Our children, our future
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We are delighted to present the proceedings of the international conference in early childhood care and education, ‘Our Children, Our Future’, hosted by the Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland, in October 2011. The first conference of its kind in Ireland, it was attended by over 150 practitioners, policy-makers, politicians (including the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald TD), researchers, managers, academics and, most importantly, students who will be the early years professionals of the future. The years of the Celtic Tiger, although now much critiqued and even derided, saw a fundamental shift in the extent, nature and role of early childhood care and education (ECCE) in Ireland. The sector witnessed key policy developments and a significant investment in infrastructure. Although this period of transformation is ongoing, it is always worthwhile to reflect collectively on our journey to date, particularly with the objective of informing future strategic policy and practice direction for our children. The conference involved national and international keynote speakers: Professor Sheila Greene, Director of the Children’s Research Centre, Trinity College, Dublin; Professor Nóirín Hayes, Dublin Institute of Technology; Professor Diane Levin, Wheelock College, Boston; Professor Ronny Bruffaerts, Katholieke University, Leuven; and Fergus Finlay, Chief Executive Officer of Barnardos. These speakers provided an informative and deeply engaged context for subsequent analyses, complemented by a similarly incisive and passionate input from Minister Fitzgerald. There followed presentations of the papers included in this volume. These papers centre on the three key aspects of ECCE: policy, practice and professional identity. Stimulated by these contributions, discussion fora, or agorae, explored, discussed, reflected upon and reviewed the complexity of the sector. What emerged from the presentations and agorae were some distinctive and persistent themes, which you will also discern in the full papers presented here. These included the complex and often contradictory pathways followed by Irish government policies in relation to ECCE. There were hints in the analyses of recent strategy vi documents, and in the Minister’s speech, that a more coherent and child-centred approach is emergent, but its realisation – like so much of contemporary Irish social policy – will ultimately be shaped by the financial and political crises within which the country and the economy are now ensnared. Notwithstanding the fiscal uncertainties, ECCE practitioners across the island continue to engage in innovative and exciting practices that challenge the status quo and seek to support positive social change, for example in the fields of creativity and social inclusion, or the celebration of diversity. Innovative practices are increasingly supported by a research base of evaluation and analysis that allows for reflection and dissemination of best practice. This will help to drive the enhancement of quality provision, which in turn will benefit practitioners, parents, communities and – necessarily – children. At the centre of this practice base sit the ECCE practitioners, a group engaged in a challenging and sometimes frustrating project of professionalisation. While our communities and politicians claim to want the best for their youngest members (those aged from birth to six years), are they prepared to pay for the best? At the moment it appears not, and the conference was reminded of the harsh reality for many ECCE practitioners: low pay; insecure employment; lack of professional recognition and respect; and poor or non-existent career paths. This situation must be addressed urgently. Education and training programmes, in particular the degree programmes offered by members of PLÉ, and conferences such as this one, are key steps towards the development of the professionalisation project. They are a means by which practitioners can develop the essential professional competencies, critical knowledge and reflective capacities that will make them effective supporters, educators, guides, facilitators and advocates for all our children. It is hoped that this highly accessible and interesting set of papers will provide a rich source of ideas, information and challenges for the current and future generations of practitioners, managers, policy-makers and educators. Please read and debate the material here, and if it stimulates you to think, say or do something new, that is fantastic! Rich discussion, networking opportunities and developing research alliances were all features of this conference. But perhaps the most important outcome was an unequivocal agreement amongst key stakeholders to work together in providing quality holistic care and education to our children today and in the future. We want to thank all those who presented at the event, who submitted papers for review and who provided manuscripts for publication in these proceedings. We also wish to thank our peer reviewers, whose time and dedication to this process were greatly appreciated. In relation to the event itself, we thank the Irish Social Science Platform; PLÉ; the staff and students of the Institute of Technology, Sligo; AVA (audio-visual services); and Wheats (catering). In regard to the publication of these proceedings in eBook and printed form, we acknowledge the support of the Higher Education Authority funded National Digital Learning Repository.
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