By Dr Sarah Alexander
Paper presented at the 13th Biennial Meetings of the International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development, 28 June - 2 July 1994, Amsterdam
Developmental psychologists researching childcare have focussed on evaluating how well early childhood programmes perform according to child development goals and specific measures such as adult-child ratio. This paper presents a study on early childhood programme quality with an alternative focus. A values-based approach was taken.
In the study the individual and collective 'heartbeats' (i.e. philosophies, policies and practices) of eleven early childhood programmes – kindergartens, playcentres, kohanga reo, and childcare centres - were examined. The primary purpose was to look at the actual essence of centre quality, what made the centres special and distinctive.
As Aristotle (Ethics 1.6) explains, there are two kinds of 'good', the first being things which are good in themselves and the second being things which are good as a means of achieving the first kind of good. This paper is about the first kind of 'good' early education and care. Much literature already exists on the second kind of 'good' early education and care.
Each of the four early childhood groups provided 'quality' in distinctive ways. These ways were influenced by past practices and traditions, the purpose of their service and the needs of the parents served, the style of centre management, and the extent of public support and funding.
Te Kohanga Reo people saw their service as culturally unique and based on a philosophy of early language and cultural teaching for children within an extended family environment. Kindergarten, childcare and playcentre people saw their services as differing in quality for philosophical reasons such as views on staff training and teacher-parent relationships.
A general finding - and this will be of interest to readers who view quality as a set of universal measurable criteria and not as existing in the eye of the beholder – was that the research-based indicators believed in policy to be the best measures of quality (e.g. staff training and adult-child ratio) were not of paramount importance in practice for quality in every type of centre. This raises an issue of whether those who are least directly involved in but hold the most power through political or expert positions should be defining quality for those directly involved in early childhood services.
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