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Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion in Early Childhood

A conceptual shift from needs to rights

Colette Murray
Lecturer, TU Dublin, and Coordinator of Equality and Diversity Early Childhood National Network EDeNn

The much-needed resources put in place by DCYA to address diversity, equality, and inclusion in early childhood education and care (ECEC) are welcome. However, an ideological shift from needs to rights is required to provide a comprehensive diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) approach to ECEC policy, training, and practice.

Most of the recent policy developments for children and early childhood education and care (ECEC) show an orientation towards diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI). But much remains to be done to introduce a comprehensive DEI approach to policy, training, and practice. A growing body of international research confirms the importance of addressing DEI issues in ECEC, and of how ECEC educators’ own attitudes towards diversity affect their pedagogy (Murray and Urban, 2012; Bloch et al., 2014). This, however, requires educators to be open to facilitating a socially just approach to working with children and families.

The publication of First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families (DCYA, 2018) is an important development. The strategy states its commitment to vindicate the rights of the child and to address principles of inclusion and non-discrimination. However, when we examine how diversity, equality, and inclusion are identified and actioned in the strategy, the emphasis is primarily welfare- and needs-based rather than situated in a children’s rights framework. This raises questions about what the identified actions might mean for everyday practice.

Diversity in Context

Diversity has always been a reality in Ireland (Murray and Urban, 2012), but it is now more visible and acknowledged following a significant period of cultural, social, and religious change. As such, early childhood educators are working with multiple diversities in families and communities. Children are connecting and engaging with diversity in their daily lives. They are exposed to gender, ‘race’, ethnicity, (dis)ability, age, sexuality, and class, and as adults and educators we are charged with recognising and taking that seriously.

Reading through the intentions as stated in the ECEC policy documents, it could be said that DEI has been mainstreamed – even though it is only relatively recently that ECEC policy has become more proactive in implementing specific initiatives. This development is welcome and appreciated in opening a more inclusive discussion, and it is significant for supporting understanding of social inequalities and for ‘doing’ social justice education.

Despite unprecedented economic growth and policy efforts to address child poverty, Irish society remains profoundly unequal (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009). It is well documented that inequality goes hand in hand with prejudice, discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and classism. We know from research that the most vulnerable and marginalised people are experiencing increasing inequality and negative actions in Ireland (McGinnity et al., 2017). This is against a backdrop of political populism, increasing global nationalism, and unregulated social media.

The vast majority of us abhor the assumptions and actions that can manifest from these forms of hate, and we would never be perpetrators, but we ignore the actions of others in our society at our peril. Negative attitudes and fear of difference can spread like a virus and disrupt the thinking of those ordinarily open to difference, raising unfounded suspicions. Research confirms that majority and minority children are not immune to the effects of exclusion and discrimination (MacNaughton, 2003). Early childhood educators are in a unique position to make a positive difference in children’s lives, as they think through and critically engage with children about diverse issues. Hence it is vital that we address diversity, equality, and inclusion robustly and broadly at policy, training, and practice levels.

Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion in Early Childhood

In 2016, the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM) (DCYA, 2016a) was launched and the revised Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Charter and Guidelines (DCYA, 2016b) were republished, following a ten-year period where little progress had been made to implement the initial Diversity and Equality Guidelines (Office of the Minister for Children, 2006). AIM is a model of supports designed to ensure that children with disabilities can access the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme (DCYA, 2009). It is an innovative approach providing training, resourcing, therapeutic supports, and human resourcing for children with ‘disabilities’ at preschool age.

The training supports include a Leadership for Inclusion in Early Years (LINC) special purpose award (level 6 qualification with extra capitation for the service provider) aimed at enabling early childhood educators to carry out the role of an inclusion coordinator (INCO) (DCYA, 2016a). Concurrently there is a fifteen-hour DEI training (non-accredited, no extra capitation) built on the Preschool Education Initiative for Children from Minority Groups,1 to support the implementation of the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Charter and Guidelines. Additional free professional development training is also provided through AIM, including Irish sign language, Lámh.

It is right that the DCYA has put in place much-needed resources and supports for ‘children with disabilities’ (AIM: and ‘additional needs’ (LINC:, and that the role of the INCO includes helping to implement the DEI Charter and Guidelines. The AIM and LINC initiatives refer specifically to a focus on ‘disability and additional needs’, while the DEI Charter and Guidelines – which according to the Minister’s foreword form the foundation of AIM – take a broader, holistic approach to DEI. The disconnect between the LINC and DEI training programmes, however, compounds the idea of divisions or hierarchies of diversities, and in so doing can hinder a cohesive and connected way forward. For example, training is not mandatory, and there is no requirement for those attending LINC training to also attend the DEI training, and vice versa.

From Needs to Rights

In First 5 it is evident under Goal C for early learning, Objective 8, Strategic Action 8.3, that inclusion is to be achieved through the ‘integration of additional supports and services for children and families with additional needs’ (DCYA, 2018, p. 95). Culturally appropriate services for Traveller children (ibid., p. 58) are referred to in relation to other policy documents promoting inclusion and addressing discrimination, for example the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy (NTRIS) (DJE, 2017). But on closer inspection of NTRIS, Action 12 refers only to access for Traveller and Roma children to the ECCE scheme, and to AIM for those with disabilities.

Interculturalism and anti-racism are specifically actioned for primary and post-primary education but not for ECEC. It is problematic that culturally appropriate, anti-racist, or anti-bias practice for young children remains unspecific in NTRIS and First 5. We also know there is a dearth of information about Traveller and Roma children in the ECEC system, and neither NTRIS nor First 5 have actions to gather disaggregated data on Traveller or Roma children. A strategy for ECEC based on children’s rights would foreground equitable outcomes for all children as an entitlement, which the current needs or welfare emphasis seems to omit. This is particularly important for children who are powerless, marginalised, and discriminated against in society.

An ‘End of Year One Review of the Access and Inclusion Model’ was published on 17 October on the AIM website (DCYA, 2019). The findings are broadly positive, with identified areas for improvement. An end-of-year-three evaluation is expected to take place over the coming months. This should offer an opportunity to validate survey findings with more in-depth qualitative research (e.g., focus groups). It will enable a more detailed exploration of fundamental issues and identify further useful lessons, provided it focuses on questions such as:

  • Is the orientation of First 5 towards all children’s rights followed through in AIM?
  • How is diversity understood and evaluated, including multiple identities (ethnicity, ability, gender, family status, etc.)?
  • How do service providers make sure to implement a genuinely comprehensive approach and avoid consciously or unconsciously targeting (stigmatising) children accessing and associated with AIM?
  • How do service providers define an inclusive culture?
  • How is the ‘required shared learning’ from the training monitored and evaluated, and by whom?
  • Who receives the training, who does not, and why not?
  • How are consistency of approach and staff turnover addressed?
  • How will an evaluation explore coherence and connection between the DEI and LINC training?
  • Is there a need for a mentoring programme to support the implementation of the LINC and DEI training?
  • What changes will have to be introduced to arrive at a genuinely comprehensive DEI approach in ECEC?

These questions would enable and enrich a meaningful discussion on the potential for a comprehensive diversity, equality, and inclusion strategy, building on what is currently available to the ECCE programme and ECEC sector. It would be a strategy that enacts rights for all children, beyond a focus on needs. It would progress and realise all children’s rights through a comprehensive approach.


Bloch, M.N., Blue Swadener, B., and Canella, G.S. (eds.) (2014) Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Care and Education: Critical Questions, New Imaginaries and Social Activism. New York: Peter Lang.

Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) (2009) Early Childhood Care and Education Programme (ECCE).

Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) (2016a) Access and Inclusion Model (AIM).

Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) (2016b) Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Charter and Guidelines. Dublin: DCYA.

Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) (2016c) Leadership for Inclusion Programme.

Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) (2018) First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) (2019) ‘An End of Year One Review of the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM)’. May 2019.

Department of Justice and Equality (DJE) (2011) Ireland’s National Traveller / Roma Integration Strategy. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Department of Justice and Equality (DJE) (2017) National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017–2021. Dublin: Stationery Office.

MacNaughton, G. (2003) Shaping Early Childhood: Learners, Curriculum and Contexts. London: Open University Press.

McGinnity, F., Grotti, R., Kenny, O., and Russell, H. (2017) Who Experiences Discrimination in Ireland? Dublin: Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission; Economic and Social Research Institute.

Murray, C. and Urban, M. (2012) Diversity and Equality in Early Childhood: An Irish Perspective. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Office of the Minister for Children (2006) Diversity and Equality Guidelines for Childcare Providers. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Wilkinson, R.G. and Pickett, K. (2009) The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Allen Lane.


The Pre-school Education Initiative for Children from Minority Groups was funded by the Department of Education and Skills, Early Years Education Policy Unit under Dormant Accounts. Funding was granted for the period 2011 to 2012. See the evaluation report by Duffy and Gibbs, 2013, at

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