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New Approach to Early Years Education and Learning Unveiled
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EDUCATION Minister John O’Dowd has outlined the future direction for early years education and learning.

As he unveiled ‘Learning to Learn – A Framework for Early Years Education and Learning’ to the NI Assembly, the Minister described it as the first time a clear way forward had been set out for all early years education services for our youngest children.

The framework, which was developed in close collaboration with key stakeholders, reflects the Minister’s desire to take decisive action to ensure all young children receive the highest quality early years education experience.

Mr O’Dowd said: “The early years are crucial to a child’s social, emotional and educational development. Evidence tells us that early years experiences can impact on their future life chances. It is imperative that we give every child the best possible start in life and build strong foundations for future learning.

“There are many excellent examples of best practice in early years settings across the north. Until now, however, there has not been a single, coherent, overall framework within which this best practice can be supported and embedded in all settings.

“’Learning to Learn’ provides a clear base for future planning and development of early years education services. It also builds on the extensive work done over recent years to expand and improve early years services. Between 2006/07 and 2011/12 the number of children in funded pre-school education has increased by over 2,000; Sure Start funding has more than doubled from £9.3million in 2006 to £23.4million in 2012/13; and the Sure Start Developmental programme for 2-3 year olds, introduced in 2007, will be delivered to over 1,600 children this year.

“Today’s announcement will ensure that the improvements in early years education are consolidated and that we make every effort to raise standards and narrow the performance gap as early as possible.”

The framework details a number of key actions the Minister will undertake. Furthermore, among other actions, the Foundation Stage of the revised curriculum will be extended to include a non-compulsory pre-school year as well as the first two years of primary school.

The Minister also reiterated his intention to work with Executive colleagues around the need for early intervention and a more collaborative approach to investment in order to improve services for children and families.

A major review of Sure Start will be commissioned to examine options for its expansion and to consider how access to services is determined.

There will be a renewed focus on the use of extended schools funding across nursery schools and units, and a programme of continuous professional development will be introduced to support leadership and management in pre-school settings.

These measures include amending legislation to ensure only children in their immediate pre-school year are eligible for the pre-school programme, although some two year olds will still be able to access services outside of this programme.

The Minister added: “I am also keen to draw on the expertise and experience which currently exists in the sector. I plan to create pilot Early Years Education Support Clusters to help raise standards by making greater use of the teaching expertise in nursery schools and units, along with expertise in playgroups, across other relevant providers and early years specialists. Additional funding will be made available to support these pilots.

“Furthermore, a recurring issue has been around the enrolment numbers for nursery schools and nursery units, and staff ratios. I plan to introduce some flexibility in overall enrolment numbers up to a maximum class size of 30 in certain circumstances. I am also going to engage directly with nursery teachers and principals around the development of pilots to test the optimum staff-to-pupil ratios for nursery schools and units.

“These actions will build on existing good practice and enable significant progress to be made in addressing some key issues for early education services.

“The time has come for action. We have debated our approach to the early years for long enough, we need to move now to improve the education and learning experiences of our children. I know there will be considerable interest in this framework and that is why I am announcing a further focussed consultation which will end on 31 January 2013.

“This will provide an opportunity for stakeholders to consider whether our plans require further refinement.

“Children have a very short time to benefit from early years education and learning. ‘Learning to Learn’ provides us with the means of ensuring we deliver the best early education experience for every child and gives them the best chance of fulfilling their potential at school and in life.” added Minister O’Dowd.