What is "quality"? This is a difficult question to answer because there are many different perspectives and parents hold different values for their child's care and learning and cultural expectations.
As Dr S Alexander, an international expert on Quality in ECE originally argued in her ground-breaking Ph.D. work in the early 1990s - "quality is in the eye of the beholder".
However, there are some general criteria for quality that Dr Alexander recommends parents and others look for.
These are the "Six Signs of Quality Early Childhood Education" and together these signs provide the strongest indication of whether an early childhood service is good for children and will be less likely be detrimental to children's well-being.
The Six Signs of Quality Early Childhood Education
1. The child is happy at the centre or service and wants to be at it. The child shows lots of smiles and laughter, receives and gives hugs, builds friendships, and is always keen in the morning to get ready to go to the service.
2. The child's health and safety is ensured. There is a high level of child supervision, knowledge among the adults as to what to expect developmentally of children in their abilities and reactions, and a high standard of hygiene along with practises that ensure children do not get preventable diseases. Potential safety risks are carefully managed but not totally eliminated (for example, you would expect to see a 4 year-old being encouraged to climb a low tree with supervision and support from an adult).
3. The child’s learning is supported and enriched. The child is exposed to learning and experiences beyond what the child already knows and experiences at home and in other settings.
4. The environment is stimulating and suits the child. There are lots of things which the child is interested in to keep the child busy and occupied. What is provided at the service for the child to do, gives the child a sense of being able to push oneself towards doing things at a higher level of difficulty and to try new things.
5. Family values, beliefs and language are truly supported. There is consistency between what the parents and family value and their aspirations for their child and the views, expectations and practices of the people caring for the child in the early childhood programme.
6. Parents' needs for support with childcare and early childhood education are fully met (parents don't feel grumpy about anything that happens or is expected at the programme - instead parents feel delighted that they have enrolled with the service and feel like shouting from the roof-tops about how great it is for them and their child).
These six signs of quality are inter-related, for example if a child is not happy then the child will gain less from attending the educational programme.
It is essential for an early childhood service to fully meet expectations for (1) children’s happiness and (2) safety and health. If a service has some deficiencies in the other areas (i.e. provisions for children’s learning, environmental stimulation, supporting family culture and language, and parents’ needs) and if these deficiencies are considered minor and can be made-up for at home or elsewhere then the service may still be acceptable for the child and family.
A comprehensive checklist is available
A free checklist to use when visiting centres and different services allows parents to compare and rate what they find. To see the checklist and print a copy to use, click here