By Derek Grant, Claire Reidy and Arlene Forster
National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), Ireland
Changes are on the horizon for students in Ireland, where for the first time in 20 years, stakeholders are reconsidering what (and how) children should learn in state primary schools.
Much has changed in Irish society, classrooms and educational policy over the last two decades, and the skills that today’s children need to develop have transformed, as well. Ireland’s review and redevelopment of the primary curriculum, marks an important opportunity for the country to consider how the curriculum for this phase of education can best prepare children for an uncertain future – and, importantly, build on what they learned in preschool.
Continuity in curricula between early childhood education and care (ECEC) and primary school is critical to building on what children learn in preschool – but it is not always easy to achieve. Whereas ECEC curricula tend to promote a balance between education and care, primary school curricula tend to have a stronger focus on academic content, with specific goals or standards for each age. To ensure greater continuity in curriculum, and to better understand its implications, policy makers in Ireland will need to draw on solid research evidence, as well as practice evidence from various schools and settings.
A new working paper published by the OECD, and funded by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), makes an important contribution to this evidence base. In seven case studies, the paper details how curriculum policies in other jurisdictions support continuity between ECEC and early primary education, thereby offering a range of different approaches for Ireland to consider as it reforms its curriculum.
Curriculum can play an important role in promoting continuity in children’s educational experiences.
In Japan and New Jersey, for example, ECEC and primary school adhere to separate curricula. Yet both education systems make efforts to promote continuity between ECEC and primary school in different ways, including through cooperation among different government agencies. On the other end of the spectrum are countries like Luxembourg and Scotland, where ECEC and primary school curricula are closely integrated. As the paper notes, however, it is not easy to draw conclusions about the impact and effectiveness of these different policy approaches.
As we consider how to best support continuity for young children in Ireland, approaches that fall in closer to the middle of this continuum may be most informative. For instance, the ECEC curriculum in New Zealand, known as Te Whāriki, is separate from the curriculum used in primary school; but strands of Te Whāriki, correspond to key competences in the primary curriculum, thereby providing learners and teachers with a clear sense of continuity and direction. Both curricula also contribute to continuity through a shared focus on ongoing and lifelong learning.
Ireland could also draw insights from Norway, where the primary curriculum is currently undergoing adjustments to more closely align with the ECEC curriculum. The two curricula share common purposes and values, and learning areas identified in the ECEC curriculum reflect the subjects in the primary curriculum. Norway’s approach demonstrates that alignment in learning can happen without using traditional academic disciplines in ECEC curricula.
As the paper makes clear, curriculum can play an important role in promoting continuity in children’s educational experiences and supporting their transition from ECEC to primary school. As education systems continue to establish stronger links across ECEC and primary school curricula, they will also have to monitor the implementation process, which is an ongoing challenge for many.
It is important to note, however, that all curricula are the products of broader education systems, and are therefore shaped by political and socio-cultural contexts. Approaches that work in one country or jurisdiction may prove less effective in Ireland. But Ireland can nevertheless learn from the experiences described in our paper, and perhaps adapt some strategies to its own political and social environment. By successfully incorporating continuity in curriculum, the benefits for Ireland’s youngest children could be tremendous.