advisory Group, Ms Rosemary Nicholl, primary officer, Mrs Una Crossey, early years officer, and Mrs Anne Connolly, assistant senior education officer, will make a presentation.


Mr Devine: I had hoped this morning to welcome you to the city of Ballymena, but unfortunately that did not work out.


The Chairperson: I am afraid the larger town of Newry won.


Mr Devine: The Committee has our information pack.


Mrs Connolly: I propose to highlight the main issues in the North Eastern Education and Library Board report and the North Eastern Education and Library Board/Pre-School Education Advisory Group report. Ms Nicholl will elaborate on practice in the North Eastern Board, and Mrs Crossey will discuss best practice, developments and recommendations.


The key principles underpinning both reports and the practice in the North Eastern Board are inclusiveness, equality of opportunity and excellence. Inclusiveness means bringing all pre-school children into programmes appropriate to their stage. Equality of opportunity means ensuring that there is equal access for all children in these programmes. Excellence means good-quality educational provision - not childminding.


We must define early years provision. We encourage the Committee first and foremost to broaden the terms of reference of its inquiry to include to the 0 to 6-year-olds. The North Eastern Education and Library Board has already adopted a strategic approach for the 0 to 6-year-olds in collaboration with the local health and social services trusts and several voluntary groups. That is our starting premise.


Most of our key issues concern policies on early years. However, there are four in particular that I would like to discuss. First is the open enrolment policy; legislation permits two-year-olds to attend nursery schools and nursery units. This often causes difficulties for health and safety and, indeed, for children's protection. We welcome the Department's intention to amend the legislation.


Secondly, there is the policy on reception classes. Children's individual needs are best addressed in a pre-school setting. Our concerns about reception classes centre around the lack of equality of opportunity and the appropriateness of provision. Thirdly, there was reference to special educational needs in your discussion. All children should have equal opportunities to attend quality settings, regardless of family income, parental employment, background or special educational needs. We wish to see the full inclusion of children with special educational needs with access to appropriate support and provision in both statutory and voluntary settings.


The final policy we wish to raise is the effect of teaching and learning in a child's early years. That important issue is evidence of my comment about ensuring that we provide quality education. We believe that the process of education, even in a child's early years, is about how things are done. How young children are encouraged to learn is as important as what they learn - and inseparable from it. The emphasis should be on creating children who are learners, attending to how they learn and how adults can support them in that.


None of this will happen without funding and resources, another factor you mentioned. Both our reports have identified key related issues. In the North Eastern Education and Library Board we have major reservations regarding the standard of capital provision approved by the Departments for the pre-school expansion programme. We have concerns about the widespread use of temporary accommodation. We do not believe it is in the best interest of the public purse; nor do we believe that it provides the best learning environment for a child's early years.


There is inadequate recurrent funding to address the ongoing resourcing of pre-school facilities. There is a need for substantial Government investment to support a sustainable system of accessible, high-quality services for all pre-school children.


Staff training is crucial. Everything depends on high-quality education being provided and on the expertise and commitment of staff in pre-school settings. We need additional funding to ensure adequate training for teachers, nursery assistants and classroom assistants in the statutory and voluntary sectors. The last resourcing issue concerns accessing funds from different sources. There are opportunities to bid for European funds, local strategic partnership funds and the new opportunities fund. That is best done in partnership with other agencies.


On this note of inter-agency collaboration, I should like to hand over to my colleague Ms Nicholl.


Ms Nicholl: Mrs Connolly has mentioned the importance of integrating partnership with other agencies into the board's strategy. To put this in context, I wish to highlight the involvement of intra-board agencies: the curriculum, advisory and support service, including the early years team; educational psychology; the education welfare service; and the library services.


The five boards co-operate very closely to ensure consistency, liaising closely with the Council for the Curriculum, Examination and Assessment (CCEA). There are also external agencies: the Northern Health and Social Services Board, the Causeway Trust, Homefirst Trust and the voluntary agencies. Those agencies recognise the parents' role as the first influential educators in a child's life. The current provision for 0 to 3-year-olds involves agencies collaborating on a number of projects aimed at involving parents.


Sure Start has projects running in our area at Bushmills, Ballysally, Ballykeel and Newtownabbey. There is strong parental and community involvement in those. There is Home-Start, Focus on families, Bookstart and DELTA (developing early learning and thinking abilities). There are strong links between Bookstart and the Bushmills Sure Start. The board recognises the benefits of high-quality pre-school education in providing a more positive disposition to learning and preparing children better for formal education.


The provision for three- to four-year-olds consists of the pre-school education expansion programme. The Pre-School Education Advisory Group (PEAG) planned and implemented it. It has representatives from the statutory, voluntary and private sectors. It is no coincidence that many of the representatives are from the Northern Childcare Partnership. There is also reception provision in primary schools. The board recognises the necessity for reception provision in rural areas. However, the board and PEAG believe that these will be phased out eventually.


To ensure quality provision for four to six-year-olds in the board we include a "making a good start" initiative; it means that all primary 1 classes have a classroom assistant, and we hope to extend this to primary 2 classes. There is an enriched curriculum pilot project on which Mrs Crossey will elaborate. The DELTA parenting programme targets areas of social disadvantage and has recognised the importance of involving parents.


The Storysack programme, Read to Succeed, Count to Success, Maths in a Shoe Box and Toy Book libraries all support parents and carers in family learning. The North Eastern Board's booklet on parenting initiatives has been given to the Chairperson for further information.


Mrs Crossey: The North Eastern Education and Library Board embraces the development of the good practice network at the Harpur's Hill early years project in Coleraine. The community, in collaboration with the trust and schools initiated this project in 1993. In 1997, the North Eastern Education and Library Board forwarded a joint funding proposal with the community and the trust for an early years network and this became operational in 1998. The good practice network status was achieved in 1999 under the auspices of the interdepartmental early years group, and the early years project is the lead body in a Sure Start project in Harpur's Hill and is a key player in the Ballysally Sure Start project.


There are three main activities at this centre. There is provision on edu-care, with a statutory nursery and a voluntary playgroup, mother and toddler group and a crèche. The second strand of provision is home visiting, supporting 150 families. The third strand is centre-based activity including a drop-in centre, facilities for parents, a well-being baby clinic, milk run and family events throughout the year.


The main aims of parenting initiatives are to support families, recognising the political and social environments that affect family life. These initiatives strengthen the Government's aims of raising achievement, widening participation, offering opportunities for our parents to facilitate training, ensuring that men are involved in parenting projects, and countering social exclusion.


Children's creativity is a vehicle for learning. We have a very active early years innovative project in partnership with Sticky Fingers, a voluntary agency, working with two of our statutory settings in Antrim on a cross-community project on the environment. The aim of the project is to address the needs of our young children, including those with special needs, and to provide networking association, opportunities for parents, carers and providers to develop creative play-based activities in formal and informal settings.


The board anticipates building on this partnership and has invited several voluntary settings working in partnership with the statutory sector at the end of August for joint training to disseminate the projects.


We would also like to share with you how the board commends involving primary and nursery schools in the Comenius project. This is a multilateral partnership focusing on a joint curriculum project; two of our nurseries, Magherafelt Nursery School and Rathcoole Nursery have been involved in projects. This is promoting the delivery of the European Union programmes in the early years sector. It is of benefit to our children and their parents. Contacts are made with children in various European regions such as Brandenburg, Andalucia, Italy and Alsace. The benefits are in making contact with children, creating awareness, and an appreciation and respect for their own and others' culture.


What are the issues for consideration within these models of practice? Again I highlight the importance of family involvement, dovetailing into the community links and extending this. Parents are valued because parental representation in the partnership is crucial for active community development. Perhaps more time and resources should be given to parents to ensure that they will be effective as decision-makers.


With regard to special needs, our young children need the expertise of multidisciplinary teams to compile comprehensive assessments of each child. Funding has already been discussed, but it is important to bear in mind that there has not been a variance in funding, with short-term funding for the voluntary and community projects as opposed to the mainstream statutory projects. This inequity has impeded providers in contributing to their full potential.


Wraparound services are about a one-stop shop for our young children, placing emphasis on the multi-agency approach to the integration of services for our young children and addressing the needs of their families. We need to provide day care on working days, if required, and ensure that the family support services are relevant to local need. We must ensure that there are opportunities for training and collaboration and co-operation with other providers in the community and that these are built into this network.


With regard to the development of provision and underachievement, the board and PEAG support the proposals of the foundation stage as advocated by the curriculum council. This is about a seamless transition from the pre-school to year 1 and year 2 as a transitional year. The essence of the foundation year is to enhance children's learning dispositions, their social skills and their competencies. At the core of this is our children's self-confidence and self-esteem. The learning programme focuses on the children's interests and their curiosity, stimulating and enhancing that intrinsic motivation so that they will be active participants in their own learning.


In our board there are five schools in the enriched project, and it is proposed that next year 10 schools will come on board, which involves 18 teachers and their classroom assistants, who are a crucial part of the success of this project.


I want to emphasise the importance of increased opportunities for the physical development of children. The latest research by neuroscientists relates the importance of the development of physical motor skills for our young children to early years educators. Attention, balance and co-ordination are the primary ABC for future learning. I mentioned earlier the importance of creativity. The imagination of young children is key in enhancing their understanding of the world around them. The involvement of family learning, with the focus on the adult and the child working together in collaboration to learn, needs to be strengthened by the enhancement of parenting initiatives.


There are implications for the proposed changes. We need the expertise and commitment of staff who are appropriately qualified, and equity for the statutory and voluntary sector. Indeed, in the light of the foundation curriculum, there will be assistants be in primary 1, as they are with the "making a good start" initiative. However, we must enhance this. Equally, year 2 classes should be afforded the opportunity of a classroom assistant. We need a working partnership between parents and staff, and staff must be aware of the needs of parents and the changes in family life and employment patterns.


We have to quality assure these projects, and in the early years sector we have a model. It is an effective early learning project, which is an externally validated self-evaluation and improvement programme. We work in the spirit of collaboration and partnership with providers, parents, practitioners, children and management committees to facilitate change and enhance quality. We also have the High/Scope project, which is an early years approach derived from developmental principles to enhance the overall independence and decision-making of our children.


Moving on to recommendations, for those of us who are visual learners, I am giving you the vision of the temple, the foundation and the roof. I like to think of the foundations of the buildings as being a resonance for the foundations of learning. The building crumbles if the foundations are not secure. At the top of our temple is the child, that creative thinker and active participant in his or her own learning. It is the six columns that put this in place.


On partnership, there has to be more joined-up working by the key players - statutory, voluntary, community, and private. In the language of early years education and childcare, there seems to be a wedded split approach, and the services seem to be slightly unco-ordinated. Parents must have the opportunity for outreach and recruitment strategies, which make these initiatives accessible to all.


On pre-school education, it is important that full-time places are offered for all children in the immediate pre-school year, in statutory, voluntary and community sectors. Also, there has to be equity between the voluntary and statutory sectors in the staffing ratio and training to allow for the inclusion of those children who have been identified with special education needs. Indeed, within the statutory sector those two-year-old children in the penultimate year should be given a much more appropriate setting, and that this legislation will be rescinded.


When we talk about provision, in a multi agency approach, potentially nurseries could be used in the evenings. In partnership with other providers and agencies, the board would endorse additional early years provision and out-of-schools provision. To help the professionals, training and bursaries should be available to the voluntary and statutory sectors. With regard to the physical environment, it is important to get young children beyond the classroom and into an outdoor environment.


I would like to extract three main foci in the spirit of the Northern Ireland Childcare Partnership and Childcare Strategy, Children First. First, there should be a systematic and integrated approach to policy development and implementation. Secondly, there should be substantial investment in services and infrastructure to enhance overall improvement and long-term planning. Thirdly, there should be a stable framework and a long-term agenda on research and evaluation as part of a continuous improvement programme. Those key elements reflect and underpin the key principles that my colleague Mrs Connolly started this presentation with - inclusion, equality of opportunity and excellence. In that spirit, both the North Eastern Education and Library Board and PEAG advocate the holistic development of young children. Loris Malaguzzi, the guru of the Reggio Emilia pre-school centres, said that a child has a hundred - a hundred languages, a hundred words, a hundred thoughts, a hundred ways of thinking, of playing and speaking.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation. Members will now ask questions, and I will start by asking why places are largely funded on a part-time basis under the expansion programme? Is it purely an issue of funding?


Mrs Crossey: Initially, in 1998, this was the Department's recommendation on the funding provided for the pre-school expansion programme. It advocated part-time places as opposed to full-time. However, this is an evolving programme.


The Chairperson: You will be aware of strong views held by many that the best place for early learning is in nursery schools. This is a highly controversial view, and I would like to know what your view is.


Mrs Crossey: I respect where you are coming from, but under the pre-school education expansion programme the voluntary and statutory sector are subject to the same inspection services from the education training inspectorate. They follow the same curricular guidance for pre-school education, so that quality provision is provided in the voluntary, private and statutory sector under the umbrella of the expansion programme. The quality provision is there, and is inspected by the same rigorous procedures by the inspectorate team.


Mr S Wilson: Throughout your submission you indicate, quite rightly, that early years is not simply a matter of getting youngsters into places, but also of changing parents' attitudes through DELTA and other programmes.


You also rightly identify that the parents whom you want to target are perhaps from socially disadvantaged areas. How successful have you been with Read to Succeed and Count to Success in the DELTA programme in recruiting parents from that kind of background? If you consider yourself to have been successful, what methods did you employ?


Mrs Crossey: Evaluation of any of those projects is key in promoting successful parenting projects. We must target the parents whom we really want to become involved. Our evaluation strategies involve parental interviews and interviews with children, providers, school principals and other agencies. We also send out written questionnaires and surveys, and there is verbal evaluation. Those have all proven very positive and improve on previous best.


Mr Devine: Recently there was a report from a body that deals with expulsions in the North Eastern Board. I am not immediately involved in that, but it saddened me to hear that there was a case in which two children were about to be expelled from school, and there was no parent representation. I could not help but contrast that with the child who goes to pre-school or nursery school, where interested parents are at the door every morning and back again at school in the evening.


Parents genuinely want to help, but in many cases they do not know what to do. A major job must be done to inform parents, bring them in, and show them that they are wanted. There must also be instruction for parents, and in many cases training, so that they can help the child in the home. The child will not be educated in the pre-school; it will happen all the time, and that can be continued by the parents at home.


That seems to me to be a major step that could help in our concern about underachievement. If the educators can get parents on board at an early stage and bring them along, perhaps we are doing something to improve the situation.


Mr S Wilson: You state in your literature that the Read to Succeed and Count to Success programmes are designed to do that and build up parents' self-esteem and give them some indication of how reading and numeracy is taught. That is common in many schools in the board's area. How many schools would do that, and do you have any indication of the numbers of parents that you have succeeded in getting into those kinds of schemes?


I agree that it is an important element in trying to improve educational standards. With all the effort that has gone into this project, I wonder how successful it has been in targeting the groups of parents that we want.


Mrs Crossey: We could endeavour to allow some of the parents to become facilitators in the programme. If a parent becomes a facilitator, there is a domino effect in the community. That strategy has been successful.


The DELTA programme has been extremely successful. We are now considering involving fathers, and we have an event, "PAIDOL", coming up in the Magherafelt area in a few weeks' time, which is getting great press coverage. Involving schools, parents, children, the community and DELTA is a multi-agency approach to the parenting initiatives. Therefore, partners are working together to achieve this overall aim.


Mr K Robinson: Why do you think that some of those parents are not on board in developing their child's education? How does the initial breakdown occur in the home? Is it caused by a young parent's lack of understanding? Are there social pressures in the home, or is there some other reason? Will you identify that for me, please?


Mr Devine: My fear is that parents think that educators want to educate the child in isolation. In my early days, I can recall signs in schools stating "No parents beyond this point". I would not like to think that those signs still exist.


The Chairperson: There may be signs stating "No MLAs beyond this point".


Mr S Wilson: In some cases, there may be signs stating "No children beyond this point".


Mr Devine: We have broken away from that, but it is a slow process. In the early years, parents bring their children to school and they show an interest. They are probably loath to part with the child, as sending them off to start school is a big step. That is the time to take advantage of the situation. There are many demands on schools but, as a former school principal, my feeling is that we have to get the education right. Teachers are being asked to do many other things, but their priority is education. Now I can stand aside and say that there is a bigger role there. We have to inform parents and keep them on board for as long as possible. There are also social pressures. Very often both parents have to work, and that is time-consuming. Parents and children do not play together as much as they used to. It is easy for a parent to buy something for his child, when perhaps what is more valuable to the child is the parent's time. Children are given money to go elsewhere or are sent away with other people, and it is rare to hear of families going off together on trips. There is a major public relations job to be done at the early stage. It is definitely there at the pre-school stage, but it is up to schools to develop that and keep the parents on board for as long as possible.


Mr K Robinson: In the real world, quality time will never exist in many homes. How do we compensate for that in the early years through the more formalised education structures?


Mr Devine: We have enough qualified trained staff, and we have qualified status for classroom assistants. However, the staff are always learning through projects such as the Comenius project. Very often people go on training, and they learn more from the person beside them than from the trainer. I have experienced the Comenius project in primary schools, and it opened my eyes to travel to another country to see what happens there. When you see it in practice you are more inclined to see the value of it, and more inclined to put it into practice when you return.


Mr K Robinson: I am glad that you mentioned another country. I was reading some of the background documentation and I noticed the Finnish approach to early years. Would you comment on the approach in other countries?


The Chairperson: I am also interested in looking at the Swedish model.


Mr K Robinson: It is just a little problem the Chairperson of the Committee has with Swedish models.


The Chairperson: It has nothing to do with education either.


Mrs Crossey: The Minister of Education is currently in Finland examining the education system there. I had the privilege of visiting Flemish Belgium with some of my inter-board colleagues throughout Northern Ireland and members of the curriculum council a year and a half ago. Children in Flemish Belgium do not begin formal statutory education until they are about seven years of age, as they do in Finland and other European countries. However, that formal statutory education is preceded by a rigorous developmental programme based on the psychology of how young children learn, neurology and the development of speech and language.


There is great emphasis on developing the learning dispositions of our children, their social competencies and skills, their emotional well-being, on empowering them and making them feel good. The children get plenty of opportunities to enhance their self-esteem and their intrinsic motivation for learning, and this is what we aim to underpin at the foundation stage.


Mr K Robinson: Does that happen in the formal educational establishments or do home and school work together in developing it? Is it done in isolation in the schools?


Mrs Crossey: No, there is commonality throughout all the schools. Indeed, there is much more co-ordination and integration of edu-care in Flemish Belgium. I do not suggest that we copy exactly models from abroad because education is determined by society and culture. We have some excellent practice in Northern Ireland but we must improve on our previous best. This is our opportunity to lay the foundations for children's confidence and self-esteem, to help them to believe that they can do well, and to plant the seeds of lifelong learning.


Mr K Robinson: What above all would enhance our provision in Northern Ireland?


Mrs Crossey: Promoting the foundation stage so that there is a seamless transition from pre-school to primary 1 and a transition year to enhance our children's learning dispositions so that they will be critical, creative thinkers for the future.


Mr Hamilton: Mrs Crossey mentioned the involvement of fathers. However, many homes have only one parent and no male role model. How should the absence of a male role model be tackled?


Mrs Crossey: Many children are from one-parent families. There should be more male workers, educators and practitioners in early years education. I had the privilege of visiting the Pen Green Centre of Excellence in Corby where many men work with the young children; it was an inspiration to see them in outdoor play together - some of our children do need a male role model.


Mr S Wilson: Nevertheless, women predominate in pre-schools.


Mrs Crossey: Yes. We must look at that. In some of the statutory settings men do placements as nursery assistants, much to the delight of the children.


The Chairperson: How do we encourage more men to enter pre-school teaching?


Mrs Crossey: By making it a more attractive and lucrative profession. However, to work with young children one must have a passion for their education; one must have a vision for them. One must appreciate their zest, their magic and their inspiration. One must have that intuitively, whether male or female.


Mr Gibson: How many children in the North Eastern Board receive pre-school education and how much money is spent on it?


Mr Devine: We do not have exact figures, but there are 5,132 children, and this is a concern. The only information that the Department supplies PEAG with are the figures for the number of children who are in primary 1. It is taken for granted that the number of children in primary 1 must be the number of children coming through.


That does not necessarily follow. This year, 74 of the 103 redundancies that have been declared are in primary schools - so there is a decline in the numbers entering primary schools. Nevertheless, we must plan for an expected number.


Mr Gibson: What is the percentage?


Mr Devine: Our provision will cater for 95·5% of the population.


Mr Gibson: How much do you spend on pre-school education? We would like to get an idea of the North Eastern Board's priorities.


Mr Devine: I must be careful about figures, but recurrent budget -


Mrs Crossey: It is my understanding that it is £1 million in the North Eastern Education and Library Board, but we can send you detailed figures if you wish.


Mr Gallagher: The North Eastern Board presented a good case recently on funding and the £3 million deficit. Surely the impending job losses will be very damaging to nursery education.


We have discussed the matter of inconsistencies before. You tell us that one group funded by PEAG returned its money to the Department of Education; at the same time, other groups should have been funded but were not because the money was not available.


How did this happen if PEAG identified a body that was to be funded in the first place? That body returned some of its funding to the Department, saying that it did not need it. Is there a problem in making decisions as well as a shortfall in funding for early years provision?


Mr Devine: There are eight projects in the North Eastern Board area that have not yet been completed. Four of them, the nursery units, will open in September. The budget anticipated that those four units would have been up and running. However, since they will not be open until September, the funding for them was not required. Therefore the money was returned to the Department.


Of the other four projects, three are at the planning stage. January 2003 is the anticipated date. One project is with the Department of Education awaiting a decision. That is why not all the units are in place yet and not all of the budget for their upkeep is required.


We have one other project for which we are awaiting a Department of Education decision. That is why all of the units are not yet in place and not all of the budget for the upkeep of those units is required.


Mr Gallagher: I understood from what I had read that the money was returned to the Department, but according to you, the money was returned to the board. Will you clarify that?


Mr Devine: The money was returned to the Department by the Department of Education's request.


Mr Gallagher: Does that mean that it has left the board's jurisdiction?


Mr Devine: The board does not require the money until the children are in situ. It will be required in four projects from September 2002, and I hope for three others from 2003.


The Chairperson: Would anyone like to address Mr Gallager's earlier point on the impact of the funding crisis in this board area on nursing provision?


Mr Devine: I am unaware of any nursery teacher being made redundant. There is pre-school provision as well as funding for playgroups and nursery units. I am unaware of any nursery school that has reduced its staff. Having said that, the adult-pupil ratio in nursery units is 2:26, and in playgroups it is 1:8. However, a different qualification is required to work in a playgroup. The leader must be qualified to NVQ level 3 standard, but I am unsure what the pay rate is, but it is not that of a qualified teacher. Playgroup assistants are qualified to NVQ level 2, and again, while I am unsure about the pay rate, the same applies.


Mr Gallagher: I am trying to find out what the impact of the funding crisis may be and the damage that that will cause if it is not addressed. There may be no staff shortfall in a nursery unit, but in a nursery unit based in a primary school it is likely that a teacher will be moved from primary 1 or primary 2 classes to cover that unit. Will a cohort of pupils who move to primary 1 next year have to double up with other classes because a teacher has moved to cover the nursery teacher who was dropped from the staff? Those children will be unable to derive the full benefit that we would expect them to get from their education and would be unable to capitalise on the benefits that they already received at their year in the nursery unit. Do you agree that the funding crisis affecting the school staffing will cause that sort of damage in this board area?


Mr Devine: That is important when it comes to the placing of new nursery units. We must be careful with playgroups if a new nursery unit for an area is recommended. We must think of the provision that is already in that area. We are concerned that a situation might arise whereby you establish a new nursery unit and displace an existing playgroup.


We recently carried out a survey in the Newtownabbey area on our own behalf. We have found that the incoming year's playgroups have already reached their enrolment figure and in many cases have a waiting list.


We are finding that the nursery units have not yet reached their enrolment figure. That is causing concern because the next step - and primary schools will already be thinking about it - will be that, if we have this space and it turns out to be surplus space, there will be a demand to have full-time rather than part-time provision for these children.


Mr Hamilton: How much money was returned?


Mr K Robinson: Are we talking about £3 million, perhaps?


Mr Devine: I cannot answer that.


Mr S Wilson: Mrs Crossey spoke fairly passionately about the type of education that there ought to be for youngsters of pre-school age and even those up to the age of six, with the emphasis on the creative element. In light of the fact that you have to bring parents along, and many parents, even by the time their youngsters get to pre-school, organise private tuition to teach them to read, write, count and so forth, is there a danger that many parents would see this as a dumbing down of their youngsters' education? The theory states that it does not affect them later on, but do you see the danger of parental resistance to the kind of approach that yourselves and the CCEA recommend?


Mrs Crossey: That is a valid comment, and we are very aware of it. Parents must be educated about the importance of providing these positive learning dispositions for children and giving them the opportunities. That is the way forward. In a practical vein, I can tell you that the parents of children at the five schools in cohort one of the enriched curriculum project were informed at the beginning of September - this year it will be in June - about the proposed learning programme for the year. They were also informed of the progress on a monthly basis both in a formal and informal capacity. With regard to the evaluation of the outcomes, those parents are extremely satisfied, as are parents in the other four education and library board areas.


I take your point there is a great deal of work to be done to change the mindset of parents and, equally, that of the practitioners working with the children. However, the seeds are being set for the way forward. Certainly, the parents of children at the five schools in our board area are extremely positive about the programme. The children were enjoying what they were learning. They were in control of their learning. There was improved behaviour and social skills. There was no underachievement among young boys, particularly those May and June boys who were only just four in September and whose physical skills were not at the level of development to hold the pencil.


This is about addressing children's needs at the stages of development that they are at; it is not about their ages.


Mr K Robinson: Are those schools located in socially deprived areas, or is there a wide range?


Mrs Crossey: For the purposes of evaluation there is a wide range, covering both rural and urban areas. A longitudinal study and research is being carried out by Queen's University across the five board areas.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation this morning. I invite you to remain to hear the other presentations and also perhaps to join us for lunch.


Mr Devine: On behalf of my colleagues, I would like to thank the Committee for its attention and for the courtesy that was shown to us this morning. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to make this response to the inquiry into early years provision. We wish you well in that task.


The Chairperson: Thank you very much indeed.


Thursday 30 May 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mrs E Bell

Mr Gallagher

Mr Gibson

Mr Hamilton

Mr K Robinson


Mr C Conway )
Mrs L Erwin ) Northern Area Childcare Partnership
Ms K Young )


The Chairperson: The Committee welcomes Mr Conway, Mrs Erwin and Ms Young of the Northern Area Childcare Partnership. We look forward to your presentation.


Mrs Erwin: I am the co-ordinator of the Northern Area Childcare Partnership. As a strategic funding group, the childcare partnership does not deliver a curriculum as such to this age group, but we are tasked with ensuring that childcare provision meets the demand for places, is accessible to all, is inclusive, affordable and of the highest standard. Our strategy for achieving this goal is set out in our childcare plan and annual reviews. We work closely with our colleagues in education through our representation on the pre-school education advisory group (PEAG) and through their representation on our partnership. Mrs Crossey is a member of the Northern Area Childcare Partnership.


We support a more integrated approach to early learning for all children aged three to six. We encourage recognition of the value of learning in family and childcare settings, including children who are placed with childminders and those in contact with family support services. More attention should be given to the design of learning environments, indoors and outdoors. We support a closer alliance between play and education; in other words, we feel that learning should be fun for very young children.


The partnership supports a more holistic and innovative approach based on practical activity, such as the primary 1 enrichment programme that is being piloted. We advocate training for staff in different methods of documenting children's progress to provide baseline information. The transition from playgroup to pre-school and from pre-school to school is of vital importance and should be supported by transition forms that document the child's learning and development and ensure continuity.


There should be a strong partnership with parents, particularly in socially deprived areas where the value of pre-school education should be promoted. Schemes such Sure Start, which is co-ordinated by the partnership, Home-Start and Bookstart are vital in getting families involved in early learning. These schemes must attract long-term mainstream investment to be truly effective in raising achievement in later years.


The importance of learning in childcare settings and with childminders must be recognised with a more professional status being given to childcare professionals and more funding provided to support higher standards through training and initiatives such as childminding networks.


The Childcare Partnership stresses the importance of the right physical environment for children in this age group, where the design and use of space is aimed at encouraging indoor and outdoor learning. New buildings should take account of examples of European designs that have proven effective, and nursery schools and playgroups should pay equal attention to environment where funded pre-school places promise equal standards to parents.


The Childcare Partnership feels that quality is vital in promoting early learning. We highlight the following points in relation to children with disabilities and learning difficulties.


There is a need for a more integrated approach for such children; it is not enough simply to have children in the same building. They must be fully supported to allow them to participate and to socialise with their peers. They must be consulted about their needs and experiences. Their after-school childcare must be catered for through statutory provision; for example, by specialist transport to after-school activities or childcare; funding for one-to-one support in childcare settings if this is required; and disability awareness training programmes to help staff to address bullying or other children's lack of understanding.


The partnership feels that the curriculum should recognise the difference between boys and girls. It should include more physical activities for boys of this age and it should attract more male role models into early years professions by raising the status and salaries of these posts.


Sustainability of pre-school provision in isolated rural areas could be addressed by supporting the rural schools so that they become the heart of the community. Joint Government funding for activities in these buildings such as childcare centres, community activities and training for adults would strengthen communities and encourage integrated education and care for rural children.


We must promote quality. There should be accreditation of quality assurance schemes to enable parents to make informed choices about childcare provision. Parents should be educated on quality issues and what they mean. There should be long-term financial investment in family support schemes to prepare young children and their parents for school. Better co-ordination of inspections by the Education and Training Inspectorate and social services would ensure continuity of experience for all children in pre-school playgroups. Learning from European models of good practice such as the Reggio Emilia approach would improve the quality of learning for this age group.


The Northern Area Childcare Partnership stresses the benefits of partnership-working at all levels, as pooling expertise and knowledge ensures that outcomes are well co-ordinated, researched and supported in member organisations.


The Chairperson: What key actions would improve early years learning?


Mrs Erwin: The involvement of parents - parents tend to think that education in a nursery school is better than education in a pre-school playgroup. They should be persuaded that the same standard applies in those playgroups for children who do not have paid places. Parents must be educated about its value.


The Sure Start scheme, for example, is an excellent way of preparing very young children for the school system so that they can benefit from it.


Mr S Wilson: You say that greater use should be made of rural schools, but your document points out that the numbers are often insufficient to support paid places and children must go to reception classes. How much more expensive is the mobile cross-border childcare project?


Mrs Erwin: The new opportunities funding includes mobile services that are taken out to small groups of children in a van or a bus. Services that bring children from all kinds of areas into an established centre where there is a quality provision are also being considered. Funding for that kind of service is part of the new opportunities building quality childcare programme.


The cross-border programme was jointly funded, and I am not sure of its funding mechanism.


Mr Conway: The cross-border rural childcare project was a pilot which examined six different models of rural provision in the border counties, North and South. Those six models were developed through EU funding and are still operational. A video is available should the Committee wish to see how they operate. Essentially, rather than bringing services into an area from elsewhere, the project examined community development and ways in which services could be developed in areas, using existing infrastructure. Infrastructure in rural areas tends to belong to one sector or another and there is very little opportunity to provide wraparound services in the use of one centre for activities which would particularly engage early years.


Mr Gibson: What is the function of the Northern Area Childcare Partnership?


Mrs Erwin: It is to take forward the Government's regional childcare strategy.


Mr Gibson: It is a regional operation.


Mrs Erwin: There is a regional childcare strategy; however, there is a childcare partnership in each of the health and social services boards.


Mr Gibson: It is therefore a health trust.


Mrs Erwin: We cover the Homefirst and the Causeway Trust areas.


Mr Gibson: Twenty per cent of children have difficulties with learning and training, and would attend school or pre-school with health or other problems. How do you and the education and library boards co-operate in helping those children?


Mrs Erwin: The Northern Area Childcare Partnership includes education and social work representatives from both of the trust areas and the voluntary agencies, some of whom work with children with learning difficulties. Health professionals are also in the partnership. All of those people are involved in setting priorities for the year, and in examining good practice, current research and thinking in those areas. Our planning is based on that.


Mr Gibson: Your submission and that of the Eastern Board both cite the same sources, the Perry pre-school project in America, for instance. Is climate a factor in pre-school provision? I know that it affects schools in the Nordic countries. Is there convincing evidence that children sitting GCSEs, for example, have benefited from pre-school education? There are many disputed areas. We have invested a great deal of money and effort into pre-school education; have we evidence that it works or are we pandering to the needs of parents who need somewhere to send their children while they are at work?


Mr Conway: There is broad research on early years education to go on. The effective pre-school provision in Northern Ireland research being carried out in Stranmillis is a major piece of research on our local needs. Although it covers the years from 1998 to 2005, the study clearly suggests that there are significant attainment gains for children who receive quality pre-school education compared to those who do not - homebase children.


Mr Gibson: With respect, I do not believe that the effects of a good family background in which a child has plenty of normal activities can be completely discounted and that only a pre-school education is of benefit to a child. The formative years are taken over by the system.


Mr Conway: The underlying idea is that there is a link between the two; one does not override the other. Many submissions will advance ideas of parental involvement. It is not a question of either/or; it is a joint approach based in the community that includes community values and principles. It benefits children, families and their communities. The studies suggest overwhelmingly that pre-school education significantly improves children's educational attainment into their teens and twenties.


Mrs E Bell: I support early years provision, as practical and academic research shows that it benefits children and parents. How can early years education benefit children with disabilities or special educational needs? How can we ensure that statementing a child does not harm his or her educational development?


Can you tell us more about the benefits of involving parents in their children's education? I know from my own experience that getting parents involved is one of the strengths of the integrated sector.


The Chairperson: You are not allowed to offer ladies sweets when they are talking, Mr Gibson.


Mr Gibson: I thought that they were refreshing -


Mrs E Bell: It was an attempt to shut me up. [Laughter]


The Chairperson: If only. Would anyone like to respond?


Ms Young: We ran a pilot project in the Causeway Health and Social Services Trust where we paid for a one-to-one worker, if that was necessary, for a child with a disability in order to allow the child to attend a mainstream playgroup. This was more to do with care than education. It is not expensive, and the costs are easily worked out in advance. However, we could run it for only one year, although we are looking for more funding to continue it.


Under the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, trusts have a duty to provide day care for children in need. That is limited, but such projects help. We are evaluating the scheme, and so far the feedback has been positive. We wish to continue it because everybody benefits, not just the child with the disability, but the one-to-one member of staff, all staff in the playgroup, the other children and their parents. Children at that age learn so much so quickly; they learn to accept each other and learn that although we may not all be the same we are all of equal value. We are trying to develop that, and the trusts are strongly committed to it.


Mrs E Bell: Will you send us your evidence to help us in our inquiry?


Ms Young: Yes, of course.


Mrs E Bell: Can you elaborate on the involvement of parents and the integration of children in pre-schools?


Mrs Erwin: Some playgroups and nursery schools have adopted the effective early learning project, which is a method of self-evaluation involving interviewing parents, children, staff and management committees. It enables parents to make a contribution to the quality of their children's education. It is an excellent project that the partnership hopes to promote; we hope that more schemes will opt for it.


Mrs E Bell: It is part of a holistic approach.


Mr Gallagher: How could inspections by the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety be made more consistent?


Ms Young: They are two very different kinds of inspections; the Department of Education inspects the curriculum, whereas trusts' inspections cover everything: the curriculum, health and safety, care, children's relationships with one another and with staff and the involvement of parents.


The early years team in Homefirst and in the Causeway Health and Social Services Trust meets the education inspectors from the Department of Education regularly to co-ordinate the approach. However, they are different kinds of inspections for different purposes.


Mr K Robinson: Mrs Erwin said that parents believe nursery schools provide a better quality of education than pre-school playgroups. Why is that so? Your assertion that parents should be educated chilled me, as it smacks of social engineering. This Committee more than any other is very sensitive to any form of social engineering.


How can documenting progress help to provide a baseline assessment?


Are the European models on outdoor and indoor play areas and the Reggio Emilia curriculum akin to the former Montessori approach, which seems to have fallen out of favour? Is that the Reggio Emilia approach to children's development?


Mrs Erwin: I am not familiar with the Montessori approach, so I cannot compare the two. The Reggio Emilia curriculum seeks to create an environment in which the child can learn and develop. For example, the children in a pre-school playgroup that adopted its approach could see a church through the window; they took a photograph of the church, put it on acetate, hung it on the wall, and the children could draw the church. They visited the church; they drew the stained glass windows; they went inside the church; and they did rubbings. It was all documented with photographs. It became the child's project and it was lead by children. When they produced the model of the church they decided that they wanted to create a priest and a congregation. They then compared it with other churches. It is an approach that gathers its own momentum.


Mr K Robinson: How does documenting a child's progress help in baseline assessment?


Mrs Erwin: All children are individuals, yet the school system sets standards that they must reach. Documenting progress helps to recognise a child's strengths at a very early stage so that these are not overlooked when the child goes into the formal school setting. Observation of what they enjoy and what they are good at can document that.


Mr K Robinson: Increasingly, primary 1 teachers and receiving primary schools want to know the baseline at which the child was received in order to evaluate the add-on value that the primary school has brought to the child's educational experience rather than the formal curriculum alone. Do you add an extra element at the baseline that would be more useful to the primary schools?


Mr S Wilson: Is there not a danger of introducing more bureaucracy? Many of the playgroups in my constituency do excellent work, but they are not geared up for such a degree of assessment, bureaucracy and recording. Is there not a danger of undermining voluntary groups that do a magnificent job?


Mr Conway: Observation, curriculum and assessment already exist in the voluntary sector, and forms are used for the transition of pre-school children into primary 1. That is in line with what happens in the remainder of the early years education sector.


Mr K Robinson: Is the documentation that comes forward fairly substantial, or is it reasonably informal yet objective?


Mr Conway: It is a formal follow through from pre-school assessment to primary 1. The main purpose is to allow the child a more seamless transition. The nature of the information helps the teacher pick up on the individual needs of the child and the class as a whole, so it is what it needs to be.


Mr K Robinson: Is the information that goes forward almost conversational in nature, or is it more structured?


Mr Conway: It is a mixture of both, but a primary 1 teacher receiving a new and fairly big class also needs written material because it is important for them to assess the class as well as the individual. Therefore it is seen as necessary.


Mr K Robinson: I shall mention my continental model again. It is not the Swedish model this time but the euro model. We talked about euro designs, inside and out. What sort of environment are we trying to create for the child?


Mrs Erwin: The Northern Ireland Pre-School Playgroup Association (NIPPA) is about to hold seminars on this issue, and it has invited an architect called Mark Dudek, who is coming over from England to talk about that. He has produced a booklet called 'Building for Young Children' that has many ideas. He has suggested something as simple as a canopy or a covered area so that the children can go outside when it is raining. The water and sand play areas are outside, the garden can be used to grow things, and inside and outside are level so that the children do not have to negotiate steps. There are many innovative designs. For example, one such simple design is to have transparent drainpipes so that children can see the water trickling into the drains.


Mr K Robinson: I am a Newtownabbey councillor in my other life, and despite Newry being a city, it does not have a play policy, unlike Newtownabbey. I do not know how many other councils have a play policy. I hope that that relates to the work that you are trying to do with pre-school children.


Mrs Erwin: Newtownabbey is the only town in the Northern Board with those facilities.


Mr K Robinson: I am glad that you reiterated that.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation, and thank you for answering our questions.


Thursday 30 May 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mrs E Bell

Mr Gallagher

Mr Gibson

Mr Hamilton

Mr K Robinson


Mrs H Dougan )
Mr R McPherson )
Mrs M Roulston ) Homefirst Community Health and
Mrs B Wilson ) Social Services Trust


The Chairperson: We welcome Mrs Marie Roulston, assistant programme manager early years, Ms Hazel Dougan, principal officer, Mrs Barbara Wilson, a team leader for early years, and Mr Robert McPherson who is also a team leader for early years.


We are looking forward to your presentation, and there will then be an opportunity to ask questions.


Mrs Roulston: My name is Marie Roulston, and I am assistant programme manager in Homefirst Trust. My colleagues are Mrs Barbara Wilson, who is an early years team leader in the Carrickfergus area, which covers Larne, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey. Mr Robert McPherson is an early years team leader in the Ballymena and Antrim area of the trust. Mrs Hazel Dougan is principal officer in the trust for the Carrickfergus area. Given the size and geography of the trust, we have provided the Committee with information on the strategic overview of the trust and some of the Homefirst structures.


As an earlier speaker mentioned, under the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 Homefirst Community Trust has the statutory duty to register, inspect and monitor day nurseries, playgroups, crèches, out-of-school clubs and childminders. These include all private, voluntary and community groups and cater for children from 0 to 12 years of age. The main provision tends to be private or community run, with some voluntary organisations, such as Barnardo's, providing crèche or playgroup facilities.


The trust does not provide any day care facilities, but it does sponsor places in day nurseries and playgroups for children deemed to be children in need. Children with disabilities are also provided with places, given that all children with disabilities are recognised as children in need. Approximately 60% of playgroups are now part of the Department of Education initiative to provide free pre-school places, and are subject to dual inspection from education and social services departments.


Mrs B Wilson: With regard to the policy for early years learning, the trust subscribes to a policy based on the requirements of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 and the Rumbold Report, starting with quality. In summary, the policy is that play is seen as crucial to the physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and language development of the child. Pre-school children learn and develop more in their first five years of life than at any other time. They therefore need and deserve the highest-quality environment and adult support which it is possible to provide.


To obtain maximum benefit from pre-school environments, children require trained, supportive and sensitive adults who have a thorough understanding of child development and how this connects with learning through play. There should be a balanced programme of opportunities, which allows children to engage in free play, and also in appropriate activities directed by staff. Also, parents are a child's first educators, and they should be involved with and informed about every aspect of the child's pre-school provision. The trust expounds the approach that children learn through play that takes account of individual developmental ages and stages, rather than a pedagogic approach, which is adult-directed and group-oriented.


Models of best practice have been spoken about, and we all seem to be talking about the same kind of models. There are many models of good practice, for example, the Harpur's Hill early years project in Coleraine and the Pen Green nursery centre in Corby. These offer childcare, education, parenting skills, family learning, and adult literacy and numeracy support. These are models of one-stop shops for local parents and children drawing together a range of services. Also, the Reggio Emilia approach, which includes parents and the local community, provides an adventurous and progressive play environment that fosters young children's independence and autonomy. This is currently being introduced in some early years provision in Northern Ireland.


The High/Scope approach is characterised by high-quality active learning experiences, where children plan, do, and review programmes supported by adult interaction and the close involvement of parents. The effective early learning programme model, which is based on 10 dimensions of quality, is a useful tool for assessing provision and individual settings. It is especially strong on adult/child interaction. This is not an inspection model, but an equality evaluation tool.


What is the current research on early learning? The most frequently quoted research in the field of the effectiveness of pre-school curriculum is the report on the long-term gains for children in the USA exposed to the High/Scope curriculum. This may help to answer Mr Gibson's earlier question. The longitudinal study demonstrated that children were more likely to achieve academically, had greater self-esteem, and in adulthood were less likely to be involved in crime, drugs, alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancies and unemployment. However, it does need to be borne in mind that these children came from an area of very high deprivation, and gains with children from middle class or stable homes may not be so significant.


There was a large-scale, longitudinal child health educational study in Britain in 1987. This study reported noticeable differences in ability, behaviour and attainment at school between those who attended pre-school and those who had not. In many studies, including the recently published EPPNI (effective provision of pre-school Northern Ireland) research on pre-school provision in Northern Ireland which examined 800 children in 70 settings, it appears that the most significant outcomes for children's long-term success in both education and social relationships are associated with whether or not their pre-school experiences fostered good self-esteem and confidence.


The assimilation of the three Rs can be left until after the pre-school years, as practice in other European countries shows. With regard to how the provision and nature of early years learning in Northern Ireland can be developed and enhanced to assist underachievement, research shows that children need to develop a foundation of positive attitudes to motivate them to learn, to have social skills, confidence and self-esteem. They are the building blocks for future learning, and without them it would be very hard for the rest to follow.


Research further demonstrates that the most effective forms of provision demonstrate close working partnerships between parents and staff. The most crucial features of high-quality care are the expertise and commitment of staff, and that children who attend some form of pre-school provision achieve better academic results. The type of setting does not matter provided that it is of high quality, and that children from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve better results if they have good-quality pre-school experiences.


If early years learning is to be enhanced to assist underachievement, it first must be recognised that the pre-school years are the most vital of any child's life. If the opportunities that early years afford are lost, they become more difficult and expensive to retrieve as time passes. One of the most crucial aspects to early years education is the need for properly trained motivated staff who are valued for their contribution to those vital years. Resources, buildings and equipment need to be made available equitably to all sections of childcare in order to provide the highest possible quality learning environments for children. Good-quality care should be provided for all children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Parents need to be informed about what constitutes quality care and how to access it. That should not depend on postcode, ward, parental knowledge or motivation.


The changes will have implications not only for resources for education and social services staff but for a change of attitude towards young children. Young children, and those who work with them, need the backing of powerful advocates who understand the issues. Resources targeted at early years now will save money in the future. The valuing of staff will stem the constant turnover of carers so detrimental to the private sector. Training and education will bring status and respect to carers who are the vital key to high-quality early years provision.


Recommendations for improvement include further developed joined-up working between education, social services, voluntary, private and community groups, more common standards similar to the joint social services inspection standards that are currently being printed. They are to be agreed and implemented between all early years sectors. With regard to common quality assurance policies, there will be improved monitoring regulation of services to ensure consistency of approach, appropriate training and working conditions for staff across all sectors; the fostering of a seamless transition from pre-school to primary school, which means the carrying of learning through play approach into primary schools; the provision of good-quality outdoor play equipment for young children, as this is clearly linked to the development of other skills; equal access for all children to quality settings regardless of background, including those with special needs.


We, therefore, contend that if real improvements are to be made in early years provision, the key issues that need to be addressed are co-ordination between all sectors, funding and equality between services, systematic evaluation of provision and equality of opportunity for staff across all sectors. The provision of high-quality learning experiences for all children will not be achieved overnight nor will it be cheap. Substantial commitment is required to ensure that another generation of children is not disadvantaged through lack of quality early years care and education.


The Chairperson: How do you think better co-ordination can be achieved?


Mrs B Wilson: We are working together to develop the existing structures on the pre-school expansion programme. The social services and education inspectorates meet regularly to examine common standards and to sort out problems. We have just produced a common document for inspection for pre-schools, which will mean that social services and education are working to the same standards when we carry out inspections. They need to be developed and worked on. We are now looking at translating that pre-school document to day nurseries, so we are carrying that approach across.


The Chairperson: Who should co-ordinate the co-ordination?


Mrs B Wilson: [Laughter] The Assembly - the Department of Education and its inspectorates, the social services and Assembly Committees working together.


The Chairperson: Not one Department, but perhaps two.


Mrs B Wilson: Yes.


Mr Gallagher: I recognise that you wish to remove inconsistencies in inspections; this has been a matter of contention for some time. Surely it is past time that the two Departments sorted this matter out.


Mrs B Wilson: It has already started, although it has been slow. Perhaps setting aside more time and commitment for it would expedite it.


Mr Gallagher: Are you responsible for registering all children in care?


Mrs B Wilson: Yes, apart from those who are the responsibility of the education and library board. That includes out-of-school clubs. We are responsible for registering all children up to the age of 12.


Mr S Wilson: I hope that I am not being unfair to anyone, but the representatives of the North Eastern Education and Library Board suggested that the same standards and quality should apply in all sectors. Your recommendations call for greater consistency and common standards for all providers. The implication is that that does not exist at present. Is that the case?


Homefirst Community Health and Social Services Trust recommends introducing a national framework which oversees accredited quality training establishments. Does everyone who works in pre-school playgroups not have to achieve a certain level in NVQ?


Mrs B Wilson: Yes; NVQ level 3. The leader must have an NVQ level 3, as should the assistant leader. There should be at least two who have an NVQ level 3 or equivalent. Some have higher than that.


Mr S Wilson: How would accredited quality training work?


Mrs B Wilson: There is a great disparity between the standard of training in education that teachers receive and the standard of training to NVQ level 3. That must be rectified.


Mr S Wilson: Should everyone who works in pre-schools be trained to teacher level?


Mrs B Wilson: There is a problem. The playgroups achieve, as the Education and Training Inspectorate and the effective pre-school provision in Northern Ireland research have shown, the same standards but they do not get the same pay or the same training opportunities. There are problems with the NVQ level 3, and that has raised issues for us in our inspections in early years provision.


The Chairperson: To whom was Sammy Wilson being more unfair? [Laughter]


Mrs B Wilson: I cannot comment on that.


Mr McPherson: Some of the inconsistencies are found in 60% of the playgroups with Department of Education funded places. That is a big advantage to them because they get a great deal of money to sustain good standards. The groups that do not get that funding are at a disadvantage, and although they work hard and we work with them to raise their standards, they are disadvantaged by lack of funding. They must raise their own funding. Some of them must even pay their staff less than those that have Department of Education funding. They can afford to pay their staff a reasonable wage.


Mrs B Wilson: Schools do not have to go out and raise money for teachers' salaries, unlike many playgroups. Playgroup committees are fundraising all the time, selling ballots, for example, to raise money for basic things such as paying staff.


The Chairperson: I am not sure if everybody in the Northern Eastern Education and Library Board agrees with that.


Mrs E Bell: Training and accreditation is very important. Some groups get funding from the Department of Education, but on the partnership board in my area we work with NIPPA to give some money towards training for a number of pre-school groups. What is your opinion of that? Should core funding be there, and should this Committee be recommending that to the Department? Is it important that it should be recommended? I see a discrepancy between people coming in with NVQ level 3 and people coming in with diplomas, and there are difficulties between teaching and care, which are both very important. How can this be expedited? Also, what do you think could be done about children with special needs and statementing, and how could that be improved?


Mr McPherson: Core funding is certainly crucial. On the first item on your agenda reference was made to sustainability for early years, and many groups lack sustainability. They struggle, getting enough funds to keep going for a while, and then they come to a crisis where they have to start to raise funds. Therefore core funding is essential.


Money for training is also essential, so that qualified staff can be provided. We should not lose sight of the fact that playgroups provide a valued service. I know this is a busy Committee, but some morning you should go to a group with departmental funding and high standards, just to witness what is happening. Reference was made earlier to the higher staff ratio in playgroups - 1:8 compared with 1:26 children in a primary school setting. A question was also raised about why there is this perception that nursery schools are better, and I would suggest that perhaps it is because it is free. Children go to school for free, but quite often in playgroups parents have to make a contribution. If we face facts, that might be one of the reasons.


The Chairperson: That is a fair point to make in north Antrim.


Mrs E Bell: I know that you are doing your best to make sure that children with special needs are integrated, but where do you think that situation could be improved?


Mrs Dougan: There is an issue about resources for integrating children, and making the environment suitable for them. We have tried, and the representative from the Causeway Health and Social Services Trust demonstrated this. Equally, Homefirst Community Health and Social Services Trust would have examples too. Sense, who will be making a presentation shortly, and Homefirst work very closely on this. Statementing is a complicated procedure.


Mrs E Bell: I think that legislation is being examined for statementing.


Mrs B Wilson: Easier availability of funding would help, especially when each child goes into a group for a one-to-one, if that is what is required for that child. Having to apply and to go through a whole rigmarole, the child is nearly ready to leave by the time it is sorted out, or the school has been unable to be cope and the parent has been asked to take the child home, which is very sad.


Mrs Roulston: Quite often one-to-one attention is required.


Mr Gibson: This presentation has been very useful, and I thank you for your previous answers. You have made a number of serious recommendations, such as models of best practice, and have given us a whole series of things to consider. The list of those involved in pre-school provision seems to be endless: childminders, nurseries, playgroups, crèches, out-of-school clubs. Should there be a Minister for pre-school education?


Mrs B Wilson: I had not thought about that.


Mr Gibson: Should social services and education be combined?


Mrs B Wilson: England chose the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) route by putting everything under the Department for Education and Skills, but England is moving back to the care model.


Mr Gibson: Are the four joint working groups effective?


Mrs B Wilson: Yes. They are up and running and functioning. I attended a pre-school education advisory group meeting yesterday.


Mr Gibson: Are they efficient?


Mrs B Wilson: As efficient as they can be under the circumstances. We co-operate now 100% more than we used to with our colleagues in the Department of Education. The groups do work and we are learning to respect one another's position. I can only speak for myself; I am on most of the committees.


Mr Gibson: Would you like a more formal arrangement?


Mrs B Wilson: It needs a higher profile.


The Chairperson: What would be the effect of the CCEA proposals for a foundation stage curriculum on nursery schools and playgroups?


Mrs B Wilson: I honestly do not know. There is the idea of the seamless change, passing the assessments from pre-school to primary school. There will be a change for children in primary 1. I am not qualified to talk about that in detail, but schools will have to adopt the play approach; they will have to recognise the importance of play and how much children learn through it. It is not, to put it in the vernacular "bottoms on seats". Children at that age do not learn by sitting in a chair for hours on end listening to somebody talking: that is not how young children learn.


The Chairperson: I have heard worse vernacular, particularly in the Assembly.


Mr K Robinson: There seems to be quite a tension between the nursery school lobby and the pre-school playgroup lobby. Obviously, professional standing, pay and core funding are all factors. Can the two sectors be encouraged to work together more coherently in the long-term interest of pre-school children? We do not wish to create little empires. You have spoken of your contact with colleagues in education.


Mrs B Wilson: And with the voluntary groups. We tend to sit on the same committees.


Mr K Robinson: Can these groups merge without either losing out or feeling that its professional standards and qualifications are being denigrated?


Mrs B Wilson: The underlying problem is the access to funding and training, and each is coming from such a different angle. Perhaps if that were made more equitable. There is an in-built equality that creates tension because people are arguing their own point of view, fighting their own corner, fighting for resources while others may have something to say about that.


Mr McPherson: There is certainly a need for co-ordination, but the question is how we do that. When PEAG funding was introduced it was clearly stated that existing provision should not be displaced. Sadly, many areas have experienced some displacement.


Mr K Robinson: Inadvertently?


Mr McPherson: One hopes that it was inadvertent. Every effort should be made to avoid that.


Mr K Robinson: You are aware of the fundamental problem and it is being considered.


Mr McPherson: Absolutely.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation and your answers.


Thursday 30 May 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mrs E Bell

Mr Gallagher

Mr Gibson

Mr Hamilton

Mr K Robinson


Ms L Milway ) Sense: The National Deafblind and Rubella Society


The Chairperson: We are pleased to welcome the representative from Sense Northern Ireland, Ms Lorna Milway, who is the family and education adviser. We look forward to her presentation and the opportunity to ask questions.


Ms Milway: Good afternoon. I thank the Committee for this invitation to address you on behalf of young children with multisensory impairment supported by Sense Northern Ireland. My name is Lorna Milway, and I am the family and education adviser. My remit is children of 0 to 19 year olds, and I work across the Province. You all have a copy of my written submission, which I sent in the autumn, and I have raised concerns in six inter-related areas. My intention today is to give an introduction to the population of the children whom we support, and thereby highlight some of the issues mentioned in the submission.


First, I would draw your attention to the terms used, and I refer to the paragraph at the top of page 2 of my written submission. The terms deafblind, dual sensory impaired, and multisensory impaired are often used to describe the same individual disability, or broadly similar combinations of disabilities. The term deafblind has been used in the international community for about 20 years, but we have found that it raises some confusion in people not directly involved. It seems to imply that an individual is totally deaf or totally blind, whereas the majority of the children and adults with whom we work have some degree of sight or hearing, or both. Multisensory impairment is now used more frequently, and the abbreviation MSI is widely accepted within the education field. However, the three terms, and the abbreviation, are often used interchangeably, and sometimes in the same document. Academic literature uses the term deafblind, and teaching staff often talk of multisensory impairment.


There are two categories of deafblind individuals. The first is congenitally deafblind - those whose disabilities occur before or during birth, or during the first six months of life. The second category is acquired deafblindness - those whose disabilities occur as a result of injury, infection, or the ageing process. In the latter group, head trauma and complications arising from illnesses such as measles and meningitis account for many of the children with acquired deafblindness at one end of the age range. Helen Keller is one of the most famous examples of acquired deafblindness, having contracted measles at the age of 18 months. An adult head trauma, and failing hearing and eyesight in the elderly are common causes. Usher syndrome is a genetic condition that also causes the sight of congenitally deaf people to fail, often somewhere between late childhood and early adulthood.


The population of deafblind and multisensory impaired children has changed during the past 20 years. Due to the success of previous immunisation campaigns it is extremely rare to find a baby born with disabilities resulting from the rubella syndrome. At the same time, however, medical advances have led to a significant and continuing rise in the numbers of children surviving conditions that would previously have caused death at birth or shortly after. The survival rate of very premature babies has also increased dramatically in recent years, although sadly survival has not always meant full health and well-being. Often these children suffer neurological damage, and have profound and multiple disabilities. Many of the children with whom we work are described as functionally deaf or functionally blind, which is where their eyes and ears are perfect but the brain is unable to process the information.


At present the Sense Northern Ireland database has approximately 150 children, 0 to 19 years old, who have either multisensory impairment or a single sensory impairment with additional learning or physical disabilities. Of these I find it difficult to recall any who have only a dual sensory loss and no other difficulties.


It has been difficult to gather statistical information on the number of children affected. In 1996, a colleague carried out a survey of all special schools in Northern Ireland to establish numbers of school-age children with multisensory impairment; at that time, 41 children were recorded as having significant impairment of both senses and a further 200 with a single sensory impairment with additional difficulties. We believe this to be a significant under-reporting, as many older children with very complex needs may not at that time have had their hearing or sight sufficiently assessed.


There are also difficulties with the information; the concept of "functional impairment" was not entirely understood by everyone who completed the survey. At the moment, I support 16 multisensory-impaired children under the age of five. These are children who have been referred to our service by other professionals, but the number is by no means an indication of the level of incidence across the Province.


I am aware that the scope of this inquiry is the education of children aged from three to six. For children with sensory impairment the first three years are crucial; their perception of the world and their future interactions with it are governed by what they learn in the first three years. Patterns of learning laid down in those years can be difficult to alter, and their educational needs must be considered before they reach age three.


Improvements in technology and assessment techniques mean that sensory loss, particularly hearing loss, is more easily identified than in the past. Information about an older child is often given on his or her main or primary disability, and any sensory impairment is mentioned only in passing. It is now common practice for any sensory loss to be included as part of the description of a baby's or young child's needs.


When sensory loss is identified - even in children who have apparently more pressing medical needs, even life-threatening conditions - qualified, experienced educational practitioners should be available to help parents and other professionals to meet these children's needs. The earliest years and months are so important in the development of the use of the senses. As anything up to 95% of the information that we receive about the world comes to us through the distance senses of sight and hearing, impairment or loss of both of these senses affects every experience that a child has.


Their loss affects these children's every experience. Take the example of a month-old baby lying in its cot in its room: he is awake and hears his mother coming; he hears the door opening; his eyesight, although not perfect, enables him to look towards the source of the sound; he sees the figure moving towards him; he hears her voice getting closer, and he braces himself. He is ready because he knows that something is about to happen - with any luck it will be food.


A deaf or blind baby or a baby with severe impairment does not hear the door opening, does not hear his mother's voice, does not see her walking towards him. The first thing he knows is that he is being swept into space; the result is that many of these babies live their early lives either in a state of heightened readiness or completely passive. Many of our babies spend much of their first years in hospital, and that is often an unpleasant experience for them. For example, a needle may be stuck into their arm or a distressing invasive procedure may be carried out on them. There are many simple, vital - and yet often overlooked techniques - that can help them to understand their lives and to make them more bearable.


These children need a different kind of handling that is understood by all who are involved with them. That is why I have argued for improvement in the early identification and assessment procedures and for raising awareness of the importance of sight and hearing loss in children with other complex needs.


"Early intervention" is a term that has been used for some years to describe the successful means of lessening the effect of social disadvantage or disability in young children. Many witnesses to this inquiry will use it. In the field of sensory impairment the value of early intervention has been recognised by the provision of a teacher for the deaf for all children with hearing impairment from the time of their diagnosis, regardless of age. It has been proven that direct and regular teaching is vital if a child is to make use of any residual hearing that he or she has to learn to communicate effectively with those around him or her.


Children with visual impairment should also receive the support of a peripatetic teacher of the visually impaired. Limited resources mean that children with visual impairment, especially those with additional difficulties, do not always receive the necessary support. The visual cortex is not complete until the age of five, and through the careful use of visual stimulation activities children with limited sight can be helped to make the most of any residual sense they may have. Without skilled help, children with limited vision and severe learning difficulties may switch off their vision. Early help is essential. For multisensory impaired children the timing of intervention is even more critical


A recently published article by Dr Heather Murdoch from Birmingham University describes the effect of deafblindness on very young children, and a copy is included for your information. Dr Murdoch is a leading UK authority on deafblindness and the effects of early intervention.

"Deafblindness is a very rare disability, causing extreme developmental disadvantage. It affects all area of development, including the formation of very early parent/child relationships, communication, motor and perceptual development and social and emotional development. These effects begin from birth.

"The effects of deafblindness on development are not simply those of hearing impairment plus those of visual impairment. Deafblindness is a unique disability causing extreme developmental disadvantage, especially regarding access to information from the environment, communication and social and emotional development."


It is vital that the needs of children with multisensory impairment receive the support of suitably qualified teaching staff. For example, if the needs of a child with multiple disabilities are recognised early and sufficient teaching staff are available he or she may receive the support of a teacher of the visually impaired and a teacher of the hearing impaired. In some areas these staff work well together, but heavy caseloads do not permit more than rare joint visits. Therefore, one or other teacher - usually the teacher of the hearing impaired - carries the main load, with the addition of the other's advice.


We, however, argue for the support of specially trained teachers of multisensory impaired children as occurs in England. Successful interventions use different techniques from those used by teachers of single sensory impaired children. It is a wholly different way of working.


The effects of multisensory impairment are described as compound rather than additional, and are so widereaching that a different approach is needed. There is more detail in the article.


A wealth of information has been gathered about the perceptional and communicative skills of non-disabled newborn babies to determine how a child is seriously disadvantaged by the loss of significant function in both senses, even when there is no other physical or learning disability. Early intervention by skilled, experienced teaching staff can go a long way to helping that group of children towards a rich and fulfilling life.


Although some of the children we support are taught at Jordanstown School, most of them are taught in special schools for children with severe learning difficulties. The number of multisensory impaired children is so low that most of them are taught in classes with children with a wide variety of educational needs. We agree that it is unrealistic and impractical to expect that all these children can be taught in special multisensory impairment classes, but it is imperative that the class teacher has the support of qualified and experienced staff. In the written submission some of the difficulties experienced by teachers wishing to qualify in the area of sensory impairment have been highlighted.


These are not children with severe learning difficulties who happen to have sensory impairments. Rather, they are children with multisensory impairment who happen to have a learning disability. The difference of emphasis should have a significant impact on the development of their individual curriculum.


We support inclusion where appropriate; however, the very particular needs of those children are often best met in a specialised setting where their sensory and communicative needs can be met in an appropriately adapted environment.


I hope that my brief introduction has helped you understand the needs of children with multisensory impairment. They continue to provide their medical, educational and support staff with many challenges. It is a privilege to bring their very particular needs to you.


The Chairperson: Thank you very much for your presentation and for your insight.


Mr Hamilton: You appeared to suggest a severe lack of specialist pre-school provision and that it often falls upon the voluntary sector to provide what provision there is. What is an appropriate or adequate level of provision? Should provision be statutory, voluntary or a combination of both?


Ms Milway: The education of these children begins at the very earliest stage. A more formal setting at a very early age is not appropriate for all children. However, it has proved to be a vital resource for the families with whom we work. It gives them additional time in which they know their children are getting input that they cannot provide, or that bit of space to work while their children are at home.


I worked in the Barnardo's paediatric support unit with children from the age of six months onwards. At Sense children come into the nursery at anything from 18 months onwards for a short period per week, but not full-time. We are examining resources for provision of that; perhaps a combination of both.


Mrs E Bell: Further to Mr Hamilton's point, would a one-to-one experience in the pre-school years help children towards the primary school situation where they may not need that specialised help, or would they continue to need that? You mentioned early diagnosis, and all of us have heard stories of families who did not realise what was happening until it was too late. It must be recognised by the medical profession generally. Are there examples of good practice in other places in diagnosing the child, for example in England or even Northern Ireland? You said in your submission that early diagnosis is often clumsy. Are there examples of occasions when it was not so clumsy? We could refer to those and see how diagnosis could be generally improved.


Ms Milway: You will probably hear of that from all of the voluntary organisations which work with children with disability, particularly sensory impairment. We are all examining the area of diagnosis and there are some very good examples of good practice where some very supportive consultants have been quick to involve voluntary organisations which can offer support. It is simply that the resources are not there in the statutory provision.


Mrs E Bell: It is therefore a question of resources and acknowledgement of the situation.


Ms Milway: Yes. Again, looking at individual cases, it can take some time for a family to come to terms with it. There are many issues involved.


Mrs E Bell: There are many issues that must be looked at by people like us.


Ms Milway: Could I return to your first point? I cannot remember your question.


Mrs E Bell: I followed Mr Hamilton's point on early diagnosis, and you answered my question.


Mr S Wilson: When we hear of the disadvantages experienced by youngsters with multiple disabilities it makes us all very grateful for what we have. How many youngsters across the Province are concerned? Barnardo's recently closed down a facility in my constituency and, in light of what you said and from what I have heard from parents, that was a major loss of the facilities needed by their youngsters. Emphasis has moved from keeping children in such institutions towards putting them into families. Are you saying that that is not a good move and that those specialist facilities are needed?


Other groups have told us what good pre-school education for youngsters with a minor disability or no disability would comprise. What are the essential ingredients for youngsters with multiple disabilities?


Ms Milway: Every one of those children is different and it would be hard to give a blanket recipe for all of them. Some families require the kind of respite offered by a specialist unit. They are possibly unable to work with the children in the way that specially trained staff can work. They need to work alongside those staff and learn from them. Other children whose parents are very keen to do all the work themselves are best supported at home; however, the input from specialists with specialist information and means of working is necessary. It is a mixture of many things. In the very early stage from 0 to 3 years, support at home can be right for some, a specialist play setting can be right for others.


Mr S Wilson: What kind of numbers are we talking about?


Ms Milway: I currently support 16 children with multisensory impairment; however, much of what I have said will apply to all children with profound and multiple disabilities. I am not sure of the incidence across Northern Ireland and I do not have the statistics. Nationally, 1·8 to 10,000 children will suffer from deafblindness.


Mr Gibson: You have made us all aware, yet again, of a difficult area. The first of the six areas mentioned was on assessment and diagnosis. Over the past five years, has there been any improvement in that, or do education and library boards still have difficulty with the number of psychologists available and the length of time before assessments?


Ms Milway: That is a great area. Early identification has definitely improved. The technology, the techniques and the medical staff have been tremendous. Much more must be put into the assessment side. There is a shortage of psychologists and trained staff.


Mr Gibson: What about children who live in the west of the Province and have to travel long distances for special care? Has there been any improvement in that situation in the past five years?


Ms Milway: I have noticed no significant improvement from the families with whom I work.


Mr K Robinson: I am particularly interested in your comment regarding the retention of special schools. I live in the Jordanstown area. Over the years there seems to be a movement away from bringing children together in those schools and, from past experience, I know how supportive that pratice was. Has the emphasis changed from positive educational and emotional support to hard finance, where it is more effective to disperse these children and not have that central facility?


Ms Milway: I do not know if I can answer that question. We recommend that children with such profound sensory impairments are probably best catered for within a specialist environment. It is a false economy to pass children out into schools where they are not adequately supported. It is appropriate for some children, but for other children with complex needs it is not perhaps appropriate. I am not sure whether it is a matter of hard finance.


Mr K Robinson: It is not a trend in education for children with impairment; it may be a more pragmatic approach.


Mrs Milway: Possibly.


Mr K Robinson: The tremendous frustration level in the child and the parent is difficult enough in the emotional situation where they deal physically with each other. When officialdom is introduced, can anything be done to ease that role in recognising the frustration levels? Parents whose child has been diagnosed with a particular impairment speak to me. They are assigned a certain level of appropriate skill to deal with that impairment and find, over time, that that skill level evaporates. They feel isolated.


Ms Milway: Most of the voluntary organisations will say the same thing. We advocate that a key worker who can handle the issue and co-ordinate the services is assigned to a family at diagnosis. Families find that dealing with so many people is an incredibly frustrating process. The highest number we recorded was 41 different professionals visiting the same child in any one month. Those matters need to be addressed.


Mr Gallagher: In your very good presentation you pinpointed the problems and the difficulty in responding to them. You mentioned the importance of the multi-agency approach and that had much merit. However, unless somebody takes responsibility, that approach can sometimes be an exercise in buck-passing. All of us have experience of being handed around in the system and not stopping anywhere that produces a clear-cut and decisive benefit at the time it is needed. On the basis that it is only useful if the buck stops somewhere, at which Department do you think it should stop?


Ms Milway: I have been involved in several child development clinics, working with the paediatricians right across the support groups and with the social workers who have been involved with children. That has worked very well. Some trusts say that it works extremely well and we are happy to be involved with them. At that stage, the paediatrician takes the lead role and invites education to get involved. It is hard to know if one Department should take total responsibility.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation.


Thursday 30 May 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mrs E Bell

Mr Gallagher

Mr Gibson

Mr Hamilton

Mr K Robinson


Cllr C Wright ) Ballymena Borough Council


The Chairperson: That completes the formal evidence and, although time has rattled on, as promised at the outset of the meeting I invite anyone from the public who has not yet made, or been part of, a representation to say something or make a few brief points. Please introduce yourself.


Cllr Wright: My name is Cllr Wright and I represent Ballymena Borough Council on the North Eastern Education and Library Board, and I am on its education and finance committees. I have here my council file on pre-school education. It is a problem and I congratulate health and social services for the way in which they presented it.


This is how it works out in practice, and I shall give you an example of four villages. Broughshane Primary School is very active and well run. The education board use the blitzkrieg approach and in any year only 48% of 52 places in the primary school are taken. That has meant the obliteration of the pre-school community.


The scenario in Gracehill is exactly the same. Fifty-two children will go into the primary school and 52 places are now proposed by the Department of Education.


In Broughshane, my efforts with the board reduced the input to 26 and 26. I have not been successful in Gracehill.


In Ahoghill 2,000 or 3,000 people live in Housing Executive homes. There is no pre-school, even though the education and library board owns about one and a half acres of ground.


Portglenone had a perfectly good site for a controlled school, but it was suddenly changed to a maintained school in a risky site. I pointed out that there was a risk to the children because of a blind corner, and the Department of Education is now chasing around Portglenone looking for what it calls a "neutral" site. The site for the controlled school is fantastic; it is beside a council playgroup in a mixed estate. That could have been private, so there would have been no difficulty with cross-community problems. However, in its wisdom, it has no capital to spend on Ahoghill, approximately five miles away. Consequently, the pre-school problem unfortunately has the statutory agencies using the blitzkrieg approach. They have the money. They dripfeed these community playgroups. Gracehill will pay for 18 out of 20 places. Yet, if a statutory pre-school were built there, a millionaire would still have his children paid for. That affects the community, because the people in the lower social classes benefit from pre-school education and, unfortunately, because of the placing of these particular facilities they are being deprived of the opportunity because they have no provision for transport.


There is no payment for transport, yet if you are in the statutory sector it is paid for. I hope that the Committee now begins to take an in-depth look at the matter and try to get to the nub of it. The community sector has been suffering because the education sector has had the money and it has a "we are the people" approach and the other people who may not be educated to degree level are almost ignored.


The Chairperson: Thank you very much.


That concludes the public evidence session.


Thursday 13 June 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mr Gallagher

Mr Gibson

Mr Hamilton

Mr McHugh


Mrs Clare Devlin ) Southern Education and Ms Siobhan Fitzpatrick ) Library Board and SELB
Mrs Elaine McClure ) Pre-School Education
Mrs Mary McNeice ) Advisory Group


The Chairperson: This is a public meeting, during which the Committee will hear evidence as part of its inquiry and report into early years learning. We are pleased to welcome the groups who will provide that evidence.


On a personal level, this is a proud occasion for me, as a local representative, to bring the Committee for Education to Armagh and to allow its members to enjoy the wonderful surroundings and excellent conditions here, especially at this impressive theatre. We congratulate warmly Armagh City and District Council on its efforts.


A projection illustrating the work of the Committee for Education serves as a backdrop, and we are also broadcasting live back to Parliament Buildings in Stormont, where our many listeners, undoubtedly recovering after World Cup games, will perhaps find the meeting light relief. I invite everyone present to remain for lunch, when they can share their views on early years learning.


I apologise on behalf of Mrs Eileen Bell, Mr John Fee, Mr Alban Maginness, Mr Barry McElduff and Mr Ken Robinson. I also welcome the acting Clerk of this Committee and thank her for standing in. I thank the Education Clerk and staff for their assistance today.


I welcome the representatives of the Southern Education and Library Board and its pre-school advisory group. We have several representatives: Ms Siobhan Fitzpatrick, the chairperson of the pre-school education advisory group; Mrs Clare Devlin, the assistant advisory officer in early years; Mrs Elaine McClure, the principal of Banbridge Nursery School; and Mrs Mary McNeice, the principal of Derrylatinee Primary School. We look forward to their presentation, after which members will ask questions.


Mrs Devlin: My name is Clare Devlin. I am assistant adviser for primary development and early years in the Southern Education and Library Board. I thank the Committee for inviting us to speak about our beliefs and the important elements of early years learning. Our presentation will be brief.


I will summarise the submission made to the Committee in autumn 2001. In recent years we have been delighted to be more exposed to current thinking and research on early years learning. We have learned much about how young children learn. For example, at the Curriculum 21 conference in 1998, held at the headquarters of the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), Dr Peter Fenwick spoke about the culling of brain cells at a very early age. His research shows the importance of stimulating a child in the first 10 months of life. Dr Fenwick referred to the importance of working with young babies. A baby's brain absorbs everything like a sponge. Children benefit from a rich environment and good stimulation. If the interaction with adults is good then the child's development will be much richer. On the other hand, poor environment and stimulation are of less benefit at the crucial early stage. However, in this instance, the word "poor" does not relate to poverty; poor stimulation is possible even in a fairly affluent home, because some parents simply do not know how to stimulate their children or how to provide a rich environment in which a child can learn and develop.


Dr Fenwick stressed the importance of working with parents, pre-school settings and staff. The Southern Board has adopted the "developing everyone's learning and thinking abilities" (DELTA) approach to working with parents, and the SureStart scheme for working with nought- to three-year-olds and their families. The High/Scope model and the effective early learning project are used by some pre-school staff in order to improve their practice.


Professor P Wolfe's research shows that children learn much more before entering school aged five than they do during their 12 to 16 years of formal education. It is very important to get it right in the early years. Formal schooling will be much easier if children have a good, rich development in the first six years of life, and if good concepts are embedded.


With that knowledge, practitioners work in exciting and challenging times. We must recognise the rights of young children, and move from a teacher-led curriculum to a child-led one. That probably seems obvious, but it is difficult to achieve in our system. Such elements as the Northern Ireland curriculum, the end of Key Stage assessment and the transfer procedure challenge us and have an impact on children's development in the early years. The current curriculum review with CCEA is timely. As early years advisers and specialists, we are fortunate to have been able to examine practice around the world. Three years ago representatives from the Southern Education and Library Board went to Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, where we observed instances of excellent practice. Whilst we adopt and adapt models of best practice, it is important to ensure that our education system continues to reflect the needs of children in Northern Ireland. As Howard Gardner pointed out:

"It is a mistake to take any approach and assume, like a flower, you can take it from one soil and put it in another one. That never works We have to figure out what aspects of that are most important to us and what kind of soil we need to make those aspects grow."


It is good to examine alternative models of practice. A Swedish Government official made a very accurate observation: it is good to think globally, but we must act locally. What we learn about practice in other countries is wonderful, but we must make it fit into a Northern Ireland context in which our own culture and identity is taken into account. We should be "glocals."


Mrs McClure will now outline the current position for three- and four-year-olds in the pre-school setting.


Mrs McClure: Early years learning is provided through a variety of settings in the Southern Education and Library Board area, including nursery schools and units, playgroups, reception classes and private childminders. Staff in the statutory sector are highly trained, motivated and qualified professionals. There is a wide range of qualifications for classroom assistants, such as NVQs and NNEBs in the voluntary, private and statutory sectors, and standards vary. Qualifications must be standardised across all settings, and all training establishments must aim towards a common standard.


Staffing ratios vary greatly. In the statutory sector there are two adults for every 26 children. In the voluntary sector, the figure is one adult for every eight children. Once again, there is a great need for standardisation across the different types of provision. It is very difficult for two adults to cope with 26 children while maintaining an effective learning environment.


There is great variation in the attendance patterns offered to pre-school children. "Part-time" can mean anything from two and a half hours to four hours. In the statutory sector, some classes and schools compete unfairly with other settings that offer longer times. In the statutory sector, we are confined to two and a half hours, while other sectors can offer three or four hours. Obviously, many parents still regard pre-school education as a childminding facility and will opt for what they perceive as better value - three or four hours as opposed to two and a half hours.


"Full-time" can mean anything from five hours, in the statutory sector, to a session lasting from 9·00 am to 5·00 pm, in the private sector. Provision must therefore be standardised across the different settings so that "part-time" and "full-time" mean the same everywhere, thus making every setting equal in what it can offer.


I shall now address the concerns of nursery principals. We are worried about the number of twoyear-olds being admitted to nursery classes and schools. That has happened because of the pre-school education expansion programme and because the legislation has rendered it possible. Nursery schools and classes in areas with overprovision have to admit two-year-olds to meet their enrolment numbers. Open enrolment is the parents' choice; therefore they can submit multiple applications to various settings. Many schools and classes do not know in advance the number of children who will turn up at the beginning of September, because not all parents inform schools if they have, for example, changed their mind or taken a better offer elsewhere. That causes great problems in the statutory sector.


The burden of administering open enrolment places schools under great strain. Dealing with applications and parents from early January until the end of June, and beyond, disrupts our day considerably. That problem needs to be addressed.


Late applications are those that are received after the official closing date. However, they are considered along with those that are received on time, so, effectively, there is no closing date. Some parents and teachers regard that as unfair.


There is a problem with accepting statemented children, that is to say, those who have been identified as having a special educational need. They apply to pre-schools in the same way as any other child does. There is no limit to the number of statemented children who can apply to a school. Before the pre-school education expansion programme was introduced there was a maximum of two statemented children to each class, so the numbers were manageable. However, now, any number of children with special educational needs can apply to one school. Statemented children can bring the numbers over the ideal 26 children in a class. Within the Southern Education and Library Board, schools have found themselves with up to 30 children in each class, with two adults and a special needs assistant, which can result in an administrative nightmare. Nursery principals need a limit on the number of children with special educational needs that are admitted to pre-school settings because a large number fundamentally changes the ethos of the school and class.


Mrs Devlin: Mrs McNeice will outline primary school provision for four-and five-year-olds.


Mrs McNeice: I am a primary school principal, and children aged four, five and six years old are catered for in the first two years of formal education in primary school. It is evident that good pre-school experiences have a positive effect on children entering primary school. I emphasis the word "good" as there is a wide range of pre-school settings and a wide range of pre-school training for staff who work in those settings. That results in a varying standard of the experiences of young children who attend pre-school and then enter primary 1. From the primary school perspective, good pre-school experiences lead to children with positive, healthy attitudes, a remarkable confidence that makes them feel ready to embark on their life, and a readiness to learn. I re-emphasise that that happens when a child has had a good pre-school experience.


Funding must be made available to both the voluntary and statutory sectors to ensure that there is uniform quality of provision. At present, there is no uniformity of provision, and the process does not flow as well as it should. At present, in primary schools, some children are taught in a reception class. It is not a feasible policy to teach reception children in a composite primary 1 or primary 2 class, or, in some rural areas, primary 3 also. It is difficult for teachers to offer the pre-school curriculum alongside the more formal statutory Northern Ireland curriculum for primary 1 and primary 2.


This meeting is timely, given the curriculum review and the proposals that pre-school, year 1 and year 2 should constitute a foundation stage. We want to achieve that ideal, but funding is needed for that.


Primary schools need funding; first, to ensure that parents are well informed of their children's progress. We need parents' support from the beginning as intervention and support for children in the early years is crucial. When children reach primary 4 or primary 5 it is often too late. We need funding to train and retrain primary 1 and primary 2 teachers, who will be working differently in the proposed foundation stage. We need funds to train and to provide ongoing professional development for classroom assistants, who have played a vital role in children's learning and will continue to do so. We need major funding to resource equipment.


I look forward to closer relationships, as proposed in the curriculum review, with pre-schools. I hope that there will be more than just a paper exercise between pre-schools and primary schools. Time and training are needed to strengthen primary schools' relationships, not only with pre-schools, playgroup leaders and nursery school principals, but with parents. Needs vary greatly between rural and urban areas; however, I would like an initiative that involves and informs all parents, everywhere. Parents must be involved in their children's schooling as early as possible. To wait until the 11-plus is to leave it too late.


Good programmes are being run, including DELTA, which we have run successfully in a rural area. We need to recognise the positive effects of the year 1 enrichment programme, which Mrs Devlin will outline.


Mrs Devlin: The enriched curriculum aims to provide young children with an enriched learning environment and learning and teaching programme based on all our evidence, into which we can tap. It seeks to create less formal teaching strategies for year 1 children, which, I hope, will allow a smoother transition from pre-school to primary school. Teachers will have to undergo an intensive training programme, as they will need to change their thinking about how young children learn - that will be costly. Extra resources are needed, because young children need to work with much more practical equipment.


It is important that we get parents on board and that they understand what is happening. Classroom assistants are crucial to the success of the primary 1 enrichment programme, so it is vital that teachers have their support. The enrichment programme will not stop at primary 1; it will continue in primary 2, so teachers at that level will also have to be trained. Year 3 and 4 teachers will also need to change some of their training approaches. The project, therefore, has huge implications; in fact, it would be inaccurate to describe it as a "project"; it is a way of educating young children.


To date, the outcome of the project is that children are more confident and independent; teachers feel better informed about how pupils learn; and there is improved conceptual learning, with concepts embedded at an earlier stage so that children are ready to undergo formal learning later. There are improved strategies for reading, improved oral language development and improved independent writing at an early stage.


Ms Fitzpatrick: I will consider some of the models of best practice, in Northern Ireland and internationally, and assess their impact on overcoming social disadvantage and promoting social inclusion and good education for children.


In Northern Ireland, and across the Southern Education and Library Board (SELB) area, many examples of good practice already operate in nursery schools, nursery units and the voluntary and independent sectors. As my colleagues said, the key elements in high-quality practice in early years learning are a play-based curriculum for young children, focus on the process as opposed to the product of learning, and a consistent approach to the training and ongoing professional development of everyone working in the early years sector. Our approach is to highlight the need for consistency in training and professional development.


The Southern Board has been informed by international good practice. Representatives from the board visited Reggio Emilia, in northern Italy, a couple of years ago. The approach taken there to early years care and education is perhaps best known for its focus on unlocking creativity in young children. That creativity is then carried throughout school and into the workplace. We could learn from many aspects of the Reggio Emilia approach. Indeed, many settings across the SELB and across Northern Ireland are examining the dialogue with Reggio Emilia.


The Southern Board also has a partnership between the voluntary, statutory and independent sectors. The health and education sectors are collaborating to implement the High/Scope approach, which was developed in the United States in the 1960s, as part of the Headstart programme to combat social disadvantage. It has been longitudinally researched over a 40-year period. The washout that can happen with other pre-school programmes, whose benefits are lost by the time children start school, does not occur with High/Scope.


High/Scope's benefits appear to be maintained throughout a child's educational life and into adulthood. The research suggests that children who have experienced that type of approach, where the child and the adult are engaged as active learners and problem-solvers, do better academically and economically, are less likely to be involved in criminal activities and are more likely to have long-term positive social relationships.


We also referred to the Shankill project, the effective early learning project, and the primary 1 enriched curriculum. All those approaches focus very much on an informal, play-based experience for children, who are active agents in their own learning. For best practice, we encourage the Committee to support a foundation stage for children aged three to six, with a more play-based curriculum.


We wish to discuss the admission age of children to primary school in Northern Ireland. Across Europe, and internationally, in the countries that do best economically, the formal age for starting school ranges from six to seven. Children aged three to six receive play-based, pre-school provision, with an emphasis on their disposition to learning and skills such as adaptability and creativity. Such an approach can help to tackle disadvantage. The Committee must consider how SureStart's focus on positive outcomes for parents and nought- to three-year-olds can be linked to provision for three- to six-year-olds, especially in the light of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety's emphasis on SureStart initiatives for nought- to three-year-olds. The legislation must be changed immediately.


There is inconsistency in the age at which Northern Ireland children start pre-school or nursery school. We should welcome a change whereby all three-year-olds would have the opportunity to have one or two years of pre-school education. We also urge the Committee to consider the importance of parental support, education and information as regards pre-school education. My colleagues have already cited the DELTA programme for parents of pre-school children, which has been adapted across the Southern Education and Library Board in collaboration with colleagues in the Southern Health and Social Services Board. It has brought about a marked improvement in the involvement of parents in their children's learning and development.


We would welcome consistency in the regulation of pre-school provision. The staffing ratio in the voluntary and independent sector is one adult for every eight children, while in the statutory sector the figure is one adult for every 13 children. We would prefer a ratio of one to eight. There must be a common curriculum for all pre-school providers, and we welcome the Department of Education's pre-school curriculum, which applies to all sectors. However, we feel that it could be extended to other forms of provision, including after- school facilities and full day-care. In brief, we hope that the Committee, in its inquiry, will listen to the lessons provided by research into play process and the involvement of parents.


Mrs Devlin: I hope that all our recommendations for improvement have been clear. I should like to summarise them under four headings: communication, training, policy and strategic planning for early years. Better communication is needed between primary and pre-schools. We should like to see a much smoother transition from pre-school to year 1, so that children do not get a shock when they arrive at the "big school". We must inform society's perception of early years education. We must move away from the widely held notion that we, in the early years sector, are mere childminders. We must inform society that crucial learning takes place between the years of nought and six and that parental involvement at that stage is crucial.


Training establishments should also work in much closer partnership with providers, practitioners and advisers in early years education. We work very close to young children in the community, but training establishments might not work as close to children as we would like. All teachers need further training in how young children learn. They must go right back to examine the fundamentals of early years learning. We must take cognisance of the research. Writers such as Guy Claxton have stressed the importance of "learnacy". "Knowing what to do when you do not know what to do" is much more important than learning a list of words and trying to memorise them for your reading in school the next day. If we could embed those skills, they might be a much more important part of early years development. Classroom assistants must also receive ongoing professional development. It is not good enough that teachers continue with their professional development and leave classroom assistants behind. They must move together, because, like teachers, they are able people who work in the classroom with children.


Mrs McClure spoke about the need to reduce the adult-to-child ratio in the nursery to one to eight. We would like to place more emphasis on the planning and design of buildings for young children. Under the pre- school education expansion programme, many new nurseries have been built in the Southern Board area. I would like to have seen much more creativity going into the planning and design of those buildings at the outset. Mark Dudek, an architect who plans and designs spaces for young children, is coming to Belfast next week to speak to the Northern Ireland Pre-School Playgroups Association (NIPPA). We should have been engaged in that type of collaboration and dialogue from the beginning, and we should consider that requirement in the future. The learning environment is crucial for young children.


We must review the policy for admitting statemented children to the nursery when the number of children enrolled is already at 26. We would like to see a less formal curriculum for three- to six-year-olds at school, and primary 1 children should be at least five years old, instead of four, on or before 1 July. That would make a huge difference. The foundation stage is a move towards that situation, but it still takes place within the primary school building. If we moved out of the primary school and into a less formal pre-school setting, teachers could manage the change better.


As part of our strategic plan, we would like to see a complete review of early years provision in the areas of health, care and education. The current review in the education sector is timely. We must address the tension between target setting, end of Key Stage assessment, transfer, and a less formal early years curriculum, which we are trying to promote. We feel that the Burns Report and the curriculum review should go hand in hand.


We must view early years as nought- to six-year- olds, as opposed to three- to six-year-olds. Children start to learn from the day on which they are born, and we must take cognisance of that.


We would like to see a much stronger partnership between the voluntary and statutory sector. A great deal of work has been done, but it must be strengthened further. Sufficient public funding must be made available to ensure that our organisations move forward at an appropriate pace and achieve the desired quality.


Our dream would be the creation of an early years service at departmental level - one that would co-ordinate care, health and education for today's children, who are our future.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation. Members will now ask questions, but due to time considerations I must limit them initially to one question each.


The presentation raised questions about the quality of after-school day-care clubs. What is the basis for your concern?


Ms Fitzpatrick: We welcome the development of a common pre-school curriculum between the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Education. That common standard of approach does not exist for after-school provision. Some services are not registered; others are in the youth sector or are registered as health and social services provision. Many four- to six-year-olds go to after-school facilities after their day of formal education. I would welcome a similar approach for the pre-school sector.


Mr Hamilton: Mrs McClure mentioned the high number of children with statemented needs. She said that the numbers of those children must be limited because their presence at a school changes its ethos. How can the requirements of children with special needs be better met?


Mrs McClure: Their needs must be assessed. Some children do not benefit from being in the school setting because their needs are so specialised. They would need to be educated in the special education sector, where they can receive specialist provision. The presence of numerous children with special education needs in a class benefits neither those children nor the rest of the class, especially if there is a tremendous imbalance. The requirements of children with special needs must be examined and more provision made for them in the special education sector.


Mr S Wilson: You referred to the differences between the statutory, voluntary and private sectors, which were mentioned in many of the Committee's discussions. There is a tension between the sectors, but I would expect you to defend your sector. You recommended that the pre-school sector should have a staff-to-pupil ratio of 1:8. That translates to a 62·5% increase in nursery school staff. Do you know how much the staff bill for that increase would be?


You also mentioned the need to standardise hours. For many parents, pre-school provision not only prepares their children for school, but improves their social interaction ability. Some parents require the flexibility of 9.00 am to 5.00 pm pre-school care to fit in with their employment arrangements. Is it realistic to try to make that uniform provision, especially given that one of the objectives of pre-school education is to enable parents to go to work if they wish? A two- and-a-half-hour or four-hour period of pre-school care is not acceptable for some parents. The flexibility of the system should serve the needs of society as well as providing for children.


Mrs McClure: I agree. Nursery schools provide two and a half hours of good quality education, as do other facilities. However, some settings offer three hours or four hours, and parents will send their children to those, because they provide more hours of care. Therefore nursery schools are not being filled.


Ms Fitzpatrick: There is an interesting tension between the sectors. Even though I am the chairperson of the pre-school education expansion advisory group (PEAG), I am from the voluntary sector, which creates interesting debates at times. However, pre-school provision is inconsistent, whether it be made by the voluntary, independent or private sector. Part-time provision should be the same across all sectors, and each should receive equal funding. Part-time provision in the statutory sector means two and a half hours, and in the voluntary sector it means four hours. Full-time provision in the statutory sector means five hours, and in the voluntary and private sector it means eight hours or more. We need some consistency.


As regards the ratio, the adoption of traditional models, that is to say, a requirement that all teachers in nursery schools be trained, would have a tremendous financial impact. However, many of our models, and those in Europe, comprise a mix of provision. The leader or principal is highly trained and responsible for the team, and the other staff are trained but perhaps not to teacher level. That team approach would be less costly than providing a full body of professional staff. It is happening in the voluntary sector, and it is cost effective.


Mr S Wilson: Do you think that teachers' unions in Northern Ireland would buy that?


Ms Fitzpatrick: They may not buy it, but that is the challenge, if we want to be creative.


Mr McHugh: You are very welcome to the Committee. I would like to mention good pre-school experience, professional training and common standards. My son had a bad experience in pre-school, because at the age of three he learned to tell the time, and, as a result, he stayed in bed until the time to leave had passed. Then we worried about how he would react to primary school, but his experience there had the opposite effect, and my son refused to miss a day of school. There was a massive difference, but he went to primary school aged four and a half years. How do we achieve commonality of standards and training across the board? I worry that it does not exist.


As regards introducing the Reggio Emilia approach, a different ethos and culture exist in Northern Ireland, where a disciplinary approach is taken to learning, even at an early age. How does one progress in a definite, rather than haphazard, way?


Mrs Devlin: With regard to common standards, in the voluntary and statutory sector the Department of Education carries out inspections that are designed to give quality assurance. That works well, and we are pleased with the system. As a result, standards in the pre-school have increased tremendously. The common curriculum and pre-school guidance material used by the voluntary and statutory sector have resulted in tremendous progress in the past three or four years, and we are delighted with that.


The Reggio Emilia system is unique to the Italian culture, and we try hard to consider its positive elements and learn what we can from the approach. We can learn a great deal from them, and we can adopt some approaches and adapt them to suit our provision in Northern Ireland. Schools that have used aspects of that approach have made tremendous gains. The Reggio debate about how young children learn is spreading and we hope it continues to do so.


Mr Gibson: Thank you for you excellent, worthwhile presentation. I have some concerns. We have inherited a 20% failure rate, which pervades primary and secondary education. Where is the empirical evidence to indicate that any specific type of pre-school provision would remedy the problem? At present, we are throwing millions of pounds into education programmes in order to rectify an inherited problem by trying to reform and revamp the system. Where is the evidence that any of the provision that is being considered will remedy the problem?


The Chairperson: That is a corker of a question. I would love to hear the answer to that.


Ms Fitzpatrick: Several empirical research studies have been published recently on what makes effective pre-school provision and what has a lasting impact. Guy Claxton says that the education system in Northern Ireland serves only 30% of children well, and that it does not serve the remaining 70% of children so well. The High/Scope research that I mentioned earlier is the result of a 40-year study. Recently, a 13-nation comparative study was carried out to establish how to make a successful intervention that will have a lasting impact on children as they go into adulthood. The process- and play-based curriculums, combined with good staff training, work best.


Mr Gibson: I wish to add a word of caution about process- and play-based curriculums. They have been tried and they have failed, yet you say that they have succeeded.


Mrs McNeice: Mr McHugh's wee boy was not very happy about going to pre-school, but when he went to primary school he was content. That was probably because he was more ready. What worries me about the present primary school system is that children, especially boys, enter the system at barely four years of age. No matter how hard I try, they feel a failure at the age of four, because, for example, they cannot write the figure three properly. Even though no one tells them that they have got it wrong, they know that it is wrong and that they are not good at something. If that feeling prevails at the age of four, it will do so at the age of five and six, and will still be there at the age of 16, no matter how hard the teacher works to eliminate it. If children do not have positive experiences, and if they do not develop a positive, healthy attitude, their mindset will be very hard to turn around.


Mr Gallagher: I apologise for my late arrival and for the fact that my mobile phone rang. It is now definitely switched off.


Mrs Devlin talked about the enriched curriculum at primary 1 and the need for that to be well resourced. I imagine that that is very important. She also mentioned the need for classroom assistants. I would have thought that classroom assistants would be well established in all primary 1 classes. Is there still a problem?


Mrs Devlin: Yes. Classroom assistants are provided for a certain number of hours, depending on the number of children in the class. For example, in a classroom with fewer than 20 children, the classroom assistant will be there for only 10 hours a week. In such a case, the assistant will be in the class for only two hours a day, so the teacher will have to organise her programme according to the needs of the children and the support that she has available to her. The primary 1 enriched programme does not stop there. It continues into primary 2, where we have no classroom assistant support. We have 30-plus children in our primary 2 classes, even though the recommended number is fewer than 30. There are still some classes in which one teacher must struggle to cope with up to 34 infants. It is simply not acceptable. We must get more support for those classes.


The Chairperson: Thank you for answering our questions. Other questions may arise, and the Committee may contact you to answer those. On behalf of the Committee, I thank you for your presentation and invite you to hear the remaining presentations.


Thursday 13 June 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mr Gallagher

Mr Gibson

Mr Hamilton

Mr McHugh


Mr Louis Boyle ) Craigavon and Banbridge
Ms Ruth Briggs ) Community Health and
Ms Geraldine Loughran ) Social Services Trust
Mr Dermot Slevin


The Chairperson: The Committee welcomes the Craigavon and Banbridge Community Health and Social Service Trust.


Mr Boyle: We represent the trust's early years committee. We sent the Committee a copy of our report on the article 20 review and a summary paper, on the basis of which we were invited to give evidence.


We welcome the Committee's inquiry into early years education for three- to six-year-olds. We deal with a wide age band, from 0 to 14 years, which is a large spectrum. I hope that our evidence will be relevant, even though the Committee is dealing with a narrower age band.


The early years committee comprises members from the different disciplines of the health and social services trust, the education and library board and the main voluntary organisations. Two key voluntary organisations, the Northern Ireland Childminding Association (NICMA) and the Northern Ireland Pre-school Playgroup Association (NIPPA), are also present.


The early years committee brings together various organisations, statutory and voluntary, to try to co-ordinate the planning and provision of early years services. Partnership and collaboration are key elements of the development of early years services. The early years committee, which meets about fix or six times a year, demonstrates that.


The early years committee also relates to other bodies such as the Southern Area childcare partnership and the pre-school education expansion advisory group (PEAG). In addition, a strategic panel deals with applications for PEACE II funding. The children and young persons committee, based in the Southern Board area, deals with all children's services, including planning, of which early years services are a part.


The trust has a statutory requirement to carry out what is known as an article 20 review every three years. We have just completed our second review. The review is aimed at taking stock of early years services in the area, and identifying gaps and areas for development. Audits have been carried out by NIPPA and NICMA, under the auspices of the childcare partnership. Those audits complement the trust's work on the article 20 review. There is also a childcare plan; in draft form and the PEAG plan. All those components relate to one another.


There is a good range of early years services in the Craigavon and Banbridge area, as the review shows. The services include childminding, playgroups, day nurseries, after-school and out-of-school provision and parent and toddler groups. Through the development of early listening and talking ability (DELTA) organisation, the SureStart programme has been established in the past year in Corcrain, Portadown. A wraparound project for children with disabilities also exists. Those services are all-important in providing support for children and their families.


In the article 20 review we discovered areas on which more work needed to be done. In the Craigavon area, there is a significant population of Asian, Chinese and Vietnamese people. In addition, several traveller families stay in the area regularly. We want to consider and monitor early years provision to ensure that it is accessible and relevant to those minority groups.


The area covered by the trust is rural. There is an apparent lack of provision in some rural areas near Banbridge and Portadown, which leads to transportation problems. There is also an issue as regards the fact that a good deal of the funding that some groups depend on is short term only. My colleagues will discuss some of those matters.


The trust has a statutory regulatory role in early years learning. It is responsible under the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 for registering and inspecting early years provision, primarily childminding, day care and playgroups. It seeks also to support providers, but it is not involved with direct provision - that is an important point. All early years provision, except in the education sector, is provided by voluntary organisations, private individuals and organisations, and the trust is there to support, encourage and, to the extent that it can, fund them. We fund numerous early years providers. Ms Loughran will outline the role of NIPPA.


Ms Loughran: I am the NIPPA adviser in the Craigavon and Banbridge area, and my role is to develop and maintain the quality standards of services such as parent and toddler groups, playgroups, day care and after-school clubs. More recently, nursery units have joined the organisation.


I spend most of my time supporting groups that are involved in the pre-school education expansion programme, which requires groups to purchase additional expertise, as a condition to funding. As part of that I provide practice-based support and external monthly training. The approach has been effective, especially my work with the trust to develop policies and good practice. The trust facilitates the training that I organise and, therefore, groups can avail of it free of charge.


Unfortunately, those groups are subject to a double inspection process. The Education and Training Inspectorate inspects them annually, as does the trust, under article 20. There is no system of funding provision for three-year-olds in the rest of the area's playgroups, and that is especially the case in Craigavon, where there is a high level of disadvantage. It is an enormous burden on organisations there to survive financially and, in particular, to improve the quality of their provision.


The physical environment is important, because the pre-school setting is the first environment that a child experiences outside his or her home. Pre-school environments are not always ideal, but there are major funding difficulties. Funding cocktails sustain the groups that are not involved in the pre-school education expansion programme - their finances are derived from EU funding, fees, health and social services trust grants and ongoing fundraising.


Ms Briggs: I am NICMA's development officer for the whole Southern Health and Social Services Board, so I work closely with the three trusts in that area. My role is to provide advice, support and training to registered childminders. In the Craigavon and Banbridge Trust area there are 269 registered childminders, who look after 895 children. Many children, therefore, are placed in a home setting. Sixty-six per cent of the childminders in that area are members of NICMA therefore they have insurance cover and other support.


I work closely with the trusts to provide training. The Southern Board runs pre-registration training, a basic eight-week programme that childminders complete before they are registered. On average, three training courses are organised each year in the Craigavon and Banbridge Trust, with around 15 participants on each course. At present, 38% of childminders in the trust area have received pre-registration training. It is not compulsory to undergo it, and we cannot make it a requirement; it is a recommendation only. The training is funded by the trust, and trust personnel and I deliver it. There is no external funding for that.


Funding is a big issue for childminders. They are self-employed, so they cannot tap into a good deal of funding. A childminder who looks after three children full time earns on average £6 per hour, so she would find it difficult to pay for courses. We are working closely with the board to achieve best practice. The Committee has probably heard about the best practice report on increasing the quality of childminders' work. Women who are interested in doing NVQ courses, et cetera, can receive a bursary of £400, but they must pay the rest of the fees themselves. They cannot afford to do that, yet no funding bodies can fund them as individuals. Through NICMA and SSI (Social Services Inspectorate) funding, via the partnership, the trust has managed to get pockets of funding to train small numbers of childminders. In the Craigavon and Banbridge Health and Social Services Trust area only 29 registered childminders have NVQ training; many more would like to receive it.


First-aid training is very important for childminders, but it is too expensive for those on a small income. Until March 2001, around 11% of childminders in the Craigavon and Banbridge Trust area had first-aid training. The number has increased in the past year due to funding, though I do not have a final figure. NICMA and I would like all registered childminders to have basic first-aid training, but funding is a problem.


Mr Boyle: Mr Slevin has presented the Committee with a short paper on the issue.


Mr Slevin: I will go over the first part of the paper. As co-ordinator for the trust, I am responsible for registration and inspection. We work in partnership with NICMA and NIPPA to try to facilitate, encourage and increase early years provision, and the quality and quantity of information provided.


There are roughly 269 childminders in the area, and they offer 895 places. There are 16 day nurseries offering full-time places from early morning to late afternoon, and they offer 741 places. The 35 playgroups offer 825 places, and the 16 registered after-school clubs offer 372 places. We also try to encourage and facilitate the many other after-school clubs that offer activities rather than care, but which are not registered. There are numerous mother and toddler groups, about which we try to find out, encourage and facilitate, and help to start up.


We also aim to raise the quality of early years provision. We work in partnership with NICMA, NIPPA and others. We have annual inspection panels, at which all playgroups explain whether recommendations from the previous year have been implemented. The staff's qualifications are also examined, and the panel makes further recommendations. The quality of provision has increased since last year.


We try to facilitate NVQ training. Leaders in day nurseries and playgroups should have NVQ III, and at least 50% of other members of staff should have at least NVQ II. Most groups in the Craigavon and Banbridge area approach that level. The leaders have at least NVQ III, and we are trying to facilitate, encourage and help where we can in that regard.


We also support short courses for first-aid training, and we are working with the Southern partnership. We get money from different sources for training, and first-aid training has been facilitated for over 150 people over the past year. Assessment in action recording is important in groups; we try to record a child's progress. That approach is also connected to the PEAG initiative. The education and library boards are involved. However, we are also involved in that and in the planning and evaluation of groups.


I am involved in the partnership's training and quality sub-group. The group examines training needs and tries to facilitate, encourage and offer support to people. There is one SureStart programme in our area, in Corcrain, Portadown. It is an intensive childcare dynamic in a geographical area where every family is offered a service. I am on the SureStart committee also, and we try to facilitate, encourage and help those people.


The remainder of the written submission contains points that are specific to the areas in the terms of reference, which can be read at your convenience.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation. Although our time is limited, I invite members to ask questions. Ms Loughran, you seemed to be critical of the fact that two inspections are carried out. Will you expand on that?


Ms Loughran: Two inspections are unnecessary. The highest level of qualification among the playgroup leaders is NVQ III or an equivalent qualification. They find an inspection by the Department of Education worrying; they should not be put under the undue pressure of similar inspections by two different bodies.


Mr Boyle: That could be examined. The Department has a statutory responsibility to inspect, as do we, but future inspections could be carried out jointly.


Mr S Wilson: The question of raising standards and ensuring good quality has emerged in all of today's submissions, and the suggestion that quality varies was made several times. We know of the variations in our own areas, and parents tell us that they move to different areas on account of that variation.


I am a little confused. I heard that the education and library boards, trusts and health boards were responsible and that NIPPA was involved. However, each organisation has a different emphasis. How can uniform quality be ensured? Why is it necessary to have such a range of people supervising quality? Could that not be done by one body rather than by a plethora of groups?


The Chairperson: I plead for an answer. Sammy Wilson should not come to my constituency and go home confused.


Mr Boyle: We can all respond to that.


Mr Slevin: There are only two bodies: ourselves in the trust, which is the register and inspections body, and the Department of Education, with the PEAG groups. Any group connected with PEAG must be inspected by the Department of Education. Not all groups are connected with PEAG, however, and the Department of Education does not inspect those that are not. NICMA and NIPPA support those groups, but they do not carry out inspections as such. The trust is the main agent for inspections.


Mr Boyle: There are booklets and papers as guidelines for quality, and we all work to those standards. It is done supportively, and we look to NICMA and NIPPA to put further emphasis on quality.


Mr S Wilson: Yet, in their submissions, almost all witnesses in the inquiry said that quality varied.


Mr Boyle: There are various reasons for that. Much depends on staff and the buildings. If possible, there should be uniformity of curricula and provision in facilities. Some facilities, however, have more money and more staff, which is what results in variations of quality.


Ms Loughran: Variations in staff qualifications have an impact on provision for children and their parents. Communities in lower socio-economic groups do not have the same ability to raise funds as those that can be constantly asked for donations to support all aspects of community involvement.


Many playgroups, for example, are run in community centres, so their organisers must pay standard council rates of £60 a week, which is almost equal to one of their employees' salaries. Playgroups that are registered with social services are required to have adult-to-child ratios of 1:8. Therefore four nursery school staff would be needed to supervise 26 children. Although that would involve reduced expenditure on salaries, there are still financial implications.


Ms Briggs: I accept Mr Wilson's point, but we all work together closely. There are different standards, and a variety of groups exist. The education and training group examines employees' qualifications in the area; the best-practice working group has published a report of objectives. We are assessing a quality baseline, but our aim is to achieve equal standards and to have self-assessment of quality by schools. The agencies, the trust and the childcare partnership are interlinked.


Mr S Wilson: Are there links between the trusts and the education and library board?


Ms Briggs: Yes, a representative from the education and library board sits on each trust's early years committee, and a representative from each trust sits on the childcare partnership boards. Therefore we all work together, with the same aim.


Mr Boyle: Education and library boards would inspect nursery provision as part of PEAG. However, only a small proportion of the early years provision for which we are responsible falls under PEAG, which is why two forms of inspection are needed.


Mr Gallagher: Ms Briggs, you mentioned funding. Will you clarify your point about childminders' training? To what did the figure £400 relate?


Ms Briggs: The Department of Employment and Learning grants a bursary of only £400 to NVQ students. If a childminder wished to complete an NVQ, she could avail of that bursary, but she would have to finance the remaining fees - around £700 - from her own pocket. That is a high cost for someone who earns the minimum wage.


Mr McHugh: That was a very good presentation, which provoked a good deal of thought for the purposes of the Committee's inquiry.


After-school clubs are sometimes used as a childminding facility. Does such provision have a positive or negative impact? How well are after-school clubs monitored?


Mr Slevin: After-school clubs that offer activities only are not registered, unlike those that offer care. They are a positive element, which we want to expand. Funding for the expansion of out-of-school clubs is available through the new opportunities fund. A new opportunities worker is employed in the Craigavon and Banbridge to contact people who want to become involved in after-school clubs. In that area there are more private after-school clubs than community-based ones, a type of provision that we are trying to increase. We have identified community-based after-school clubs as an area on which to focus. After-school clubs that offer care for less than 2 hours per day do not need to be registered.


Mr McHugh: The Committee has learnt from all the evidence that it has heard during the inquiry that there is a good deal of room for slippage in pre-school provision. Employees may have NVQ qualifications, but their approaches could differ. In some instances, where PEAG and paid pupils are in the same building, the PEAG places are filled before the others. As a result, parents become upset and keep their children at home. Ultimately, the Committee must bear in mind that 25% of pupils leave school with significant literacy and numeracy problems. All those details are vital in trying to lower the incidence of those problems. I hope that the inspectors will be able to tap into that approach and regard all those factors as a problem that they must resolve.


Ms Loughran: In the terms of reference, we were dealing with children aged three to six. In our area, we have had a couple of projects aimed at parent support, which we hope will address underachievement in the longer term. EU funding was provided for Banbridge, where we provided a composite package to new parents. That was issued by health visitors on their first visit to parents, when their babies were six-weeks-old. That gave parents a picture of what was happening in our area, the support organisations that existed, the names and telephone numbers of all social workers, the provision that they could avail of, the cost, et cetera. The evaluation of that support was phenomenal; however, we do not have sufficient funding to progress such initiatives.


Ruth Briggs and I ran a parent-toddler day - something basic - because through the other initiatives across, for example, the Eastern Board, we heard that it was difficult to engage parents, particularly young, single parents. We ran a "facts and fun" day; we had such a large response that we could have accommodated 300 people. There are ways to engage parents. We are considering the nought- to three-year-old bracket, but we are not focusing on that provision today.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation and your answers. You obviously play an important role, and we thank you for that.


Thursday 13 June 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mr Gallagher

Mr Gibson

Mr Hamilton

Mr McHugh


Ms Stella Cunningham ) Southern Area Childcare
Dr Brid Farrell Partnership


The Chairperson: We are pleased to welcome Ms Stella Cunningham, co-ordinator of the Childcare Partnership, and Dr Brid Farrell, a consultant in public health medicine, who represents the Southern Health and Social Services Board. We look forward to your presentation, as well as the opportunity to ask questions.


Ms Cunningham: Thank you for inviting us; we are glad to have the opportunity to make our presentation. We wanted representatives of both fields to attend, because this is a joint presentation that demonstrates the close links between the childcare partnership, the board and the many other organisations that are involved with the partnership.


We will summarise some key points that arise from our written submission. However, Dr Farrell will also outline links between health and education. She will reinforce our point that you cannot view a child's education as being in a vacuum; it is linked to many other factors. Health and other social determinants are important in the delivery of effective early years education.


A holistic approach is needed in early years learning. The child must be viewed in the context of the family and community, because it is impossible to consider early years learning in a vacuum. We argue that early years learning begins at birth, and probably before that. One must look at the educational experiences of a child's parents and the confidence, or otherwise, that those experiences have given them. That will affect how parents help their child to access opportunities, as well as influencing the many attitudes and opinions that they pass on to their child.


As a result of that, we should like to emphasise the role of SureStart in tackling all kinds of disadvantage, not merely health and social, but educational. SureStart is a Government flagship initiative that is intended to integrate the social, cultural and financial aspects of education. It aims to initiate joined-up working practices between organisations that offer family support services and the parents of young children. That involves a good deal of learning, not only about how we deliver health and social services, but also about how education, particularly early learning, can be taught.


An integrated approach is necessary to smooth a child's path in his or her early learning years, making the stages seamless. The child should be able to flow through those stages, without having to jump from playgroup to nursery school to primary school. All those learning experiences should be part of a child's community and should constitute a natural progression for the child and his or her family.


We also argue that there are plenty of existing models of excellence. We know what works, but we must make sense of that and decide how we will use our knowledge to develop the services that we provide for children.


Equality of access and standards is important also. Many barriers remain that prevent children from accessing good early learning experiences. Those obstacles can be physical, social, cultural, or financial. Disabled children still have problems accessing mainstream services, while children in rural areas perhaps have limited access to services. Even in urban areas barriers prevent children from accessing good quality early learning services, such as child support and finance. We must do our utmost to get rid of those.


We would also argue that there should be common standards of provision so that children at playgroups get the same resources and standards as those in nursery schools. We welcome the common standards approach that the Social Services Inspectorate and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment are developing.


Our last key point is the need for the sustainability of all settings. The statutory sector tends to have very stable, well-funded settings, whereas the voluntary sector is much more vulnerable. The voluntary sector offers valid early-learning experience; for many disadvantaged parents it is a much more accessible and less threatening opportunity for early years learning.


The childcare partnership is concerned that the ending of the PEACE funding will leave many voluntary sector providers - the groups that often serve very disadvantaged areas - without any means of sustainability. We strongly emphasise the need for a strategy, and the funding of initiatives such as the pre-school education advisory group (PEAG), so that we can provide good early learning opportunities for everyone, particularly disadvantaged children.


I want to talk about the promotion of excellence in the Southern Education and Library Board area. Any early learning experience should be good quality. There are two elements to this: working together and the delivery of quality. Working together means close links between the PEAGs, the childcare partnership and the community. Those links exist in this region and are crucial to delivering the type of early learning services that families need. We have integrated planning so that we can identify gaps and quality in all settings.


Evidence-based practice should be focused on. We know what works. We need to spread the knowledge and help providers to make the most of that knowledge. Needs-led assessment is important. We must base our decision-making processes on the needs of communities. In our area we have carried out a good deal of information mapping of provision; we have talked to communities about what works and what is needed. Progress has to start with the identification of the community's needs, followed by decisions on what can be done to meet them.


Quality is crucial to parents, children and society. Only a quality early learning experience can help our children to make the most of their talents. In our area, we have effective local models of practice. DELTA, an organisation aimed at developing early learning and thinking ability, was piloted jointly by the Southern Education and Library Board and the Southern Health and Social Services Board. It offers a range of family learning programmes that parents can use to help their children to make the most of learning opportunities.


We have culture-specific services such as playgroups for traveller children and after-school clubs for Vietnamese children. Through the childcare partnership, one of our local traveller groups piloted a summer school for traveller children. There are many examples of what will work for specific groups in our community.


We do not want only services based on one culture. Children from ethnic minority cultures should be able to access mainstream education. In our area we have a range of projects offering internationally recognised models such as High/Scope and effective early learning. The Southern area childcare partnership promotes best practice among our voluntary sector providers. We have produced a guide about the indicators of quality in early learning situations. We have a training and education sub-committee that offers various training opportunities to childcare providers.


Dr Farrell: You may wonder why we should consider health at this early stage in development. It is important that in any strategy to reduce inequalities, attention must be paid to - and investment focused on - early years provision. Such a strategy is crucial to reduce health inequalities. Those interventions need health and social care input; they need a community development approach and input by agencies in the statutory, voluntary and community sectors. That will enable us to target initiatives to help disadvantaged communities.


Health issues that can be addressed by high-quality early years provision include immunisation uptake rates and the prevention of childhood accidents - more children in disadvantaged areas die from accidents than do in affluent areas. We must increase the number of mothers who breastfeed and the number of months for which they do it. We need to reduce instances of low birth weight, which has an adverse impact on life expectancy and can cause ill health in later life. We need to reduce dental decay, and we must consider the health issues that affect teenage mothers.


The health of teenage mothers and their babies improves as a result of access to support services. They need educational opportunities and access to high-quality pre-school education. Often, their own experience limits their willingness to participate in pre-school opportunities, and evidence shows that the children of teenage mothers are more likely to become teenage parents. Therefore we must find ways to break that cycle.


Low birth weight is a significant problem that can be addressed by high-quality early years provision. It is associated with smoking in pregnancy, which is more common in disadvantaged communities, and with maternal malnutrition and the early development of coronary heart disease. It is predominantly an issue for lower social classes and disadvantaged communities.


I have included a description of the health of a particularly vulnerable group: looked-after children - children who are in residential or foster care. The Southern Health and Social Services Board examined the child health records of children who are in care and compared them with those for other children. The board found evidence of many of the issues shown in relevant literature. Records of the infant feeding practices of the children showed that none of them had been breastfed. Twice as many of the parents of children in care smoked, compared to other children's parents, and their immunisation uptake rates were lower.


Therefore, often children born to the most vulnerable groups in society do not take advantage of the health messages or adopt healthy lifestyles, because it is too difficult for them to do so. We need high- quality early years provision so that vulnerable parents of young children can take full advantage of the information and educational opportunities.


Early education and play facilities are central to the reduction of health inequalities. We need outreach services and advice and support for disadvantaged parents, especially in aspects such as infant feeding. Our strategies must address various factors, not just access to health and social care. We need effective partnerships in communities and we must make initiatives such as SureStart more widely available so that a greater number and range of families can benefit from them.


Ms Cunningham: The recommendations in our submission show that a broad range of provision and close links between community and statutory provision are needed to ensure that the move from playgroup to school is fluid and that children do not move from one culture to another. It would be useful to carry out value-for-money comparisons, considering cost, quality and the best outcomes for the child, to demonstrate the value of the provision and to identify the needs and costs of early learning. Effective use of children's education would represent value for money. We need an integrated model of education, based on good practice and research so that we make the best use of resources, qualified staff and buildings in communities to ensure that early learning and schools are part of local communities and that children have a sense that their learning is part of everyday life. Learning should not be regarded as something that happens only during certain hours at school.


New TSN has helped us to target resources at special needs children, including those with a disability or with a disadvantaged background. We must be realistic: if we want to ensure that all children get the best start in life, we must acknowledge that there will be resource implications for some children. In the Southern Board area, children with special needs accessing PEAG places in the voluntary sector were unable to call down the same resources as children in the statutory sector. Such inequality must be addressed.


There must be a strategic approach to training and sharing good practice. We want to develop good working relationships across all the sectors, and there must be sharing of information, transference of skills, and opportunities for joint training and working initiatives. We hope that those recommendations would help us to make the most of our early learning services so that they could provide a valuable experience for children.


Thank you for the opportunity to make a presentation. We are more than happy to contribute to this important process and wish you well with your inquiry.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation. I now invite Committee members to ask questions.


Early education is essential because of the range of problems outlined. At what age would you recommend that a child's education should begin?


Dr Farrell: Ideally, the best time to start would be before a child is born, by tackling the health of pregnant mothers, and as soon as possible after birth. The target population is the pre-school age group.


Mr S Wilson: The education of youngsters is not the sole responsibility of schools or pre-school playgroups; it is the responsibility of parents also. You mentioned parenting programmes targeted at the most socially disadvantaged families. The Southern Board talked about making parenting courses compulsory. What do your parenting courses consist of, and how do you overcome the difficulty of involving the parents who would most benefit from those courses?


Ms Cunningham: There is no specific approach to parenting programmes. In the Southern Board area we try to offer a range of approaches. SureStart is an invaluable way to reach some of the most disadvantaged communities. Strategies include parent and toddler groups and a more formal input, through parenting programmes. The DELTA programme also plays a part. It is focused on learning, and it helps to build parents' confidence. It reassures parents that they are not deficient and that they must recognise, and make the best of, their skills.


It is easier to attract more aware parents to parenting programmes. A community development approach is needed, and that involves facilitating community groups, women's groups and SureStart projects to make the most of the opportunities that they present to disadvantaged communities. Parenting programmes do not have to comprise a six-week course; they can take many forms, involving formal or informal relationships. Many SureStart projects have family support workers, for example. They often offer practical support to families and, at the same time, impart parenting advice.


Mr S Wilson: By your own assessment, how successful have you been in recruiting the parents whom you wish to target?


Ms Cunningham: The DELTA programme has been reasonably successful in targeting the most disadvantaged wards, and that was part of our agreement to fund that organisation. There has been a fairly good take-up of places, because the programme was implemented not only through schools, but community groups also. The programme has not attracted as many parents as we would like, but a good start has been made.


Mr McHugh: Your presentation gives us many new issues to think about, including health and parental input. In some socially deprived communities, where pupil attendance is lower and parents perhaps have a poor academic record, families find it more difficult to help young children. In such areas there are no newspapers in the house, nor is there an abundance of books, so families do not develop reading habits. Some prioritise cigarettes or alcohol at the weekends, rather than books, which are too expensive for people on a low income. The example set by television programmes such as 'Big Brother' and 'Coronation Street' creates problems. Children who watch such programmes may consider them as "cool", which would be a problem.


How can we ensure that parents can help their children, or at least avoid smoking during pregnancy? There is a need for parental involvement, rather than maintaining the view that early years learning is not as important as later learning. For example, the school attendance of some very young children has suffered because their parents brought them to the supermarket as a prop. Your submission presents the opposite view, which must be adopted if we are to achieve parental involvement. It is the parents - not necessarily us - who will be important.


Ms Cunningham: That is correct. There is no easy solution to involve parents; if there were, we would have adopted it by now. It is a complicated, long-term process. It is about development activities and building confidence in the skills of parents and communities.


One of our SureStart projects has a mobile toy and book library, which visits all the parent and toddler groups and parents' homes to lend them toys and books with an educational value. The service cuts out a good deal of expense. There is a catalogue and a staff member so that when a mother borrows a toy, the assistant can explain how to use it and how it can link in to the child's development.


Family support and various parenting programmes are available. For example, the Barnardo's 'Parenting Matters' programme has begun to train parents as lay trainers to help other parents. That is an important approach, because it is based on the idea that professionals do not have all the answers, and that parents and communities have many skills. It emphasises the point that there is no shame in a parent admitting that he or she feels uncertain or lacking in certain respects. There are people, peers or professionals, who can help. The aim is to give parents as many opportunities as possible to learn in their own community, without stigma or inaccessibility.


We are learning increasingly often that it is necessary to evaluate all those initiatives. The first annual evaluation of the SureStart projects in the Southern Area has just been completed, and we will be doing that every year. I hope that those processes will give us a better idea of what works for parents, especially those in disadvantaged communities.


Dr Farrell: We should not underestimate the value of support networks, especially for disadvantaged groups and young mothers. Parents who have no way of learning or sharing their experience with others in the community can feel stigmatised. In the Southern Board area the SureStart project is linking up with a project for children with a disability, which is linking up with a residential facility. We are trying to join up our services so that parents have opportunities to learn more about other services that are available. That wrap- around project is taking place at the Orana Family Centre in Newry. We are trying to make connections and to support parents so that they can gain the information that will help them to make the right choices.


Mr Gibson: There is an inherent perception that there is a high failure rate among pupils in Northern Ireland, from primary school level onwards. That may be attributable, in part, to children's health. How long would it take for a health decision to be made by your partnership and the appropriate package identified and delivered to rectify a problem? How is that carried out?


Dr Farrell: That is a good question. Using a community development approach, it is done, in part, by making contact with parents, introducing them to the system and sharing information with them in a way that is meaningful to them. For example, I mentioned poor diet and malnutrition. Food co-operatives and cookery classes - teaching parents how to prepare food and to avoid fast food and convenience foods - could be offered, for example.


It will take some time to make the connections and introduce people to the system. A project such as SureStart is an ideal setting to undertake that kind of initiative. Most disadvantaged people are not alone; they meet people with similar difficulties. The process can take weeks or months, or perhaps longer. However, an umbrella project such as SureStart makes it much easier to tackle issues such as diet during pregnancy and in the early years.


The Chairperson: Thank you very much. That completes the session; the Committee thanks you sincerely for your presentation. We invite you to remain to hear the final presentation and to join us for lunch.


Thursday 27 June 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mrs E Bell

Mr Gallagher

Mr Gibson

Mr McElduff

Mr McHugh


Mr J Martin ) Western Education and Library
Mr P Mackey ) Board and the
Mrs N Heaney ) WELB Pre-School Education
Miss S O'Hanlon ) Advisory Group (PEAG)
Miss J Boyd )


The Chairperson: Good morning and welcome to the public session of the Committee for Education. I am pleased to welcome you to Enniskillen library where the Committee has come to take evidence for our inquiry into early years learning. I wish to thank the library staff and the Western Education and Library Board staff who have assisted with the arrangements for us to attend today. I also welcome the representatives and groups that are here to play their part in this important inquiry. Members of the public will have an opportunity to express their views at the end of the formal evidence session. We shall then have lunch, and we hope that the local council representatives will join us. The Committee is grateful to Macmillan Media for providing the backdrop, which gives details of the contact points for the Committee and the work in which it is engaged.


I welcome the representatives from the Western Education and Library Board and the board's pre-school education advisory group (PEAG). The Committee welcomes Mr Joseph Martin, the chief executive of the Western Board; Mr Paddy Mackey, the senior adviser; Nuala Heaney, the early years adviser; Miss Siobhan O'Hanlon from PEAG; and Miss Jenny Boyd, the principal of Enniskillen Nursery School. We look forward to your comments and the opportunity for the Committee to ask questions.


Mr Martin: We are delighted that the Committee has come to Enniskillen to take evidence; we are happy to help it in every way that we can. Our display shows that our two key strategic objectives are excellence in raising standards and effective partnerships. We feel that early years learning contributes significantly to excellence and raising standards. An important element in our work, especially since the establishment of PEAG, is our engagement in meaningful partnerships with the health and social services boards and trusts, and with the voluntary and private sectors. We have developed close working relationships, through the pre-school education expansion programme, which have greatly enhanced the quality and quantity of early years education in the past few years.


The presentation will address the seven elements that the Committee listed in its terms of reference. Mr Mackey will speak about the first three; Mrs Heaney will speak about the next three; and Mr Mackey will outline the final element.


Mr Mackey: The first three elements identified in the terms of reference are: the current provision for three- to six-year-olds; existing policies for early learning; and models of best practice. In the Western Education Library Board, the pre-school education expansion programme is the key factor in the provision of education for almost 92% of children in their pre-school year. The programme, which began in 1998, has been a significant development in the provision of pre-school education. Since 1998, the Western Board has provided approximately 1,300 additional pre-school places, which is, as Mr Martin said, a significant amount of additional provision. It has also played a significant role in the partnerships that were formed as a result of the programme. Provision for five- to six-year olds comes from the statutory sector in years 1 and 2 in primary schools.


We have identified three key policies for pre-school development. First, there is 'Investing in Early Learning', which is the policy document that was published for the roll-out of the pre-school education expansion programme. Secondly, there is the common pre-school curriculum, which is used by the voluntary and statutory sectors, and was published by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA). We feel that the common curriculum is significant because it provides us with a focus, which makes the provision of training much easier. Thirdly, the inspection policy means that the Department of Education's inspectorate monitors providers in the voluntary and statutory sectors. Again, the common approach is beneficial to ensuring a coherent, consistent programme for pre-school provision.


There are two key policies in years 1 and 2. The first is the implementation of the Northern Ireland programmes of study, which are currently under review. The Western Board is involved in the pilots for the foundation stage curriculum, which looks at the early years curriculum. That should bring significant developments in early years curriculum provision. The second is the Making A Good Start initiative, which resulted from considering the implementation of the programmes of study. That initiative provided classroom assistants in year 1; it is also significant in providing quality services for that particular age group.


The third area concerns models of best practice. I have identified what I consider to be six significant areas in which the Western Education and Library Board promotes good practice. There are many examples of good practice in our centres. I have focused on programmes promoted by the board in general, not on individual establishments.


The programme for community nursery units, which is unique to the Western Board, forms part of the pre-school education expansion programme. There are nine units across the Western Board where there is statutory sector provision for cross-community units. The programme was established because certain areas had insufficient numbers of pupils to offer provision across all sectors. Within the statutory framework, it was agreed to consider a form of community approach. Community guidelines were drawn up, which the Department of Education endorsed, and nine such nurseries now operate in the board area.


The effective early learning (EEL) training project is up and running in schools and promotes self-evaluation in the early years sector. The board has been involved in that programme for several years. Most centres that operate the programme, which involves a form of accreditation, approve of it.


Early intervention is also significant in best practice. I have identified two areas within that; one is speech and language. Several years ago, an innovative programme was established where the Western Board, in collaboration with health and social services, appointed several speech therapists to work directly with schools and the board's curriculum services teams. That programme has been successful and is now funded by the Department of Education in other boards. Both the partnership element and the actual outcomes of the programme are very strong.


Reading Recovery was also established several years ago. It is making significant developments in early years provision.


Developing early listening and talking abilities (DELTA) was initiated in the Western Board in the 1970s. It has now been revamped and several other boards use it to develop early learning provision. It is not specific to the three- to six-year-old group. It goes much further than that, involving children from birth to school age.


The significance of the parental involvement in numeracy (PIN) project is not so much in the numeracy element, but that parents are involved. That involvement has attracted funding from the business community in the Western Board.


Three health promotion programmes operate in the pre-school and early years sector: Smart Snacks, Health Promoting Schools and Class Moves.


Those are six examples of good practice. We can provide further information if it is necessary.


Mrs Heaney: I shall talk briefly about current research in early years learning. It is a massive area. I shall elaborate on the main points of areas on which the Western Board has worked.


The study of brain development has exploded. The 1990s were regarded as the age of the brain, when people really began to consider brain development and its implications, especially for early learning. It is a fact that from birth to the age of six represents a phase of massive brain development, which is crucially linked to physical development. That is demonstrable in many ways. It is a fact that the amount of brain activity in a three-year-old is three times that in a teenager's brain. It is sobering to know that a child playing with sand is learning as much, if not more, as somebody studying for his or her A levels. We must bear that in mind. There are also clear links between brain activity and the physical development of children with special educational needs. The remedial activities for those children are almost always physically-based.


Early intervention is linked to the study of brain development. Scientists categorically say that faculties such as sight, hearing and the use of language are developing until a child is seven or eight. If remedial action is necessary, it should be done as early as possible because the brain is still like a sponge at that stage and it is possible that such action will be successful.


Other countries do similar work to us, and good practice bears out the success of that work; for example, work done on parental involvement, which is mentioned as part of our DELTA programme. All studies show that home experiences have a significant impact on later achievement. It is important that parents know what an early years curriculum is about in order to prepare for when their child begins school. They also need to know how that curriculum affects their child. Many countries do that in different ways; for example, there are regular, communal debates in Italy about the form that the pre-school curriculum for early years should take. We have adopted the two-way street approach in the DELTA programme - teachers have as much to learn from parents as parents have to learn from teachers.


With regard to personal, social and emotional development, it is common sense to say that it is only when a child knows his status as a person, is settled, knows his abilities and how to operate in a group, and has all of those social and behavioural skills that he can achieve academic competence. Most other countries have focused on that. For example, in New Zealand, until the age of six, the emphasis is on developing personal and social education (PSE) skills and getting a child ready to learn, rather than adopting the ever onwards and upwards approach to learning.


Future developments should address the child's needs. Some of those are in progress but others must be expanded further. Through our revised curriculum, which, as the Committee knows, is under consideration, we are participating in the pilot of an early years enriched curriculum project that builds on existing practice and on evolving a more enriched curriculum, rather than instituting a revolution. It addresses the personal, social and emotional development of the child as well as physical and language development.


To address children's needs is significant also because it allows them to continue to learn at their own pace, rather than taking our ever onwards and upwards approach. From international studies, that approach seems to have been one of the main reasons why so many of our children experience early failure, and that sense of failure increases rather than decreases. If one looks at international studies on literacy and numeracy, there are as many high flyers in the UK as in other countries, but there are more low achievers or underachievers at the bottom end of the scale. Therefore, an early years curriculum, which is a positive approach, allows children to learn at their own pace for longer.


The Western Education and Library Board feels that age three to age six in a child's life should be a seamless stage, and we should work towards that seamless transition from pre-school to primary education. However, to a large extent our children are placed on different campuses. From the experience that we have gained from the pilot schemes, that transition can be easier than I first imagined. Teachers were sent into pre-school classes as part of the pilot schemes. They were enthusiastic about what they saw, and felt that it was something that they would want to build on in future, so that was a positive development.


The teachers were astonished by the children's confidence and self-help skills. They realised that they had not built on those in the past because they had not recognised them. They saw that area as one in which they needed continuing professional development. The teachers also mentioned the value of play. They saw how children were learning so much simply by playing in an informal setting. They highlighted the need for more training for early-years teachers in primary schools on play-based learning.


The revised curriculum would mean primary schools preparing to take in pre-school children, instead of pre-school classes preparing children for primary education, as has been the case in the past. The need for continuous professional development is important. There are implications for teachers and parents. The emphases on language development, small-group work and activity-based learning demonstrate the need for a different type of classroom organisation and management, as well as the need for another adult to be present in the room, especially for the teaching of language development. The UK already has a foundation stage, and a massive training programme for what were formerly called "classroom assistants", which was run in parallel with its development. Classroom assistants are now called "teaching assistants" to elevate their role in early years provision.


Parents will have a problem with the shift of emphasis because we have a traditional learning culture here, whereby parents consider the fact that their child has a reading book in year 1 to be progress. There is much work to be done through the media as well as through schools. If parents are kept informed, it will not be problem for most. We did not experience problems with any of the parents in the pilot schemes. Provided that they were told what was happening and were given regular reports on their children's progress, parents were satisfied.


We hope that this foundation stage will provide the skills for future learning. We have identified those as language skills, social skills, and memory and attention skills. Language skills are important because children need to be able to say what they feel and think before they are expected to read or write. After they leave school, many children will not have to put pen to paper, but they will need to be able to speak with clarity and confidence. The early years team and the speech and language therapists have been working on an intensive language programme to help year 1 teachers. We can see how many gaps there are because language has not been to the forefront in year 1 until now. Other aspects of literacy have been dealt with in more depth than oral language.


All the evidence, especially that from America, shows that early acquisition of good social skills leads to people gaining employment and becoming team leaders in the work place. American research also shows that good social skills will ensure that even children who are not especially academic will not end up committing crime.


Memory and attention skills are fundamental to formal learning, which requires children to sit down, listen and perform tasks. All types of activities, such as circle time, small-group time, music, poetry and storytelling will help children with that because they are enjoyable and children want to listen.


Mr Mackey: To sum up, we have identified 10 key issues that are being addressed either by the Western Board or by the Department of Education in collaboration with the education and library boards. Some of those issues are technical, concerning current policies or guidance. We feel that those must be addressed.


The administration of open enrolment in the pre-school sector is in difficulty. The multiple applications that parents can make are leading to a lengthy admissions process.


We now have excellent facilities as a result of the pre-school programme and the board's past efforts. The same is true of schools, although facilities could be better utilised, perhaps through full-time rather than part-time provision, as is the case in certain centres.


There is a disparity in the capital funding available for the statutory and voluntary sectors. Although we see them as equal partners in pre-school provision, there is no equality in capital provision for development in the voluntary sector.


Staff qualifications and training is a key issue for us, and we recently held a conference for all pre-school providers, both voluntary and statutory. We should like to see it developing further into accredited programmes for all staff involved in early years provision, including classroom and teaching assistants, who play an important role.


The disparity in adult/child ratios across the sector is also a cause of concern for many and should perhaps be examined.


We endeavour to promote parental involvement in all our centres. We are still not quite there, but parental partnerships must be supported in future.


It is perhaps time to re-examine the admissions criteria for pre-school provision, which were established when we had a limited number of places available and had to target certain areas that were socially deprived. We are beyond that stage now, and perhaps now is the opportunity to revisit those criteria.


The issue of continuing a reception class at some centres is causing some difficulties regarding the administration and management of the programme.


The legislation still allows two-year-olds to access pre-school places when places are available in the statutory sector; I feel it is generally accepted that two is an inappropriate age for children to attend what the programme deems a semi-formal setting.


The issue of children's special educational needs has not been fully addressed in the admissions criteria, so it must be looked at afresh in the near future.


From those key issues we have identified recommendations. We have distilled the issues and the report hitherto into four areas. First, we feel that early education should take account of research into learning. The ages of three to six should be recognised as a distinct phase with the concept of "non-statutory" being removed. We must examine continuity and progression. It is not a suggestion that we need new facilities or buildings; the transition from one to the other should be looked at in detail.


Early years workers need support. We need the resources to offer a coherent programme of in-service training to everyone involved in early years learning. If we are to achieve the shift from the type of provision that is proposed through the curriculum review to the new type, teachers will have to be supported and helped throughout that transition.


Policies for early years should take account of learning from birth. We feel that the ages of nought to six are the crucial phase in a child's development. In the Western Education and Library Board, we have DELTA and other programmes that support that age range. We should like to see some more work in that area. Services from birth should be integrated.


The Chairperson: Thank you very much. I shall open up the questioning. I should be grateful if members could indicate whether they wish to ask something. Are the CCEA proposals on the new foundation-stage curriculum appropriate?


Mrs Heaney: Yes, I do. We are in our second year of piloting them. I came from the nursery sector and knew the other side of the coin. It is an excellent way of providing what we call a "seamless" education between the ages of 3 and 6.


The Chairperson: Have you studied models of best practice, either in Northern Ireland or elsewhere? Is there anywhere else that we could learn from? What about the Swedish model?


Mrs Heaney: I have been to Penn Green in Corby, England. It is a wrap-around service that is based on best practice from around the world. It started as a playgroup, but now it has services for parents and for children up to four-years-old. It has also embarked on a SureStart programme as part of its building. It is one of the centres of excellence. We also have a good practice network in the Western Board area in Limavady. It has only been operating for a year, but it endeavours to emulate that type of practice.


The Chairperson: Here is a man who knows all about models, particularly Swedish models: Sammy Wilson.


Mr S Wilson: All the people to whom we have spoken so far, especially about the CCEA proposals, have said that they have seen some immediate effect. They have also admitted that it usually means extra resources going in, so a halo effect would be expected in the short term. You say that that system has been used in several European countries, including Germany. Only last week, a criticism of the German education system, especially from employers that said that numeracy and literacy standards had fallen significantly, appeared in several newspapers. The researchers concluded that the model at which we are now looking - the delaying of formal education and the use of play et cetera, as opposed to formal learning - has led, in the long term, to the criticisms that are now being levelled at the system. We do not even have any long-term evidence here yet.


In light of that, and of the fact that there seems to be some ambiguity and of the fact that the short- term effects might be because of the extra resources that are being pumped in, do you think that it is wise for us to rush headlong into such an experiment? It might have long-term consequences that we have not anticipated.


Mrs Heaney: I have not seen the German system on the ground, so I cannot comment on it. However, I have been to Belgium and looked at its pre-school provision up to the age of 6. I garnered very few ideas for our system from that. Our pre-school system is streets ahead of anything that I have seen on the continent. If years 1 and 2 build on what starts in our pre-schools, our model will be much better that what I have seen on the continent. However, it will be informal, and it is the word "informal" that causes the problems.


We are not cutting literacy and numeracy schooling out of years 1 and 2. They are still there; we are just coming at it from a different point of view, based on the research that we know is out there. The numeracy teaching is activity-based, but it is very much there. The only thing that the children will not be doing is writing it down. They will be doing it.


Literacy will also be taught. Language development must be addressed, because around 20% of children now start school with speech and language problems. That is an increasing problem, and is one of the reasons why the Western Education and Library Board took the initiative to employ speech and language therapists. Children are reading books, and are taking them home to read. Parents will not notice a vast difference. The only difference is that the children will not be learning key words from a reading book. They will not be decoding words in order to be able to read a particular book. They will be reading for enjoyment and understanding. Literacy and numeracy are still present, but the teaching has been fine-tuned.


Mr S Wilson: There is a lack of formal teaching.


Your paper states that parental involvement in education is not only a right, it is a responsibility. That is an important principle. How successful have DELTA and other initiatives been in targeting those parents whom you feel most need to be told about their responsibility to be involved in their children's education? How might the scope of the existing initiatives be widened?


Mrs Heaney: I cannot say that it has been 100% successful in attracting the parents that we really wish to attract. On many occasions, it was the knowledgeable parents who came to meetings. However, we have been working on that scheme and developing it. We have found that we must be flexible, and DELTA has become more flexible with the knowledge that we must tailor the service to the needs of parents. We conducted a cross-border initiative for a full year, which meant using community centres and halls in poor rural areas to attract the parents to attend in the evening. As well as being about their children, we made the DELTA programme a social evening for the parents.


In revamping and developing DELTA, we are targeting every school in the Western Board, and training every nursery and primary 1 teacher, over the next two years. We hope that schools will be able to target the parents. Some people feel that experts should be brought in to talk to parents. We feel that the teacher who has the child for the rest of the year is in the best position to help parents. When the parents have a problem, the teacher will be there but the expert will be gone. We are training teachers, and examining the programme to make it more enjoyable. We hope to make the parent feel like an equal partner with the teacher. I hope that we shall attract more parents, but the problem is ongoing.


Mr S Wilson: Do you have any idea of the percentage of parents that have taken up the programme?


Mrs Heaney: We do not have a percentage figure.


Mr Martin: When the DELTA programme was initially developed, one of its key areas, besides education, was health. The first people to have contact with parents and children are health workers, social workers et cetera. In the context of the Programme for Government, and in the interests of joined-up government, much closer collaboration between the health and education sectors is needed to ensure that resources such as health visitors emphasise the importance of early language development. We see that as an initiative that should be adopted as part of a joined-up government approach. There is tremendous merit in taking that path.


Mrs E Bell: Thank you for a comprehensive and informative presentation. The collaboration between the health and education sectors about which you spoke is vital and must take place. I was interested to hear your wrap-around theory of how education and health will be included throughout this development.


In the light of current reports, brain development is vital. A recent report showed that children as young as three-years-old were expressing sectarian views. Brain development is a responsibility for all of us, and that is why early years must be looked at much more definitively.


You referred to children with special needs. Most children at that stage have particular needs, and those needs are being developed and improved. How can the needs of children with difficulties be better addressed? Should there be better co-operation with health and social services? Should the commissioner for children be part of that, or would that be an added difficulty?


Mrs Heaney: Special educational needs is a complex problem. We have a policy of inclusion. Children with special educational needs require specific help and that must not disadvantage the other children. The idea of equality for children does not mean that every child should get the same: every child should be given what he or she needs. Those matters must be ironed out.


Our problems stem from the fact that much of our pre-school provision is in the voluntary sector, which does not have the same access as the statutory sector. For example, if a child needs a classroom assistant, the voluntary sector cannot provide one. It does not have access to the expertise that the statutory sector can call on, such as psychologists, physiotherapists and others. We would welcome that matter being addressed by the Department of Education.


Miss Boyd: A practical problem arises over how many children with special needs can be brought into one classroom. This year, I had applications to use the same classroom from three children who are immobile. That would have meant much space being taken up. Should authority for that be given back to the manager of the setting to let him or her decide how many children can be managed in that setting?


Mrs E Bell: What should be the commissioner for children's involvement?


Mrs Heaney: I have read the consultation document on the children's commissioner and it is about children's rights. The children's commissioner should oversee everything to do with childhood services.


Mrs E Bell: That question may arise in the Assembly, so that is a valuable point.


Mr McHugh: I welcome everyone, including the Committee, to Enniskillen. It may be a disturbing experience for some of the Committee to be so far from home at this time in the morning.


Your document is comprehensive and well laid out. Early years learning is an important subject. We have discovered that the early years are more important that the later years, which is a view that parents have not always accepted. Parents should support and motivate their children, and be focused on the curriculum. They should remember that the early years are the most important, instead of leaving their children at pre-school every day simply to keep them out of harm's way or so that they themselves can get on with something else.


How can that be developed? How do you involve parents who feel that they are not involved in the learning process? I would like to help parents from deprived areas who may have had bad experiences in school. That cycle could continue, and their children could end up turning to crime. I am not sure who is responsible, but something should be done. If we do not make progress, early years provision will not improve as much as we hope.


Mrs Heaney: The Western Board has a partnership with Lifestart, which targets children in deprived areas. However, it is an enduring problem because Lifestart has found that a stigma was attached to targeting children in a particular area. The problem is complex, but Lifestart makes good beginnings. The board, in liaison with Lifestart, then takes parents through the DELTA programme. We are trying wrap-around targeting of parents, but everyone needs to work at it.


Mr McHugh: Some parents do not realise the importance of being around books from an early age, and some parents do not bring books or newspapers into the home. It is massively important that children are around books from an early age, but not all parents consider that to be the case. You mentioned best practice, play-based curriculum and moving to a more informal curriculum. That is probably the best way to learn.


Mr Wilson talked about German schools that are preoccupied with selection and elitism, which take the focus away from the benefits that should be obtained. In other words, they are still doing things the old way. Business people have said that Northern Ireland is not producing young people who are suitable to work in their businesses, so there is a problem somewhere. The proposed method would be an improvement on continuing with the formal method, or on trying to amalgamate the two, which would prove just as difficult.


Is the transition from playschool to primary 1 seamless? Are all playschools doing the same thing? In the Western Board, do providers have the same ability to deliver a seamless move for children from playschool to primary?


Ms Heaney: All PEAG playgroups and the statutory sector use the same curricular guidance, and the Department of Education's Training Inspectorate has inspected them all in their first year. That sort of quality assurance was a good start. The education boards' curriculum advisory services are in the best position to deliver training because they can see both sides of the coin. They train nursery teachers, and they also train year 1 and year 2 teachers.


One of the best practice models that we mentioned was effective early learning, and the Western Board trains people in the voluntary and statutory sectors to carry out that procedure in their own setting. Effective early learning is not only about learning how to teach young children, it is about reviewing, evaluating, monitoring and developing what you do, and the board is working on that.


Mr Mackey: Quality assurance measures are in place through the inspectorate and through the curriculum. Disparities between provision available in the voluntary and statutory sectors still exist, and that issue must be addressed. The CCEA curriculum has been mentioned a couple of times, and there is talk of it becoming more informal or play-based. That is a different approach to pre-school education, not a watering-down of what exists. Literacy and numeracy will still be key elements of that strategy. The Western Education and Library Board has established an early years team that consists of literacy and numeracy staff to ensure that those elements are integrated into any new early learning provision.


Mr McElduff: I declare an interest. I am a member of the Western Education and Library Board. I have come neither to praise nor to bury Caesar. One school in the board area - St Patrick's Primary School in Eskra - has introduced the innovative approach of DELTA for dads. Often a father's input is missing from his children's homework or from their educational development. Is there a lack of male teachers and classroom assistants in the pre-school setting? If so, how can that problem be addressed?


Mr Mackey: That has been identified as an area of concern. In 1995, the Lifestart initiative was introduced in Strabane in collaboration with the voluntary sector. However, males were not attending the meetings. At that time, some schools introduced back-to-school programmes, to which they invited fathers. Those programmes tackled numeracy and literacy subjects that fathers could use to help their children. However, in the past, it has been mothers who usually attend meetings in relation to this age group; very rarely do fathers attend.


Mr Gibson: I thank the Western Education and Library Board for its presentation. Part of the Committee's remit is to look at research policies. Last night the Committee got the horrible shock of a report that stated that TSN, which members thought would be helpful, is proving not to be so. Other areas, such as community relations, which the Committee thought would be helpful and on which much money was spent, are also proving to be inadequate. By providing pre-school care, is the Department simply following a fashion? What are we really doing? Where is the empirical evidence that says that pre-school care is the way forward?


The Committee has examined how pre-school care is provided in the continent and in America, but I have not heard whether their systems improve on Northern Ireland's. Is there a social situation in which parents need to work and the Department is providing fashionable childminders? That criticism is coming from one tiny sector of the community. However, that may lead to a wider question being posed. The Committee for Education must look at the critical research and policies to see whether we are on the right track.


Some 25% to 30% of pupils are failing in the education system because - and this is probably why the Committee is talking about pre-school education - they have had lifelong health difficulties or inhibitions that have prevented them from learning.


What would combining the health and education facilities achieve? At pre-school level, what has been done formally to make that work? There are pupils with psychological or other difficulties, but teachers have to wait for up to two years have those pupils assessed. Is that because of a failing system?


The Chairperson: Those are two good questions.


Mr Mackey: I shall answer the question that concerned TSN.


Mr Gibson: My question did not concern TSN. I used it only as an illustration.


Mr Mackey: The pre-school expansion programme is now in its fourth year. It is therefore too early to measure its overall impact on the system; however, it is generally accepted that it should be of benefit. It is not perceived as an exercise in childminding, in that the quality assurance measures in the established curriculum, together with the training, demonstrate that it is a very important stage of a child's development. Mrs Heaney mentioned current research in child development. That stage is crucial, and frameworks and structures must be in place to support the teachers and parents who are involved in that area. The long-term dividends when those children have worked through the system will be huge.


Mr Martin: We are all now aware of the most recent research, which addresses the development of the brain. The Committee might feel that that research should be examined more carefully. There is a consensus that early childhood development and early intervention are critical, and the recent research into brain development reinforces that. The DELTA programme was developed by a psychologist in the Western Education and Library Board and taken up by the principal of St Patrick's Primary School in Eskra. The board has been passionate about the need to implement that programme and the huge difference that it will make.


With regard to TSN, we put resources where they are needed. We have heard today that funding is necessary to address the issues and to bring together a range of services. I take the point about the lack of psychologists; however, one of our targets is to reduce the waiting time before pupils can be assessed by a psychologist, and there has been an improvement. Alongside that, we are putting in place a training programme to enable more pupil assessment to be done by teachers in schools. Addressing that in schools will take the pressure off the specialists.


A recent report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office to the Public Accounts Committee showed that GCSE performance in the Western Education and Library Board area was very satisfactory. That perhaps relates to the amount of funding for TSN in the areas where that must be addressed.


Mrs Heaney: Both pre-school and early years provision - the foundation stage - are being evaluated. Since the foundation stage's inception, Queen's University has been engaged in research across all five education and library boards. In England, the London Institute carried out the project on the effective provision of pre-school education (EPPE). That project has now been extended to Northern Ireland in the form of the effective provision of pre-school Northern Ireland (EPPNI).


In May, I attended its first meeting to report its findings. From that I remember that the difference between the situation in England and here is that our playgroups, which form part of pre-school provision, are coming out with significantly higher achievements in teaching and learning than those in England. It looks as if we have got it right, although it is still early days.


Mr Gallagher: Thank you for your submission. I wish to ask two questions. The first one relates to Mrs Heaney's comment that 20% of children have speech and language problems. We all agree that there are not enough speech and language therapists to cover the need in primary and secondary education. Serious problems in early years education have also been outlined. Do you have any suggestions that would address the need for support for those children with speech and language problems?


Secondly, Mr Mackey referred to the capital development and the capital spend inequality between the statutory and the community sectors. Will you give the Committee some more information on that aspect?


Mr Mackey: First, I shall give you some background on speech and language therapists. A programme was started three years ago in the Western Board area, where the shortage of speech therapists was a growing problem. Work was initiated with the Foyle Community Health and Social Services Trust and the Sperrin Lakeland Health and Social Services Trust to consider an early intervention programme. Joint funding was received to employ two speech therapists to work with our curriculum advisory and support service in the schools along with the teachers. The aims were to identify possible speech and language problems early, and to help teachers aid children before they reached the point at which they needed speech therapy.


In the first two years of that programme, we identified 10 primary schools for each therapist. Capacity building in each school helped teachers deal with the issues at the source. That programme is in its third or fourth year and is deemed to have been successful. There has been a reduction in requests for speech therapists for the age group with which they are dealing. However, with only two speech therapists available, it is difficult to cover all our schools. Therefore, we have a rolling programme, funded by the Department, that will allow training, as well as follow-up work for all schools in the area. The Western Board published a positive report on the progress of the programme around six months ago.


On the question of capital development, the Department of Education's pre-school programme provided £4 million across the four years of the programme. Alongside that is the voluntary sector - our equal partners - and no capital funds were made available in that programme for that sector. That aspect has been discussed at interdepartmental level in the board.


Mr Gibson: On a point of information, Mr Chairperson. It was the Northern Ireland Childminding Association (NICMA) that issued the report that shocked the Committee last night.


Mrs Heaney: As Mr Mackey said, two speech and language therapists are not enough. In the pre-school sector, we have been considering professional development for all nursery teachers. We have identified the Canadian Hanen programme as an excellent programme for teacher development. It started out as a speech and language programme for children, and it has now developed into a programme to help teachers address language difficulties early. This coming year, we are beginning to train every nursery teacher in the Western Board in the Hanen programme.


The Chairperson: Thank you very much for your contribution. I invite you to remain for the rest of the evidence sessions and for lunch.


Thursday 27 June 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mrs E Bell

Mr Gallagher

Mr Gibson

Mr McElduff

Mr McHugh


Mr C Elliott ) Western Area Childcare Partnership
Mr S McBride )


The Chairperson: I welcome representatives from the Western Area Childcare Partnership. The Committee is pleased to welcome Mr Colin Elliott, who is the childcare partnership co-ordinator for the Western Education and Library Board, and Mr Shaun McBride, who represents the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) on the board. We have already received a written submission from the partnership. However, you may wish to give a short presentation, and then Committee members will have an opportunity to ask some questions.


Mr Elliott: Thank you for inviting us to the meeting and for giving us the opportunity to speak. Our short presentation is based on the information that the Committee has already received.


The presentation will be divided into three parts. First, I shall talk briefly about the Western Area Childcare Partnership' s role. Secondly, I shall identify some of the key issues involved in the care and education of children from the ages of three to six. Thirdly, I shall identify some of the recommendations that the childcare partnership wishes to put to the Committee.


The childcare partnership is an inter-agency group that has representation from those main community, voluntary and statutory agencies that have a remit for childcare and early years education.


The partnership's role is to co-ordinate and strategically plan childcare services for all children from birth to 14 years of age. Services include childminding, day care, crèches, parent and toddler groups, playgroups, out-of-school provision, home-based services, SureStart and parenting programmes. That list is not exhaustive, so I hope that people from any areas that have not been included do not feel discriminated against.


Those services not only provide childcare for children but are a valuable family support mechanism that helps reduce child abuse and the numbers of children being taken into care.


The partnership develops a three-year childcare plan, which is reviewed annually. The plan sets out the priorities for the development of services during its lifespan; it includes performance indicators for year one by which it will measure its success and, if necessary, amend its programme for the following years.


The first key issue concerns early years education. International and local research has confirmed that children learn more in their early years than in later life. Therefore, it is essential that the services available to them are of the highest quality in order to meet their needs.


Parents are the first educators and provide the consistency and learning experience for children during their early years. It is essential that parents be provided with the skills and knowledge to ensure that they can provide their children with that consistency and learning experience.


The debate on whether our children begin school too young continues. The education that children get in their early years must meet their requirements and be of the highest quality. To ensure that our children receive the same quality experiences, we must learn from research and best practice from other countries. The curriculum should reflect what best meets the needs of children aged between three and six.


It is also important that care and education in early years are integrated. A child's development will benefit from a system that recognises the importance of both, and from services that meet educational and care needs.


We are aware of the many inequalities experienced by communities, parents and children, especially in Northern Ireland. Research has shown that children who have access to high quality pre-school provision adapt better when they enter primary school and as they progress through the education system. Departments and statutory agencies must recognise those inequalities and plan strategically to reduce and eliminate them.


Pre-school education funding discriminates against the voluntary and community sectors; for example, those sectors do not receive capital funding from the pre-school education expansion programme.


Funding and sustainability are major concerns in the childcare and education sectors. The Western Area Childcare Partnership has been fortunate to receive significant funding from several initiatives. That funding includes European funding from peace and reconciliation bodies such as the Childhood Fund and the PlayCare initiative; money from the Department of Education's pre-school education expansion fund; funding from the new opportunities fund (NOF) for out-of-school provision and for its current programme, which provides capital for groups that work with children from birth to three years of age; funding from SureStart for its six projects in the WELB area, which offer a targeted programme for children from birth to three years of age and their families; and funding from the community fund, Children in Need and a variety of trust funds.


Unfortunately, the majority of those are short-term funding sources. That predicament leads to instability for many community and voluntary groups that often must channel their energies into fund-raising activities rather than providing services for children.


The uncertainty about the future, with groups not knowing whether their funding will continue or their jobs will be secure, has resulted in many excellent workers leaving the childcare sector. However, it is important to stress that, even when faced with those difficulties, the sector has managed to continue to provide high quality services.


Parents should have choice in where they send their children and access to a range of services. They should be able to decide whether to send their children to childcare or into education. If they decide to keep them at home, their choice should be supported. Several examples of high quality home-based provision include SureStart, Lifestart and Homestart.


Parents should have choice in the type of service that they require, whether that be playgroup or nursery school. They should be able to choose integrated education, Irish-medium education and cultural diversity. Limited resources mean that we cannot provide that wide range of services everywhere, but we endeavour to do so where possible.


The Western Board serves a wide rural population, with a high percentage of families living in isolated areas. In planning services, it is important to consider the different models that could meet the needs of isolated communities. The cross-border rural childcare project was an innovative example of how that can be achieved. It undertook research in six communities, three on either side of the border, and established provision, which the communities identified. That ensured that the provision reflected what the communities wanted.


In the past few years, considerable work has been done to improve quality standards in early years provision. That work has included a programme to ensure that all childcare staff have appropriate qualifications, which has resulted in a highly qualified workforce. There has been regulation and inspection from the trusts' early years teams and the Education and Training Inspectorate. There is a need to ensure that early years staff are getting consistent messages from both organisations and not conflicting advice, which has happened in the past. Regular meetings, which take place between the early years team and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment should help prevent that problem. It is recognised that inspection requires groups to meet only the minimum standards, instead of striving to ensure that services are of the highest possible quality. There has been the development of accredited programmes such as Highscope, developing early listening and talking abilities (DELTA) and effective early learning training (EEL). Good practice networks have been developed, one of which is sited in the Western Board in Dungiven, and those provide models of best practice from home and abroad that can be shared and replicated by other childcare providers. There has been learning and sharing of best practice and research from other countries. All providers should set targets or performance indicators that enable them to measure the impact of their services. The SureStart projects are a good example of how monitoring and evaluation can be built into projects. That benefits funders, the project itself, and the families and children who use those projects.


The Western Area Childcare Partnership makes several recommendations on the way forward. There should be recognition of the parents' important role as the first and primary educators of their children. The curriculum for three- to six-year-olds should reflect their needs and how they learn best. The importance of experiential learning through play should be impressed. Care and education must be integrated and not seen as separate services. There should be continued development of partnerships and co-operation at all levels, between departmental boards and between all grass-roots sectors. There should be the development of a clear strategy for long-term funding and sustainability for childcare services, and equity of funding for the pre- school expansion programme for both statutory and voluntary providers. There should be further promotion and development of quality assurance, including training for staff, the setting of quality standards, monitoring and evaluation as standard practice, and the dissemination of best practice.


Thank you for giving me the opportunity to give the Committee the views of the Western Area Childcare Partnership.


The Chairperson: Thank you. I now invite Members to ask questions.


Mr Gibson: I shall return a question that was asked earlier, and which sounded rather sceptical. I am becoming familiar with such Treasury terms as "resource accounting". As we have a narrow block of money, the Minister of Education may have to present the case to the Chancellor that £18 million is needed for more pre-school education in Northern Ireland and that he can guarantee those results. That, unfortunately, may be the direction in which our country is going. Do you have results of monitoring and evaluation of standard practice, and the dissemination of best practice, that can show that childcare services in the Western Board area are effective?


Mr Elliott: First, organisations have been sceptical about monitoring and evaluation, and they have not been as good as they should have been in developing them. In the past few years, monitoring, evaluation, setting targets and performance indicators have become central to all organisations. The first results that we received came from research from other countries. Those results have shown that good pre-school education or care better prepares the children for school. As they go through their school lives, their results are better.


We have much work to do. We need to look at how we monitor and evaluate, and ensure that all groups are doing so effectively. We also need to publish what is considered to be best practice, and encourage all groups and organisations to take that on board. When the Department has determined the best practice model, the Minister will have the evidence to show what is best when he asks the Treasury for more money. That best practice model should receive funding.


Mr Gibson: People glibly quote to the Committee from research to show evidence of their case. As I pointed out to Mr Martin from the Western Education and Library Board, part of the Committee's remit is to examine research that supports current policies, because research will guide our recommendations. Where is the evidence in that research? It is always quoted to the Committee but it is not empirical evidence.


Mr Elliott: Evidence from research carried out in Northern Ireland is probably not as good as it should be. The Western Education and Library Board uses evidence taken from research carried out in Scandinavian countries, where there is a different type of pre-school education than there is in Northern Ireland. That research shows that some of the methods used in Scandinavia are better than those that are used here, and vice versa. It is a matter of putting all those methods into a melting pot. We must examine pilot projects and different types of provision, and to monitor and evaluate that type of provision to ensure that whatever is funded, and whatever type of early years education and care that we have in future, will be of the highest possible standard.


Mr McHugh: Are there gaps in the pre-school system? What could be done to enable young mothers to get to work? A person's ability to use childcare facilities is limited by closing times. Could those facilities be used more, so that people do not have to divide their time or leave work early? That is a difficult situation because of the costs involved and because it lessens people's motivation to go to work. It does not help many mothers in that situation. Therefore, could the facilities be more readily available, rather than the door being closed after three hours? What can be done?


Mr Elliott: I agree entirely with that. There are many excellent facilities, especially in the education and school systems. That is starting to be the case with out-of-school learning and provision. However, it must be developed further. Wider use of facilities might be able to solve the problem for parents of children who are at school. Services for younger children also need to be adapted in order to ensure that services and provision are available for them; quality childcare must be available - at a cost that is not astronomical - for parents who wish to return to education, training or work. Part of the current problem is that the cost is so high that people who are caught in the poverty trap decide that it is not worthwhile going back. It must be considered whether there are ways to provide services, through a certain level of funding, that will enable people to return to training end education in order that they might become a resource to the economy.


Mrs E Bell: I wish to ask three questions on my particular interests. The first relates to integrated education. Mr Gibson asked about research. I agree with what he said. Much research is available, but one can never be sure what way it is skewed. There are voluntary schools, as well as integrated education nursery schools and pre-schools, that show the value of a good, early-learning, informal curriculum. The report that came out yesterday, about which everybody is worried, showed that children as young as three years of age have sectarian attitudes.


We need balanced early years education. Do you agree with that? Special needs provision is a major concern that has not been thought through by the Department in many initiatives, not least in early years learning. How could the Western Area Childcare Partnership improve on that? It has been said that the overseeing of early years provision could fall within the remit of the children's commissioner. Would that be useful, or do you feel that you are already doing that well enough?


Mr McBride: In the past few years, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education has become involved in childcare partnerships across Northern Ireland because we feel very strongly about early years provision. Integrated education does not only begin at the age of four. It can begin at the age of two or three. For that reason, we have been voicing our opinion that provision at two, three and four years of age should be as integrated as possible.


There are 13 nurseries attached to our schools, with another three or four planned for the next few years. We also work with several small rural playgroups that strive to be integrated or, at least, cross-community. The work that we do through the childcare partnership to help those playgroups is vital in dealing with the findings that Mrs Bell mentioned. Those figures are very scary. More than 50% of children aged three have opinions about the other section of the community.


Mr Elliott: I agree entirely with what Mr McBride has said. One advantage of the voluntary and community pre-school sectors is that they are often cross-community. Schools in isolated rural areas tend to have joint, cross-community management committees, and the intake tends to be cross-community. For historical reasons, that does not always happen in the formal education system. That is one of the reasons why the playgroup sector and movement has been so successful in the past.


Mrs E Bell: Do you think that the children's commissioner will help? That is a big question. How could he or she help?


Mr Elliott: Until five or six years ago, every Department was taking its own direction on pre-school education. No one Department takes a lead role. I do not know whether the commissioner could take on that role, but he or she could consider the rights of pre- school children, work on those rights and ensure that Departments work as effectively as possible. The commissioner could also encourage the good partnership work that has been done at board and departmental level, which can be used as best practice.


Mr S Wilson: I do not wish to hold one sector up against another. However, from much of the evidence that the Committee has received, it seems that tension exists between the statutory sector and the private and voluntary sectors. You raised that matter again today when you talked about the inequality of funding. The statutory sector would argue that it is at a disadvantage. It has a much inferior pupil to teacher ratio; it is more restricted in the hours that it can offer; it is sometimes obliged to take a wider range of youngsters than the private and voluntary sectors because it must fill its places by the end of the year; and it does not have access to the additional funding from trusts et cetera. I assume that the private and voluntary sectors receive the same money for children from pre-school education advisory group (PEAG) programmes as the statutory sector. From the evidence that the Committee has seen so far, there seem to be more constraints on the statutory sector than on the private and voluntary sectors.


That might be a misconception on our part. The voluntary sector is not fixed in locations where primary schools are. It can go into council facilities and housing estates, and has easier access to target groups. Where do you feel your sector is disadvantaged, either in funding or in requirements, as opposed to the statutory sector being disadvantaged?


Mr Elliott: There are several aspects to consider. You made a good point about the disadvantages that affect the voluntary sector. The main problem in the voluntary and community sector is that there is no capital funding through the pre-school education expansion programme for voluntary groups. Secondly, there is a one to eight ratio in the voluntary and community sector; the ratio in the statutory sector is one to 13, so the costs are higher. The voluntary sector does not always have funding to replace broken toys or equipment. It must raise funds to do that, and that requires a great deal of time, energy and resources. Voluntary groups work to voluntary management committees, which do not always have the skills to do that fund-raising for them. The statutory sector has much more significant funding for that equipment.


The Chairperson: Thank you.


Thursday 27 June 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mrs E Bell

Mr Gallagher

Mr Gibson

Mr McElduff

Mr McHugh


Mr D Canning )
Mrs J Murphy ) Primary Principals Association of
Mr F Murphy ) Northern Ireland


The Chairperson: I welcome the representatives from the Primary Principals Association of Northern Ireland. The Committee is pleased to welcome Mr David Canning, principal of Strabane Controlled Primary School; Mrs Joey Murphy, principal of St Dymphna's Primary School; and Mr Finton Murphy, the principal of St Michael's Primary School.


We have already received your written submission. There will be an opportunity to answer questions later.


Mr Canning: On behalf of the Primary Principals Association, I thank the Committee for Education for this opportunity to present evidence to the inquiry into early years learning. In our written submission of 19 October 2001, we pointed out that our remit was to highlight issues of funding for primary education, and our submission was made in that context. We did not think that we could comment in great detail at that time on curriculum; we had not been set up for that purpose and would have been going beyond our remit. I appreciate, however, that it is difficult to separate funding from provision in so many other ways. If there is no funding, nothing can be done.


There are several concerns that we would like to raise. The expansion of pre-school provision is welcome, but our first concern would be that new initiatives such as this - although there are many others - receive funding while long-standing needs in the primary sector have been ignored.


The Committee will be aware of our highlighting of the report on education funding by Sir Malcolm Thornton, and its recommendations, especially on the funding of primary schools. We are dismayed that, although those recommendations have been implemented in large part in England and major advances have been made in addressing the problems identified, Northern Ireland has not even begun to plan to do that. We are concerned that educational priorities are sometimes established, yet we are not sure how that has happened.


As Mr Gibson said earlier today, people keep saying that "research has shown". What research? Who? Where? We wonder where priorities come from sometimes.


Our concern is that primary education does not receive the priority that it should. As the Committee's remit includes primary 1 and primary 2, it is right to highlight that and the Thornton Report.


We hear that there are concerns about standards of literacy and numeracy, and now those concerns emanate from Germany also. For many years, the prerogatives of primary schools have been literacy and numeracy. We accept criticism from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and other bodies that standards of literacy and numeracy are not as high as they should be. We point that out because the foundations in education have never been funded as they should have been.


We do not face literacy and numeracy problems because of what is happening at secondary education level - whether the Burns Report is accepted or not - but because the foundation was never laid in primary schools. The funding was never there to meet the children's needs at Key Stage 1 and in primary 1 to primary 4. We did not have, and still do not have, the resources to address literacy and numeracy needs. A legacy has been passed on to the secondary schools; by the time the children arrive there it is too late. Whatever the resources that secondary schools have to deal with those problems, they are still playing catch-up. That is not the best use of resources. Therefore, we accept responsibility for issues of literacy and numeracy. Employers sometimes blame secondary schools. They say, "That child left your school and look at the standard". The fact is that the child was already facing problems long before he or she left the primary school. We did not have the resources to deal with the problem.


We highlighted several pre-school and nursery provision issues, the first of which was insufficient funding that there is to cover the running costs of some of our nurseries. It was interesting to hear the Western Area Childcare Partnership say that the statutory sector is better funded. The truth is that nursery principals tell us that by the time that they have paid the salaries, they have no money left to run the nurseries. They certainly cannot fund the capital costs of large equipment.


We highlighted the disadvantage that children who live in rural areas face. We knew then, and even a year or so before, that there would be over-provision of part-time places in some urban areas set against those for rural areas. That has proven true and we shall discuss that with the Committee. We shall also discuss the reduction in the capital-funding grant that went to the new-start nurseries under the pre-school education advisory group (PEAG).


I shall begin by considering the issue of over-provision in one area, and under-provision in another area. There are several pre-existing nursery locations in Londonderry that received more funding through the new initiative, to the extent that they cannot fill all their places. The nurseries are accepting two-year-olds because they are required by statute to do so. The net result is that they have found it difficult to provide a curriculum that will deal with two-year-olds and four-year-olds at the same time. They have equipment that is too large for the two-year-olds; the children cannot get into the water and sand trays because they are too high for them. The desks and chairs are the wrong size. We also find that some of the two-year-olds need a sleep in the middle of the day, whereas the four-year-olds are still running around.


Mr S Wilson: I would have thought that the teachers would have needed a nap.


Mr Canning: The teachers are looking for a sleep afterwards.


The Chairperson: Assembly Members fall into that category also. It is approaching siesta time.


Mr Canning: Major issues are involved. I was pleased to hear that the Western Education and Library Board recognises that those issues need to be sorted out. People were warned about matters, but we were told that initiatives have to run their course.


We have looked at the rural areas, and we see inadequate provision. There are areas where children cannot access pre-school places and areas where they have to travel eight miles to access a pre-school place because of location. Sometimes provision can look OK on paper, but the geography of the area causes access problems. Very young children cannot travel on school buses. At the age of three, such transport is not an option. We hoped that those children could have been provided for out of some of the resources that were used elsewhere but perhaps should not have been. Those issues still need to be addressed.


The primary 1 initiative has provided us with very useful additional resources for primary 1. However, the problems that we highlighted in our submission to you in October 2001 still remain. They have not been addressed, and we have not even been asked how they could be addressed. We do not know whether anyone is working on them.


We highlighted in October that class sizes were a problem. I kept hearing about the need for, and goal of, "seamless provision", but one wonders how seamless provision can be achieved when the levels of resources being provided, even in the statutory sector, are so different. For example, at nursery level there is an adult to child ratio of one to 13. You would have 26 children in a class and two adults, who are there the entire time that the children are present. In primary 1 there are 30 children in the class - the maximum number allowed. Depending on the table of resources, there could be a teacher and, for 15 hours a week, a classroom assistant. The children are there for 25 hours, so two adults are not in the room all the time, despite the greater number of pupils. In primary 2, which is supposed to be part of the early-years initiative, there is only the teacher. There is no classroom assistant available even for limited hours.


Since the introduction of local management of schools (LMS), schools have found that some of the general classroom assistants that they once had, and whom they could have deployed to help in those circumstances, are no longer there because of the lack of resources. We had to declare them redundant years ago. I had to declare one such person redundant in 1999, and I was told then that I was one of the last to hold on to such assistance as many schools had lost theirs two or three years earlier.


When one looks at the current provision one can see large disparities between what is available in one place and what is available in another, yet we are told that there must be seamless provision. It clearly is not seamless at the moment.


We also looked at the level of funding available for equipment. It used to be £40,000 for a double unit, but that figure is now down to £25,000. We asked why there had been such a large reduction and enquired whether the amount had been too generous in the past. We asked how the figure of £25,000 had been arrived at and whether educational need had been considered as a factor. Of course, we have not received any answers to those questions. The issue of educational need, when raised, just disappears into the background. No one is prepared to detail how that aspect was handled or calculated. Matters are not addressed properly.


We continue to ask why capital resources have been cut and what justification there is for doing so. In the new nursery units that we are opening through PEAGS et cetera, we find that we cannot afford the large capital equipment that nurseries used to be able to afford. If that provision was important - and we believe that it was - it is no longer there. Therefore, although there has been an expansion in one way, there has been a reduction in quality in another, because the jam is being spread more thinly. That needs to be addressed, especially if there is to be seamless provision.


We still recognise that no one has addressed the issues of class size and classroom assistant time. Classroom assistants' hours can vary greatly from one year to another. We have experience in some schools of classroom assistants being employed for 25 hours one year, after which their hours were reduced to 15 for two or three years. The next year they might be brought up to 25 hours only to be cut back to 15 again. That does not lend itself to a motivated workforce with which you can sustain high-quality provision over a period of years. The matter must be examined.


We are not convinced that any real attempt has been made to cost the introduction of the CCEA's new enhanced curriculum at classroom level. There has been a great failure in the strategic management of education in the past few years since education reform was introduced. The strategists have not examined overall provision or the real cost of doing certain things. They simply say that something is a good idea and decide to go ahead with it. They ask what money they have and provide it. There is no attempt to determine what resources are necessary for something.


As I have said to the Minister of Education, we increasingly feel like we have been given the money to buy a Ford Fiesta and told to produce a Rolls-Royce. You cannot continue to do that; the personal cost to teachers, classroom assistants and other people who work in schools is terrible. If the situation persists, the workforce will be burnt out, and the education problems that the Committee will face a few short years down the line will be far greater than it faces today. We ask the Committee to cost not only the curriculum changes envisaged for early years learning but for the entire enriched curriculum. Ask the people who are to implement them what the changes will mean at classroom level and what resources will be required.


We have heard people say that, as there is a lack of psychologists, teachers have been asked to take on that role. In the past few years, other parts of the sector have pulled back and said that teachers must do more. That is also visible in the partnership between the health boards and the teaching profession. Resources that were once available to us to help children with health needs are no longer available. Screening facilities that were once available to test hearing and eyesight are being withdrawn. Even facilities to help with personal hygiene issues such as lice are being cut.


More and more we are being asked to work on our own. For example, we are being asked to deal with speech therapy. We ask genuinely and sincerely whether people really expect that a classroom teacher can somehow fulfil part of the role of a speech therapist with those one or two children who have special needs while teaching the entire class. That is not to say that the children do not have special needs, for they do. It is not to say that the teacher does not sincerely wish to help those children. It is merely a recognition that we are being drawn into having ever-wider responsibilities.


We cannot be psychologists, speech therapists and teachers. We ask you, especially for this initiative but also for other initiatives that come along, to examine the resourcing issues and try to ensure that the money is available for us to do the job rather than be pulled apart in the attempt.


The Chairperson: That was an interesting presentation, and it is rather a pity that some of the witnesses whom we heard from earlier did not hear it. Undoubtedly they will read about it when our report is published.


Mr S Wilson: I should like to approach your final point, Mr Canning, from two aspects. It is important that we address such matters in the context of the rural west of the Province. All the witnesses have told us that the CCEA initiative will require a new approach to teaching, especially in years 1 and 2. Many of the rural schools will have mixed classes. How will that mixture of informal education fit in with the demands of more formal education in primary 2 or primary 3? What are the resource implications for that?


You listed many aspects on funding. You mentioned a one to 13 ratio as opposed to a one to eight ratio. That presumably would mean a 62% increase in staff, and your staffing costs are more expensive. You mentioned the capital requirements. For the early years initiative, we were told that, on the Shankill Road, £5,000 worth of equipment was available for each class to place more emphasis on play. You also mentioned the increased number of classroom assistants.


Everyone believes the new initiative to be brilliant. Do you say that, if the costs are too high, we are taking a big risk in proceeding with the initiative and should reconsider?


Mrs J Murphy: Before this meeting, we discussed what, as parents, we think of the new initiative. I have taught primary 1 to primary 3 for the past 30 years. Unfortunately, I am approaching the end of my career.


Mr S Wilson: Unfortunately?


Mrs J Murphy: It is unfortunate, because I love teaching.


I am a full-time teaching principal. I teach reception class, primary 1 and primary 2 five days a week. There are six schools in my area - five maintained and one controlled. There are no nursery places for children and only one playgroup. We did not receive any PEAG places for schools. Parents should have the choice. It is said that both children and parents have rights, but there is no choice where I teach. Therefore, my school accepts children to reception class.


We have come full circle. When I started teaching, there was much experimentation and play. Parents will have to be educated a great deal before they will accept the new initiative. Parents will look at the situation in England, where there was much free play provision, and see that it has failed. The research depends on where one is and what is happening. However, I strongly feel that children gain many benefits and learn from experimentation and their experiences in school. If I have one primary 1 child, my school gets 10 hours of classroom assistance a week. If there are 10 children, I still only get 10 hours of classroom assistance a week. That is the only help that I receive in my class.


This type of play, with water, sand and scissors, requires teachers to monitor what children are doing, to see what they are learning and to discuss it with them. We must also educate those children who are ready to read books. At times there are no formal reading schemes. All children are different. Children can be ready to learn in primary one, and we need assistants in the classroom to deal with that.


Four years ago, my school had a full-time special needs teacher. I had to make that teacher redundant because I did not have any resources. However, every week, I see parents who think that their child is dyslexic, or have conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome or dyspraxia. Class teachers must then fill in forms, and notes must be produced to send to the Department. Six months later, someone arrives to assess those children and tell us, usually during lunchtime, how to deal with those children. We already know that we cannot deal with them in the classroom. If we could, we would not be looking for help. We need more funding.


This curriculum looks very good for part of the time, but if I teach reception class, primary 1 and primary 2, primary 2 children must have formal education. We need bodies in place to carry that out. Had I been present earlier, I would have asked whether the research that has been done was in classes with only one year group or in mixed ability classes.


Parents will need much to convince them that children should not be formally taught until primary 2. There is the experience of knowing that primary 2 children want to do other tasks. Funding is needed, and parents should have a say in how that funding is used.


Mr F Murphy: To clarify, I am vice principal of Holy Trinity Primary School. I was at St Michael's Primary School, but it no longer exists as the two schools were amalgamated.


I have spoken to several principals who are involved in the new initiative. They think that it has potential and will do great things for those children. However, I am a member of the Primary Principal's Association of Northern Ireland, which received a consultation document on the new curriculum on which to comment. However, no sense is given in the document of what resourcing schools would receive, how it would be organised or whether the new programme would include additional funding for primary schools.


Unless the consultation tells us what we are going to get with the package, the association cannot give a definitive answer as to whether the initiative would work in primary schools. We would have to say that, for it to work, we would need additional resourcing, smaller classes, and more classroom assistants. As long as we see one side of the package only we cannot possibly say whether it will work or be effective. More information should be contained in the consultation document before any decisions are taken.


Mr S Wilson: Would it be practical to have formal and informal education in the one class, given the mixed classes of year 1 to year 3?


Mr F Murphy: At present, we have mixed ability classes in which children work on different activities. It is possible to have formal and informal education side by side if there is enough adult supervision and teaching support to work with different groups at different levels.


Mr Canning: The implication is that there may need to be smaller classes, and that would have an effect on resources. The cost may well be too high, but the problem is that no one has said how much it will cost. We have asked, but we cannot get answers.


Mr Gallagher: Practical problems seem to be emerging as the initiative rolls out. Will you clarify two matters? First, you referred to the variation in classroom assistants' hours from year to year. Is 15 hours the minimum, and are classroom assistants, in some settings, employed for more than 15 hours a week? Secondly, you referred in your initial paper to the fact that some schools fund additional places out of their own budgets, and I want to know why that is. I get the impression that it is because the children come to school and do not have transport to get home. Therefore, they are in the care of the school and must be in the classroom under supervision. Is that the reason why you feel that schools must dip into their own budgets to fund those places themselves?


Mr F Murphy: The minimum hours for classroom assistants in year 1 is 10 hours - whether there is one child or 10. We then have a table of increasing hours that depends on the number of children. That means that because we do not know from year to year how many year 1 children we shall have, we cannot definitively guarantee employment to the classroom assistant.


Another difficulty is that the number of year 1 pupils that are in the class in 2002-03 determines the classroom assistant hours I shall have in September 2003. Therefore, I may find that I have more hours for smaller numbers of children because of fluctuating roles, and that is difficult. It is also difficult to retain good staff when the hours are flexible from year to year. That is more of a problem in smaller schools in which the changes would be more significant.


Part of the problem with the new initiative, especially with part-time places, is that parents are being asked to make arrangements to bring children it at 9.00 am and bring them home at 11.30 am. Moreover, in rural areas, the more affluent parents are more likely to be at work, so it is difficult for them to bring children home at 11.30 am. At the other extreme, parents on benefits cannot afford the transportation mid-morning, or perhaps have no transport available at that time. Many schools have found that they must offer the part-time provision until at least lunchtime. That means that some parents can get out of work over their lunch break to bring their children home. That extra hour is significant because it represents the cost of a teacher and classroom assistant, and, in cases in which a unit is attached to a primary school, the funding for the primary school is affected.


I shall use my school as an example of why some schools must consider the number of places available. We have an average primary 1 intake of 90 children, but we have 52 funded nursery places. It is difficult to tell parents that we would like to have their child in primary 1 but that we cannot take them in nursery. As a result, we have had to make additional provision in the school for those children. I am thankful that that provision has been met from outside the school budget - because there is no money in the school budget - but the school must meet those costs through fundraising and other activities.


Mr McHugh: Could your resources be enhanced if parents took a more active role? I mentioned earlier that it is important for children to be around books, but many children do not read books. Were people to take their young children to libraries and had books at home, the overall resource would be increased and teachers would not have to do all the work. Some children see books for the first time when they go to school. Parents could do something to help teachers in that learning process.


We could almost say that the consultation gives principals an opportunity to look for more money to make changes, rather than to continue with what they are doing. The Western Area Childcare Partnership's presentation stated that was a time when people could afford nurseries. What is so different now?


Assistance was once voluntary, but now we have the PEAGs, which means paid assistance and the use of more resources. I am talking about the overall Government priorities and the difficulties that exist. What would assist the development of those areas? I know that you need more resources, but some might say that you are using the consultation as an opportunity to obtain more money, and that the same job would be done even if you adopt a different ethos.


Mr Canning: That is a problem that we face. Much of the talk about the enriched curriculum suggests that it is merely a change. I accept that it is a change, but that is only half the story. The fact is that were you to have an enriched curriculum, one of its essential features would be more interaction with the children. That either means that the teacher must run around the room or that more adults be present. I do not mean to be flippant, but that is a fact. It is a problem if we are to have more activities, more informality and adults present to assess children as they must. Teachers cannot be in two places at once. People need to know about those sorts of resource implication, and we must admit to the problem and recognise how it will be.


In so many areas, and not only in education, a finished project costs five times more than was originally estimated. We must be prepared to call a spade a spade; we are being asked to change and to do more.


Mr McHugh: Finton Murphy mentioned workers, the needs of the workplace and the hours worked. The people on the Department for Employment and Learning's Worktrack programme receive only £4.20 an hour for childcare. Extra hours might mean that their childcare bill is doubled. People are pushed out to work but are not necessarily helped.


Mr F Murphy: That will always be a problem. If people are sent out to work it must be made worth their while. A parent may go to work to pay for childcare. Most people agree that a parent's time is better spent with a young child rather than in paying for childcare from the age of six months. I am not sure how that can best be done. For example, my school works closely with the local community group, which also runs a playgroup. Our support and work with the group has meant that it has attracted funding from the new opportunities fund (NOF) for after-school care, which in turn means that the parents of some of our pupils are free for the whole day.


However, that takes up some of my time and the school's time. In the matter of value-for-money education, I spend time on something that I should not be doing. It comes back to the question of how much responsibility schools will have, and at what point it is necessary to increase staffing or to obtain funding from elsewhere to meet those needs.


The Chairperson: Thank you very much. I am conscious of the time. We await another presentation, and we do not want to lose our quorum.


Mr Gibson: As three principals, your contribution is almost shattering. Rural school provision is important in Northern Ireland, bearing in mind that half the population live in rural areas. It is alleged that rural education is at a disadvantage. I doubt no one's word, but the disadvantage that we have heard about this morning is grave. Under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, legal contests could go on ad infinitum. Education's money could be spent on defending cases and the only people who would profit would be the lawyers. Can Mr Canning provide the Committee with a list, in tabular form or in bullet points, of the points to be addressed, particularly where his rural school provides for pre-school education and for years 1 and 2.


The Chairperson: Mr Canning, perhaps you and your colleagues would undertake to provide that.


Mr Canning: We shall.


Mr McElduff: To hear about the stress and the workload reminds us of the value of the teaching profession. Will Mrs Murphy develop her point about the non-existence of parental choice?


Mrs J Murphy: There is only the playgroup; no choice exists, and parents are unhappy. All our schools have tried to bring parents into school. Those parents who educate their children do come to the school. For that reason, the resources in school are necessary to help disadvantaged children. There are part-time places in the playgroup, and, as far as I am aware, the afternoon places are not being filled. Some parents pick up their primary 2 children at 2.00 pm and return at 3.00 pm to pick up their primary 3 children. They are not prepared to put their children to playgroup for an afternoon session because, more often than not, the child is asleep.


The Chairperson: Thank you very much for your evidence.


Thursday 27 June 2002

Members present:

Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)

Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)

Mr Gibson

Mr McElduff

Mr McHugh


Ms B Nodder ) Northern Ireland
Ms S Dunne ) Childminding Association


The Chairperson: I welcome Ms Bridget Nodder and Ms Susan Dunne from the Northern Ireland Childminding Association (NICMA).


Ms Nodder: Thank you for giving us the opportunity to address the Committee. The Northern Ireland Childminding Association is a membership association and a registered charity. It is the only organisation that works to support childminders, parents and children. It was founded in 1984 and its main purpose is to promote children's development by providing quality day care and education in registered, home- based settings.


Childminding is the largest form of registered day-care and education provision for children from birth to age 12. It accounts for more than 80% of full day care. Childminding services are regulated by the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, by which an individual who wishes to work as a childminder must register with the local health and social services trust. The three main purposes of registration are: to protect children; to provide reassurance to parents who use childcare; and to ensure that childminding services meet acceptable standards.


Childminding is a unique form of day-care and education provision that offers early education opportunities in home-based settings. It provides for the emotional and educational needs of the child.


Childminding is the most popular form of day care for working parents because it provides a uniquely flexible form of support to families and young children at an affordable cost. Registered childminding is one form of day care that is eligible for the childcare tax credit element of the working families tax credit.


Our presentation is based on the premise that children's learning and development begins at birth, if not sooner, and that the care and education of children are inseparable. Good quality pre-school care and education have major benefits, not only for children, but for families, communities and the economy. NICMA strongly believes that the care and education of children are integral. Quality childcare cannot be provided unless a child's basic physical and emotional needs are met alongside more formal learning opportunities.


The early years of a child's life is a period of rapid intellectual and physical development. Therefore, it is vital that children are provided with positive learning experiences in their day care setting that help to provide the building blocks for the future.


Childminders are actively involved in supporting children's learning, as well as providing for their social, emotional and development needs. Childminders provide individual, one-to-one attention for children, which is a positive factor in the support of children's learning and development.


There are more than 4,200 registered childminders in Northern Ireland who provide full day care, education and after school care for approximately 18,000 children, thereby enabling parents to access employment or education.


The Chairperson: I apologise for interrupting you. I am conscious that Members must leave to conduct Assembly business in Belfast. If we lose their presence, the meeting becomes inquorate. To expedite the meeting, can we concentrate on the executive summary? I assure you that the Committee will consider your submission in detail. However, in order to hear the executive summary at first hand, it might be better to begin there.


Ms Nodder: We make several recommendations to the Committee. Those are based around having a day-care workforce that is properly trained, quality assured, valued and supported as a professional day care service, so that we provide the best possible start for children.


The first recommendation is that registered childminding should be recognised as playing a major role in supporting children's learning development, and should be a valued service. That requires training throughout Northern Ireland, funding, support and improved working conditions.


The second recommendation concerns the appropriate training of childminders. In the presentation, I was going to mention that, under the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, childminders who provide full day care for children are the only type of day-care workers who do not have to have any mandatory training. We recommend that there should be mandatory training across the board for all registered childminders.


Childminders have been excluded from the pre-school education expansion programme. NICMA lobbied against that in the programme's early days. We felt that childminders should have been included as a form of day care as long as they were appropriately trained and qualified. They are currently excluded from that programme, which should be extended to enable appropriately qualified childminders to offer funded places to three- and four-year-olds.


We also recommend that the standard of childminding should be consistent across the Province. That can be achieved through a range of training initiatives, quality assurance mechanisms and self-evaluation techniques. Those not only ensure the quality of care and education for the child, but also give parents confidence in the service provided.


A further recommendation concerns the lack of childminding provision in the Province, especially in rural areas. There are many reasons for that, including poor recognition of the value of childminding, low pay and the lack of incentives to register. We feel that there is a need to develop and support strategies around recruitment and retention of the workforce, and to value the work that they do as professional carers and educators.


A main reason for insufficient childminding provision is the huge black market in unregulated childminding. We know from previous research that there are as many unregistered childminders as there are those who are registered. That not only undermines the profession, but prevents appropriate care and learning opportunities for children. We feel strongly that urgent action must be taken to address that problem.


Tied in with the lack of childminding provision and the need for recruitment strategies is the urgent need to review resources to health and social services registration and inspection teams. We do not represent them, but we do work closely in partnership with health and social services, and we know that they are already under-resourced and finding it difficult to meet their statutory responsibilities. Therefore, any development initiatives to increase the number of childminders will have massive implications for their workload. I know that they would be happy for us to support their case for increased resources.


The difficulties experienced in providing childcare and education places in rural communities can be addressed by some of the strategies that I have already outlined, such as recruitment, local support, training, transport and infrastructure funding to enable us to provide childminding places in rural communities.


Children with disabilities and special needs must be given equity of access to home-based childcare, which is not currently the case. Funding for those services has to be accessed through short-term projects, and from external sources such as the National Lottery and Children in Need, not through public funding. Therefore, the service is not available to the majority of families who wish to access home-based childcare for a child with special needs or a disability.


Those are our recommendations. Their implications basically come down to funding. Funding difficulties are the biggest barrier to developing and enhancing early years services for children. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety funds our organisation to the extent of just more than £58,000 a year. We are grateful for that departmental contribution, but the grant can in no way reflect the size of the childminding sector and the important role that it plays in the development of early years services.


We spend much of our time trying to access resources from several sources, which are usually not public sources. That time would be better spent on developing services for children and families. If I leave the Committee with nothing else, I want to state the fact that voluntary organisations in the early years field are desperately seeking long-term funding from public sector bodies. That would mean that we are not searching constantly for resources from various bodies and not constantly putting our staff on short-term contracts.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation and for your co-operation. I have a couple of questions. We are conscious of time, but the questions are important. You highlighted what you called the "black market" and said that urgent action must be taken to address the problem. What do you suggest?


Ms Nodder: There are several possible strategies. First, it is illegal to care for children in your own home if you are not registered by health and social services trusts. Trusts could use proactive strategies to increase the number of registered childminders to do something about the black-market economy in childminding.


Many incentives could be put in place to encourage people to register. The long arm of the law through social services is one aspect of that. However, encouragement strategies, where people are given incentives, such as start-up grants, free training and local support, would encourage people to come forward for registration. There are currently no incentives to be registered apart from the legal obligation.


Mr S Wilson: On the one hand you lament the fact that there is the black market, yet on the other hand your second recommendation, which makes it mandatory for people who mind six or fewer children to have a qualification, is likely to increase the black market. Of the people I know who are involved in childminding, some of them do so because they love children, some because they feel that they have skills that they learned with their own families et cetera. However, they would run a mile at the thought of having to go college to do an NVQ or another qualification. If such legislation is introduced, they may continue to look after youngsters and become part of the black market of which you speak.


How do you envisage overcoming the real difficulties of such people who are probably providing a genuine service? The fact that parents keep going to them indicates that they are happy with the service. How would you encourage or facilitate those people to go for a qualification if it became mandatory?


Ms Nodder: That is a real problem, and one of which we are aware. We are also aware that, under the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, much more bureaucracy is involved in the process to become a childminder. We want to encourage to come on board those people who have a love of children, and those who have experience of caring for them over many years and with whom parents are happy. We would prefer to encourage strategies rather than come down with a big stick from health and social services trusts.


Our recommendation is about mandatory training. It is not necessarily about obtaining a qualification, because I know where you are coming from on that issue. Many people would be frightened of going back to college. The training that we provide is user-friendly: we do it through distance learning; we provide training in people's homes; we do it at times that suit childminders, such as in the evenings; we provide childcare; and we provide much local support for people as a way to encourage them rather than, as you say, push them further into the black market. Therefore, as an organisation, we feel that we understand their needs because we have many staff that have been childminders in the past. We know how to meet those needs by encouraging them to attend training.


Mr S Wilson: However, would legislation not prove more of a stick than an encouraging strategy?


Mrs Nodder: If the Committee wants to ensure that children are protected there must be legislation. Protection of children is the main purpose of registration. Illegal childminding is fine and much of it goes on, but it does not have quality assurance. It does not provide ultimate child protection. Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors. NICMA wants to encourage people to take up childminding, but there must be some line below which people cannot go. Those services must have quality assurance if children are to be given the best start in life.


Mr McHugh: Committee members are concerned about the availability of childminders, but the point that you made about the black market is important to rural areas. The availability, accessibility and distance between home and childminder's house is important to parents who rush to work in the morning. To have to travel five or even 10 miles is not on. They may as well forget about working, but people should have the right to take up new jobs.


Working families tax credit, Worktrack and New Deal do nothing to help meet the needs of parents who go to the big providers - especially considering the amount of money for which they ask. The big stick may be needed, but it will make the situation in rural areas much worse. People go to family members because they are readily available and will be more flexible. Parents are faced with the difficulty of having to rush from the office when the childminding time is almost up because they fear that their child could be put out on the street. That may be an exaggeration, but it illustrates the pressure that young working mothers are under.


Mrs Nodder: NICMA supports family members becoming registered because some tax credit benefits are available. However, health and social services trusts are so under-resourced that they are not prepared to register family members. That may be the best option for many children.


Ms Dunne: The best place for a child is with someone whom they know well. The training provided is non-threatening. It is a 12-hour course - information- giving with some training. The childminders start off as self-employed people who effectively have their own small business. There are 4,000 self-employed childminding small businesses in Northern Ireland. Therefore, those people not only need training in childcare but in business and contracts et cetera.


Four or five years ago people did not come forward for training but now people are clamouring at the doors wanting NVQs in childcare and introduction to childminding courses. However, those courses are available only in some areas of Northern Ireland. In the west of the Province there is a severe lack of development because of a lack of infrastructure. One development officer works 20 hours a week to cover the entire Western Education and Library Board. Therefore, we have difficulty getting funding to support registered childminders in that board area.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your evidence and your co-operation today. I welcome the attendance of the vice-chairperson of Fermanagh District Council, Harold Andrews, at today's meeting and thank him for the hospitality that the Committee has received.

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