Early Childhood Education and Care: A Sector in Transition

October 17, 2020

MECPI 10th Anniversary Blog by Dr Mary O’Kane, Lecturer in Psychology and Education.

As September approaches, it seems fitting to focus on the area of transition in this blog. This month so many of our children are making the transition from home to preschool, the transition from preschool to primary school, or making the transition back from the freedom of summer break into the education system once again. As a sector ECEC is also experiencing a period of transition, with vast progress having been made over the past decade, but many more challenges ahead to overcome.

Many of the previous blogs in this series have outlined the changes which have taken place over the past 10 years and the impact they have had on the sector. There have been very positive aspects such as the development of Síolta and Aistear. The Better Start Mentoring service is driving quality improvement, and the Access and Inclusion Model is supporting children with disabilities. Other positive aspects include the ECCE scheme, Early Years Education-Focused Inspections and a rise in the level of qualifications within the sector with a growing recognition that ECEC practitioners are skilful professionals. These, and many more, positive changes have developed in tandem with an increasing awareness of the important role played by quality early years learning experiences to long term outcomes for children.

However, it has also been argued that this is still ‘a fragmented sector with a multitude of actors following diverse practices and policy agendas.’ (Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, 2017, p7). Change is a slow process and there are more challenges to face. As noted in many of the earlier MECPI blogs recent developments have resulted in significant increases in workload and expectations on the workforce without commensurate increases in pay, conditions or professional recognition. Clearly, to recognise the important contribution that quality ECEC practitioners make to the lives of our children, these areas need to be considered in tandem with structural changes. Many ECEC settings are struggling financially, many individual staff members are earning minimum wage, and precarious employment conditions have resulted in some well qualified staff leaving the sector. This takes place while Irish parents pay among the highest ECEC costs in the 36 OECD countries.

Although we do not know what the coming years will bring for this sector, we know we are in the process of reform. We believe that the long awaited National Early Years Strategy for babies, young children and their families should bring greater coherence and a vision for the next decade. Hopefully it will also recognise the vital role played by the expertise of a well-qualified workforce. The research tells us that major transitions are times of change in both identity and status. This is true not only for children making these transitions, but for the ECEC sector and the professionals working within it. Professional identity within the sector is slowly emerging but further progress needs to be made.

To support children at times of transition the research highlights important areas to consider such as social and emotional wellbeing; confidence and self-esteem (O’Kane, 2007). We need to remember to focus on these areas when considering self-care for practitioners also. Although it is important to push ourselves to achieve our best professionally, we must also remember to support our wellbeing in terms of both rest and play. In the ECEC sector our personal and professional selves are closely intertwined, and the passion that is so highly valued when working with young children can make it less likely that we put our own needs first in the balance between those two selves. An important part of self-care is in supporting each other. We know the sector is fragmented, and there is a danger that in striving for recognition in terms of professionalism that we forget to support each other. We must remember we are stronger as a cohesive whole.

The role of the MECPI is invaluable in providing a community of practice where members can support each other in respectful professional dialogue. This is also a collegial network providing emotional support, and during times of transition that is invaluable. We view our children through an ecological lens, it is important to view ourselves in the same way. Tapping into resources such as this group can help us to connect with peers for both practical and emotional support, resulting in a greater sense of agency, optimism and positive self-regard. The importance of colleagues who offer a safe space in which to critically reflect on and share knowledge, ideas and expertise; debate issues and express opinions; and become a driving force for change, cannot be underestimated. Congratulations to the MECPI for providing a sense of community and connectedness to members. It has been a privilege to be a part of this community, and I have no doubt it will continue to thrive as the sector continues through this transitional stage of growth and transformation.


  1. Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs (2017) Report on the Working Conditions of the Early Years Education and Care Sector. Available at: https://data.oireachtas.ie/ie/oireachtas/committee/dail/32/joint_committee_on_children_and_youth_affairs/reports/2017/2017-07-26_report-on-the-working-conditions-of-the-early-years-education-and-care-sector-2017_en.pdf.
  2. O’Kane M (2007) Building Bridges: The Transition from Preschool to Primary School for Children in Ireland.  Dublin Institute of Technology: Unpublished PhD Thesis. Available at: http://arrow.dit.ie/appadoc/13/

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