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Winds of Change?

A tale of intended and unintended consequences

Prof Mathias Urban
Desmond Chair of Early Childhood Education, and Director of the Early Childhood Research Centre, Dublin City University

In policy and practice it has been an eventful year for early childhood education and care in Ireland. This article outlines the most important events, developments, and controversies in Irish ECEC in 2019. It looks at the choices made and those that lie ahead, and considers the implications for future developments.


2019 has been an eventful year for policy and practice in early childhood education and care (ECEC) in Ireland, and perhaps not an easy one to give a coherent account of. Before venturing into my subjective perspective on the markers of another year of change, it is pertinent to mention a global milestone for our field: the thirtieth anniversary of the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The decades since 1989 have seen unprecedented attention to young children and their development. Many countries have introduced ambitious policies to address ECEC and initiatives to establish and support early childhood development programmes. In the process, as I have discussed elsewhere (Urban, 2014, 2015), policymakers have moved their focus from the individual child (who has to be cared for and educated) to an entire critical period in human life. Early childhood – the phase of life from birth to eight years – has become what we might call a ‘matter of concern’ (Latour, 2004).

The importance of this shift cannot be overestimated. It has resulted, in principle, in the acknowledgement that we all share collective responsibility for the youngest members of our societies. Going beyond the questions of policymaking, it is a reminder of the ethical imperative of being human in a dramatically changing world. Woodhead (1996) argues succinctly that realising children’s rights is much more than a legal obligation, something adults do for children. It is a critical element of what it means to be human:

Children are not incomplete human beings to be shaped into society’s mould. They have needs and aspirations of their own, and rights which must be respected. Above all, their childhood is an opportunity. Each young child has a unique potential for development of human capacities, for communication and cooperation, for skill and feeling, for reason and imagination, for practicality and spirituality, for determination and compassion. These themes are not new. The status and importance of human childhood has been widely recognised in traditions of nurturance, training and initiation throughout the world, among societies that are economically, religiously, and politically diverse. What is new is that these themes are being widely articulated and discussed, researched and written about. The proper care of children is no longer solely a matter of tradition, passed on from generation to generation by example, and through the counsel of elders. To a much greater extent, it is becoming a planned process, a self-conscious activity of appraising and constructing environments that foster a new generation of young children. There are choices to be made and alternatives to consider. (p. 9)

Woodhead’s words, while written with the global picture in mind, are as relevant to the Irish context today as when they were formulated over two decades ago. Society’s relationship with young children, their families, and their communities manifests in the collective choices we make and the alternatives we choose to consider – or not. What choices have been made in Irish early childhood education and care in 2019, and what choices lie ahead? What alternatives have been considered or dismissed, and what are the implications for future developments?

Early childhood 2019 – key events and developments

Early childhood is an idea whose time has come. In Ireland it has been coming for some time. Not only does 2019 mark thirty years of recognition of children’s rights, it is also twenty years since the White Paper on early childhood education Ready to Learn was published (DES, 1999), based on John Coolahan’s Report on the National Forum for Early Childhood Education (1998). Much of the shape of the Irish early childhood system today can be traced back to the vision laid out in this landmark report.

The following shortlist of important events in Irish ECEC is based as much on my own observations as it is on a straw poll of fellow early childhood scholars at my home university, DCU (thank you for your contributions, you know who you are!). The list of five is by no means complete, but I would argue that these events will be as influential for the future development of the sector as the White Paper was in getting us to where we are now.

A holistic strategy with implications for ECEC

Following the launch of First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and Their Families in December 2018 (DCYA, 2018), the implementation of the most comprehensive vision ever for early childhood in Ireland has got seriously under way. As a long-term strategy, First 5 has the potential to become the blueprint for a fundamental change in how we realise all children’s rights to education, care and development from birth.

Though it is not a dedicated strategy for ECEC, First 5’s broad vision includes a commitment to build ‘an effective early childhood system’ as the fourth of its five goals. I read this as the Irish manifestation of what I have tentatively come to call a globally emerging ‘systemic turn’ (Powers and Paulsell, 2018; Urban et al., 2018) which recognises that early childhood services do not exist in isolation but require a ‘competent system’ of support that connects policy, practice, resourcing, professional preparation and development, and research across all layers of the system (Urban et al., 2011, 2012). Crucial elements of such a system are listed as building blocks of the strategy:

  1. leadership, governance, collaboration
  2. regulation, inspection, quality assurance
  3. skilled and sustainable workforce
  4. research, data, monitoring, and evaluation
  5. strategic investment.

The litmus test for the ECEC element of First 5 will be whether it moves from ambition to action – and by how much. Early indications are mixed; they give reason for both hope and concern, as I will discuss below.

A workforce strategy for the early childhood sector

Professionalisation of the early childhood and care sector has been a thread running through the debates since 1999. Building on solid foundations (e.g., DES, 2010; Urban et al., 2017), and as part of the implantation strategy for First 5, the Department for Children and Youth Affairs has announced a Workforce Development Plan (WDP) for the sector. A steering group and stakeholder group have been established, and work is under way.

This was broadly welcomed by the sector, but the composition of the groups has led to legitimate criticism: while it is fully justified to have strong representation of government departments and bodies, it is questionable whether a high-level steering group for the reform of the early childhood workforce should have been established without representation from that workforce.

Various groups that represent elements of the ECEC workforce are part of the stakeholder group, and effective protocols for consultation and communication between the groups have been set up. The expected outcomes of the process (to be published in 2020) will be a welcome alignment of professional roles, entry routes, and career pathways with international and European recommendations (Council of the European Union, 2019).

An autonomous body for the ECEC profession

My reading of the WDP process to date is that it is symptomatic of the fragmented and still under-organised early childhood sector. The collective ECEC profession, while comprising highly committed (and increasingly qualified) practitioners, has yet to mature (Miller et al., 2012). The WDP process has offered a welcome opportunity to initiate the development of a collective professional identity.

Following an invitation by DCU Early Childhood Research Centre and a group of senior early childhood advocates, three organisations representing significant parts of the workforce have formed a coalition. The Association of Childhood Professionals (ACP), PLÉ (the association of early childhood academics in higher education), and the trade union SIPTU formed a working group to establish an autonomous body for the ECEC profession. It published a joint statement that spells out the coalition’s starting point and work plan:

We firmly believe that the development of a collective professional identity can neither be imposed nor achieved by influences that exist mainly outside that profession. Instead of ‘professionalising’ the workforce, it is government’s responsibility to create the conditions for the profession to emerge and self-organise. We find our position supported by international evidence (e.g. governance and systems research, and a sound body of research into professional systems) and by examples of how other autonomous professions operate, in Ireland.

Central to the development of a collective professional identity of the early childhood education and care profession is the existence of a self-organised body that serves as a focal point for the profession.1

What’s in a name? The curious incident of the disappearance of education

For good reason, international policy documents, beginning with the first OECD Starting Strong report (OECD, 2001), have adopted the term ECEC to refer to our field:

Early childhood education and care refers to any regulated arrangement that provides education and care for children from birth to compulsory primary school age, which may vary across the EU. It includes centre and family-day care, privately and publicly funded provision, pre-school and pre-primary provision.

ECEC sums up the hard-won consensus that education and care are inseparable in early childhood. It is the basis of professional practice for all early childhood educators. However, the authors of First 5 introduced a new terminology that sets Ireland apart from the international convention. The sector is now referred to as Early Learning and Care/School-Aged Childcare (ELC/SAC). The change was made without consultation with the profession and has sparked much disagreement. To me, both the renaming of an entire sector without consultation, and the reaction to it, indicate two critical issues in need of urgent addressing:

  1. The lack of an organised and articulate collective professional identity. ECEC in Ireland has yet to become ‘a profession thinking and speaking for itself’ (Urban and Dalli, 2012). Unlike other established professions, we are still spoken to, and critical decisions are made for us, not with us. I am confident that the new professional body, once established, will change this imbalance.
  2. The absence of a broad public, professional, and political consensus on the purpose of our society’s collective engagement with young children and, in consequence, the purpose of early childhood educators.

A detailed discussion of the implications and importance of terms is beyond the scope of this article. Nonetheless, I would like to sketch out a few pointers for the necessary debate:

  1. (Early) Learning: Children learn all the time (we all do), from the moment they are born, and arguably before birth. Learning is an active process through which children make sense of the world.
  2. (Early Childhood) Development summarises the unfolding of a child’s inherent potential – ontogenetics – in interaction with the physical, social, spiritual, etc. world we are born into.
  3. (Early Childhood) Education is the purposeful interaction of adults with children to give orientation and direction to their learning (and their development, to some extent). It is, as Austrian educator and psychoanalyst Siegfried Bernfeld (Bernfeld, 1925, 1973) wrote, ‘the sum total of the social reaction to the fact of ontogenetic postnatal development’.
  4. (Child) Care is a fundamental value for every human society. But is it valued? Or is it taken for granted as in under- and unpaid care work? The question of who cares, and whether or not we care, is fundamentally political (Cameron and Moss, 2007; Lynch et al., 2009).

While children develop and learn anywhere and all the time, education is a purposeful practice (and hence political and contested), based on values, interests, and judgements. As educators we have to position ourselves: What are our values? How do they relate to other possible positions in society? Paulo Freire (Figueiredo-Cowen and Gastaldo, 1995) insisted that educators must decide: Are we, through our educational practices, maintaining the status quo (i.e., inequality, injustice, oppression) – or are we educating for change (i.e., more just and equitable outcomes for all children)?

Scandals and isolated bad practice – or persistent dysfunction and a call for change?

Freire’s insistence that we cannot educate without taking a stand leads me to my final observation on the critical events in our field in 2019. Six years after the last report of abusive practices in early childhood services, 2019 brought another Prime Time investigation into the breakdown of professional practice in Irish early childhood service, and the failure of the regulatory body to act on persistent abuse and maltreatment of children.

The case of the Hyde and Seek crèche in Dublin triggered a flurry of activity, including calls for more rigid inspections and stronger powers for the inspecting body (Tusla) to shut down services that fail to adhere to legal requirements, existing regulations, and children’s rights. While these are legitimate concerns that require immediate action, the question here is much more profound. What could be framed as bad apples appears to me an indication of the more general state of the barrel. The critical questions arising from the scandal point to the general structure of the Irish early childhood education and care sector.

Internationally, the connection between over-reliance on private for-profit services and poor quality for children and families has long been established and reported (e.g., OECD, 2006, p. 46). Ireland, like other countries that rely on a market model, has responded with increased regulation and a system of inspections for services. However, examples from other countries show that the Irish scandals might be more systemic than we want to admit.

New Zealand has seen dramatic changes in its early childhood sector. Starting from a situation not dissimilar to ours (a diverse range of small, community-based private and voluntary services), the sector has been taken over by larger, international, for-profit chains that now provide more than half of all services . In correlation, the number of complaints about malpractice has risen sharply, from 247 in 2012 to 430 in 2018.2 This has led to calls to ‘turn the tide away from a privatised, profit-focused system’3 and to include systematic deprivatisation in the new strategic plan as a priority.

A similar debate, held in public, on the future structure of the early childhood education and care sector in Ireland has yet to be held. I am convinced that such a debate is necessary if we are serious about realising the aspiration of a sustainable, rights-based early childhood system that benefits all children, their families, and society as a whole.


Bernfeld, S. (1925) Sisyphos oder die Grenzen der Erziehung. Leipzig: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag.

Bernfeld, S. (1973) Sisyphus: or The limits of education. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Cameron, C. and Moss, P. (2007) Care Work in Europe: Current Understandings and Future Directions. London: Routledge.

Coolahan, J. (ed.) (1998) Report on the National Forum for Early Childhood Education. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Council of the European Union (2019) Council Recommendation of 22 May 2019 on High-Quality Early Childhood Education and Care Systems. (2019/C 189/02). Brussels: Council of the European Union. Retrieved from:

Department for Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) (2018) First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and Their Families 2019–2028. Dublin: Government of Ireland.

Department of Education and Science (DES) (1999) Ready to Learn. White Paper on Early Childhood Education. Dublin: Government of Ireland.

Department of Education and Skills (DES) (2010) A Workforce Development Plan for the Early Childhood Care and Education Sector in Ireland. Dublin: DES. Retrieved from:

Figueiredo-Cowen, M. and Gastaldo, D. (eds.) (1995) Freire at the Institute. London: Institute of Education.

Latour, B. (2004) ‘Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern’, Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225–248. Retrieved from:

Lynch, K., Baker, J., and Lyons, M. (2009) Affective Equality: Love, Care and Injustice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Miller, L., Dalli, C., and Urban, M. (eds.) (2012) Early Childhood Grows Up: Towards a Critical Ecology of the Profession. Dordrecht and London: Springer.

OECD (2001) Starting Strong. Early Childhood Education and Care. Paris: OECD.

OECD (2006) Starting Strong II. Early Childhood Education and Care. Paris: OECD.

Powers, S. and Paulsell, D. (2018) ‘Strengthening early learning with a systems approach: Diagnostic strategies with an application to over-age enrollment’. Paper presented at the Comparative and International Education Society annual conference, Mexico City.

Urban, M. (2014) ‘Learning from the margins: Early childhood imaginaries, “normal science”, and the case for a radical reconceptualisation of research and practice’. In: M. Bloch, B.B. Swadener, and G.S. Cannella (eds.) Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Care and Education: Critical Questions, Diverse Imaginaries and Social Activism. New York: Peter Lang.

Urban, M. (2015) ‘From “closing the gap” to an ethics of affirmation: Reconceptualising the role of early childhood services in times of uncertainty’, European Journal of Education, 50(3), 293–306. doi: 10.1111/ejed.12131

Urban, M. and Dalli, C. (2012) ‘A profession speaking – and thinking – for itself’. In L. Miller, C. Dalli, and M. Urban (eds.) Early Childhood Grows Up: Towards a Critical Ecology of the Profession. Dordrecht and London: Springer.

Urban, M., Cardini, A., and Floréz Romero, R. (2018) ‘It takes more than a village: Effective early childhood development, education and care services require competent systems’, Global Solutions Journal, 1(2), 116–124.

Urban, M., Robson, S., and Scacchi, V. (2017) Review of Occupational Role Profiles in Ireland in Early Childhood Education and Care. Dublin, Ireland. Retrieved from:

Urban, M., Vandenbroeck, M., Van Laere, K., Lazzari, A., and Peeters, J. (2011) Competence Requirements in Early Childhood Education and Care: Final Report. Brussels: European Commission. Directorate General for Education and Culture.

Urban, M., Vandenbroeck, M., Van Laere, K., Lazzari, A., and Peeters, J. (2012) ‘Towards competent systems in early childhood education and care: Implications for policy and practice’, European Journal of Education, 47(4), 508–526. doi: 10.1111/ejed.12010

Woodhead, M. (1996) In Search of the Rainbow: Pathways to Quality in Large-Scale Programmes for Young Disadvantaged Children. The Hague: Bernhard van Leer Foundation.



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