Knowledge is power: ensuring quality early childhood education and care provision

by Ineke Litjens
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Leaving a child at a nursery, crèche, pre-school or day care centre for the first time can be a daunting experience for a parent. While the small child’s tears may soon turn to laughter as they play with new toys and meet new friends, the parent may sit at home or at work checking their phone and worrying that their child is not being well looked after.

This is a reality for an increasing number of parents as more and more children participate in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings, partly due to the extension of legal entitlements to a place, free access, and subsidised parental fees or provision. This increased participation has led to governments, as well as parents, taking a keen interest in the quality of provision, because quality is key to ensuring benefits for young children, particularly those with disadvantaged backgrounds. In high quality learning environments, children develop a good basis for social, basic literacy and numeracy skills which are important for future educational success.

An essential part of making sure that all children receive high quality early childhood education and care is to monitor the providers of this care. Understanding whether provisions meet the regulations and standards, how staff are performing, and how children are developing can inform policy makers and identify where improvements are needed. This information also informs parents about the level of quality provided, allowing them to make informed decisions about their choice of provision.

The latest report in the OECD’s Starting Strong series reviews the monitoring systems of 24 jurisdictions and reveals that monitoring does not merely encompass regulatory compliance but is moving towards better understanding what is happening inside an ECEC setting and how a child develops in several areas:

  • Service and staff quality: These are the most commonly monitored areas, and are usually monitored through inspections or self-evaluations. Monitoring of these aspects is often mandatory and mainly focuses on regulatory aspects such as staff-child ratios, group size and staff qualifications or curriculum implementation. 
  • Child development and outcomes: These are mostly monitored through observations rather than tests as used in primary and secondary schools. Monitoring children’s early development has a broad, holistic focus, concentrating on language and literacy skills, as well as socio-emotional, motor and health development. 
  • Staff and child interaction: Interest is growing in monitoring process quality to ensure the quality of interaction between staff and children, to improve staff practices and identify staff training needs. 

In addition, we found that early childhood monitoring is frequently aligned with the primary school monitoring system, which allows a more continuous early childhood development experience, and because tools used in monitoring practices are usually decided at the local level, actual practices differ between regions or even provisions. Lastly, results of monitoring quality, at least for aggregated results, are often shared with the general public, resulting in more transparency.

The increase in monitoring activities across countries is a positive move. But monitoring and evaluating quality can be a complex task. Starting Strong IV highlights some key aspects to keep in mind when designing or revising monitoring systems:

  1. Clarify the purposes for monitoring: This ensures all people involved are “on the same path” in terms of objectives and consequences. 
  2. Develop a coherent monitoring framework for different settings: This ensures an even level of quality and can contribute to better transitions for children moving between different settings. 
  3. Link monitoring of staff quality to professional development: Training as a result of staff evaluation can lead to quality improvements and better staff practices for child development. Don’t allow monitoring efforts to go to waste!
  4. Do not underestimate the demands of monitoring on staff: Keep in mind that monitoring requires time and increases staff members’ workload and stress. 
  5. Value the voices of staff, parents and children: Different points of view are important in understanding how quality and performance is perceived, and may provide some valuable insights into the strengths and challenges of the system. 

“Knowledge is power” is an often-used phrase, but when it comes to making sure that children have the best start in life, it is a phrase that rings true. Through knowing which systems are working well and what makes them work well, governments can ensure that high quality childcare is provided, and parents can be empowered to make informed decisions that will help put them at ease when leaving their child for the first time.

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