Early Years Education: An International Perspective

Tony Bertram, Chris Pascal

27 April 2002

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has responsibility in England to monitor and evaluate the early years curriculum and as part of this programme commissioned an international review of the early years curriculum in 20 countries. The review was in two parts. Firstly, the production of an interim report formed the basis for a discussion of key issues across the participating countries at an invited international seminar, and secondly, the production of a final report summarises international perspectives on the early years’ curriculum and presents an agenda for future action.

Key issues for the future

The seminar papers and discussions highlighted some key areas for further debate and development in all the participating countries. These areas deserve attention as policy and practice looks to the future. They include:

  • the desirability of national curriculum frameworks for children aged birth to 3 years and from 3 to 6 years
  • the appropriate content of such curriculum frameworks and its universality
  • the extent to which there might be universal early years pedagogy
  • the desirability and utility of assessment strategies for young children
  • ¨the improvement of transition from Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) settings to primary schooling
  • the improvement of continuity between home and ECEC settings, and within early years settings
  • how more effective partnership with parents in children’s learning might be achieved
  • how the demand for enhanced levels of training, salaries and employment conditions for ECEC practitioners might be met
  • the achievement of universal access and equal opportunities in ECEC settings
  • the appropriate level and role of inspection and quality assurance systems
  • the implications for young children’s life experiences of expanding ECEC services.

The interim report and the international seminar highlighted four key areas, which each have issues for further reflection and development:

Curriculum

  • Few countries have national curriculum guidelines for children under the age of three years.Many are considering ECEC guidelines but others have a strong stance against doing so.
  • There was general agreement that the curriculum for those under three years of age should focus on the individual child’s developing interests and needs with an emphasis on dispositions and social and emotional well being.
  • Virtually all participating countries have defined curriculum guidelines for children over the age of three but they vary in detail and prescription.
  • There is some variation in how the ECEC curriculum for children over three was defined. Most countries used areas of learning, few used activities, no country used disciplines or subjects.
  • Most curriculum guidelines for those over three years of age included social and emotional, cultural, aesthetic and creative, physical, environmental, language and literacy, and numeracy.
  • Many countries emphasised cultural traditions and aimed to enhance social cohesiveness through the ECEC curriculum.
  • Only three countries emphasised early literacy and numeracy within the ECEC curriculum.

Pedagogy, qualifications and staffing

  • There was almost universal promotion of an active, play based pedagogy within the participating countries, where self-management and independence were encouraged.
  • Collaborative peer group learning was emphasised by delegates as important at this stage, with whole class ‘circle time’ used to reinforce this.
  • Delegates generally agreed that the role of the adult is to support, scaffold and facilitate rather than to overly direct.
  • Some countries, such as Sweden, specifically discouraged a formal approach.
  • There was great variation on staff training and qualification levels across and within the participating countries, but most delegates indicated the importance of training to the delivery of a quality curriculum.
  • Most of these countries were aiming to increase the qualification levels of their early years staff.
  • There was general agreement that investment in professional ECEC staff was a preferable strategy for raising quality than over-prescribing a centralised curriculum.
  • The ratios of staff to children varied considerably and were often determined by such things as the age of the child, the qualification of the staff, the special needs of the child or parents or where interventionist strategies targeted particular groups.

Continuity

  • Delegates agreed that continuity in a child’s early experiences from home to setting and between settings was a key to effective early learning.
  • The impossible separation of the educative and care functions was reinforced by structural and administrative divisions in many of the participating countries, but a number were acting to end this distinction and integrate education and care services and the term ‘ECEC’ was gaining recognition.
  • The separation between early years and primary education and between different sectors (private, voluntary and state) caused some level of discontinuity in most participating countries.
  • Work with parents was seen as a key factor in supporting continuity of experience for young children, but most delegates believed practitioners needed much more training in this aspect of their work.

Quality assurance and assessment

  • Some countries had assessment on entry to compulsory schooling, primarily a developmental checklist for identifying special need. Most countries used assessment as a diagnostic and formative tool in developing their curriculum programmes.
  • There were great variations in the levels of inspection and quality assurance. Some countries were highly regulated and in others there was little regulation.
  • Some countries had developed an additional quality assurance scheme which accredited providers of ECEC with an approved official stamp of quality.
  • Most countries had a national system of regulation and licensing of ECEC services enforcing minimum standards
  • The education and care sector regulations and inspection regimes were often separated.
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