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As will be discussed throughout this essay, Reggio and Sweden honour their children as equal citizens with democratic rights capable of making decisions. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Ireland; Irelands input into early years occurred much later than that of Reggio and Sweden, and the haphazard means by which the focus eventually shifted in the latter years probably means that the long awaited curriculum guidelines will not be fully implemented for quite some time.
Reggio and Sweden recognise that education is not neutral; Freire (1970) argues that education is used for freedom or domestication. Reggio accepts this and education is used to ensure children never suffer as they have done throughout Italy's history of instability; Likewise Sweden seeks to ensure that the future generation are aware of their rights and continue to live in a democratic society. Unfortunately, Ireland fails to recognise the potential of providing children with the same level of education.
The influence on any pedagogical practice needs to be understood in the context of the social, political, and economic context of the country in which it exists. Early 19th century Italy, the socialist ideals took hold and education was used as the tool by which the socialist ideals were transmitted. Education was seen as a 'weapon against poverty, ignorance, arrogance; education as a tool for freedom.' (Rinaldi, 2006 p.179). Such ideals succeeded in creating an awareness of women's right and built of spirit of unity and determination for a more positive future; women's determination to achieve good quality provision for their children whilst they participated in employment. An ethos of participation, community spirit and an awareness of ones rights took hold; such an ethos protected the human psyche thus enabling the citizens to hold on to their identity and dignity during the Second World War. Following the war, which devastated the area as a result of Nazi and Fascist action, primarily due to the strong resistance to German occupation and dictatorship, there was a determination on behalf of the citizens to rebuild their lives; women during this period were the most powerful force pushing for the development of good quality early childhood services (Thornton and Brunton, 2005). Salvaging tanks, trucks and horses abandoned by the Nazi's, money was made available to the community of Villa Cella; the men suggested using the money to build a theatre, however the women pushed for the provision of a preschool that would ensure the future generation of children would never suffer the same injustice and inequality (ibid).
Parents pushed for schools that would enable their children to acquire skills necessary, such as critical thinking and collaboration, in order to build a democratic society. It was this strict determination on behalf of the parents that inspired Loris Malaguzzi to champion their cause and, in 1963 Reggio Emilia's first municipal preschool was opened, paving the way for the establishment of Italy's first system of early childhood services in 1968 (New, 2007).
State education in Italy began in 1859 when Casati law outlined the provision, and by 1877 compulsory lower primary was introduced for children from 2 years, however this changed in 1923, and pre-primary attendance was no longer necessary, following reforms introduced as a result of political tensions; there was dissatisfaction with the teaching of fascism through the education system. In 1968 there was a significant law introduced, following a call for all children to have the right to education; funding was made available and a program of municipal education provision was introduced, which still remains today.
During the 70's, due to a significant increase in mothers entering the work place there was a need for good quality childcare places, and as a result, Law 1044 was passed in 1971. This law set a national goal of achieving 3,800 asili nidi by 1978; it was a crucial law in that it shifted perception of institutional care for young children and provided mothers with the right to access state funded day nurseries for all children under three years of age. Furthermore, a system of decentralisation meant that regions could claim back a substantial portion of what was spent on services. Emilia Romagna really exploited the opportunity to provide asili nidi (Penn, 1997).
In 1976 children with disabilities were legally given the right to be educated with their peers and in 1991 new guidelines were introduced, focusing on social relationships and experience and in 1998 there was a look at training for pre-primary teachers; university training was made compulsory, regional governments were responsible for outlining roles and responsibilities in their individual areas (Cochran, 1993). Finally by 2003 Italy had introduced full introduction of Scuole dell'Infanzia into the education system.
Reggio Emilia views the child as strong, rich in potential, competent, full of curiosity. Children of Reggio are considered to be capable of constructing their own knowledge. The uniqueness of the curriculum is the fact that there is no prescribed curriculum; learning is a process and children's learning develops out of their own interests. The child takes the lead and is encouraged think critically and all values and opinions are respected and taken seriously.
Great emphasis is placed on the value of relationships; relationships between the children; the children and the adults; the children and the community and so forth. There is a strong sense of connectedness to the community; in Italy there is great emphasis placed on family and children are cherished by all. The value of attachment is also considered; children stay together with the same teacher and children for three years and parents play a huge role in the Reggio preschool. 'It captures that idea of political commitment, citizen participation and collective decision-making that may enable a community to take responsibility for its children and their education'(Moss, 2007 p.10).
Projects are central to the Reggio approach; they can be short term or they can last for up to a year. Furthermore the process of documentations also features strongly in the Reggio preschool; this enables all those involved in the child's lives, including the children themselves, to reflect on and build on knowledge. It also enables the children's parents to become closely involved in their child's learning.
The Reggio schools have a Pedagogista, a curriculum specialist who pay regular visits to preschools and discuss plans and events with the teachers offering support and sharing ideas. There is also a qualified artist, the atelierista, employed in every preschool; art is extremely important in Reggio. The idea that children learn and express themselves in many ways; the hundred languages of Reggio is unique to the Reggio experience; 'Listening as a metaphor for having the openness and sensitivity to listen and be listened to - listening not just with our ears, but with all our senses…'(Dahlberg and Moss, 2005 p.99). Such ideas build on Gardner's view of multiple intelligence; children are looked at in a holistic and meaningful way at all times and it is fully understood that all children are unique and as such learn differently.
Sweden's early year's education curriculum viewed its children as competent citizens with democratic rights long before the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child (1989), and were one of the first countries to sign up to ratify the Convention. Education in Sweden is based on a model of education and care combined. Their emphasis illuminates that good care provides the child with a basis for development and learning as much as it entails an element of education. Parental participation is central to early education; there is recognition that education and care must complement that which is provided in the home and practitioners should cooperate with parents and promote a sense of democracy, solidarity, equality and responsibility in children.
Sweden's history, like Reggio's, has had a positive impact on their education system and how children are viewed. Sweden's position as a colonial power saw it winning and losing many of its colonies; and towards the end of the 18th century there was a lesser regard for monarchy; people therefore are classed as citizens rather than subjects. During the mid-19th century a comprehensive system was introduced; by 1842 state schooling was in place and as early as 1854, the first day nurseries had been established and 1867 there was legislation for children with disabilities to be included in the education system. Education in Sweden was viewed as a means of equipping individuals with knowledge and democratic rights; the influence of the Lutheran church meant that one could not marry unless they could read; this was to ensure that no one married without full consent, unlike Ireland where marriage was a means of financial gain or security.
Things really progressed during the late 60's and early 70's; two main reasons for the invested interest in early years provision was to meet the needs of working parents and to promote gender equality (Cohen, Moss, Petrie and Wallace, 2004). In 1997 there was a significant move; all publicly funded services outside of the compulsory education system were transferred and were now under the auspices of the ministry for education. The education Act 1998 recognised that education begins at birth, unlike Irelands Education Act in the same year.
One of the weaknesses of Sweden's preschool provision service focuses on children of unemployed; they have lesser access to pre-school provision. Sweden focuses on trying to make it possible for all of its citizens to partake in work and education. Their comprehensive provision changes with the changing needs in society. This is evident due to the high employment rate. Their view of children has always been as competent individuals with democratic rights. Parental leave, which is the longest in any country, is an indication as to the importance placed on early childhood. Funding for early childcare, unlike Ireland, comes from the one pot, thus ensuring that no child's falls through the cracks. Sweden spends 1.1 % on childcare; the OECD average is 0.66% and the rate of child poverty is approximately 4 % (OECD, 2004) considerably lower than Irelands.
Sweden's pre-school curriculum recognises that children are equal citizens with democratic rights, and are strongly influenced by Reggio. Children under six have had their own nationally applied curriculum since 1998, a curriculum that is rights based and links education with care. The curriculum is based on play and fun; the use of the word fun is absent from Irelands guidelines. There is a strong ethos of parental participation and recognition that education and care provided should complement that which takes place in the home, and the decentralised system ensures that each region is able to implement the guidelines to suit children and families' attending.
There is a strong commitment to ensuring on-going training of early year's professionals to keep up with the changes in society and also recognition that education provides the means of inculcating the child with the norms of that society. Children are encouraged to become independent thinking and strong, competent individuals aware of and able to express their views.
Ireland's history in relation to childcare provision has been almost non-existent and pales in comparison to that of Reggio and Sweden. Failure to recognise children as individuals with rights has been a bone of contention for many years. The Constitution of 1937 failed to recognise children's rights, and the promised reforms are constantly being put on the back burner due to the failing economy. In the past the Government only focused on education for children as a means of inculcating children with nationalistic and religious ideologies, however education was never made freely available to pre-primary children, except in areas of disadvantage. The Rutland Street project was set up in the late 60's for children aged 3-4 living in areas of disadvantage (Hayes, 2005). Whist there was some input from the voluntary sector over the years there was no real commitment on behalf of the government, sometimes for religious and more often than not economic reasons.
Ireland's economic boom during the 1990's saw a rapid growth in employment particularly mothers entering the workforce for the first time. The impetus was on the government to prioritise early year's provision. Allied to this there was increasing pressure from external influences, most notably the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). Ireland ratified the Convention In 1992 and in doing so agreed to take on board issues highlighted in relation to the best interests of the child. Immediately prior to this the implementation of, the Child Care Act 1991, a seminal piece of legislation, saw a much needed and long overdue shift towards recognising the importance of the child and placing issues in relation to children on top of the political agenda.
Strengthening Families for Life 1998 was Ireland's first piece of legislation recognising the importance of families, unfortunately whilst it was positive in relation to parental support; it was initiated due to economic necessity rather than the interests of the child. However, in the same year, The National Forum for Early Childhood Education was set up; this was a significant step forward in relation to childhood education bringing together all interested groups in order to exchange views and information and the final report informed the subsequent publication of The White Paper on Education: Ready to Learn (Donohue and Gaynor, 2007).
The White Paper finally gave recognition to early childhood, unlike the Education Act of the previous year, which on the plus side was the first fully comprehensive education act in years; however there was no mention of education for children under six years of age. Whilst the White Paper should be viewed as a positive step in relation to early years in Ireland unfortunately it remained just that, a White Paper. Rather than ratifying the White Paper the government introduced the National Children's Strategy; this was introduced in response to criticisms made following a systematic review of Ireland's status on children's rights following the ratification of the UNCRC (1982). The Strategy was a significant step forward, in that it 'presents a blueprint for action for children of all ages' (Hayes, 2005 p.19).
In 2002 the government finally recognised the importance of training with the introduction of, The Model Framework for Education, Training and Professional Development for the Early Childhood Care and Education Sector (2002), this was the first time status was given to degrees in early childhood.
The 2004 OECD Thematic review found that there was a lack of links and failure to provide education for children less than three years of age. Unfortunately, whilst there is a move towards linking education and care, the financial climate means that provision for children under three may be a long time coming. Ireland's EPSEN Act in 2004, was the first time children with special needs were considered, however due to the instability of the economy and lack of finances it appears that this area may suffer as a result.
2005 NESF study on childcare recommended free preschool for all children, and 12 months parental leave however, the National Women's Council of Ireland, whilst welcoming the recommendations, said they did not go far enough. The report did not recommend that parental leave would be paid making almost it impossible for many parents to avail of the recommendation (Traynor, 2005).
The one shining light in early provision in Ireland is the publication of Siolta and Aistear (Centre for Early childhood Development and Education, 2006; National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, 2009), and an onus on the part of practitioners to ensure the guidelines are implemented. Unfortunately the publications were put together in a matter of months without any planning or training for practitioners in advance of their release. The curriculum guidelines finally recognise the importance of providing opportunities for children under six in order to promote holistic development. There are comprehensive recommendations made to guide the early year's practitioner work and there is strong recommendation for the inclusion of parental participation. Whilst the ideas are positive and a significant step in relation to children the rhetoric may not translate to practice due to the issues already mentioned.
In conclusion, Reggio and Sweden view the child as a unique individual and a citizen with democratic rights; provision for child care and education are rights based, unlike Ireland's needs based provision. Where Reggio and Sweden recognise that in order to ensure a safe and democratic future for their children, Ireland repeatedly fails to recognise the importance of the early years in a child's life as a means of achieving the same ends.
Reggio and Sweden recognise when change in society calls for changes to be implemented in relation to early years provision; conversely changes in Irish society more often than not mean that focus on early years provision is halted. Furthermore any input by Ireland into early year's provision transpires following external pressure or economic necessity. There has been a shift in recent years towards recognising the rights of the child in Ireland, but unfortunately the failure to plan means that recommendations cannot be implemented to a satisfying standard.
Some countries take lessons from the past on board, learn from them and ensure the same cannot occur in the future; Ireland has a chequered history in relation to children and, unlike Reggio and Sweden, fails to learn from the mistakes of the past. As mentioned in the introduction the provisions made for children in the formative years are essential and impact the rest of their lives; unless Ireland focuses on the early years to the same extent as other countries, the children of Ireland cannot be assured positive gains for the future.