15 October, 2015 - Address by Dr Harold Hislop, Chief Inspector, Department of Education and Skills at the launch of Reflective Practice for Early Childhood Professionals 

Launch of Reflective Practice for Early Childhood Professionals written by Heino Schonfeld and published by Barnardos

Wisdom Centre, Cork Street, Dublin 8

Thursday, 15 October 2015 at 3.00PM

A Chairde

I would like to thank Heino and Fergus for their kind words of welcome here this afternoon. I am genuinely delighted to be here – and I can truthfully say “go bhfuil fíor-áthas orm agus gur mór agam an deis seo teacht agus labhairt ag an ócáid seo um thrathnóna.” 

Tháinig mé ar obair Barnardos blianta ó shin nuair a ceapadh mé i mo mhúinteoir bunscoile. I’ve known something about the work of Barnardos from the time I first started to teach. I have encountered different aspects of its work – both personally and professionally – on different occasions over the years, and I have enormous regard for the commitment, practical action and demanding standards that Barnardos staff and activists have brought to the welfare of young people. 

I work within the Department of Education and Skills, and Barnardos can often shine a light on aspects of the Department’s work where we and the education system as a whole are not always as successful as we should be. But it’s really important that a mirror is held up to the face of the government departments, schools and institutions that work for children. Looking critically at what is good and what needs improvement in our provision for children is a really important first step in making the lives of young people better. Barnardos makes a vital contribution to Irish society in this way. 

I have also been very aware of the major contribution that Heino has made to the advancement of early childhood education in Ireland ever since his days in the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education at Drumcondra and then in the Department. I don’t need to tell you about the commitment and expertise that he brings to the field of early childhood education, and he has shared this knowledge generously in each of the organisations in which he has worked. Duine éirmiúil atá ann agus táimd ar fad faoi chomaoin aige mar scaipeann sé a léann is a eolas go flaithiúil eadrainn. 

So, I was really pleased when Heino contacted me and asked me to launch this book that has been published by Barnardos. 

This publication could hardly be coming at a better time! For many years, early childhood education and care was very underdeveloped in Ireland. There were – and continue to be – superb examples of excellent and innovative provision for young children in Ireland. Some of this was supported by community organisations and groups such as Barnardos. The work that Barnardos took on in disadvantaged communities in Limerick, for example, in the 1990s was a model of good practice that tackled the need for family support and early years education in the most challenging of circumstances. Yet, as a society we invested relatively little in early childhood education and care, despite mounting evidence that this is the most crucial phase of the child’s development and the time at which disadvantages caused by disability or poverty can become entrenched. 

Thankfully, recent years have seen concrete steps to address this gap in provision for young people. I think, in time, we will look back on the period we are now in as the beginning of a new phase in early years education in Ireland. The development of Aistear and Siolta, the introduction and increased investment in the ECCE scheme, the realisation that practitioners in early years settings have to carry out some of the most important and skilful of educational tasks – all of these are really hopeful signs that early years education is on the right track. Of course we have a way to go – there are many ways in which early years provision can be improved, but there is a sense of momentum and optimism and I have every confidence that we can and must improve provision for young children. 

And this book is a really important contribution to that optimism and hope for the future. Guiding, fostering and enabling a young child to grow and develop; to enjoy and learn in play; to encounter and express themselves through language, music, movement and visual arts; to become a competent social being; to explore, experiment and learn about the environment in which they live – all of these learning tasks and others are incredibly complex. You know how rewarding it is to see this development taking place – you see it every day in the settings in which you work. 

These tasks require enormous skills of the practitioners that work with children in the 0-6 years period. Too often, the complexity of the tasks and the professional genius that is displayed so frequently by so many practitioners in early years settings is simply not understood or appreciated sufficiently. We have to change the common and wrong perception that early years education is somehow “simple”. It’s anything but that! 

That’s why a book like Heino’s Reflective Practice is so important. The very best practitioners and teachers are those that are, and remain, learners themselves. They think regularly about the learning and development that is going on in their setting. Not only do they ask themselves questions about their own practice and behaviour in different situations, but they reflect on and evaluate these practices and behaviours, they draw conclusions and they seek to change what they do for the better of the children in their care. So, reflective practice makes sense, doesn’t it? 

Well, on one level, reflective practice sounds simple, even obvious. But like many things, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. Great educators can lead learners skilfully through the most challenging learning tasks, and that’s what Heino achieves through this book. He breaks down the theory of reflective practice and makes it real and practical for leaders and workers in early years settings. He explains in attractive text, diagrams and pictures underlying research and theory, not only about reflective practice but also about how young people learn, and how organisations change. He provides simple, straightforward exercises and tasks that convert this theory and research into practice. I loved the way you are brought to understand reflective practice by being asked to think about a personal incident in your own life and prompted to think about what you learned from it. And he then seamlessly asks you to apply the same technique to the work that you do with young children. 

I also like the fact that Heino’s book focusses not only on the individual reflective practitioner but also on the reflective team. Lots of research tells us very clearly that professionals can dramatically improve how they work when they share and think about their work with fellow professionals. Aistear and Siolta already encourage this way of working in early years.

This book has the potential to be a really useful and accessible tool for early years teams as they grapple with reviewing and improving their own practice, and as they seek to share their reflections with the parents of the children that they serve. From how to analyse the strengths in an early years setting, to advice on how to document and report on reflective practice, the book clearly complements the approach advocated in Síolta and indeed in the self-evaluation practices that we are encouraging in schools. 

I’m particularly pleased to see how much emphasis the book places on the need to respect children’s voices. We know, only too well, what happened in the past when children’s voices were not heard. Quite rightly, this book goes beyond the cliché of giving children a voice. It gives us practical ways in which we can listen to those voices and respond to them. It reminds us of the importance of the child’s verbal and non-verbal communication and of just how much we can learn if we imagine ourselves in the place of the child. Indeed, it struck me how much this resonates with the work that we have been doing within the inspection of schools to collect and examine the views of children on their own learning. 

Taken as a whole, the appearance of this book on Reflective Practice for Early Years Professionals is an indicator of the way in which the conversation about early years education and care has changed. We’re no longer talking about the need to have provision for early childhood education and care – we’re able to talk about the quality of that provision, about how to improve the experience for young children, about how to make it more accessible to families. It is an indicator, too, of the growing realisation of the importance of investing in the professional development of early years practitioners. 

I hope that the work that we have commenced in the Inspectorate at the Department of Education and Skills will contribute positively to this change. Last August, I sat on the final interview board that selected the successful candidates to be appointed as the first early years inspectors at the Department. The depth of the expertise and experience of the candidates was both striking and enormously uplifting. I am confident that we have been fortunate to recruit from among the most talented early years educators in the country, and I’m delighted that they will be joining us on 2 November. 

We have an induction programme planned that includes lots of visits to early years settings, initially to try out our inspection model and later to undertake evaluations in a way that will contribute to improving the quality of early years provision. We hope that some settings will receive their first draft inspection reports by the end of the year. 

As an organisation we are committed to carrying out an inspection programme that will affirm the excellent professional work that goes on in many early years settings – settings where the sort of practices described in this book are occurring. We will also have the skills to encourage and advise on how provision can be improved, conscious of the resources and context within which people are working. And we will work to complement the work of TUSLA as the regulator and Better Start as the support service, to ensure that standards in early years settings are improving. 

Like the reflective practitioners described in this book, we in the inspectorate also have a lot of learning and reflecting to do. Already, many of you have responded to our draft materials, and we have listened and taken your comments on board – just as Heino’s practitioners do in this book. 

This is an exciting and demanding time for all of us in the early years sector. I am sure that in very many ways this book will be an invaluable contribution to the journey of learning, growth and improvement that all of us are on as we work to improve the lives of young people. I am delighted to launch it and wish it, Heino and Barnardos every success with the venture. 

Go raibh maith agaibh