Early Childhood Counts: Programming Resources for Early Childhood Care and Development
In search of the rainbow: Pathways to
quality in large scale programmes for
young disadvantaged children
Early Childhood Development: Practice and Reflections Number 10, 1996.
by Martin Woodhead, Open University
and Milton Keynes, United Kingdom
Publication of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, 1996
Author’s introduction 4
Chapter 1—Changing childhoods 6
Chapter 2—Diversity in quality 11
Chapter 3—Framework for Quality Development 23
Chapter 4—Resources for quality 30
Chapter 5—Quality, children’s needs and children’s rights 36
Chapter 6—Quality, context and developmental appropriateness 40
Chapter 7—Extending the principle of ‘contextual appropriateness’ 50
Chapter 8—Defining quality through research and evaluation 58
Chapter 9—Steps towards quality 63
About the author
Dr. Martin Woodhead is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at The Open University, United
Kingdom. A developmental psychologist, he has written and published extensively on early childhood
issues. Dr. Woodhead was a consultant to the Council of Europe project on early education during the
1970s. More recently he was the Programme Adviser to the worldwide BBC documentary television series
‘All Our Children’. He is coordinator of the M.A. course in Child Development at the Open University
and co-editor of the three-volume series Child Development in Social Context (published by Routledge).
He lives in Sussex with his wife and four children.
In this report I offer a personal view of quality issues in large-scale programmes for young disadvantaged
children. I have been helped by numerous contributors to the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s project on
the environment of the child. My greatest debt is to Horacio Walker, the coordinator of the project. He
invited my involvement, and facilitated my task throughout. I greatly value his enthusiasm and
My starting point was the four local studies commissioned by the Foundation. My thinking has been
shaped by each of the final reports and by discussions with each of the research teams: Maria Carlota
Ruesta, Jesus Yanez, Amelia Zarikian and Ana Giannantonio (Venezuela); Radha Paul and colleagues
(Tamil Nadu, India); Barbara Koech and Octavian Gakuru (Kenya): Charles Tijus, Arnaud Santolini and
Agnes Danis (France). I also learned a great deal from the programme managers who contributed to the
workshops in Caracas, Madras and Paris during 1995, and from the representatives of NGOs who attended
the final conference in The Hague in December 1995. To all of these, named and unnamed, I express my
thanks. I also thank each of the children, parents, care workers and teachers who welcomed me into their
communities, and those who acted as my hosts and companions during my visits to early childhood
programmes, especially Maria Peralta, Andal Damodaran and Josette Combes.
During my work for this project, I benefited from many discussions with programme specialists at the
Bernard van Leer Foundation, especially: Liana Gertsch, Wim Monasso, Marc Mataheru, Jorge Lafitte,
Paula Nimpuno, Gerry Salole, Rita Swinnen, Henriette Heimgaertner and Salvatore Romagna. I greatly
appreciate their willingness to share their insights and expertise. My special thanks are also due to the
directors and staff of other sections of the Foundation who supported my task, especially Rien van Gendt,
Ruth Cohen and Els Logtenberg; to all those who offered guidance on early drafts of the report, especially
Jo Boyden and Cigdem Kagitcibasi; and to Christine Golding and Margaret van Burken for their
invaluable secretarial support.
Finally, I acknowledge my family, and my colleagues at the Open University for their support and
forbearance during my extended absences in 1995.
In December 1993, the Board of Trustees of the Bernard van Leer Foundation approved a project, entitled
‘The Environment of the Child’ to be implemented by the Foundation itself. The project sought to answer
three main questions:
What is a good environment for children?
How can this environment be improved? and,
What does research have to say about this?
The project targeted neither practitioners in the field nor individuals in the academic world, but rather
people who were involved in the interface between theory and practice, that is, people working as
programme specialists, project leaders, and applied researchers.
The concept of the environment of the child is a very broad one. In terms of the project, the concept was
focused on those cultural variables relating to communities and individuals, directly affecting the
development of children growing up in poverty, and able to be reinforced and changed by intervention
programmes. A well-documented insight into these variables was required, so that the notion of quality
which emerged could enhance thinking about this concept.
Following the development of a theoretical framework by Terezinha Nunes (published by the Foundation
as Occasional Paper No. 5, The Environment of the child), four case studies were carried out by local
consultants in India, Kenya, Venezuela and France. Material emanating from these case studies and from
regional workshops in 1994 and 1995 formed the basis for a report by Martin Woodhead on ‘Pathways to
quality in large-scale programmes for young disadvantaged children’. This report was discussed during an
International Conference on 11 and 12 December 1995, held to mark the formal ending of the project on
‘The Environment of the Child’.
The project has had, and will have, an important effect on the Foundation. Firstly, it has enabled us to
reflect on the premises and hypotheses underlying our own work. In this way, the project has provided the
Foundation with an opportunity to learn and to think critically about its own position.
Secondly, the project has influenced and will continue to influence the Foundation’s programme
development role. The report by Martin Woodhead systematises the thinking of the Foundation on quality
and perspectives on quality, thus enhancing our role as critical interlocutors with the projects we support
in the field.
However, the relevance of the project goes far beyond the Foundation itself. We are convinced that it will
help people working in the interface between theory and practice in many different cultural settings to
demystify assumed correlations between early childhood development initiatives and the welfare of
children later in life.
Rien van Gendt
Bernard van Leer Foundation
My first contact with the ‘Environment of the Child’ project was in the summer of 1994, at a workshop
hosted by Bogacizi University, in Istanbul, Turkey. By then, the project was well under way: Terezinha
Nunes had completed a review paper on the impact of poverty and discrimination in children’s lives
(Nunes 1994); discussion workshops on these themes had been held in New Delhi and in Mexico City;
four local studies on the role of large-scale, early childhood programmes in Venezuela, Kenya, India, and
France had been commissioned; and plans for workshops to share the findings from these local studies
with groups of programme managers from each respective region had been made. My task was to draw
together the evidence of the local studies in a final report of the project – on quality issues in large-scale
programmes for young children. The programmes in question were: the national home day care
programme (Hogares de Cuidado Diario) in Venezuela; the nursery schools and classes coordinated by
the National Centre for Early Childhood Education (NACECE) in Kenya; the network of crèches in Tamil
Nadu, India, managed by non-governmental organisations; and the parent-managed day care programme
(Crèches Parentales) in France.
As a developmental psychologist, I have been particularly interested in the way my subject relates to
issues of policy and practice. During the past two decades, studying the boundaries between
developmental theory, early childhood education and child care practice, I have become increasingly
convinced that much of what counts as knowledge and expertise about children is deeply problematic,
right down to such a fundamental idea as ‘early childhood development programme’. While concepts
provide welcome tools for organising thinking, they also inadvertently sanction a spurious veneer of
coherence on diverse childhood realities. ‘Development’ implies a uniform, progressive growth process
towards an implicit, normative image of maturity; ‘early childhood’ suggests that there is (or should be?) a
common thread in the experience of young children (girls and boys, deprived and indulged, revered and
abused, and so on) whatever their life circumstances; and ‘programme’ (or ‘program’ in American
English) conjures up an image of a highly-planned, systematically-delivered schedule of activities and
games. Although I am sceptical about the ubiquity of these expressions, I have no wish to stifle any
endeavour to understand and enhance early childhood. My plea is for a more self-conscious and critical
reflection on the generally unstated assumptions involved. More particularly, in this report, I focus on an
equally ubiquitous fourth concept, quality, as it is applied to large-scale, early childhood development
programmes for economically and socially disadvantaged young children.
During the early months of 1995, I read reports and attended workshops on this theme of quality. All those
responsible for early childhood programmes professed to having issues of quality uppermost in their
minds; many had quite strong intuitions about what standards should be set, and there was even some
agreement about which quality indicators are important. But consensus evaporated once the conversation
turned to particulars: about organisation, staffing, programme strategy, resource availability, relationship
to family and community, care and education objectives, and so on. The ‘diversity of quality’ was
reinforced within every community I visited, in Venezuela, Kenya, India, and France. I became acutely
aware of my own preconceptions about quality, based mainly on early childhood centres in Europe and
North America, and the pre-school experience of my own four children. I worked hard to make these
preconceptions explicit, and to reflect on their origins and impact on my perceptions. Despite my best
efforts, some of these presumptions about quality are no doubt evident in my descriptions of the four
programmes. For this reason, I signal in Chapter 2 that I am offering ‘my first impressions’.
When I was in Kenya during my fourth round of visits, I was beginning to wonder whether the word
‘quality’ had any substantive meaning at all. As we drove back to Nairobi, the sky was filled with a
magnificent rainbow. This experience suggested a perfect metaphor to encapsulate the search for quality.
English children are told the ancient Celtic legend, that if you dig at the rainbow’s end, you will find a
crock of gold. I later learned that African children learn a similar legend. It seems to me that trying to pin
down ‘quality’ is a bit like trying to find the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. We may make
progress in the right direction, but we never quite get there! Children learn that the rainbow’s beauty is
real enough, but the ‘crock of gold’ exists only as a cultural myth. In the same way, I want to argue that
those involved in early childhood development must recognise that many of their most cherished beliefs
about what is best for children are cultural constructions. As with the rainbow, we may be able to identify
invariant ingredients in the spectrum of early childhood quality, but the spectrum itself is not fixed, but
emerges from a combination of particular circumstances, viewed from particular perspectives.
This, then, is the central message of this report. There is a strong tendency for Euro-American models of
quality to dominate research, policy, training, and practice in early childhood development. With a few
notable exceptions, this tendency has been fuelled by the universalist aspirations of developmental
psychology. I am convinced that universal models of quality are both untenable and unhelpful. At the same
time, I am convinced we should not embrace the opposite extreme, an ultimately self-defeating form of
relativism. My goal is to steer a middle course, signalled by the principle elaborated in this report: ‘Quality
is relative, but not arbitrary’.
Universal models of quality are linked with another feature of much Euro-American thinking – the
isolation of ‘child development’ as a distinctive, separable subject both for study and for professional
intervention. The limitations of this approach are now widely recognised. Children do not grow up in a
vacuum, nor do child care programmes function in isolation. Both are embedded in a dynamic social
context of relationships, systems and cultural values. At worst, these two tendencies (towards a
decontextualised and a universal view of children’s development) have been taken to justify an insular,
prescriptive, professional definition of quality within early childhood programmes, with little account
taken, except in disparaging terms, of how the experience relates to quality in the rest of children’s lives.
The alternative is a more contextual, more holistic and more open approach to issues of quality. In this
report, I take some first steps in this direction.
A note on terminology
Throughout this report I make a broad distinction between the quality issues experienced by materially-
affluent, industrialised, Western societies (notably in Europe, North America and Australasia) and the
quality issues facing communities in developing economies of the Third World. The West is ideologically,
politically and economically dominant, but demographically rather less significant. Accordingly, I shall
also refer to Third World children, families and communities as the Majority World, by contrast with the
Minority World childhoods of the West.
Chapter 1—Changing childhoods
Young children are a precious gift. Early childhood is a special time. Through the care and education of
young children, a society constructs and reconstructs community and economy, ensures continuity of
tradition between generations, and makes innovation and transformation possible. But human immaturity
is not just a resource – it is also a responsibility. Children are not incomplete human beings to be shaped
into society’s mould. They have needs and aspirations of their own, and rights which must be respected.
Above all, their childhood is an opportunity. Each young child has a unique potential for development of
human capacities, for communication and cooperation, for skill and feeling, for reason and imagination,
for practicality and spirituality, for determination and compassion.
These themes are not new. The status and importance of human childhood has been widely recognised in
traditions of nurturance, training and initiation throughout the world, among societies that are
economically, religiously, and politically diverse. What is new is that these themes are being widely
articulated and discussed, researched and written about. The proper care of children is no longer solely a
matter of tradition, passed on from generation to generation by example, and through the counsel of
elders. To a much greater extent, it is becoming a planned process, a self-conscious activity of appraising
and constructing environments that foster a new generation of young children. There are choices to be
made and alternatives to consider.
Questions about quality are at the heart of this process of planning for human futures:
What is ‘quality’ in the lives of young children? How can it be defined? How can it be promoted?
What role do planned early childhood programmes play in enhancing the environment for young
children, especially for those growing up in economically and socially disadvantaged
Which indicators of quality make the most significant contribution to children’s welfare, care and
development, especially in programmes catering for the very youngest age group?
What would be the features of a general framework for quality, that has relevance beyond
particular programmes and communities to national and international standards for early
Quality and change
These questions are addressed in the context of rapid social change. In many societies, experiences of
childhood that have remained relatively stable for countless generations are now being transformed
within a generation, and for many children, even within the span of their own childhoods.
A well-documented example of this has occurred in rural agrarian societies, where children have
traditionally been valued as essential contributors to family well-being. Within a few years of birth they
carry out domestic chores, help with cultivation, look after animals and care for younger children.
Immaturity has been a reciprocal process of contributing while being cared for, giving while being
taught. Numerous factors are now contributing to change, for example: the greater certainty of survival,
more adequate nutrition and health, the growth of schooling, the promotion of children’s rights, the
changing role of women, the shifting economic base from subsistence to cash and wage economies, and
from rural to urban living.
Change does not follow a uniform pattern, and there may be disjunction between the expectations of
childhood and the realities of living. Nonetheless, as modernisation takes place, so childhood acquires
some of the features familiar in Europe and North America. Children are a long-term cost, and are less
available to contribute to family tasks, some of which have become redundant. There is an expectation
(or at least the aspiration) of an extended period of schooling, with a distant and uncertain benefit to the
family and community. As part of this process, reciprocities that were once tangible become more
ephemeral (Hoffman 1987, LeVine and White 1986, Broberg and Hwang 1992, Nsamenang 1992). Vast
numbers of children, families and communities are caught between the relative stability of tradition and
the promise of modernity. Intergenerational continuities are breaking down in the face of rapid social
change. In some cases:
The juxtaposition of the traditional and the new ... have left cultures disorganised and groups of
people at a loss about their values and beliefs (Evans and Myers 1994).
Quality and programmes
Programmes of early child care and education are part of the process of change, serving in varying
degrees as cause, catalyst, antidote and remedy. During the past 25 years, there has been a global
explosion in programmes serving diverse functions: supplementary nutrition, health care, immunisation,
crèches for working parents, programmes of pre-school education, and so on. They have focused directly
on enhancing children’s development, or on supporting the family’s and community’s abilities to achieve
that goal (Cochran 1993; Lamb et al 1992).
In part, these programmes have taken over responsibilities traditionally invested in parents, older children
and community. But they also reflect new expectations for the quality and character of early childhood,
expectations strongly shaped by Western knowledge, technologies and values. One consequence has been
a rapid growth of specialist, professional or para-professional ‘experts’ and practitioners in child health,
care and development, supported by district, national and international infra-structures of organisation,
training, research and finance.
There is little consensus about the significance of these trends. Optimistically, organised programmes can
be seen as the best way of ensuring basic health, welfare and learning opportunities for millions of
children growing up in circumstances blighted by poverty, deprivation and social breakdown.
Pessimistically, many programmes can be construed as low-quality replicas of institutional solutions
which some pioneer nations are now rejecting, especially for their youngest children (Broberg and
Hwang 1992). Cynically, early childhood programmes can be seen as a tool for cultural imperialism,
driven by the politically, economically and culturally dominant Minority World through various
combinations of international aid, child development and curriculum models, training and research. More
pragmatically, the evident community demand for large-scale programmes can be taken as evidence of
their positive value, at least in the eyes of those most closely involved. Whatever the interpretation, one
thing is certain – questions about quality need to catch up with questions about quantity. Early childhood
programmes should be more than a holding base for children who are too young for school but have no
place in the community.
Quality and the 0-3s
Quality issues are especially important for the very youngest children, spanning a very wide
developmental range, from birth to three years. As the pressures increase on family-based care giving, so
the demand for extended day care grows, especially for the youngest and most vulnerable children.
Frequently they are accommodated within programmes intended for older pre-school children, in large
groups where there is little scope for close attention from an adult. At worst, 100 children may be herded
together, watched over by one untrained adult, while parents toil in the plantation or factory. Many
babies are strapped to the backs of their siblings, who offer what care and comfort they can. In such
extreme cases, the quality issues are transparent.
But most early child development programmes are not nearly so extreme, the quality issues are much less
clear-cut, and there is much more scope for debate about the questions: ‘what is quality?’. Even in
Europe and North America, where resources are relatively generous, the quality of group day care for
very young children is disputed. Alternative approaches to care are being explored, including more
informal models of community-based care, parent support and education, plus wider family policy
initiatives improving the compatibility of care giving and employment (Melhuish and Moss 1991). There
is an urgent need to address issues in the care of 0-3s throughout the world.
Quality and resources
In most countries, early childhood services are expanding at the margins of national education/welfare
systems, which are themselves often founded on a very precarious financial base. This is far from ideal:
any quality initiative should include advocacy for greater resources. One promising approach is to frame
resource issues in terms of cost-effectiveness. By demonstrating that there is a measurable return on
resources invested in a programme, quality issues can be presented not just as costs, but as returns on
investment, in terms of reduced welfare costs or enhanced achievement later in the life-cycle (Beruetta-
Clement et al 1984). But for the foreseeable future, most steps to improve quality must realistically be
initiated in the context of very low resource levels. A key question is whether it is possible (or indeed
desirable) to set minimal resource standards that are consistent with children’s basic welfare.
Quality and development
For most early childhood programmes in the Majority World, the priority goals have been to ensure
adequate nutrition, basic health and secure care. These goals have the advantage that they can be
translated into tangible, outcome indicators – visible evidence of cost-effectiveness. As these goals are
met, attention is turning to indicators of psycho-social and educational aspects of programme quality.
Defining and measuring these aspects of programme quality is much more problematic. Measuring
children’s psychological growth is much less tangible than measuring their physical growth, always
assuming that agreement can be reached about what aspects of psychological development are important.
The quality of early childhood programmes must be re-assessed in terms of methods and curricula
appropriate to goals of socialisation, education and cognitive development.
Key questions include: How can the quality of the environment be defined in terms of these goals? How
should they be expressed in the environment experienced by children, including their relationships with
their caregivers? More fundamentally, how should these goals be translated into tangible indicators in a
way which takes account of the context of life circumstances, values and practices (traditional,
transitional and modern)? And more practically, what are the most promising strategies for implementing
change to enhance the quality of children’s learning experiences (through professional training,
participatory parent education, action-research etc). Finally, can a quality framework be identified that is
both developmentally appropriate and realistic in terms of available resources?
Quality and globalisation
There is no shortage of attempts to specify what makes for good quality in early childhood. Ironically,
one of the reasons for examining frameworks for quality is that some of these attempts have already
achieved a global influence. Highly selective, stereotyped perceptions of childhood have been exported
far from their origins in industrial social conditions (Boyden 1990). Sometimes they take the form of
curriculum models, more generally as ‘ways of thinking’ about childhood. They are being applied in
contexts far removed from their cultural origin. As Robert Myers put it:
‘Attention to quality seems particularly important when considering how values are being imparted
in the socialization process. If one had to guess, the guess would be that early childhood
programmes more often than not are taking their cues from imported models that reinforce value-
shifts towards the individualistic, production-oriented cultures of the West. Is that where we want
to be?’ (Myers 1992, p.29).
Adoption of universal frameworks on child development is generally welcomed as a sign of progress. In
some cases this may be entirely appropriate. To romanticise the attitudes and socialisation practices that
may be supplanted in the process would be wrong. Some ‘traditional’ child-rearing beliefs and practices
can be detrimental to children’s basic health and well being (Evans and Myers 1994). But a more
balanced picture must acknowledge that many features of ‘modern’ child-rearing can in their own way be
just as detrimental to harmonious development. Before quality issues can be properly addressed in a
global context, a debate needs to take place about the future of childhood.
Millions of tomorrow’s children face modernisation, urbanisation and globalisation. My concern is
twofold. First, I challenge the global distribution of any one single framework on quality. Such a
framework might inevitably lead to a world of uniformity, a standardised recipe for the quality of
childhood. My second concern is that implementing contextually-inappropriate standards of quality will
prove more disruptive than constructive in fostering children’s development. A first step in countering
these trends is to become more aware that dominant images of quality in early childhood are constructed
in a particular economic and cultural context.
Quality, science and values
The medical and social sciences, and especially psychology, offer the most objective reference point in
any attempt to define universal criteria for ‘quality’ child development programmes. This is especially
true for basic care, nutrition and health. Thus, programme planners can draw with some confidence on
the best available evidence about the causes and remediation of malnutrition, the benefits of
immunisation and so on. The grounds for planning are much less secure where children’s psychological
development is concerned (Burman 1994). Much research that apparently offers a firm, universal
scientific foundation turns out to be embedded in a particular childrearing context, in terms of social
ecology and child care values:
One of the challenges ... is how to maximize what can be provided for the child by interweaving
practices that ‘scientific’ evidence would suggest a child needs with effective traditional child
rearing practices and beliefs. (Evans and Myers 1994).
This idea of interweaving the scientific with the traditional is a considerable advance on the myopic,
possibly arrogant assumption that so-called modern views of child-rearing are superior to traditional
ways. But it does not go nearly far enough. Perhaps Evans and Myers’ use of quotes around the word
‘scientific’ reflects their awareness that science is not a neutral benefactor. ‘Interweaving’ entails more
than building on traditional values and practices; it generally entails their displacement by the hidden
value assumptions embedded in the science of developmental psychology. Even the basic vocabulary of
the enterprise – ‘meeting needs’, ‘promoting intelligence’, ‘reaching full potential’, even the word
‘development’ itself – reflects particular ways of thinking about the nature and goals of childhood
(Kessen 1979; Ingleby 1986; Gardner 1984, Woodhead 1990; Nunes 1994; Stainton-Rogers and
Stainton-Rogers 1992; Morss 1996).
For example, when psychologists and educators speak of ‘development’, they typically mean more than
just growth and change. The word is used to imply change in particular ways, along a particular pathway,
in accordance with particular expectations of maturity. The definition provided by an influential textbook
in child development will illustrate the point:
In the first twenty years of life, these changes result in new, improved ways of reacting – that is, in
behaviour that is healthier, more organized, more complex, more stable, more competent or more
efficient ... We speak of the advances from creeping to walking, from babbling to talking, from
concrete to abstract thinking as development. In each instance we judge the later appearing stage
to be a more adequate way of functioning than the earlier one (Mussen at al. 1984, p.7).
Imported child development values relay the subtle message to Majority World parents that their
traditional ways are inadequate, that they need to throw off ‘common sense’ ideas and folklore
‘superstitions’ and embrace modern, scientifically-based child-rearing practices. For example, in a
Handbook of Child rearing, Thai experts write of the traditional beliefs that prevent parents making use
of scientific knowledge in child-rearing:
Giving the child more of the independence the child needs and making less use of power and
authority ... will shake the very roots of those Asian families where authoritarian attitudes and
practice are emphasised (Suvannathat et al 1985).
Perhaps ‘shaking the roots’ is an essential step forward, but the real justification has little to do with
either science or children’s needs.
Outline of the report
In this report, I take the four local studies conducted as part of the Bernard van Leer Foundation project
on ‘The Environment of the Child’ as a starting point for examining issues of quality development in
early childhood programmes. My aims are (i) to make explicit the frameworks of thinking that underpin
judgements of quality; (ii) to explore the possibility of working towards a shared frame of reference,
which is context-sensitive, allowing for diversity, but which is also recognisably consistent in terms of
underlying values and knowledge about child development principles; and (iii) to apply this framework
towards a better understanding of the quality issues that confront large-scale early childhood
Chapter 2—Diversity in quality
This chapter introduces the four local studies conducted in Venezuela, Kenya, India and France as part of
the ‘Environment of the child’ project. Subsequent chapters take the experience of these local studies as
the starting point for addressing questions about quality. For each country, I provide brief details of the
historical origin of early childhood programmes, especially the particular programme that became the
focus for investigation. I also present an overview of each study and summarise the main findings. More
detailed discussion of selected themes is provided in the ‘boxes’ which recur throughout this report.
These studies draw attention to the extraordinary diversity in environments for early child development.
They were carried out in contrasting economic and cultural circumstances, and they focused on quite
different models of early childhood programmes. This variety must be the starting point for addressing
issues of quality. The programmes studied are not in any way representative of early childhood
programmes within a particular country or region. In most cases, they represent one of many kinds of
programme, within a sector which is distinctively eclectic.
Terezinha Nunes’ analysis of the ‘environment of the child’ was the starting point for the four local
studies (Nunes 1994). Each of the studies addressed questions about the role of family and pre-school
programme in children’s development, as well as the interrelationships between these two settings.
Figure 2 (Figure 2 not available) summarises a conceptual framework for the studies, combining an
‘ecological’ approach (Bronfenbrenner 1979) with the concept of ‘developmental niche’ (Super and
Harkness 1986). Children are depicted as growing up in the context of the micro-systems of family and of
pre-school. Within each micro-system, the impact of the environment is powerfully mediated by the
beliefs and expectations of care givers, as expressed through the extent and character of their specific
interactions with children. The relationships between the micro-systems, in terms of shared or conflicting
mutual beliefs of care givers, as well as active points of contact, constitute the meso-system. Finally,
although children’s immediate experiences are directly shaped within the micro- and meso-systems,
indirectly they are strongly influenced by wider forces, such as the employment patterns of parents (the
exo-system) and by the overall economic and political situation (the macro-system).
Of course, children’s experience of their environment is not nearly as ‘tidy’ as this model suggests; there
may be multiple, overlapping changing micro-systems. Nonetheless, this model does provide a
framework for describing the emphasis of the four local studies.
The studies in Venezuela and Tamil Nadu (India) concentrated on the micro- and meso-systems. They
comprehensively assessed the characteristics and interrelationships of home and pre-school environments
(in terms of physical features, attitudes and beliefs of care givers and relationships with children). In
Kenya, the research emphasis was on the impact on parental resources and attitudes of wider influences
in the exo-system. Finally, whereas in Venezuela, India and Kenya the pre-school programme was
relatively separated from the family context, the study in France examined a pre-school initiative
managed by parents, with parents acting as helpers, thereby bridging the divide between the two key
micro-systems in young children’s lives. This study was also much more closely focused, and
concentrated on the quality of the specific interactions between parent-helpers and the children in their
Although the local studies initially focused on the 0-3 age group, in only one context, France, was this
age group strongly represented. For the other countries, India, Kenya, and Venezuela, the focus was on
the situation of 2-3 year-olds who were attending provisions intended mainly for 4-6 year-olds. In the
case of Kenya, very young children were passively absorbed into programmes with a strong pre-academic
orientation. This gap in research, information and policy analysis about 0-3s is itself indicative of the
urgency of giving attention to this age group.
Although they started from a common set of questions, each local research team designed their particular
study to take account of local circumstances and their own views of research priorities. There is no
shared methodology that would make for direct comparability; the studies describe locally-generated
systematic accounts of the place of large-scale programmes in the lives of young children.
A key theme of this report is that quality is shaped by perspective. This applies equally to the
investigators who carried out the small scale studies. It also applies to my own perspective in offering
brief descriptions of some of the pre-school settings as ‘first impressions’. I fully acknowledge that other
observers might see ‘quality’ in these settings in very different terms.
Venezuela is a modern, relatively homogeneous Spanish-speaking society (except for the indigenous
Indian tribes of the Amazonas). It is an urban society, largely created following the discovery of oil in
1914. Ninety per cent of the population live in the urban areas, many in ‘shanty’ dwellings ringing the
major cities, especially Caracas. These are relatively new communities and lack the traditional
community structures that might regulate and support child care. It is a young society, with 4 million
children under the age of six, or approximately 20 per cent of the population. Forty per cent of the
population is under the age of 15, and 20 per cent of births are to adolescent mothers. Nuclear/single
parent family structures predominate, with 30 per cent having women as heads of households.
Attendance at school is the rule for 88 per cent of 7-12 year-olds, but repetition rates are high at 23 per
cent, with repetition and drop out particularly concentrated among the poorest sections of the community
The day care programme, Hogares de Cuidado Diario, was a response to the growth in women in
employment during the economic boom years of the 1970s. Initially, local communities found their own
way of meeting the demand for day care through neighbourhood women taking groups of children into
their homes during working hours. In 1974, when President Perez was elected, the First Lady began to
work with the Fundación del Niño to transform these informal arrangements into an organised
programme. By 1978, the Hogares programme was serving 6,300 children, a number which slowly
increased to 10,200 by 1988. During this early period, an evaluation by High/Scope (Fisk 1983)
recommended improving the quality of care and the training of the Madres Cuidadoras (day care
Major expansion of the programme took place in 1989, when President Perez was re-elected. A
Presidential Commission planned for the programme to grow to 350,000 children by 1994. In fact, by
1993, 240,000 children (mostly in the 2-4 age group) were attending the programme. This expansion took
place in a very different economic context from 1978. Concerns about young children’s health and
nutrition re-emerged in the wake of economic recession and high unemployment levels, especially among
lower income groups. In terms of a five-fold socio-economic stratification, the percentage of the
population described as living ‘in critical poverty’ rose from 38 per cent to 43 per cent between 1981 and
1990. Whereas the official ‘minimum salary’ had been a little greater than the cost of feeding a family,
by 1990 it was no longer adequate for basic subsistence.
At the same time, medical statistics suggested that improvements in infant mortality rates had slowed.
Consequently, the official objectives of the recent expansion have included re-targeting the programme
towards the children of unemployed parents, to enhance their ability to carry out child care tasks and
promote the health, welfare, and development of their children. Some additional reforms have included
extending the numbers of families exempted from paying fees and establishing Multihogares (Multi-
homes), providing group day care. Most important, the programme came under central control of the
Ministry of the Family, while operational running was devolved to an increasing number of NGOs (297
by 1993). During 1995, the programme was again under review, with efforts to reduce the costs to central
government by increased devolution of management and financing to NGOs and district administrations.
The Hogares programme is the major day care programme in Venezuela, serving children as young as
two. However there are many other forms of pre-school provision, attended by 37 per cent of 3-6 year-
olds (Teran de Ruesta et al 1995).
My first impressions – day care ‘multi-homes’ in Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela
The multihogar (multi-home) is tucked in among a small cluster of houses not far from
the centre of town. The presence of a day care centre is signalled both by an official sign
above the unglazed window, and ‘Bienvenido’ brightly painted by the door, along with
near life-size images of a girl and boy playing ball. It’s an ordinary house, just like the
rest of the neighbourhood – single storey, built out of concrete blocks, rendered with
cement, with a simple corrugated iron roof supported on a steel frame. The floor is
concrete, polished shiny black by thousands of small footsteps. Three-year-old Ruben
was standing on the verandah and warned the day care mother of our arrival. Inside it
was hard to adjust to the darkness of the room after the intensity of the sunlight outside.
The main feature of the first room was a large notice board with details of the week’s
menu, notices about children with medical complaints etc. The children were in a second
room – much the same as the first, except for two lines of small tables, and child-sized
chairs. They were waiting for lunch, most sitting very patiently, or perhaps not daring to
express their impatience. For the babies and toddlers, it was more of a trial, (one or two
were no more than a year old), held in the arms of a day care mother, or doing their best
to sit on hard chairs designed for considerably older children. Finally the meal arrived.
Ever since the programme began in 1974, providing good nutrition has been a major goal
of the day care homes. Two of the babies had not been able to wait. They had already
been fed and put to sleep in a third smaller room. One was already flat out, fast asleep,
face against the sticky plastic of the mattress, and bottom in air, looking like an advert
for disposable nappies. Another was more restless, despite being nestled within a
hammock and cooled by a large overhead fan. Each time this baby became fretful, one of
the day care mothers went over to revive the hammock’s rhythmical swinging, soothing
the baby instantly.
There were three day care mothers to look after the 30 children. Most children are
dropped-off by 7.30 in the morning and few collected before 5.30 in the afternoon.
Although they are managed by a local NGO, they rely on the Ministry in Caracas to fund
the meals and pay the salaries. But the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s are over.
There is a squeeze on all national programmes. Sometimes the money doesn’t come
through – ‘Then we feel like volunteers!’ remarked the senior day care mother who has
been doing the job ever since her own children started school. In another town we came
across a multihogar that hadn’t been open for weeks, because of the shortage of funds.
Certainly there isn’t much evidence of resources for play materials or teaching aids
either – not even the money to buy some painting paper or a football – even though many
of these children’s families can afford a TV and a few run a car. The day care mother is
philosophical. She remarks, ‘Everything we do has to come from inside my head’.
Overview of the local study in Venezuela
The local study was designed within a framework suggested by cultural studies of early child
development, notably the ‘ecological’ model of Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979). First, the researchers sought
to describe features of the two key micro-systems for young children’s care (their homes and their day
care homes), in terms of physical conditions, the characteristics of care givers and their interactions with
children. Second, the researchers examined the communication between micro-systems, the relationship
between mothers’ versus day care mothers’ expectations of the programme, and expectations of the
children (the meso system). Finally, the researchers looked at the wider contexts of care in the family and
day care home, in terms of support given by the wider community, communication with the day care
home, and expectations of the programme.
The Venezuelan study was carried out within two regions, one predominantly rural/rain forest, the other
predominantly industrial/urban. In fact, little difference was found between these areas. The investigators
carried out an initial total population survey of all 2,250 day care mothers in these two regions, in both
hogares and multihogares. From these interviews, a sample was identified of 30 hogares and 10
multihogares, stratified in terms of key variables, notably the size of the group, and educational level and
experience of care givers. For each location, those involved with the programme (care givers,
promotores, mothers, children and community members) were studied by means of interviews,
observation of care practice and child assessments.
The study illustrates the problems that can arise when a large-scale programme is expanded in a short
time period, with low and diminishing material resources. The ‘official’ purposes of the programme have
shifted towards targeting the most vulnerable groups, yet the socio-economic profile of children in
attendance suggested that the programme is failing to reach the most disadvantaged groups. At the same
time, the very severe financial constraints mean that the emphasis is mainly on basic nutrition, health,
and providing safe and secure care. The study also revealed significant differences in organisation, staff
roles and child care between the hogares and the multi-hogares.
The study is a rich source of information. A notable feature is the extensive comparisons made between
micro-systems, in terms of the beliefs, values and practices of the day care mothers and the children’s
own mothers. Although the programme is designed on an informal, family day care model, there are
marked differences in perspectives about the goals of the programme and the functions of the day care
mothers, all suggesting a strong case for greater dialogue/communication. Secondly, observations of
child care practice revealed discrepancies between what children are actually doing, and how care givers
perceive their role in children’s learning. Training on curriculum/child development/assessment issues is
a priority for the promotores. They have a key role to play in developing all aspects of the programme,
and so need to have their position enhanced. Others involved need to have their roles clarified.
Unlike Venezuela, Kenya remains a predominantly rural society, of diverse ethnic and racial groups, with
20 distinctive language groups. Until recently, child care and socialization has been governed by
powerful family/community structures and traditions, a phenomenon well documented by anthropologists
and cross-cultural psychologists (for example, Whiting and Edwards 1988; LeVine et al 1995). These
traditions remain strong, but few communities have been unaffected by economic and social change.
Eighty-eight per cent of women still live in rural areas. By tradition, they take the major responsibility for
cultivating subsistence and cash crops; patterns of shared care (with older siblings, relatives, etc.) have
been the norm (Kipkorir 1993). But family life styles are changing, these informal support systems for
child care are being eroded, and approaches to child-rearing are being challenged by modern trends.
Numerous linked factors are contributing to rapid social change, including very rapid population growth
(from 16 to 24 million between 1980 and 1992, UNICEF 1992) with consequent pressure on the
infrastructure of services; the creation of a rural landless class due to the subdivision of the family plots
to the point of non-viability even for subsistence (20 per cent of rural households); the shift to a wage
and cash economy and the migration of women and men away from their families in search of work in
the towns or on the large plantations (tea, coffee, etc). These trends have been taking place against a
background of economic crises associated with world recession. Structural adjustment programmes have
been designed in the long term to strengthen the economic base, but in the short term they have placed
additional pressure on the unskilled urban and rural poor. Forty-seven per cent of the urban population
live in very low income neighbourhoods, and of these, 30 to 40 per cent are described as ‘absolutely
poor’ (UNICEF 1992).
Kenya is remarkable among African countries in having a well-established system of community-run,
pre-school education which originated in the colonial period, and spread during the 1960s after
independence, and after the initiation by President Kenyatta of the principle of ‘Harambee’ (mutual
responsibility for self-help). By 1970, there were already 300,000 children attending pre-school classes,
and by 1989 that figure had risen to 802,000, or 30 per cent of 3-5 year-olds (Kipkorir 1993). Although
concentrated in the centres of population, the initiative to establish pre-school groups can be found even
in the most remote rural villages. These groups usually take the form of nursery units or classes attached
to primary schools and are frequently managed and run by parent/community committees, often with
minimal financial resources and equipment.
Since 1980, formal responsibility for the administration and regulation of pre-school education has been
vested in the Ministry of Education. In 1982, the Ministry set-up the National Centre for Early Childhood
Education (NACECE) as the coordinating centre of a network of District Centres for Early Childhood
Education (DICECE) with responsibility for training, curriculum development and research. This
initiative, originates from the Pre-school Education Project, which was established in 1971 as a
collaboration between the Ministry of Education and the Bernard van Leer Foundation.
Pre-school classes provide basic care mainly for children aged 4-5 years whose ‘traditional care givers’
(older siblings) now attend school; they also serve as a catalyst for community child health/nutrition
initiatives. But the main focus of Kenyan pre-school classes is on social training, towards the teaching of
the languages of education and commerce (Kiswahili and English) and towards preparing children for
school. Small numbers of two- and three-year old children are admitted to these classes; there are a few
(mostly private and costly) urban day nurseries, but for the most part, there is no provision for this
youngest age group. The infrastructure for infant/toddler care is under pressure, not just in the cities, but
also in the villages, where older siblings may be kept away from school or mothers may leave the village
in search of work leaving their children, including tiny babies in the care of older relatives. These
circumstances exert a strong pressure towards passive absorption of small children into the pre-school,
often in the care of older sisters or brothers.
My first impressions – pre-school education in the villages of Machakos, Kenya
Mungula community is only a short distance from Machakos, the main town and
administrative centre of this relatively densely populated agricultural region. This
Kikamba speaking village extends over 20 sq km of hillside which is intensively
cultivated for bananas, maize, beans and a cash-crop of coffee. The village has a
population of 8,500, over 25 per cent of whom are attending one of three primary
schools. There are also seven nursery schools, each attended by over 40 children. In the
one nursery we visited there were at least 60 children in the care of one teacher. Most
were four or five years old but a few were as young as two, accompanying their sisters to
school. These girls would traditionally have been expected to mind the baby while
mothers worked the land. Now, with the expectation of universal schooling, most of the
under-threes were being cared for in the community, by grandparents and by mothers
themselves. There is not a high demand for care for 0-3s in these villages. It is in the
plantations, and in the cities where the inadequate care arrangements are something of a
In this village, the first issue on people’s minds is ensuring their children’s basic health.
Most of the children in the pre-school class were bright-eyed, alert, and healthy-looking,
largely because, unlike the previous year, the village had enjoyed a good harvest. It is a
constant anxiety whether the community will have enough to be able to feed their
children properly. As one parent put it: ‘Children can’t play well if they haven’t fed
Without exception, the children were sitting very still and quiet on the rows of benches.
They were waiting for their cue from their teacher, before bursting into songs in unison.
Form and order were the features of this classroom, with the children dressed in uniform,
sitting in their places, girls to one side, boys to the other. After the songs, the class began
alphabet work. They chanted out their letters using a British-made, illustrated alphabet
wall frieze. Language and literacy are high priorities for every nursery class in Kenya.
The expectations on young children are formidable. If they are to have any chance of
success in a highly competitive school system, these village children must master not
only their mother tongue, Kikamba, but also Kiswahili, the national language, and most
importantly, English, which is the medium of instruction and examination in the later
stages of schooling.
The nursery school is a community initiative, and most of the community seemed to have
turned out to receive the visitors, with as much formality and deference to perceived
authority as had been shown by the children – male elders on one side, women on the
other side, children behind, community leader, head teacher and guests at the front.
Parents were convinced about the importance of the pre-school. But they were also
anxious about whether their children would be able to attend. There are many hidden
costs to families, especially since they were expected to contribute towards upkeep,
books, and the compulsory school uniform. These costs discourage the poorest families,
who can in any case also see the value of children helping them cultivate their small plot
of land, or collect water, or look after the younger children.
Overview of the local study in Kenya
The study focused on the contexts for child care, exploring what material and socio-cultural resources
were available to families and communities, and how well these resources were being used. The
investigators argued that the quality of day-to-day care is mediated by the beliefs, expectations, and
practices of care givers; this in turn shapes the experiences and development of children (Gakuru and
The study was carried out in Machakos District, a small town surrounded by numerous Kikamba-
speaking villages and small settlements, approximately 60 kilometres south east of Nairobi. The isolation
of many of the study sites presented linguistic, logistical and cultural obstacles, limiting the possibility
for carrying out an orthodox research design, and encouraging the investigators to evolve a participatory
process in which DICECE trainers, community leaders, village elders, teachers and parents all
contributed. Local Kikamba-speaking research assistants were appointed to establish the confidence of
communities and conduct fieldwork in a series of ten case studies (each of a cluster of small villages)
examining the environment of 300 three-year-olds. The case studies included interviews with parents,
observations/assessments of children, as well as group interviews with community leaders. For the most
part, these interviews centred on attitudes to childrearing. Although there were 22 nursery schools/classes
in these communities, very few of the three-year-olds attended. Where they did attend, their ability to
participate in the programme was marginal, since the curriculum focused on preparing children for entry
The study presents a profile of closely-knit communities where traditional lifestyles and values shape
child care practices. Many of the communities are largely dependant on subsistence agriculture. For these
communities, there are serious resource pressures on families to ensure their children’s nutrition, health
and growth. During the year of the study these had been exacerbated by failure of seasonal rains. The
authors argue that for certain communities, fundamental support/intervention is a prerequisite (in terms
of both agricultural development and nutrition programmes). In other communities, the issue was less
about resource endowment, and more about utilisation, which requires intervention at community
development level, to which pre-school initiatives can contribute.
Where three-year-olds are admitted to pre-school (and this is a trend), the already formal programme is
not adapted to their development level. There is an urgent need to consider alternatives to the current pre-
school model. More generally, the authors of the local study conclude that communities require
professional guidance, information and ideas to support their efforts to build child care/education
environments appropriate to the changing social context. The emphasis should be on encouraging
community mobilisation towards sustainable targets, supported by small scale financial investment and
cooperative schemes (Gakuru and Koech 1995).
Tamil Nadu – India
In India, there are estimated to be over 143,000,000 children under six years, around 40 per cent of whom
are growing up at the level of absolute poverty (defined as a level of resources insufficient for even basic
nutrition). During the thirty years after 1960, the infant mortality rates decreased from 165 to 90, and the
current figure is 83 per 1000. The death rate for under-fives is 124 per 1000 (UNICEF 1994). In this
context, health care, immunisation and nutrition remain very high priorities. Another priority relates to
population growth. Although the rate of growth is projected to decline during the final years of the
century, survival rates combined with longevity mean that every year, India must incorporate additional
numbers of people equivalent to the population of Australia.
India is well known for crowded city slums, yet 75 per cent of the population is rural, living mainly at
subsistence level. In cities and countryside alike, communities retain a powerful sense of shared identity,
belief and tradition, reflected in an enduring social structure, characterised by hierarchy and inequality in
respect to age, gender, class, and caste (Bernard van Leer Foundation, Country Statement 1994).
Early childhood programmes, modeled on British and European lines, have been established since the
nineteenth century. Maria Montessori travelled extensively in India during World War II, and left a
legacy of schools and teacher training programmes. Large- scale attempts to promote the development of
disadvantaged children date from the first Five-Year National Plan in 1950, and the introduction of
‘Balwadis’ (Children’s Centres). However, these failed successfully to target the most underprivileged
children (Verma 1994). The most significant initiative in this direction came in 1975 with the launch of
the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).
Focused on mothers and young children, this integrated package of health, nutrition and education has
grown steadily. Mainly funded directly by the government of India, it now serves 18,600,000 children
and mothers mainly in poor rural and tribal areas. The ICDS’s main functions are feeding/immunisation;
child care provision is incidental and educational activities have received low priority (Siraj-Blatchford
1994). Although there are substantial numbers of nursery schools/pre-primary classes as well as crèches
in India, neither has anything like the numerical significance of ICDS, nor are they as significant as the
Noon Meals programme, which serves a daily meal to vast numbers of pre-school and school-age
children, as well as to the elderly.
The local study was focused on one particular sector of provision (the NGO crèche programme) in the
State of Tamil Nadu. These crèches, regulated nationally by the Central Social Welfare Board since
1953, aim to provide an integrated programme of day care, health, nutrition and education serving two-
to-five year-old children of working parents or those unable to provide adequate care. More than 30
NGOs provide 900 crèches in Tamil Nadu and serve around 22,000 children; they operate in parallel to
factory crèches, and plantation crèches (Swaminathan, undated). One major crèche provider is the Indian
Council for Child Welfare (ICCW), a national NGO which provides an 11-month, full-time training
programme preparing crèche workers for the whole of the voluntary sector.
My first impressions – NGO crèches in Tamil Nadu, India
Fifty children between two and five years of age were lying in rows, some on sleeping mats,
others on the cool marble tile floor, resting after their lunch. Their crèche was one of the first
to be set up by the Indian Council for Child Welfare nearly 30 years ago. It was linked to a
government-initiated slum clearance scheme, to replace closely-packed traditional huts with
three storey concrete tenement blocks in this fishing community overlooking the Bay of
Bengal. The crèche has no budget for equipment, toys and games. All resources are fully
spent on two items – food for the midday meal, and the wages of the staff. One rupee, five
paise per child per day is the meal allowance allocated to the crèche. (The total for all 50
children converts roughly to the cost of a pot of tea in a three-star Madras hotel). The same
economics apply to staff costs. The crèche workers’ level of pay is little higher than that of
the low pay workers whose children they care for – 500 rupees per month, (or roughly the
cost of a meal for one in that same Madras hotel).
A few miles away there is another crèche, run by a different NGO, in one of the poorest
dhobi communities in the city. A bamboo frame supports the corrugated iron roof of the
crèche. The side panels are of raffia, damaged in places, but woven together by nature
through a vigorous climbing plant. When we visited, 24 small children were seated in a circle
on the compacted mud floor. Songs and rhymes, and sitting quietly appear to be the main
elements of these children’s curriculum. Most of their mothers are working in a nearby beedi
(cigarette) factory, or as street vendors, or as housemaids. Knowing their children are safe,
and that they will be fed is as much as these parents can hope for; at least it means they can
go to work with peace of mind. Inside the crèche there are no toys or play materials. If there
were, they would be kept on a high shelf – far too precious to entrust to small fingers. In a
community where adults have very few material possessions, it is hardly surprising that
children have virtually none.
One hour’s drive away, in Potheri village, the children have a very different experience.
Community enterprise has resulted in, not one, but three crèches, all full of young children
and full of activity. As we arrived, a group was outside, enacting a long, well-rehearsed
colourful story in mime. This was followed by an energetic alphabet game. Inside, some of
the younger children had been given some simple activities: bead-threading, nested boxes, an
abacus. For the dedicated care workers, providing individualised activities, caring for
children barely two years-old, while at the same time preparing the five year-olds for school
(all with ratios of 1:25) is, to say the least, a daunting task.
Overview of the local study in Tamil Nadu
The study was based in 44 crèches run by four of the leading NGOs in Tamil Nadu: The Indian Council
for Child Welfare, Tamil Nadu Branch; The Indian Red Cross Society, Tamil Nadu Branch; the Indian
Women’s Association, Madras; and the Guild of Service, Central Madras. Each crèche was located
within a separate community, with 27 in the city of Madras and 17 in the rural communities of
Chingleput District. For each crèche, the investigators carried out interviews with the care worker; made
observations of the crèche environment; made developmental observations of 10 children aged 3-4;
observed these 10 children in their home environment and interviewed their mothers; carried out a group
discussion with the older women in the community; and carried out interviews with the responsible NGO
The study examined the relationship between the children’s family environment and the care and
education provided in the crèche, as well as the relationships between the crèche worker and parents. The
young children’s development took place in home environments with very low levels of material
resources. Children suffer health hazards and inadequate nutrition. At the same time, their social and
emotional environment is rich, secure and supportive. The authors note that high expectations are placed
on mothers to carry out their role, which they generally do in a caring and concerned way;
neighbourhood help is offered and neglect is condemned.
Resources are also scarce in the crèche, where one care worker is responsible for a group 25 of children,
usually with very little equipment. Unless staff are highly resourceful, this places constraints on the
opportunities for learning. Not surprisingly, there is a disparity between what the care workers claim to
know about children’s development and what was observed in practice. As an illustration, the authors
argue that considerable potential exists to educate parents and the community about health issues and
child development. At the same time, crèche workers are ill-prepared to carry out this task. Because they
tend to focus on children, they may dismiss parents’ potential and may underestimate their own potential
to influence parental beliefs and practices. The authors argue that there is a need, through enhanced
practical training, to reorient the crèche workers to this aspect of their work. Finally, the crèche
programme mostly caters to the four- to five-year old age group, and thus the main orientation is to pre-
primary school work. Where there are two- and three-year-olds, the crèche workers rarely have the time
or resources to adapt the programme to their stage of development (Paul 1995).
The local study in France is the only one of the four focused on a large-scale programme specifically
designed to provide day care for 0-3 year-olds. This reflects the extent and range of child care
arrangements in France which, for many years, has offered pre-school services to a higher percentage of
children than most of Europe. At the core of this provision is the system of écoles and classes
maternelles (nursery schools and classes). Already by 1968, 14 per cent of 2 year-olds, 51 per cent of 3
year-olds, 79 per cent of 4 year-olds, and 89 per cent of 5 year-olds were attending, many of them for a
full school day. By 1976, these statistics had risen to 26 per cent, 79 per cent, 97 per cent, and 99 per cent
respectively (Woodhead 1979a). These developments have taken place in the context of a highly
centralised and relatively formal education system with which nursery schools form an integral sector.
This was reflected in the tradition of common training for teachers, the high ratios of children to teachers
(as many as 35 to 1, supported by untrained assistants), and a more regimented programme of activities.
All of this occurred at a time when other European countries (such as Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark
and Sweden) were fostering a more individualistic, child-centred, play-based philosophy (Woodhead
For many families, full time nursery schooling solves the problem of arranging adequate child care for 3-
5 year-olds; it is also valued as a preparation for school. However, in a country where the majority of
women work, the very youngest children are much less adequately catered for. For these children, French
parents face a variety of options, notably: childminders, family day care centres and crèches. All of these
options are regulated by the Direction Departmentale des Affaires Sanitaires et Sociales, DDASS. Eighty
per cent of the crèches are run by municipalities, 17 per cent by DDASS itself. The remaining three per
cent comprises the private and voluntary sector. The French local study was focused on the largest
organisation within this numerically relatively small, but in policy terms highly significant private sector,
namely the parent-run day care centres, known as crèches parentales.
Originating in the 1970s, the movement had grown so much that by 1981, a national coordinating
organisation was formed (Association des Collectifs Enfants, Parents, Professionnels – ACEPP). ACEPP
acts as a federation of centres; it gathers information, carries out advocacy work, and advises parent
groups on how to get started, how to organise finances, and how to work with the state authorities.
Crèches parentales are now officially recognised as a valuable alternative to traditional care; ACEPP has
attempted to negotiate one third of the funding from central government, one third from the municipality,
and one third from the parents. About 1,000 crèches are now in operation, mainly in urban areas. The
idea has appealed mainly to professional, middle class parents, interested and able to give the
commitment of time, energy and expertise to managing a crèche and spending around half a day a week
looking after their own and other people’s children. All the crèches now appoint some professional staff
to provide continuity and a reference point for the children and the parent-helpers. Most of the crèches
are quite small, and thus retain a family atmosphere; staffing is calculated on a ratio of one professional
and two parents to 16 children.
Recently, ACEPP has worked towards extending the philosophy of crèches parentales to the more
disadvantaged groups in French society, especially to the 4,000,000 immigrant families that constitute
6.9% of the population (Combes 1992). The main goals of this initiative have been twofold: to develop a
multi-cultural curriculum appropriate to the crèche parentale and to combat the widespread belief that
economically disadvantaged parents are not capable of providing a high quality of care, attention and
learning experiences appropriate to their young children. There are now 40 multi-cultural crèches in
operation. These crèches, and the goals that inspired them became the starting point for the study.
My first impressions – Crèches Parentales in Paris, France
There was no way of knowing we were coming to a crèche – from the street it looked
just like every other shop front running along the ground floor of the 1970s concrete and
glass apartment block. That was what the architect had intended it for, until it became
vacant. Members of the growing movement for crèches parentales saw it as the site for
The telltale sign of a crèche is the line of pushchairs and buggies just inside the door.
Once a shop, it is now home during the day for up to 16 young children, with one full
time member of staff, supported by a rota of parent helpers. The first impression is of
plenty of space and creative use of play spaces to construct an environment that is both
exciting and secure for young children.
Much of the main room is given over to a large purpose-built play structure, which
children can climb on, slide down and tunnel through. But the space isn’t all for noisy
and rumbustious play. Through a low partition there is a quiet area, with mattresses on
the floor. One minute a father (volunteer helper) is sharing a story book with two
toddlers; a few minutes later, a mother has five or six children gathered around,
entranced as she sings and plays her guitar. There are plenty of manufactured games and
toys freely available for the children and their helpers.
The one big disadvantage of this crèche – according to the full time worker – is that it
has no outside play space. This is a very densely populated area of N.E. Paris, so each
day a group of older children are kitted-out in coats and shoes to take a walk, or be taken
by pushchair along the busy streets or along the nearby canal.
The bathroom is a feature of this crèche. It is no ordinary arrangement of basins and
toilets. There is a whole bathing area, sculpted out of fibreglass, where a small number of
children can strip off and play in and with the water. One of the babies is ready for a
nappy change, so he is taken to the changing area by the same father who had been
reading a story a half an hour previously. The involvement of fathers is a feature of
The families using the crèche live mainly in the apartments above, or within walking
distance of the crèche. As parents arrive to take their children home, there are lots of
hugs and talk. The atmosphere is very informal. Parents wander into the playroom, the
kitchen, and the bathroom in search of their little ones. One even lingers for a coffee.
This is the moment when the contrast with a conventional nursery is most clear – these
parents are chatting with the ‘staff’ as if they are old friends, but then they are old
friends, or if not, at least there are no status or professional barriers that might distance
There are two more crèche parentale within a few miles of this one. They are all
different, but all using premises that have been adapted and all locally managed by
parents themselves. The one thing they have in common is the enthusiasm to provide a
child care system, by parents and for parents.
Overview of the local study in France
The study in France focused specifically on the implications of involving parents in the quality of their
children’s experience, and especially in their intellectual development. The investigators’ starting point
was a theoretical perspective which argues that children’s development is a social process – that young
children depend on their immediate care givers not only for emotional security and social relationship,
but also for informal pedagogical interactions through which they construct their understanding of the
social and physical environment (Vygotsky 1978; Bruner 1983). They were interested in the way young
children’s exploration of their immediate or proximal environment is shaped by their care givers, in the
choices and opportunities they provide, and in the way they support, structure, and comment on the
children’s actions and communications.
This theoretical perspective was applied to crèches parentales. Interactions between adults and children
were video-recorded and then submitted to a complex multi-dimensional coding system. Forty-four hours
of recordings made in four crèches became the raw data for analysis in three main dimensions: the
complexity of interactions; the meanings expressed through interaction; and the adult’s use of strategies
to guide (‘scaffold’) their children’s learning in a way which was sensitive to their developmental level
(‘zone of proximal development’).
The study of crèches parentales illustrates the possibilities for bridging the gulf between the micro-
systems of crèche and home, institutional and familial care, and professional and parental care giving.
Crèches parentales can transform the generally cursory ‘doorstep’ contacts between parents and care
givers into a much more genuine collaborative partnership. The authors seek to demonstrate the unique
role that parents can play in the crèche environment. Because they are not preoccupied with overall group
management (which tends to be the role of the professional), they are able to give more close, individual,
informal attention to the children. Their ‘novice status’ can be a positive advantage, in that they become
more truly engaged with the child in a shared exploration of novel situations or activities. This was
confirmed in comparisons made between parents and professionals working in the crèche (Tijus et al
The involvement of fathers as care givers is another unique feature of crèches parentales. In a context of
family instability, divorce and single parenting, the availability of male role models, and male caring
styles can extend children’s experience, especially in view of the evidence from this and other studies of
a tendency for fathers to adopt a different style of relationship and interaction compared to mothers
(Tijus et al 1995, Evans 1995). The authors conclude:
Parental participation mediates the relation between social or ethnic membership and the level of
cognitive interaction. In other words, when parents of economically and socially disadvantaged
milieus are present and involved in the daily and educational activities of the parent-run day care
center, they participate, and get the children to participate, in more complex cognitive
interactions. This result suggests that it is possible to modify the relationship between the social
disadvantage of children and the quality of their experiences of cognitive interactions in Day
Care Centers (Tijus et al 1995).
Chapter 3—Framework for Quality Development
The four local studies illustrate the diversity of starting points for addressing questions about quality.
How can quality be identified, and by whom? What criteria should be taken into account? Which are the
most important – and which make for real quality? These questions have to be asked at every level: by
the individuals working in the day care home, crèche or nursery; by programme managers, inspectors and
trainers; by regional and national policy planners and advisers; by international agencies, field workers
and researchers. The wider the range of contexts, the more difficult it is to reach definitive answers. It is
useful to begin by asking how quality issues can be addressed for a particular early childhood
Perspectives on quality
Any early childhood programme is a complex human system involving numerous individuals and interest
groups. There are many different potential criteria of quality, which are closely linked to beliefs about
goals and functions. These beliefs are in turn shaped by perspectives on childhood, by cultural patterns
and personal values as well as by social structures, levels of poverty and wealth, and so on. Instead of
expecting to identify universal, objective indicators of quality, we have to look towards a policy
framework that can encompass multiple perspectives, multiple beneficiaries and multiple benefits:
Quality is a subjective and dynamic judgement that entails negotiation between different
stakeholders’ perspectives which change over time, and that rather than being prescriptive,
quality standards should be established within each context to respond to real needs of parents
and children (Bernard van Leer Report of the Paris Workshop, 1995).
The following framework is offered as a starting point for this process of negotiation. It is based on
asking three key questions:
1. Who are stakeholders in the ‘quality’ of a programme?
There are numerous different stakeholders in any early childhood programme, each with their
own perspective on quality based on their interests, their roles, and their power to influence its
design and functioning. For example, there are programme managers, teachers, parents,
community leaders, employers, child development experts, politicians, funding agencies,
research investigators, and above all, the children themselves.
2. Who are the perceived beneficiaries from ‘quality’?
The obvious answer is that the children are, but many stakeholders would include parents as
beneficiaries; there are also less explicitly identified beneficiaries, such as employers who gain
from parents’ availability for work; the teachers in the primary school who receive children
better prepared for instruction; the early childhood care workers who receive financial rewards
and status from their work; and the community leaders who gain prestige. For some parents and
communities, older children are seen as major beneficiaries, because they no longer have to care
for their youngest siblings.
3. What are taken to be indicators of ‘quality’?
Judgements about quality are closely linked to goals and expectations for the programme in
particular, and childhood in general. They can focus on basic standards of physical care and
nurturance; resources for play activities and learning; the character of adult-child relationships
(intimacy, formality, approach to discipline, style of teaching, and the like), and care
worker/parent relationships; the flexibility of the programme to suit parents’ working patterns;
the children’s adjustment to and achievement in school; calculations of cost effectiveness, etc.
Quality indicators are often grouped under three broad headings:
Input indicators reflect the enduring features of the programme. They are most easy to define and
measure, and are often the basis for setting regulations about basic quality standards. Some of these
the building and surroundings (space per child, heating/lighting, toilet/washing facilities, etc.);
materials and equipment (furniture, play equipment, teaching/learning materials, audio-visual
staffing (qualifications, basic training, pay and conditions, child-adult ratios, etc.)
Process indicators reflect what actually happens from day-to day. They are more difficult to pin down
and standardise, although some systematic procedures have been developed. Some of these might
style of care (adults’ availability to the children, responsiveness, consistency etc.);
experience of children (variety, how experience is organised, choices available to children,
patterns of activity, eating, resting, play, etc.);
approach to teaching and learning (control/support of children’s activities, task demands,
sensitivity to individual differences, etc.);
approach to control and discipline, (boundary setting, rules, group management, discipline
relationships among adults (day-to-day communication, co-operation, etc.);
relationships between parents, care givers and others (handover/greeting arrangements,
opportunities for communication about the child, mutual respect, co-operation, acknowledgment
of differences, etc.).
Outcome indicators are about the impact of the provision or the experience. This is the domain of
interest in ‘effectiveness’ or ‘cost-benefit’. They might include:
children’s health (growth monitoring, records of illness, etc.);
children’s abilities (motor coordination, cognitive and language, social relationships, early
numeracy and literacy, etc.);
children’s adjustment to school (transition difficulties, progress through grades, school
family attitudes (support for children’s learning, parental competencies, etc.);
These three questions: ‘Who are the stakeholders?’, ‘Who are the beneficiaries?, and ‘What are
indicators of quality?’, can be seen as three dimensional, visually represented as a cube in Figure 3.
(Figure 3 not available.)
This framework can accommodate diverse views on quality. For example, each of the following
hypothetical statements can be seen as occupying a particular space within the cube:
* ‘It’s a good programme because my child is safe and she gets a good meal each day. Before they
set up the crèche I had to leave my older children at home to look after the little one. Now the
older ones can go to school and I can go out to work with peace of mind. My only worry is that
she may pick up some bad habits from the other children.’
This is a parent’s perspective, seeing their pre-school child, their older children and themselves as
beneficiaries, concentrating on happiness, social relationships and parental employment as
* ‘It’s a good programme because we have now got coverage of 75 per cent of the children. Using
care workers from the neighbourhood has helped integrate the programme into the community.
Although their training is very brief, they have become quite well-respected as a source of advice
to parents. At the same time the costs are low and there are signs of improved mortality statistics
as a result of the nutrition component.’
This is a politician’s view. Beneficiaries are seen not only as individuals but communities and
society in general. The concern is with numbers in the programme, cost effectiveness, and global
indicators of quality.
* ‘It’s a good programme because we are able to prepare children for school. They learn their letters
and numbers, as well as songs and rhymes. At the same time they learn to take instructions from
their teachers which they will need at school. The big problem is that we don’t have enough
books to go around.’
This is a care worker’s perspective, concentrating on children alone as the beneficiaries, and
concerned with the pressures on staff and the adequacy of the materials and resources to achieve
child development aims.
* ‘It’s a good programme because I get to be with my friends. Sometimes it feels like a long time to
be in the classroom and I get bored keeping still when we are meant to have our rest after lunch.’
This is a child’s view, reflecting their own experience of the programme, with views on what they
like and dislike.
How can this model be used? The model is intended as the starting-point for appraising a programme and
negotiating its development with all those stakeholders who are interested and involved with it. It is easy
for people running a programme to be ‘locked inside’ their own perspective. As Lilian Katz has pointed
out, trying to adopt the perspective of those participating in early childhood development programmes is
a healthy antidote to the top-down perspective adopted by those having management responsibility for
such programmes (Katz 1992). Taking account of other perspectives can provide a more complete
programme appraisal. It is an ‘inclusionary model’ (Moss and Pence, 1995) which discourages narrow
prescriptions about what makes for a good programme, which goals are worth pursuing, and which
criteria should be taken as indicators.
Figure 3 places various interest groups side-by-side as if on an equal footing as stakeholders in an early
childhood programme. In practice, of course, these groups are not equal. Identifying stakeholders’
perspectives means becoming much more explicit about the power relationships that shape an early
childhood programme. What is the management structure? Who is holding the purse-strings? Who are the
experts? What is the parents’ role? Do children have a voice?
Recognising inequalities of influence over what is defined as good quality is an important first step in
empowering stakeholders whose voice might not otherwise be heard, or listened to. At the same time,
identifying stakeholders’ perspectives and negotiating quality is not necessarily about even-handed
processes of democratic exchange in the ways that the concept of ‘negotiation’ implies. It is not merely
about blending perspectives into an artificial consensus. It is rather more about acknowledging how a
range of beliefs and values may shape the ecology of children’s development, and the experience of an
early childhood programme. Inherent conflict in beliefs and practices are common; for example, different
quality standards may apply at home than in the programme. There may be a persuasive argument about
the inappropriateness of one view of quality compared with another, especially when circumstances are
Defining ‘quality’ in an early childhood programme is not a once-and-for-all process. Negotiation and
renegotiation are continuous. An important feature of this process is that stakeholders become more
aware of their own (and others’) partiality, more aware of the personal, cultural, institutional and
hierarchical constraints on the perspectives adopted, and thereby more open to the possibility of change.
Identifying the multiple perspectives of stakeholders in the day care programme was a major theme of the
Venezuelan study. Box 5 illustrates some of the findings; further examples are also presented as Box 11.
Multiple perspectives – an example from Venezuela
As explained in section 2 of this report, the official goals of the Programa Hogares de
Cuidao Diario (day care homes programme) have shifted. During the first 15 years of
operation (1974-1989), the programme was administered within the context of economic
policies promoting full employment, and was accompanied by a national policy to
provide community-based day care for the children of low income working mothers for
up to 12 hours a day. In 1989, at the time of massive extension of the programme, the
principal goals were re-oriented to become more explicitly compensatory, in terms of
supporting the child care tasks of mothers, and the health, welfare and development of
These policy changes might be expected to reflect in perspectives on quality. In practice,
the Venezuelan study found that official changes had not fully permeated the
programme. This was strongly indicated by a remark directed to non-working mothers
whose children attended the programme:
‘[It] is not so that the mothers can stay home while others take care of their children.’
The study questioned mothers, day care mothers, and organisers (Promotores) about the
goals and function of the programme. They found quite marked discrepancies in the
emphasis placed on mothers versus children as the beneficiaries. Sixty-seven per cent of
mothers and 51 per cent of day care mothers saw helping working mothers as the main
objective. By contrast only 22 per cent of organisers emphasised the benefits to mothers
of being able to go to work without worrying about their children. This was balanced by
a much greater emphasis on child-oriented benefits (care, feeding, promoting
development), which accounted for 78 per cent of organisers’ replies.
Contrasting the perspectives of mothers with day-care mothers is an oversimplification.
The programme in Venezuela takes two forms: the smaller home based hogar (day care
home) and the larger group multihogar (multi-day care home). From the local study, it is
clear that stakeholder perspectives on quality issues vary between these two forms. For
example, when asked about the most important functions of the day care mother, there
was a greater emphasis on pedagogic and organisational role among day care mothers in
the multi-homes, compared with the more family-organised day care homes where day
care mothers’ main emphasis was on meeting basic needs and providing overall care.
The different stakeholder perspectives on day care were also revealed in questions about
how children spend their time in the programme, and what activities they engage in.
Mothers emphasised mainly basic care and play, while day care mothers emphasised
developmental and educational activities: language, drawing, puzzles, etc. Clearly these
differences reflect the different experiences of the two groups, and the fact that the care
givers have undergone a basic training which would emphasise child development goals.
Although these are only perceptions of the activities offered, they do suggest
discrepancies in perspective on quality; this is not helped by the fairly superficial level of
mainly ‘doorstep’ exchanges between mothers and day care mothers. As the authors
According to the mothers, their children ... engage basically in sleeping, eating, bathing
and playing. They do not seem to have detailed information concerning what their
children do during the day in the programme. Although this is congruent with their
perspective of quality, which is centred on care and nutrition, it is necessary to establish
a closer relationship of the mothers with the day care home/multi-home, since the
mothers can complement or share with their children the learning experiences they
engage in, which would increase the programme’s quality. (Teran de Ruesta et al 1995)
Making perspectives explicit and negotiating a shared understanding, especially between professionals,
parents and community, will reflect well on the effectiveness of a programme. In terms of
Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model, establishing a stronger relationship between the two most important
micro-systems will produce a more effective environment for human development at the level of the
meso-system (Bronfenbrenner 1989). This does not necessarily mean stakeholders converging on an
identical view of child care and education; what matters is complementary understanding.
The model presented so far assumes that while there may be differences in perspective between
stakeholder groups, there is consistency within these groups. Often this is not the case; for example when
different professional/paraprofessional groups work side-by-side, different management agencies share
responsibility for the programme, or where the programme serves a heterogeneous population, with
competing perspectives on goals, values and practices for early childhood. Indeed, the inherent conflicts
and tensions within any pre-school system are part of the dynamic enabling stakeholders to move
forward, to negotiate change, and to tolerate diversity in expectations of quality even within a
Sometimes the problem may seem quite the opposite. There may not appear to be any competing
perspectives, nor any potential for dynamic negotiation of quality. The practices within an early
childhood programme may be fixed within a particular mould, dictated by a powerful interest group,
adhering to a very rigid view of the requirements of childhood, resistant to change, or even to the idea of
monitoring quality, with parents passively acquiescent. Identification of this as a ‘problem’ will very
often originate from someone with an outside perspective, for example, from a community development
worker, an early childhood consultant or researcher, or an agent of change whose role is to mobilise local
resources. In this case, the task may be to challenge dominant or parochial perspectives, facilitate and
empower dormant interest groups, by raising or modifying their expectations for child development
programmes (Paz 1990).
Of course, the multiplicity of perspectives does not apply to programme management only; questions of
quality apply at all levels, and so does articulation, dialogue and negotiation of perspectives: at classroom
level, through parent-professional meetings, home visits, statements of goals, plans and progress; at
community level through debate among stakeholders, training for programme workers in mediating
perspectives; at national level through public discussion, information about alternative approaches; and
ultimately at an international level, through research, discussion and declaration of fundamental universal
The same underlying questions apply to all levels. In the face of competing perspectives, how can
progress be made in the process of quality development? If quality criteria are to be negotiated, what
standards should be applied to a particular perspective or to assessing the merits of one particular
perspective over another? Are there any universal yardsticks (or metre rules)?
Relative but not arbitrary
Treating quality criteria as being relative rather than fixed, negotiated rather than prescribed, might be
interpreted as undermining programme managers, whose role is already difficult. If there are multiple
perspectives on quality, are all attempts to identify objective criteria illusory? Is seeking agreement about
quality as illusory as seeking a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow? If no objective certainty exists
about quality, is the search for any kind of common framework a pointless exercise? Is quality purely
‘subjective’? Is the enterprise doomed to flounder in a sea of relativity?
The usual response is to seek certainty in expert knowledge. For example, child development experts
should be in a good position to say what the needs of children are, which practices are developmentally
appropriate, what will most enhance their learning. Pragmatically, this may well be the case, but at a
deeper level, identifying the basis for expert judgments raises controversial issues. These have been
debated by Kagitcibasi (1996). Accumulating evidence from cross-cultural studies of child development
highlights the relationships between child care systems and child development outcomes, but the experts
carrying out the research typically stop short of judging the relative merits of one system over another,
because these would entail value judgements. Kagitcibasi argues that this kind of relativism is unhelpful
to the quest for healthy human development, and creates a dangerous double standard:
By not using comparative standards and not passing judgements about the state of the children in
pre-industrial traditional society, ironically a value judgement is being made by default.
Expressed rather bluntly, this value judgement states that in the industrial society with mass
schooling (universal) cognitive standards of achievement apply, but in the pre-industrial society
they do not (Kagitcibasi 1995).
My position is rather different. I believe that when experts use concepts of ‘psychological health’ and
apply ‘comparative standards’, this inevitably entail making value judgments, and we should not pretend
otherwise. Making these value judgements explicit is essential for making progress towards achieving a
sound basis for prescribing for the welfare/education of the world’s children. Relativism must be the
starting point for debate; otherwise it is too easy to become trapped into assuming that it is inevitable for
dominant standards to become the universal standard. They may become the universal standard, if
globalisation continues. But if they do, it should be by virtue of consent, by choice, and not because
experts have proclaimed that this is necessarily the best way forward.
Relativism is the beginning of the story, but it is by no means the end of it. Judgements have to be made,
criteria have to be applied, standards have to be agreed. Although there are multiple perspectives, this
does not mean that quality itself is arbitrary, that criteria for quality in early childhood are a matter of
whim or personal taste. Judgements of quality are the expression of complex systems of belief,
knowledge and values, relating to particular cultural, familial and institutional contexts and aspirations
for childhood. To counterbalance the tendency to impose so-called ‘universal’ standards, I shall argue
that appraisal of context and perspectives within a particular setting is an all-important part of the process
of identifying quality.
To elaborate the rainbow metaphor, while rejecting the idea of a ‘crock of gold’, we should not lose sight
of the rainbow itself; the experience of the rainbow is real enough. Just as rainbows require both
sunshine and rain, there are important prerequisites for quality in early childhood. But like rainbows, that
quality is not fixed and can be elusive. Whether and where a person sees the rainbow depends on where
he or she is standing. In other words, although perspective is all important to perceptions of quality, it is
not the only consideration. There are other important constituents of quality which will be reviewed in
subsequent chapters. I shall argue that some of these constituents are often presented as if they were the
basis for setting universal, objective criteria. I reject this view. None is in itself sufficient to provide a
common framework, but each can constitute a step on the journey towards defining quality.
Chapter 4—Resources for quality
Most discussions of quality start with input indicators, notably the building, the equipment and the
staffing available to a programme. The contrasts in availability of these material and human resources is
one of the striking features revealed by the local studies, summarised in Chapter 2. In the face of these
contrasts, one approach to quality would concentrate on specifying basic international standards able to
be applied universally to all children. Although superficially attractive, I shall argue that this approach is
neither realistic nor productive. I reject universalism. However, I do not reject the need for quality
standards. Their establishment is fundamental to quality development for any programme and setting. I
propose a contextual approach to identifying basic quality indicators, within the framework of multiple
negotiations outlined in Chapter 3.
Whose basic standards?
What would be the consequence of adopting a universal approach to ‘basic standards’? Input indicators
considered grossly inadequate in one context or country, are an unattainable luxury in many others. For
example, some programmes operate with child-staff ratios of 3 to 1, others 12 to 1, others are sustained
with 25 to 1, 40 to 1, or even more. Where should the standard lie?
The same dilemma applies to material resources. While some programmes are blessed with an indulgent
wealth of manufactured games and equipment (furniture, domestic appliances, TV, video, computers,
toys, puzzles, paper, paints, books, etc.), most make do with minimal resources, and many with virtually
nothing at all. While most programme planners try to ensure that children’s stomachs are filled, others
are preoccupied with extending children’s minds by access to the high-tech world of computers, CD-
ROMs and the Internet. What is the ‘basic standard’ here?
Where Majority World programmes do possess a few toys and games, they are not necessarily made
available to the children – they are far too precious to risk being damaged by clumsy fingers. Such
possessions are unavailable to the children in an environment where manufactured goods are equally
unavailable to their parents. The possibility of owning a cooking pot one day might be a more realistic
On these indicators alone, most of the world’s children are attending programmes that fail to fulfil the
basic standards expected by programme planners in the Minority World. If their perceptions of basic
standards were to be universally applied, the logical outcome would be to condemn the experience of the
majority of the world’s children.
Targeting higher levels of resource for early childhood programmes is highly desirable. But a concept of
basic resource standards for early childhood would ultimately only make sense within a wider framework
for tackling gross economic and social inequality, especially as it affects women and children, within as
well as between countries. Early childhood programmes are a ripple (albeit a very determined ripple)
against a tidal wave of inequality.
Play space and social behaviour – a study in South Africa
One basic indicator of quality is the amount of play space available to children within a
nursery building. Regulations about minimum density are widely applied in Europe and
North America, and there is research to demonstrate the importance of this feature of
early childhood environments. For example, in the UK, Smith and Connolly (1980)
identified a threshold of between 1.5 and 2.0 square metres per child, below which,
increased crowding adversely affected children’s play and social behaviour. From this
research, we might take 1.5 square metres per child as a basic standard that can be
How well would this indicator of ‘overcrowding’ translate to other settings? Liddell and
Kruger (1987, 1989) made a study of children’s social behaviour in a day nursery within
an urban township in South Africa. Children attending the nursery were growing up in
densely populated circumstances, typically in large households with an average of 4
square metres of space per person. The nursery itself was equally densely populated with
an average of 60 children in one classroom, cared for by two staff. In order to assess the
impact of crowding in this context, Liddell and Kruger took advantage of the regular
fluctuations in attendance. On some days, social density was as little as 0.56 square
metres, while on other days it rose to 1.56 square metres. The children were observed
during free play sessions over a twelve-week period, and their behaviour coded on
categories covering social participation, activity and aggressive behaviour.
This South African study supports the British research finding that higher levels of social
density were associated with a decrease in ‘cooperative’ social participation and ‘socially
mediated activity’, and an increase ‘unoccupied behaviour’. But there is an important
difference. The lowest (most optimal) density levels observed by Liddell and Kruger
were equivalent to the highest, (least acceptable) density levels in other contexts. In other
words, children were functioning effectively in the South African township nursery in
conditions that produced adverse reactions among British children. The implication is
that social density affects children’s behaviour and relationships, but those effects are
relative, not absolute. What is it they are relative to?
Although children’s familiarity with high density living within the townships maybe a
contributory factor, a follow-up study by Liddell and Kruger (1989) suggests this is only
part of the story. Children’s ability to cope may also be mediated by the attitude of care
givers who work in high density child care, who have themselves developed coping
strategies. In other words, overcrowding is about the meaning attributed to a situation,
defined individually, socially and culturally.
The authors draw the following conclusion for policy:
As for improving facilities for township pre-schoolers and children in other cultures
where overcrowded day care facilities prevail, questions may be raised as to whether
reductions in density merit high priority. The present study suggests that, at least in the
short term, the effects of severe crowding may be less extreme than would have been
anticipated (Liddell and Kruger 1987).
The idea of a universal set of basic standards is not just unrealistic. In some cases it may be inappropriate
and unhelpful to the progress of early child development programmes (see Box 6). ‘Identifying basic
standards’ is too often a euphemism for adopting the quality indicators that preoccupy programme
managers in the Minority World: materially affluent, industrialised, urban societies where
professionalised employment patterns combine with materialist, individualist, and technological values.
At the same time, the economic, social and community resources in Majority World contexts are so
different as to suggest that there may be other ways of thinking about quality standards. Unfortunately,
these are unlikely to be cultivated while expectations are adhered to that equate human resources with
highly-paid professionals and material resources with manufactured products.
Reluctance to depart from these resource expectations is understandable. To do so might unwittingly
legitimise official complacency about inequalities. Relativism can appear to condescend to the poor and
to undermine the struggle for social justice. But aligning universalism with egalitarianism, and relativism
with a laissez-faire philosophy, is a gross oversimplification. Scope in advocacy for enhanced resourcing
is possible at the same time as negotiated, contextually-sensitive standard-setting.
From the perspective of Kenyan society, Gakuru highlights the benefits of a negotiated approach:
First, the process of negotiation among stakeholders would promote democratic values and
practices by challenging the pervasive dependence embedded in the culture of sponsored
development. Secondly, it would generate and harness energy and resources both from internal
and external sources, for the common good (Gakuru, 1995).
What is needed is an open-ended, positive and progressive approach to quality development which does
not merely emulate the quality standards of affluent nations, but instead legitimises locally available
human and material resources for child development in ways that are ecologically sustainable and
sensitive to local aspirations. To borrow the title of a Bernard van Leer Foundation report on early
childhood in Africa, the alternative is to ‘build on people’s strengths’ (Bernard van Leer Foundation,
Resources versus resourcefulness
Because the building is a major cost of any programme, there is a danger of disproportionate attention
and resources being concentrated on this. While the building tangibly symbolises the programme, and
provides a secure context for child development activity, the building is not the same thing as the
Contrary to some views, ‘centres’ do not have to be purpose-built: they can be in people’s homes,
under a tree, in borrowed premises, such as church, clinic or other community facility. As long as
the environment is safe, its location is immaterial (Bernard van Leer Foundation 1994).
The same principle applies to programme staffing. While talented, well-trained and well-supported care
workers and teachers are fundamental to the quality of many programmes, professionally trained
personnel are but one human resource. Less visible human community resources, such as family and
community members, patterns of social organisation and cultural cohesion are ultimately what governs
The mobilisation of dormant or under-used resources – the goodwill of communities, the time of
elders, or the knowledge, expertise and resources of private sector companies – could have an
enormous impact on an ECD programme. In fact people themselves are often the most
underutilised resource (Bernard van Leer Foundation 1994).
Material artefacts have become a hallmark of ‘high quality’ early childhood environments in materially
affluent societies. The design of early childhood centres has been strongly shaped by urban contexts
where children were denied access to the natural environment, recreated for them in the child-centred
‘kindergarten’. The relevance of these materials in other contexts cannot be assumed, nor can, the
necessity of much manufactured equipment, much of which can in any case be improvised. At the same
time, most communities and cultures are a rich resource for learning (in terms of the natural environment,
craft skills, oral traditions, music, dance, story-telling) which can be harnessed in support of children’s
The implication for local programme planning is that words like ‘low cost’ and ‘low resource’ lose their
meaning, or rather, become more meaningful in a different way. Programmes that might be judged as
‘low resource’ in materially affluent nations may in fact be ‘high resource’ in a local context. Likewise,
some on-the-face-of-it ‘high resource’ programmes in affluent contexts might more appropriately be re-
labelled ‘low resource’, in terms of community endowment.
Thus ensuring a ‘basic standard’ of care is a relative, and not an absolute judgement. It is relative in the
sense of enhancing, or offering experiences complementary to children’s family and community
environment. In one context, it may be about providing germ-free drinking water for children in an
environment where parents cannot afford the fuel to boil water themselves. In another context, it may be
about providing stable, consistent care giving in an environment where family instability threatens
children’s emotional security. Assessing the resources of children’s total environment is the starting point
for quality development in an early childhood programme. It cannot be judged without reflecting all the
contexts that shape children’s experience. No matter how well resourced in terms of ‘basic standards’, an
organised programme only has quality in so far it relates to, and is relevant to the wider context of
Resources for quality – the crèche and home environment in Tamil Nadu
The investigators in Tamil Nadu visited the homes of 440 children (aged 3 to 4) attending
the 44 crèches. Many of the communities are described as ‘blighted’, with narrow, unpaved
streets and inadequate drains, sewage and refuse disposal.
While some children lived in ‘modern’ brick/concrete houses, 65 per cent lived in
traditionally constructed homes (a bamboo frame, infilled with mud and/or matted palm
leaves, with a roof made of palm leaves or corrugated metal). In the cities, most families
did not have their own toilet, so children were learning to use Corporation public
conveniences and collect water via a public tap. Most homes had access to electricity and
televisions are highly sought after, but there were very few other material possessions – a
few pieces of simple furniture, basic cooking utensils, and so on.
When asked how they provided for their children, the parents stated that their priorities
were food, and the cost of any medical care. They also emphasised giving time to their
children especially for social and moral training – about honesty, obedience to elders,
sharing and cooperation. The investigators’ observed that these were affectionate homes,
where mothers were responsive to their children and comfort was offered in distress. Older
women in the community continued to be the main source of advice on how to care for
children. They were also an important source of practical child care; 83 per cent of mothers
relied on their mothers-in-law to look after their little ones. These informal child care
networks affect perceptions of the crèche. When asked why they send their children to the
crèche, mothers emphasised their children’s educational development (78 per cent) much
more than child care (24 per cent) or the midday meal (24 per cent).
Against this background, it becomes more possible to assess the qualities in the
environment offered by the crèche. First, by contrast with the children’s homes, 73 per cent
of crèches are built of bricks/concrete. Eighty-four per cent have a solid floor (of concrete,
stone etc). Most of the urban crèches have a toilet and water supply, although the authors
note that children are not always allowed to use the toilets for fear they will soil them.
Second, while the children’s mothers were mostly under 30 years old and had received
little schooling themselves (37 per cent were illiterate), the crèche workers were an older
age group, with much higher educational achievement: 60 per cent had completed 12 years
schooling. They had also completed the specialist, full-time, one-year Bala Sevika Training
which is provided by the Indian Council for Child Welfare.
Third, for the child who has little experience of play materials, the crèche may provide
some very simple activities, building blocks, puzzles, bead-threading, etc., although these
will have to be shared with all the other children. From the perspective of the Tamil Nadu
study authors, 80 per cent of the crèches were judged to have play equipment that was poor
and insufficient. However the shortage of equipment is not a major issue for those most
closely involved. From the mothers’ point of view, this is a quality programme. Ninety per
cent stated that the crèche fulfilled their expectations. (Paul 1995a)
A contextual view of quality
A holistic/contextual view of quality is fundamental to this report. It applies not only to resourcing, but
also to curriculum, staff training and even research and evaluation, as subsequent chapters will make
clear. The short history of early child development programmes has been marked by a strong tendency to
treat both children’s development and the programmes they attend as distinct domains, capable of being
separated from other areas of human society, relationships and influence, as well as from other stages of
life. In part the concepts themselves, ‘child development’ and ‘early childhood programme’, reinforce
these tendencies, offering superficial coherence, but drawing attention away from the underlying
dynamic, variable, and interconnected social processes.
Physically, a child is a distinct entity, but psychologically a child’s development is embedded in a
network of relationships and contexts for growth, of which the early childhood programme is but one
(Woodhead et al 1991). The case has been made many times over for designing early childhood
programmes to complement and support family/community care giving, co-operating fully with parents,
with the goal of enhancing quality in all aspects of children’s development, not just within the confines
of the programme. In practice, this goal is rarely achieved.
While there are strong grounds for taking a positive, contextual and holistic approach, there is no
escaping the impact of resource issues for children’s development. They both create opportunities and
constrain what can be achieved within a programme and within a community. An adult working with
ratios of 5:1 or less (whether through staffing policies or community involvement), can make choices
whether to work with individuals, small groups or the whole group. A more intimate, receptive style can
be adopted with individuals, and a more formal style with a whole group. Either way modifies children’s
experiences, and the possibilities for learning and relationship. By contrast, an adult working with ratios
of 25:1 (or more) has no such choices, and must restrict her range of styles of working with the children,
modifying their experience and the possibilities for learning. The same applies to material and cultural
resources for teaching, and for supporting children’s play and learning. The programme with diverse
resources (whether through generous funding or community resourcefulness) has the possibility for
offering a broad curriculum of teaching/learning experiences. The programme that has no such resources,
or fails to utilise resources, must rely on the imaginative and supervisory powers of an adult, and on the
compliant obedience of the children to sustain a minimal repertoire, typically of movement games,
singing, number work, and so on.
So the rejection of universal basic standards in favour of a more relative, contextual approach still leaves
an underlying issue. Can a point be defined when the resources available to a child care programme are
so low that quality cannot be sustained, by any standards? In other words, is there a bottom line, and how
can it be defined? Or, as Gakuru (1995) put it, what about children who are living ‘in the shadow of the
rainbow? One approach is to judge whether a programme is able to meet children’s fundamental needs
Chapter 5—Quality, children’s needs and children’s rights
At first sight, trying to establish children’s universal basic needs seems the most promising way of
defining quality. After all, ‘Children are children and their needs are the same the world over’. Or are
they? Are the needs of children the same in rural Kenya as in urban France? An affirmative answer raises
the tantalising prospect of being able to specify a common set of quality indicators to which even the
least well-resourced programmes can aspire. We might even be able to specify minimum child-adult
ratios, or a minimum curriculum of play and learning experiences. Box 8 suggests that the picture is far
more complicated; ‘needs’ are locally contextualised and perceived.
Towards a shared view of children’s needs – an example from Tamil Nadu
The study in Tamil Nadu illustrates the gulf that can exist in perspectives on children’s
needs, their care and treatment. The investigators organised group discussions with the older
women in each locality who were judged to be mediators of cultural beliefs and values about
children’s needs: they advised mothers and scolded any who they believed to be neglecting
their infant. These women’s comments illustrate the continuing tension between ‘traditional’
and ‘modern’ practices. For example, primary health care is available to all the
neighbourhoods, but there is only minimal understanding of Western medicine.
Immunisation is more or less routine, yet 46 per cent of mothers had very little appreciation
of its purpose:
The women do not know what the shots are for; they just obey the doctors’ instructions. The
baby is just taken away by the nurse and brought back after the shot and the mother is no
wiser as to what happened (Paul 1995).
At the same time, mothers continue to think about children’s health needs in very different
ways. They may use herbal medicine, magical cures, propitiation of the gods and tying of a
talisman to ward off evil spirits. The older women made clear their unfamiliarity with
medical explanations (bacteria, viruses, infections, etc.) and their continuing suspicion of
mothers taking sick children to the doctor rather than relying on more traditional
explanations and remedies, notably indigenous Siddha medicine.
In fulfilment of the goals of community development and parent education, 72 per cent of
crèche workers reported organizing regular monthly meetings with mothers. However the
attitude of the crèche workers towards the beliefs and practices of mothers was largely
negative. For example, 59 per cent admitted that ‘they did not give much value to the ideas
expressed by the mothers’ and 54 per cent said ‘they never involved the parents in planning
for the well-being of the child’. In the same vein, only 36 per cent of the crèche workers
made visits to the children’s homes (Paul 1995). The investigators argue that because of the
‘superior’ attitude of the crèche worker towards the community in which she works, a gulf is
maintained between community perceptions of children’s needs and children’s actual crèche
experience. For example:
Being exposed and conditioned to the unhygienic practices that most members of the
community are used to, the child also is bound to accept these habits as the norm. Moreover,
whatever attempts are made by the NGOs through their interventions to educate the child
about healthy habits and patterns, may be negated by the practices that the child observes
around him/her in the family and in the community (Paul 1995a).
Beliefs about quality are very frequently presented as about whether a child care environment ‘meets
children’s needs’. This appears to be a straightforward concept. In fact, it is far from straightforward and
has served more to confuse than to clarify the basis for quality development. The reason for child care
experts being so attached to this way of thinking about children is that ‘needs’ appear to be a quality of
the child; objective, observable and measurable. Expert statements about children’s intrinsic needs are
more authoritative than judgements about what is good for them. In fact, many statements of need
involve projection onto children of adult judgements about goals and values (the child’s ‘best interests’)
and how these goals can best be achieved; they are socially constructed (Woodhead 1990).
If this concept is to be used as a criterion for judging quality, it is essential to distinguish the very
different meanings of ‘children’s needs’. One way is to think in terms of a spectrum of needs. At one end
of the spectrum are ‘basic’ or ‘fundamental’ needs with biological roots, which can be used to assess the
quality of any early childhood environment. These needs can be universally agreed upon. They are
identifiable in the drives and wants of children and involve physical survival and psychological health.
At the other end of the spectrum are socially constructed’ needs (or what Evans and Myers  call
‘socially constructed’ needs). Situation-specific, these needs are as much about the culture and society
into which the child is growing as they are about the child. Socially constructed needs are culturally
relative. They are ‘in children’s best interests’, and may have nothing to do with what the child wants.
They involve social adaptation, achieving goals, and acquiring desired skills and values.
Some biological needs are incontestable; children need nourishment, shelter, and protection or else they
will not survive. These needs are in some sense ‘built-in’ at birth. Meeting these basic nutrition needs has
been a priority goal in the Tamil Nadu crèches and in the day care homes in Venezuela. Having achieved
considerable success in meeting these basic needs, the programmes are turning their attention to the task
of defining children’s psychological and educational needs. At this point, the process becomes much
Kellmer-Pringle (1975) has argued that there are four fundamental psychological needs, the need for:
* love and affection;
* new experiences;
* praise and recognition;
Infants are born with a strong inbuilt drive to make close affectional relationships; they are pre-adapted
to human contact and communication, and are oriented to positive emotions, seeking praise, and avoiding
pain or rejection. The concept of needing ‘responsibility’ is less certain; but even if we accept that there
is some basic infant drive to this human quality, it does not get us very far in constructing a framework
for judging quality care. The problem is that ‘human nature’ does not make precise specifications for
children’s psychological development. One of the most distinctive features of the species is the relative
immaturity of the human infant and the long period of childhood (Bruner 1972). It is human society that
structures how children’s needs are expressed; and how they are met.
In practice, the most important criterion for judging the quality of children’s experience is whether it
facilitates their social adjustment within particular patterns of family living, particular patterns of care
and education, community and culture. In other words ‘needs’ are as much about social adaptation as
they are about children’s nature. Even the most fundamental needs can be met in numerous different
ways, and many so-called ‘needs’ are not fundamental, but are defined by society. So, with the exception
of those fundamental needs connected with survival, nutrition, and basic care, the concept of need cannot
prescribe particular experiences of childhood as essential in any absolute sense. There are many
pathways within the boundaries of psychological adequacy; their appropriateness has to be judged
against other criteria than children’s needs, notably, available resources, social ecology and aspirations
There are other reasons for rejecting unqualified use of the concept of children’s needs as a basis for
defining the quality of early childhood experiences. First, this is an individualistic approach; it draws
attention away from the interdependency of ‘needs’ in any human system. Perceptions of what children
need are often closely related to parents’ needs and care workers’ needs. Secondly, because needs are
usually framed within a protectionist stance, they reinforce a dependency relationship between a
powerful provider and a passive receiver.
An alternative framework asserts children’s right to health, nutrition, education, and so on, as in the
United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989. But even this is far from straightforward.
Commentators argue that there remains a tension between Articles of the Convention asserting children’s
autonomy and rights to self-determination, and the key provision of the Convention. This reasserts a
protectionist stance in stating that ‘the best interests of the child’ are a primary consideration; in so
doing, this opens the door to the same issues as applied to ‘the needs of the child’. Defining ‘the best
interests of the child’ is a matter for cultural interpretation. These recurring dilemmas challenge universal
thinking, and reinforce the case for applying concepts like needs and rights in contextually meaningful
ways (Alston 1994; Freeman and Veerman 1992; Burman, forthcoming).
In short, statements about children’s rights and needs provide important markers for any debate about
quality in early childhood programmes. But these markers are neither unproblematic, nor are they fixed.
They have to be understood at the level of practice as well as theory. Bridges must be built between the
rhetoric of general principles and the reality of diverse experiences. They have to be interpreted in
political, economic, social, religious and cultural contexts. At the same time, they have to be interpreted
in historical context, within individual communities as well as at regional and national levels. This does
not mean diluting the power of general principles because general principles have no power unless they
can be rendered meaningful in the context of particular, local practices, and are comprehensible to those
who have a stake in or influence over those practices. This is not a one way process. In the course of
time, the general principles themselves may shift.
International consent about children’s fundamental needs and rights may be amended or improved, as
new knowledge accumulates, as global circumstances alter, and as social values change. Pragmatically,
they define the outer boundaries of any debate about pathways to quality. They are essential constituents
in the process of negotiating ‘quality’ in ways which are relative, but not arbitrary.
Gender and children’s ‘needs’ – evidence from the local studies in India and
In reports about early childhood, and especially in studies of child development, the ‘child’
is generally treated as a single category; this fails to acknowledge the very different life
prospects, experiences and goals for development that differentiate children according to
the context in which they grow up. One of the most pervasive forms of differentiation is
between the girl child and the boy child (Burman 1995), explored by the studies in India
In Venezuela, care givers report that ‘boys and girls are generally treated in similar ways’.
But there is a tendency towards differential treatment in respect to discipline, play and
games, a tendency more pronounced among mothers than day care mothers. Generally,
girls are expected to be more passive, to play quieter games with dolls, stuffed animals etc;
they are also seen as ‘softer’ and easier to manage. By contrast, boys are expected to be
stronger, more active and rebellious, with more physical games; discipline is accordingly
more forceful for boys.
The mothers’ gender portrayal is more complex than this. The perceived amenability of the
girl child combines with much higher expectations of domestic work and support in
looking after younger siblings, and on occasions a much more repressive approach. One
mother is quoted as saying, ‘To discipline a girl it is necessary to shout, hit her and shame
her before others’ (Teran de Ruesta et al 1995).
The study in Tamil Nadu illustrates the discrepancy between parents’ publicly stated
beliefs about gender, and what the authors suspect were their private beliefs and practices.
While socialization is described as very much gender-based ‘with many more do’s and
don’ts for the girl than for the boy’, around 81 per cent of the 440 mothers interviewed
denied that they showed any preference for the boy child. Approximately 68 per cent did
acknowledge that boys were allocated different roles in the family, with girls more often
confined to the home. The author concludes:
Discrimination against the girl child in India has become a widely known fact all over the
world ... Perhaps the tendency to say what is acceptable, rather than what is the truth,
might have been operating in the minds of the respondents. The government is using the
state controlled television to communicate pro-girl child messages and it is quite likely that
these messages are having an impact on the people, at least at the conceptual level (Paul
The early childhood programme is a context in which stereotypes can be challenged through
discussion and example, where discriminatory child care practices can be re-evaluated, and where
community understanding about children’s needs and rights can be redefined.
Chapter 6—Quality, context and developmental appropriateness
‘... no concept is more key to defining quality than "developmental appropriateness"‘ (Bredekamp
‘Developmental appropriateness’ can be the criterion for identifying quality in care arrangements for
young children, assessing the ways their play and learning is promoted, and the approach to teaching
adopted by care givers. ‘Developmental appropriateness’ draws attention to the distinctive features of
children’s emotional, social and cognitive functioning associated with their age and the developmental
stage. But there are serious dangers in overgeneralising the concept.
As for ‘children’s needs’, I shall argue that supposedly decontextualised, universal views of
developmental appropriateness are in fact a product of particular child-rearing contexts. I shall propose a
complementary concept: ‘contextual appropriateness’ which, when combined with ‘developmental
appropriateness’, emerges as the principle of ‘Practice appropriate to the context of early development’
The concept of ‘developmental appropriateness’ is built on theories and research in child development.
The volume of work in this field has grown exponentially since G. Stanley Hall initiated the Child Study
Movement in the USA a century ago. The resultant knowledge appears to offer a powerful frame of
reference for defining quality experiences for early childhood. If we know how children develop, we can
identify the kinds of experience which will and will not help foster that development. At a local,
pragmatic level this is true, but if the principle becomes generalised too widely, there are dangers: on
what basis do psychologists and educators assert that one kind of experience is more developmentally
appropriate, more valuable, and better than another?
Conventional theories of child development are about culture as well as about children. The child
depicted in psychology textbooks is in two respects, a cultural invention. The process of child
development being studied and the theorist’s conceptual representation of that process are both strongly
shaped by their shared context, in terms of family organisation, parental roles, expectations of childhood,
economic base, political structures, gender/class differentiation, religious beliefs, life expectancies, and
the like (Ingleby 1986, Burman 1994). It is inappropriate to assume that a concept of development
derived from one context can or should be the basis for defining good and poor quality in other contexts.
Developmentally appropriate practice
One of the most influential attempts to define ‘Developmentally Appropriate Practice’ (DAP) has been
made by the US National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) (Bredekamp
1987). This was a response to pressure within the US public elementary school system to extend
expectations for achievement of school skills into the early years. Within that context, the NAEYC
document served a powerful function, offering a ‘scientific’ defence of informal, play-based programmes
for young children. Some of the features of their definition of developmental appropriateness were as
Developmentally appropriate practice (DAP):
* Developmentally appropriate practice is based on universal, predictable sequences of growth and
* The teacher should take account of the age of the child and their individuality, in terms of growth
pattern, personality, learning style and family background;
* Children learn best through play which is:
* The teacher’s role is to:
provide a rich variety of activities and materials;
support the children’s play;
talk with children about play.
This is a very familiar vision, emphasising activity, play-based learning, individuality and self-
determination, all under the guidance of an adult skilled in a child-centred approach. The quality
implications are fairly clear, in terms of a building and resources supporting the creation of a specialised
environment for children, plenty of space indoors and out, a wide range of equipment freely available to
children, generous staffing ratios, high levels of training, and the like.
The child-centred vision of ‘developmentally appropriate practice’ resonates with very deep- rooted
beliefs and ideals, widely-shared among Western-educated early childhood specialists – all the more
reason why it must be acknowledged that this is a particular vision of child development endorsed by
much Western psychological theory. Even within the USA, Developmentally Appropriate Practice has
been sharply challenged because it is insensitive to the cultural diversity in children’s family experiences
and parenting practices, and it risks resurrecting discredited judgements about deprived environments and
the need for compensation (Mallory and New 1994). The NAEYC has now issued a position statement
advocating responsiveness to linguistic and cultural diversity (NAEYC 1996).
The concept of developmental niche
One way of gaining a perspective on ‘developmental appropriateness’ is by applying the very different
concept of ‘developmental niche’ (Super and Harkness 1977, 1986). ‘Developmental niche’ embraces
both the tangible aspects of children’s physical and social environment as well as the more elusive but
equally powerful meaning systems that regulate their relationships – the expectations of children that
affect the way they are treated and which the children themselves incorporate into their identity.
Beliefs merge with values in helping to give meaning to practices by defining the kind of child
(and adult) a particular society seeks to produce in the socialization process. Some cultures want
children to be obedient, others foster a questioning child. Some tolerate aggressiveness; others do
not. Some strengthen individualism; others a collective orientation and strong social
responsibility (Myers 1992 ).
It is one thing for Western-educated early childhood specialists to apply the idea of a development niche
to practices and belief systems in rural Kenya, India or Latin America. It is not so easy to focus the social
scientific lens on so-called ‘modern’ methods of child care and education, recognising that these are also
developmental niches. It is even more difficult to recognise that many ‘modern’ childcare beliefs and
child development theories are part of these niches, in that they inform the way children are treated, how
their behaviour is interpreted and what is considered ‘developmentally appropriate’ (Goodnow and
Collins 1990). As an illustration, Box 10 outlines the features of the developmental niche for child care
in the crèche parentale, France.
A developmental niche for 0-3s in France
The French study highlights the features of the childhood niche occupied by a
group of European under-threes. They include:
* An environment full of specially constructed physical materials, objects,
tools and activities, to which children are given relatively free access;
* High levels of individualised adult attention available to children, and
usually tuned in to their immediate concerns; a variety of different adults
available to respond to children’s requests;
* An egalitarian relationship between adults and children, founded on joint
negotiation and exploration (at least for some parts of the day);
* The active involvement of fathers as well as mothers, playing with their
children and carrying out routine child care tasks including nappy changing;
* A context of diverse experiences and opportunities for exploration,
including diversity among care givers, in terms of ethnic/cultural/religious beliefs,
styles of dress and behaviour;
* A shared goal of conceptual representation, systematic generalised ways of
making sense of a complex physical world;
* Technical mastery over activities, constructional toys, the equipment and
procedures of the environment;
* A strong emphasis on verbal communication, articulation of concepts and
* Early introduction of symbolic representations, through drawing, picture
books, stories, etc.
These features fundamentally influence psychological development among very
young children, in terms of relationship patterns, role relationships, including
gender differentiation, individualised identity, self-efficacy, sense of self,
orientation to the physical environment, mastery of the technology of
manufactured play material, sense of personal ownership, communication skills
and language learning. While certain features are specific to the programme
design of the crèche parentale, others are expectations of ‘basic quality’ care that
would apply very widely among urban, affluent societies, but are in sharp contrast
to the expectations and prospects for 0-3s in other parts of the world.
Robert LeVine et al (1994) offer a metaphor for understanding the elements of the developmental niche.
Drawing on a computer analogy, they distinguish:
1. The organic hardware: The species-specific, biological features of childhood that are interpreted as
basic universal needs linked to survival, growth and health;
2. The ecological firmware: This comprises the socio-economic conditions, social stratification, family
structures and employment patterns which provide the context for child care arrangements. ‘Traditional’
and ‘modern’ patterns of child care are adaptations to contrasting contexts. In each case, child care
arrangements are adjusted to family/employment circumstances and children are socialised to grow up
into these circumstances. The ecological firmware is not fixed but there is relative continuity.
3. The cultural software : This comprises the belief systems, goals and expectations of children,
informed by a more or less intuitive understanding of 1 and 2 along with more local and individual
considerations shaping children’s daily treatment.
To illustrate this framework, LeVine et al compare traditional caring among the Gusii of Kenya with
modern care by middle class families in Boston, USA. Among the Gusii, a high birth rate combined with
a high mortality rate placed a premium on nurturance during the early years. Care giving comprised close
physical contact, breast feeding on demand, and sleeping next to mother. This nurturant style did not
incorporate high levels of stimulation or play between mother and infant. The emphasis was on quiet and
comfort, combined with a certain aloofness of relationship, with little emphasis on joint activity or verbal
communication. At the same time, the mother’s responsibility both to manage a large family and cultivate
the fields necessitated a significant contribution from children from an early age. So the baby would be
entrusted to the care of an older (usually girl) sibling, who would carry the baby on her back, play with it
and bring it to the mother for feeding. By the age of three, toddlers were already being trained to carry
out small domestic chores, in a subsistence economy where even the youngest members were expected to
play their part. The emphasis was on deferring to elders and obeying the mother’s instructions; praise
was offered sparingly. While there was limited space for children to negotiate or challenge parental
authority, there were opportunities for play and mischief as part of children’s wider ranging familial and
Le Vine et al argue that this picture of Gusii childhood contrasts sharply with the affluent, technically
and medically sophisticated USA for the very reason that the conditions, priorities and goals for
childhood are so different. For infants growing up in Boston, survival is virtually assured. There are
strong expectations on mothers and other care givers to establish close emotional and playful
relationships with infants, a relationship involving reciprocity and mutual responsiveness, where subdued
infants are stimulated, and curious infants are encouraged to explore. Children are provided with plenty
of psychological space; they are treated as individuals and encouraged to express their feelings and
wishes. Clashes of will are not only expected, but to some extent encouraged, within a framework
emphasising autonomy, assertiveness and independence.
The power of these very different standards of quality care is conveyed in speculations about how one set
of mothers might view the practices of the other. For example, while a mother from Boston might view
the Gusii practice of demand feeding as ‘spoiling the child’, the demand for obedience as ‘repressive’
and the use of children (as young as five) as care givers as ‘abusive’, the traditional Kenyan mother
might see the Western practice of leaving infants to cry themselves to sleep in a bedroom as ‘abusive’,
toleration of the challenging behaviour of the toddler as ‘spoiling’, and encouragement of playful fun as
Of course Le Vine et al’s study contrasts two highly specific communities. Generalisations from these
particular cases would be inappropriate. There is also a danger of fixing in time patterns of child rearing
that are changing, as well as overlooking competing influences within a niche related to ecological and
sub-cultural groups, social stratification and ideological/ religious belief systems. Nonetheless, the
concept of developmental niche facilitates taking into account the relationship between ecological
pressures and child rearing values and practices; this may have important implications for what counts as
quality in early childhood programmes.
The developmental niche for early childhood – an example from Venezuela
The local study in Venezuela investigated the developmental niche by asking mothers and
day care mothers how their children learn, about the role of play and the importance of
discipline. When asked ‘Which is most important for children’s development, play or
discipline?’, only eight per cent of mothers replied ‘play’, 52 per cent replied ‘discipline’
and 25 per cent thought they were equally important. The pattern for day care mothers is
similar, although they gave a little more emphasis to ‘play’ (24 per cent) compared with
‘discipline’ (44 per cent). Parental comments included:
An undisciplined child is ugly; discipline ... is important in the life of the child ... because
they turn out obedient and don’t make one look bad (quoted in Teran de Ruesta 1995).
Although these mothers emphasised discipline, they were not aloof or cold in their
relationships with their offspring. On the contrary, they placed equal emphasis on giving
affection to their children.
If care givers place greater emphasis on discipline than play, how do they view children’s
learning? The investigators found that the question ‘How do you promote children’s
learning/development?’ produced the following pattern of replies:
Day care Mothers
mothers % %
Teach/Explain 50 65
Motivate/Patience 18.3 19.4
Play 13.3 9.1
Imitation 18.3 3.8
Punishment - 1.3
Don’t know - 1.3
Total 100 100
Both mothers and day care mothers emphasised the importance of teaching their children.
The day care mothers were more likely to identify ‘play’ as a technique, although in
practice few materials and opportunities for play were available in the day care homes. The
When the day care mothers and the children’s mothers want the children to learn
something (most) ‘sit down and teach them, explain, repeat and speak to them’, while
others resort to different strategies: they motivate with patience and affection, give
examples or invent things. Very few set forth the possibility that children can learn by
doing and playing. The child is seen as passive in relation to his or her environment. They
do not consider of value, for the children’s learning, the natural play situations or the
spontaneous interactions which occur in the day care home/multi home. Rather they assign
great value to words and advice. The majority handle situations such as stimulating
learning, toilet training, and discipline in this way (Teran de Ruesta et al 1995).
This picture was reinforced by observations of children’s behaviour and interactions with
day care mothers. Seventy-five per cent of verbal interchanges were initiated by day care
mothers, in comparison to only 25 per cent by children in the day care home. In the multi-
homes the proportions were even more extreme (83 per cent day care-mother initiated,
versus 17 per cent child-initiated) (Teran de Ruesta et al 1995). These exchanges were
mainly initiated by day care mothers to direct the children’s behaviour, for social functions
and to interpret events. However it would be wrong to interpret these findings as indicated
that children remain mute in the day care setting. Far from it. Very high levels of child-
child interaction were also observed. These observations are in sharp contrast to those
reported by the local study of crèche parentale in France (see Boxes 10 and 14).
Adopting the concept of developmental niche encourages a more ethnographic appreciation of particular
care practices in the total ecology of child development, within as well as outside the programme. For
example, it discourages harsh first impressions that children’s environment is ‘unstimulating’ and
‘regimented’ or that care givers are ‘severe’ and ‘repressive’. It encourages a more empathic appreciation
of the functional relationship between socialisation practices and cultural priorities. This concept makes
it more possible to recognise how misguided it would be to assert the necessary superiority of child-
centred, individualistic, play-based approaches; how this risks challenging parental authority and
undermining adults’ and children’s interdependent roles and responsibilities, especially where
livelihoods are still largely based on self-sufficiency and cash crops. In such settings, the expectation of
obedience, the emphasis on training and the absence of child-directed learning have been an adaptive
response to social ecology.
Reflecting on the experience of crèche programmes in Tamil Nadu, Radha Paul made the point
While assessing the quality of interaction between the crèche worker and the children, we have to
be guided not by the Western ideal but the Eastern reality; not by the Western priorities but the
Eastern limitations; not by the Western values but by the Eastern; not by the Western cultural
norms but by the Eastern norms; not by the Western socialization process but by the Eastern
pattern of socialization; not by the Western democratic milieu but by the Eastern hierarchical
milieu; not by the Western concept of self-dependence but by the Eastern concept of
interdependence. The differences are real and extremely significant (Paul 1995b).
In arguing for this contextual framework, I am not counselling laissez-faire inaction over quality issues.
What I am rejecting is claims about the universal value of particular kinds of play, or the universal
appropriateness of particular approaches to discipline, which do not acknowledge the historical and
cultural origin of these values and practices.
The social ecology of childhood may be changing fast, while care giver belief systems informing
treatment of children may be moving more slowly. Traditional practices may be less adaptive to future
lifestyles. From the perspective of external agencies, including programme managers, NGOs and
researchers, there may be a strong case for change. But this change can best be achieved through active
dialogue among care givers, parents and others, to achieve a self-conscious, self-empowering process of
transformation of beliefs about ‘quality’. Furthermore, the outcome of this process should not be
assumed to entail incorporating dominant beliefs and values about early childhood. There are multiple
pathways to quality to be negotiated through local study and imagination. As the authors of the
Venezuelan study put it:
The conceptions shared by the day care mothers and the children’s mothers concerning the
handling and care of the children reveal an ethnotheoretical approach which is important to
examine, not for the purpose of evaluating it as a set of child rearing practices, but in order to
understand what happens in the program, the type of experiences the children have as they go
from one micro-system to another, and above all to initiate with the mothers a discussion which
will help consolidate or modify their conceptions and customs, in the context of their culture and
life situations (Teran de Ruesta et al 1995).
Box 12 applies the same ethnotheoretical framework to the experiences of three year-olds in rural Kenya.
The developmental niche for early childhood – an example from rural Kenya
The local study in Kenya focused on a sample of 300 three year-old children living in 10
clusters of small villages in Machakos District.
When asked about the costs of having children, ensuring sufficient food was the main
concern, especially amongst the poorest rural families. Their children’s diet was mainly
carbohydrate-based ‘ugali’ and in 10 per cent of cases families reported only being able to
offer their children one meal per day. The next priority was affording medical care if their
child became seriously ill or in the event of an accident. The nearest hospital might be
many miles away, and arranging transport might be a problem. Next came the cost of
schooling – parents are expected to pay for school uniform and materials, even for the
Views on the benefits of having children were also strongly shaped by the extent of
poverty. Faced with issues of survival and subsistence, parents value their children in terms
of instrumental goals – their ability to contribute in practical ways to the family income –
they are much less likely to view their children’s education as affordable. They also give
relatively less attention to the ‘psycho-social’ benefits emphasised amongst parents in more
affluent nations where children’s economic role is as consumers rather than producers
Community awareness of these costs and benefits shapes their view on what their three
year-olds must learn, and how it can best be taught. For these Kenyan parents, the priority
was health and cleanliness, politeness and respect, safety and danger, how to carry out
domestic chores and so on. There is a clear authority structure in these communities, with
clear distinctions related to age and gender. Children are taught to be cautious and
respectful to their elders – imitating the model provided by adults was seen as by far the
most important method of learning, followed by teaching and learning by practice. Play
was not valued as an approach to learning amongst these families. While there were many
opportunities for children to play with natural materials around the home, on their own or
with their siblings, parents rarely participated. Not surprisingly, play for these three year-
olds did not depend on the manufactured toys, play equipment and games, that are offered
in profusion to most western children from the moment they are born.
Great variability was observed in the way parents related to their three year old children. In
some families there was little evidence of interaction; in others a great deal. Commonly,
these parents were highly directive towards their young children. Children did not expect,
nor did they receive, the kinds of praise and rewards for appropriate behaviour that are
widely regarded as ‘good practice’ in the West. Their mothers expected them to contribute
to daily life by way of simple tasks alongside parents or siblings. Almost 30 per cent were
expected to do specific chores, already by the age of three. These ranged from sweeping,
cleaning cooking utensils, and helping with laundry, to drawing water, collecting firewood
and tending livestock. Children could expect to be scolded or punished if they failed to
carry out their responsibilities properly (Koech and Gakuru 1995).
One of the major themes of this report is that the current polarisation between traditional child rearing
and modern ‘developmentally appropriate’ practices is at best unhelpful and at worst damaging to
making progress in quality development.
Cigdem Kagitcibasi (1990), attempted to move beyond polarised thinking, and suggested a third way
forward. First, she contrasted urban, Western ‘modern’ societies, and rural, agrarian ‘traditional’
societies. The view of human development that informs much ‘modern’ early childhood thinking
(including the concept of Developmentally Appropriate Practice), is an extension of an individualistic
view, with its emphasis on the psychological value of the child to parents, the socialisation goals
associated with independence, and a style of rearing which encourages autonomy, with a strong emphasis
on personal, cognitive and social development. This contrasts sharply with the interdependent outlook in
‘traditional’ agrarian societies where obedience training is emphasised and there is little place for
encouraging play, for choice, or for the exploration of ideas and beliefs.
In the face of social change it could be argued, the sooner the Western model of child development is
adopted the better, since child-centred, activity-based, individualistic programmes are most likely to
serve the process of modernisation. Under such circumstances, views on quality could become
standardised within a unified model of child development. Kagitcibasi proposed that this may not be the
inevitable nor necessarily the most appropriate model to follow. She offers a third view better
characterising the experience of many developing societies, in which the child’s development has
acquired psychological value, but in the context of family patterns still emphasising interdependence and
respect for parental authority. In such settings, the developmental appropriateness (and hence quality) of
an early childhood programme, might be judged very differently from the NAEYC model quoted above.
Practice appropriate to the context of early development
I propose an alternative framework of thinking, integrating the concept of ‘developmentally appropriate
practice’, with an equally fundamental principle ‘contextually appropriate practice’. The emergent hybrid
is PACED – ‘Practice Appropriate to the Context of Early Development’. This cannot be prescribed as an
approach to care, teaching method or curriculum. Instead, it identifies a process of contextual appraisal
that must be undertaken so that conclusions can be drawn about the appropriateness (hence quality) of
child care environments, practices and approaches to learning and teaching. It builds on knowledge of the
universal features of children’s development as well as on contextual variations; it articulates how these
reflect both invariant maturational characteristics of the human infant as well as variable and changing
developmental niches. It can be summarised as follows:
* Contextually appropriate practice is based on local variations in children’s experience of growth
* The teacher/care worker should consider the age and individuality of children as well as their
social context, their role and relationships within family and community, in terms of cultural
patterns, language experience, lifestyles, and so on;
* Early childhood programmes should be consistent with, and complementary to, children’s
experiences within family and community. The goal should be mutual understanding, support
* Young children can learn in a variety of ways:
Individual and social play;
Imitation of others;
Instruction by adults and other children;
Which is appropriate depends not only on their age and their stage of development, but also on the
goals and resources of the learning environment.
* The teacher/care worker’s role is adapted to the resources at their disposal as well as their
knowledge of children’s experiences in family and community. The role can include: serving as a
model for them to imitate, structuring the environment for their learning, supporting their
spontaneous play, teaching them culturally relevant skills, encouraging values and standards of
behaviour expected in the community, and helping them interpret the complexities of their social
This contextual view of quality development might be construed as backward looking, reinforcing
outmoded traditions, and impeding the process of necessary modernisation which can enable children to
reach their full potential. On the contrary: an emphasis on contextual relevance enables communities to
move forward in diverse ways towards the construction of children’s futures. A PACED approach
respects basic biological, psychological and developmental needs and rights, but in a way consistent with
societal circumstances, values and aspirations at national, regional, community, family and programme
The oft-quoted goal of ‘enabling children to reach their potential’ is generally proposed within a
framework of very narrow expectations about their potential. Reaching potential can mean many
different things, from learning the precise craft of a stone carver, or the business skills of a street trader,
or the exquisite movements of a dancer, or the spiritual depths of a monk (Woodhead and Woodhead
1991). Human infants are born with vast potential for development in many more ways than even the
most well-resourced modern education exploits (Gardner 1984).
A community must make choices about which ‘potentials’ it wishes to foster in the young and how.
Parents, care workers, programme managers and funding agencies may elect to adopt a model of early
childhood education and care originating in Europe, North America or elsewhere. But if they do so, it
should not be by default, but should be the product of a self-conscious appraisal of the congruence
between local aspirations for early childhood and the cultural/economic assumptions, goals and
expectations implicit in the imported model.
Of course, the model does not have to come from the West. As one commentator put it – communities
can ‘become more modern by being less Western’ (Wober 1975, quoted by Serpell 1992). Or, to put it
New ‘indigenous’ models of ECD must be developed, based on the knowledge and experience of
families and communities and adapted to local conditions. These models would combine the
covert learning processes of traditional socialisation with the overt teaching methods of modern
educational practice. They would thus recognise and accept the validity of local experience and
traditional wisdom and be open to the global human environment as well (Bernard van Leer
Rather than being a model of caring, teaching, and learning, a PACED approach is an antidote to such
models, a principle which permits the generation of any number of ‘indigenous’ models, in ways
consistent with local goals for and approaches to child development. Difficult issues must be confronted,
especially in reconciling certain ‘local goals for and approaches to child development’ with children’s
basic needs and rights. These issues have been widely addressed elsewhere, both in the context of
international study (for example, Alston 1994, Freeman and Veerman 1992), and at regional level (for
example, Dakkak 1993, Indian Council for Child Welfare 1994). They are part of an ongoing process of
debate throughout the world, as the status of childhood is progressively defined and redefined.
Negotiating a shared understanding of childhood quality is not a ‘once and for all’ event. It has a history,
and it also has a future.
Chapter 7—Extending the principle of ‘contextual appropriateness’
School systems and early childhood quality
So far, I have argued that negotiations about quality must take account of context with respect to material
and human resources, and to the social ecology of childhood, especially the micro-system of the family.
One other crucial context must be added: the school system. Because schooling is the principle agent of
socialisation besides the family and a major determinant of life fortunes, the anticipation of schooling
can have a powerful impact on the teaching goals, methods and behavioural expectations of early
The goal specified by the 1990 World Summit for Children, of extending basic education to all children
by the year 2000, is probably the single most powerful globalising influence on the experience of
childhood. Consequently, quality issues for early childhood services cannot be addressed by references
simply to what goes on within those programmes nor solely by considerations of principles of
‘developmental appropriateness’. Account must necessarily be taken of what follows, in terms of school
organisation, teaching methods and curriculum, as these impinge on the experience of children and
variously reinforce, disrupt or ignore previous learning experiences.
These are generally treated as issues of ‘transition’ and ‘continuity’ (See for example, Bernard van Leer
Foundation Newsletter, 70, 1993). There are numerous historical, physical, organisational, pedagogical
and philosophical factors influencing how far children experience a smooth or abrupt transition. Early
childhood programmes relate to the school system in many different ways. Some are organisationally
integrated as part of a continuous process (for example, the Netherlands); others are planned as positive
interventions giving children a better chance to avoid early failure and dropout (for example, Headstart in
USA). A few (for example, Norway) self-consciously offer a contrasting model considered more
appropriate to the early years (Cochran 1995).
Whatever the formal relationship to primary school education, the fundamental point is the same –
perspectives on quality in early childhood programmes are (to greater or lesser degree) shaped by the
school system that follows. The influence need not be one way. The quality of early childhood
programmes should not be assessed simply in terms of whether children show greater ‘readiness’ for
schooling. Quality issues need to be addressed in the context of a wider appraisal of the primary
education system. In other words, we also have to ask about ‘the readiness of schools for children’
(Myers 1992, p 251).
To illustrate this theme, consider the way features of the Kenyan education system shape the goals and
methods in nursery schools and classes.
Schooling in Kenyan is highly competitive, with assessment, selection and ability ranking a regular part
of children’s experience throughout their school career, with some children failing to get a place in
school and many more ‘dropping-out’ during the early grades. Pre-school has come to play a central role
in this process in two major respects: in terms of access, and in terms of curriculum (Gakuru 1979, 1992).
In principle, primary education in Kenya is available to all. But the administration, shortage of places and
funding arrangements for schools ensures that in practice this is far from the case. The government of
Kenya pays for teachers’ salaries, but building and other costs are borne by local authorities, who in turn
(especially in rural areas) pass on these costs to local communities. In this way there are significant
hidden costs to poor families (school uniform, books, contribution to building maintenance, lack of any
meal provision) and in many areas, especially in the towns, there are not sufficient places. For the poorest
parents, the most visible barrier preventing their children’s participation in school is the purchase of
school uniform (obligatory and universal even at nursery level). The consequence is a close association
between the wealth of a community, the proportion of children actually attending school, the resources
available for those that do attend and their academic achievement. These inequalities in resourcing and
achievement are frequently associated with the historical origin of the schools, with former Schedule C
schools (colonially designated for Europeans) as the high cost schools for high flyers; followed by former
Schedule B schools ( originally established to serve the large Asian community); with the majority of
children attending former Schedule A (African) schools. New middle class suburban schools add to the
complexity of the picture.
There is a great deal of pressure especially among middle class and aspiring urban families for admission
to those primary schools that are perceived to be of higher status. In this context, the head teachers of
sought-after schools frequently adopt a selection procedure, not officially sanctioned by the authorities
and based on an interview with the child, and may frequently include tests in arithmetic and writing. The
child who has been to an academically-oriented pre-school is clearly at an advantage. Attendance at a
nursery for at least a year may even be one of the head teacher’s admission criteria to the school. This
close relationship between nursery attendance, school admission and academic progress is one of the
major factors accounting for enthusiasm for nursery schooling, even among the poorest rural
communities, reflected in the impressive statistics for pre-school attendance in Kenya. Attending nursery
is the first rung on a very rapidly narrowing ladder of educational opportunity. For the children of many
of the poorest families, even this rung is too difficult to climb. They may be excluded simply because
their parents are unable to pay for a school uniform.
The second respect in which pre-school shapes children’s educational fortunes concerns curriculum and
teaching policies, and is especially related to the language of instruction. Language competence is a
major pathway to social mobility in Kenya. Young Kenyan children who are going to progress in school
face the formidable challenge (shared with children throughout the Majority World) of becoming fluent
in several languages by a very early age. Typically they will learn three languages. First, during infancy
they will learn their mother tongue, one of twenty major languages in Kenya. Very soon they will be
introduced to Kiswahili, the national language that serves most aspects of social and commercial life,
especially in heterogeneous urban areas, notably Nairobi. At school, and sometimes before they go to
school, they will learn English, which is the access language to professional, business and elite positions.
In particular, English is the language medium in which children are taught in preparation for the major
exam at Standard 8 (13-16) which determines whether they are accepted for entry to secondary school.
Primary schools vary in the emphasis they place on these languages according to location (urban versus
rural), their status, and the aspirations of their clients, and these varying language policies in turn
influence the pre-school sector.
A brief example highlights some of the complexities, which both shape parental expectations for ‘quality
pre-school’ and limit their children’s prospects of achievement especially in poor and/or rural
communities. In the Machakos study, mainly covering rural communities, 50 per cent were already
beginning to speak Kiswahili by the age of three, having acquired their mother tongue, Kikamba. These
children would be likely to attend a primary school in which the local, vernacular language is the medium
of instruction up to Standard 3, with Kiswahili and English both taught as a subject up to this level. For
children progressing on to Standard 4 and beyond, the medium of instruction will become English, with
Kiswahili remaining a taught subject.
This contrasts with the experience of a child living in an urban area, where Kiswahili is the language of
instruction up to Standard 4, when English also takes over. These primary school language policies are
the context that shapes the approach taken at pre-school level. Thus some nursery classes, especially in
rural settings, teach almost exclusively in the mother tongue, perhaps introducing rhymes and songs in
Kiswahili and English. Others, especially in urban areas, and especially serving communities with high
aspirations for their children, concentrate on introducing children to Kiswahili, and also to the English
language which will become increasingly significant as they progress. Finally, there are now a few pre-
schools serving urban middle class communities where children are expected to accept immersion in
English as the medium of instruction from the beginning.
In this way, the pre-school sector can serve an important gateway function, preparing children in
language competencies that determine whether they are admitted to, and how well they progress within
the school system. Inevitably, the demands of the school system feed back to parents and teachers in
terms of their expectations of school-relevant teaching as the defining ‘quality’ at pre-school level
This Kenyan example is not unique, either within Africa or in the rest of the world (Bernard van Leer
Foundation 1994; Myers 1992). Although global, the issue is expressed in diverse ways. School systems
vary considerably, but what they share in common is that their organisation and policies place particular
demands on children, especially the abilities and skills that are expected on entry.
It is against this context that pre-school ‘quality’ has to be defined. Enhancing that quality is unlikely to
be achieved without also considering what makes for ‘quality’ in the school system. I am not suggesting
passive acquiescence to the expectations of the school system. Far from it. Reforming the school system
so that the qualities of an early childhood programme can be sustained into the early grades is just as
important as tailoring early childhood in anticipation of what follows. Negotiating ‘developmentally-
appropriate practice’ is as important to the primary school years as to the years of early childhood. But
‘developmental appropriateness’ cannot be divorced from contextual considerations, at either stage.
Quality for children aged 0-3
What has been discussed so far is quality in relation to child care and education programmes for children
during the years immediately preceding entry to primary education. Increasingly, there is demand for
such programmes to be extended to much younger children (Cochran 1993).
Increased participation of women in wage employment, mostly outside the family, is combining with the
breakdown of conventional support networks through mobility and urbanisation to challenge the
adequacy of traditional care systems (Himes et al 1992). Where very young children are concerned, the
issue is not simply about the quality of child care programmes. It is also about employment patterns built
around mechanical, time-keeping, production-line efficiency considerations rather than about human,
family, lifestyle considerations. It is about the pressures on economically and socially disadvantaged
women, charged with responsibility for child rearing, but denied resources and support by an
infrastructure still largely dominated by men. Enhancing the quality of care entails numerous strategies:
providing substitute care in crèches, day nurseries and family day care (childminders); providing
support/parent education to care givers; and modifying the conditions of employment for parents to make
employment more compatible with responsibilities for children (Landers 1989).
Child care for three year olds in rural Kenya
Traditional networks of care remain highly significant for the three year old children in the
Kenyan local study (Koech and Gakuru 1995). Most were growing up in stable, village
communities with a strong sense of collective identity. Although mothers were seen as the
major caregivers for 74 per cent of children, they were also looked after by a wide network
of relatives, siblings and neighbours. But there were signs of social change even in these
rural communities. Many of the young fathers were absent, seeking wage labour in the
towns. Some of the mothers had also taken work away from the village. In these
circumstances, many grandmothers and other older women were taking care of the babies.
This could present serious nutrition problems for a community where babies are
traditionally breastfed up to the age of two and there are no adequate, affordable
substitutes for breastmilk.
While informal family/community-based care is still the norm for children up to their
fourth birthday, there were 22 nursery schools/classes in these communities, catering
mainly for four and five year olds. Official policy was that children younger than four
should not be admitted. Nevertheless, 26 per cent of the sample of three year olds in the
Machakos villages were in fact attending, a reflection of the emphasis on education as well
as the increasing demand for care. These young children were generally confronted with a
large group with child/adult ratios ranging between 17 to 1 and 51 to 1. They were
expected to sit on long rows of benches, or on the floor. Group teaching was the norm,
with a strong emphasis on teaching the alphabet and numbers. Play materials were not
available. Head teachers reported that the school environment was not suitable for very
young children. They suggested that these children were too young, quite demanding, they
cried a lot, were easily hurt and usually experienced more problems on admission than
older children (Koech and Gakuru 1995, p 44).
There has been extensive development of non-familial care programmes for 0-3s for example in Europe,
North America, China, Australasia (Lamb et al 1992, Cochran, 1993, Melhuish and Moss 1991).
However, among the four local studies, only the French example was targeted specifically to this age
group. The programmes in India and Kenya both included significant numbers of two- and three-year-
olds, as well as small numbers of infants and toddlers. For the most part, these programmes were not
adapted for this youngest age group (see Box 13). The home day care model in Venezuela was more
suited to the youngest age groups than the large, (often large group) institutional models in Tamil Nadu
and Kenya. There can be little dispute about the inadequacy of current arrangements. Passive absorption
of 0-3 year-old children into institutional settings planned for 4-5 year-olds according to a model of
teaching designed for 6-8 year-olds is unlikely to be developmentally productive – by any standards.
The local study in France is not only of interest because of the specific focus on 0-3 year olds. A special
feature of the crèches parentales movement is the active involvement of parents in every aspect of
running a day care programme.
In France there is a long tradition of economic activity among women, in agriculture, commerce and
industry. For example, in 1982, 72 per cent of mothers with one child under 3, and 76 per cent of mothers
with one child over 3 were in employment (only 25 per cent on a part-time basis). At the same time,
mothers with larger families are less likely to be working – only 27 per cent with three children, one of
which is under 3 years (Combes 1992). The emergence of a new day care model, the crèche parentale,
can be seen as a reaction to the state-run, centralised, professional, institutional tradition of French pre-
school services. The crèches were initiated in the 1970s against a background of popular challenge to
authoritarianism and the search for new forms of relationship, family life and ways of caring for children.
Frustrated by the lack of public provision for 0-3 year old children, parents joined together to find a
shared solution, renting buildings or using large apartments, taking turns to take care of the children and
(where funds permitted) employing some professional help. As one of the leaders of the movement
At the heart of it all, ‘empowerment’. Once parents start to participate in local development and
provide a service, they also begin to exercise their rights as citizens. They are no longer content
simply to formulate needs and wishes, but want to take active steps to see that their desires are
fulfilled (Combes 1992).
A recent initiative in urban areas has been to use the context and opportunities of the crèche parentale to
combat stereotyping and promote multiculturalism. This goal extends to the way those working in the
crèche perceive differences in the behaviour of the children in their care:
We train the care givers to be aware of these differences and to be prepared to talk about
them with the parents without judgement. They learn to understand how a culture works and how
it is reflected in the behaviour of the children. For example, in certain cultures children may
shout, while in others children are expected to be quiet. The care givers should not make a value
judgement ... but should realise that it is just part of the child’s culture (Combes 1994).
Box 14 illustrates the potential of parental involvement in a small number of multi-ethnic crèches
Involving parents in young children’s care and learning – an example from France
The local study in France focused especially on the educational quality of the
interactions between adults and children as they explored and talked about material
objects, toys, games, books, and other resources in the crèches parentales. The
investigators video-recorded interactions in four crèches over a five-month period,
yielding 44 hours of data. This was analysed in terms of the complexity of the
interactions, their cognitive richness and the kinds of guidance offered by adults to
children. The authors believed that parent-workers would offer a ‘natural’, ‘uncontrived’
interaction based on shared exploration of play possibilities:
In parental pre-schools (crèche parentale), parents usually spend one half day per day
‘on-duty’ in the pre-school. If a parent, for example, the mother, has taken on the
responsibility of conducting an activity with a child or in helping a child complete an
activity of its own, she is in a situation where she has no known routine or procedure
either for how to resolve the task under way or how to help the child. Her attention must
therefore be entirely focused on the interaction precisely because the activity is new or in
any case not a daily occurrence. Hence she will be truly ‘involved’ in the activity (Tijus
et al 1995).
The first important finding was that social disadvantage is related to quality of adult-
child interactions, for both mothers and children. Children from the most disadvantaged
circumstances engaged in fewer and less complex interactions with adults. When their
parents were working as care givers in the crèche, the same trend was observed.
However, the quality of interactions did appear to be linked to the degree of parental
involvement, for both parents and children. In other words, disadvantaged parents who
were very involved in the crèche engaged in more complex interactions than those that
were little involved, and this was also reflected in their own children’s interactions with
adults in the crèche. The investigators speculate that these associations may in part be
due to the confidence- and skill-building benefits of working in the crèche:
The parents acquire a sense of pedagogical responsibility in the day care center: they see
themselves as ‘teachers’, they think about pedagogical issues and thus develop their
pedagogical capacity. It may be assumed that the latter will be linked to their degree of
participation in the day-care center (Tijus et al 1995).
These features of the child care environment in crèche parentale are in marked contrast
with those identified by the other local studies. The study raises important issues about
whether the benefits of direct parent involvement and responsibility would translate into
a more generalised model for early childhood programmes. For example, is the model
applicable to contexts where parents (especially fathers) may be less available (and
willing) to participate, and if they did participate their expectations for interaction with
their children might be different? Equally, what are the implications for care worker
training, teaching skills and attitudes that enable parents to contribute positively to the
educational experience of their children?
Given the variety of possible arrangements for child care, quality issues should be tackled within local
frameworks. Early child care must support children’s fundamental needs, patterns of growth and
development, but it must also be shaped by social ecology, cultural beliefs and aspirations, as well as the
availability of material and human resources. Nevertheless, there are boundaries of adequacy. For very
young children these boundaries are defined by their vulnerability and dependency, their need for close
nurturance, and the rapid transformations taking place in their competence and orientation.
The period from 0-3 is especially significant in terms of rapid physical growth, including maturation of
the brain that is so dependent on adequate nutrition; in physical mobility, from sitting-up to crawling,
walking and running; in motor dexterity, from basic grasping to eye-hand co-ordination, to the
beginnings of tool-using; in terms of relationships, establishing a small number of core relationships in
infancy that become the base for emotional security and the context for early communication, play and
learning; in language, moving from pre-verbal communication through proto-conversation to complex
use of the mother-tongue to understand and express wants, fears, observations and understandings; and in
terms of social development, forming a more or less differentiated sense of personal identity within the
family, among peers and other members of the community.
Many of these features are universal, and must be recognised and supported by any child care system.
The form that this support system takes is less universal. In other words, considerable scope for variation
exists in the arrangements for care, socialisation practices and childrearing patterns sustaining and indeed
promoting early development. There is also considerable scope for diversity in the kinds of motor skill,
qualities of relationship, functions of communication, forms of thinking, and degrees of personal
autonomy shaped and promoted by these different care systems. In short, while agreement might be
reached about a core set of universal features of quality, this still leaves a great deal of room for
A start can be made by distinguishing the universal from the contextual as revealed by cross-cultural
research. For example, the emergence of specific ‘attachments’ and the expression of ‘separation
distress’ follows a similar developmental course (peaking between 10-15 months), but the patterns of
attachment, the way caregivers respond to the infant’s distress, and the way these close relationships are
regulated within the family can vary very considerably (Super and Harkness 1982; Van Ijzendoorn and
Kroonenberg 1988). Secondly, purposeful adult activity designed to initiate young children into socially-
valued skills is a feature of early relationships between toddlers and their caregivers. Comparing mother-
child dyads in India, Guatemala, Turkey and the USA, Rogoff et al (1991, 1993) found that collaboration
in joint activity was universal, but that there were important variations in the roles of adult and child, and
in the extent to which these were embedded in a network of wider relations. While ‘guided participation’
was a feature in all these settings, there were variations in the goals and processes of learning and
teaching, which were in turn linked to the extent to which children’s lives were segregated from the adult
world of work. In other words, these communities illustrate a variety of patterns of adult-child
relationship. Each in its own way was developmentally appropriate.
The boundary between the universal and contextual is also illustrated by data from twelve diverse
communities in the USA, Mexico, India, Philippines, and sub-Saharan Africa studied by Whiting and
Edwards (1988). They compared caregiving on a very wide range of dimensions, including: extent of
close contact, sensitive responsiveness, approach to play, control and discipline, attitudes to teaching,
and encouragement of interdependence versus independence. Five general infant development goals were
shared by caregivers in each of these communities:
* Survival (basic nutrition, health, protection from harm);
* Attachment (emotional comfort, physical contact, reducing anxiety and fear);
* Personal hygiene (toilet training, washing);
* Social behaviour (culturally approved behaviour);
* Learning (teaching essential skills for survival and social adaptation).
Specific goals for social behaviour and learning were of course much more variable, as were maternal
strategies for achieving these goals. Whiting and Edwards found major contrasts in maternal emphasis on
* Training (teaching specific skills to an expected level of achievement, for example, basic skills of
* Controlling (using reprimands, threats and commands to regulate children’s behaviour);
* Sociability (friendly, reciprocal, playful interactions);
* Nurturance (close contact and responsiveness to children’s demands and needs).
How far universal features of parenting are the result of parental sensitivity to infant signals and how far
they are a response to common features of social ecology is open to question (Bornstein 1991). More
certain is the tendency for some non-universal maternal strategies to be generalised as if they did reflect
common features of social ecology. Research carried out in Europe and especially North America has
been especially influential on widespread assumptions about the characteristics of high quality maternal
care. Yet Whiting and Edwards report that the maternal style observed in the USA was distinctly
different from the eleven other societies in their study. Mothers in the USA were ranked highest in the
extent of their sociability with their children, and in the number of playful interactions in which children
were treated as equals. Is it this image of individualised, playful, ‘child-centred’ childhood to become the
standard for evaluating child care practice? If not, the challenge is to construct contextually-appropriate
quality standards that:
(i) build on the childrearing traditions sustaining adaptive development for generations; and
(ii) that take account of the impact of changing social and economic ecology, rendering some
traditions maladaptive, others non-viable, and opening possibilities for new forms of relationship,
care and learning.
In the USA (as in other Minority World countries), the public review of child care issues for 0-3s is well
advanced, and specific recommendations have been elaborated (for example, the Carnegie Task Force,
1994). The PACED principle, Practice Appropriate to the Context of Early Development, applies equally
to children aged 0-3 as to the programmes for older children. The Carnegie Task Force recommendations
apply to the USA. Although they can contribute to widespread debate about these issues, they are not a
substitute for that debate.
The ‘needs of our youngest children’ have to be negotiated at national, regional and local level. Agencies
and care workers in early childhood can themselves play a vital role in this, through the model of
caregiving they offer children within group programmes (family- or centre-based), through the support
they give to child care systems within family and community, and through their active participation in
debate and advocacy on behalf of young children – all built on their knowledge of local circumstances
Chapter 8—Defining quality through research and evaluation
The postulate of value-free research, of neutrality and indifference towards the research objects,
has to be replaced by conscious partiality, which is achieved through partial identification with
the research objects (Mies 1983, cited in Nelson and Wright 1995).
A major theme of this report has been that research and theory in child development and education is not
neutral in identifying what makes for quality. One type of research in particular has great potential power
to shape policy on the initiation, reform, extension or termination of programmes – evaluation research.
Used in a self-conscious, context-sensitive way, that potential power can be an enormous asset. We now
have evidence from a wealth of more or less well-controlled research evaluations pointing to the impact
of particular early childhood experiences on children’s emotional, social, and cognitive development,
their school adjustment and achievement, and so on. From such research we should be able to infer what
quality is; pragmatically this is true, but research does not provide unequivocal answers.
First, methodologies conceptualised and planned in Minority World research centres do not necessarily
easily transfer to Majority World contexts. In particular, the dangers are well documented of attempting
to administer psychometric measures, or carry out experiments with children and communities that have
no experience or appreciation of the goals, communication styles and patterns of relationship on which
those measures are based (Richardson, 1991).
As part of their profile of three-year-olds’ development, the Kenyan study included an attempt to assess
children’s cognitive skills, using a series of simple sorting tasks. The adults carrying out the study had
been specially chosen because they originated from the same language community as the children. The
assessments were carried out informally in or near the children’s homes. Even so, the team found great
difficulty in making a valid assessment. Many of the children performed very poorly and 28 per cent
refused to cooperate at all.
It became clear that the task was not only unfamiliar but threatening to them. When asked to make a
structure with bricks, some children appeared anxious lest the bricks fall down, which might result in
them being scolded. When asked about differences between the bricks (in terms of such attributes as
colour or size) it was clear that they lacked familiarity with these formalised classification skills. This
was especially true of children from rural and low income areas and among those with no experience of
schooling. This unfamiliarity with play materials, (or with the associated activities and ways of thinking),
the unfamiliarity with one-to-one attention from an adult in the context of play, combined with a taught-
wariness of strangers in these tight-knit communities, all combined to create a baffling and worrying
experience for these children (see also Harkness and Super 1982). A more observational, ethnographic
approach to the problem, based on familiar materials, relationships and activities might yield a more
satisfactory account of these small children’s competence in their environment.
Second, evaluations depend on the construction of measuring instruments to assess children’s
development, adjustment and learning. Accepting results showing that programmes have ‘quality’
involves accepting the outcome indicators as desired goals for children’s development. It also entails
accepting the reduction of human diversity to a series of normative measures. Such research is governed
mostly by consensus of values about desirable child development outcomes. But there is nothing
inevitable about this, and I believe that all policy-linked evaluation studies should incorporate a clear
statement about the childhood values implicit in their research design.
Assessment and developmental priorities – an example from Venezuela
As part of the local study in Venezuela, the investigators assessed children’s skills and
behaviour using an adaptation of the Child Observation Record (High/Scope 1992). By
using observation, the team hoped to avoid some of the pitfalls associated with formal
ability assessments. Eighty-one children aged two-to-five were observed in semi-
structured play situations in a familiar setting. Briefly, they found that children were
functioning at a high level on two dimensions: social development and motor
coordination. They performed at rather lower levels in language (for example, describing
events at home, retelling stories, beginnings of reading and writing) and in logical
reasoning (for example, classification, ordering by size) although they were good at
counting. More specifically, within the area of social development, the children
performed very well in ‘relating to other children’ and ‘independence’ (self-help) but
very low on ‘autonomy’ (independent thought).
In drawing conclusions, and perhaps in planning an intervention to modify caregiver
priorities and practices, evaluators must make their child development assumptions
explicit. The Child Observation Record is criterion-referenced, and is based on the
theoretical assumptions of a particular curriculum model, the High/Scope Pre-school
Curriculum. It was refined through extensive trials in American Headstart classrooms.
The manual states that:
The Child Observation Record assesses dimensions of child development that should be
evident in all early childhood programmes that engage in developmentally appropriate
practice as defined by the National Association for the Education of Young Children
(High/Scope 1992, emphasis mine).
The investigators offer their own interpretation of the profile of competencies they
The high levels in the areas of social development and coordination reflect the value
placed on these in the human environment in which the Program functions. These levels
coincide with the comments of more than half of the day care mothers ... that they
observe the greatest changes in the children’s social behaviour ... They consider that the
best games for promoting development are manipulative games and those which exercise
body co-ordination. On the other hand, in autonomy ... low levels ... reflect ... the need
for all of the children to follow the Day Care Mother’s orders without questioning, to
permit the effective functioning of a relatively large group which must keep to a tight
schedule. These levels coincide with the opinions of the majority of the Day Care
Mothers who consider discipline more important than play for the children’s
development, so that they will behave properly and respect people (Teran de Ruesta
A third caution concerns whether the conclusions of research are really so definitive as frequently
claimed. For example, the past 40 years of research in Britain and North America into the importance of
early attachments, the consequences of separations, children’s tolerance of multiple relationships, the
effects of day care, and so on, has been closely linked to changing attitudes and policies on child care.
But it would be naive to imagine that the research has served as a dispassionate driving force behind
these changes. Cultural beliefs combine with scientific method to shape the execution and interpretation
In addition, research rarely yields straightforward answers. For example, Phillips (1987) collected some
of the best American research on quality in child care. Even within this reasonably circumscribed
context, the results were not clear cut. Although staff training and stability, along with staffing ratios,
were associated with positive developmental outcomes, their impact was by no means straightforward.
As the authors of one study conclude:
Consistencies and inconsistencies between studies ought to remind us of the innumerable variables
that may be acting as a smoke screen to, rather than shedding light on, the relationship between
child care quality and children’s development’ (Kontos and Fiene, 1987).
Phillips argues for seeing quality as a configuration among indicators, none of which in itself has a
determining effect on outcomes. In practical terms, what this means is that no single quality indicator is
likely to have a decisive impact on children’s development. What matters is the way clusters of factors
interact to shape the quality of children’s experience.
Fourth, and most crucially for any attempt to use evaluation research as the basis for a generalised view
of quality, it cannot be assumed that the features that make for effectiveness (and by inference, quality) in
one setting will necessarily apply in every other. Early childhood services are not a commodity. They are
a specialised set of human relationships among children and adults, that are closely linked to wider
systems of child development in family, school and community. Whether and how a particular feature of
a programme influences a child depends on the context into which the programme is received.
To cite a very clear example, Everson et al (1981) found that one of the most powerful influences on
children’s adjustment to a day care programme in the USA had nothing to do with the qualities of the
programme at all. What mattered was their mothers’ positive or negative attitude towards their infants’
day care. This is a further reminder of the power of a caregiver’s beliefs in mediating the impact of the
environment on children.
The significance of context for effects has been explored in relation to early educational interventions
(Woodhead 1988). Research in the United States has been widely used to argue that an early childhood
programme is an optimal strategy for enhancing the life chances of disadvantaged children (for example,
Beruetta-Clement 1984). While there is no disputing the contribution early childhood programmes can
make, whether they do so depends on their function in the community, and their relationship to the
school system. These are the contexts through which any benefits to children are expressed, transmitted,
amplified or attenuated. Thus valid quality assessment must be based on local evaluation research which
defines programme process and outcomes in the context of family and school systems (Liddell 1987).
Instances of such research are growing. For example, evaluation of a pre-school intervention in the
context of the Kenyan school system, might produce different results than in a country where school
achievement is less affected by access and language issues. But the literature is still dominated by
research in the USA (Myers 1992). The dangers of unqualified research imports is well illustrated by the
study of ‘overcrowding’ in South Africa, described in Chapter 4 (Liddell and Kruger 1989).
Finally, there is the problem of whether scientific method has the capacity adequately to encompass
multiple goals for childhood. It is common to assert that early childhood programmes should be holistic,
fostering all aspects of children’s development, promoting ‘multiple intelligences’ (Gardner 1984), or to
put it another way, encouraging them to reach their ‘full potential’ (or should it be ‘some of their many
potentials’?). At the same time, the detached objectivity that marks off Western positivist approaches to
knowledge is not conducive to accommodating very different social and cultural assumptions, values and
goals for childhood.
To give a blunt example, evaluators are well equipped with instruments to measure effects in terms of
language, reasoning, motor skills, social relations, school achievement. But in many societies, the highest
priority is given to children’s spiritual development (as for example, in the pre-school programmes in
Trinidad and Tobago; Cohen 1991). In seeking evidence on quality through systematic empirical
research, do we unwittingly also have to accept the goals for early childhood that are associated with that
tradition of enquiry? For example, how can evaluations based on instrumental school-related goals
adequately encompass creative or aesthetic aspects of early childhood experience? Pence and McCallum
(1995) raise a similar concern when they ask:
Is caring measurable? Is it not at least in part transcendent? Is using scientific instruments and
methodologies to understand caring not in some way akin to searching for God with a telescope.
Research-led innovations in early child development are an important part of the recent history of the
field. A ‘model programme’ has the great virtue of being tangible, documented, often video-recorded,
with training materials, and so on. It has the potential to be widely replicated at relatively low cost.
Adopting such models can be appealing to funding agencies and local communities alike, and they can
undoubtedly be an effective strategy for initiating change.
Pragmatically, such programmes have served an important advocacy function. They are persuasive to
government ministers and officials, for whom political accountability makes it essential that programmes
are visible, outcomes are measurable, and cost effectiveness is calculable. Examples include High/Scope
in the USA (Berrueta-Clement et al 1984); the Home Instruction Programme for Pre-school Youngsters,
HIPPY (Lombard 1981); and the Turkish Early Enrichment Project (Kagitcibasi et al 1988). It is
questionable whether ‘quality programmes’ can be packaged, evaluated for their effectiveness, and
replicated on the same basis as any other consumer commodity. The approach rests on a commercial
metaphor, whereas I have argued for a more ecological metaphor. My view has much in common with the
distinction made by Howard Richards (1993) between a mechanical and an organic approach to
Cultural innovations grow, sustain themselves, and eventually become normal conventional
practices, in a way parallel to the way new biological species establish themselves. An innovative
practice, like a mutation, survives and reproduces if it captures energy (Richards, 1993).
Achieving quality is a progressive process, not a final outcome. The history of an early childhood
programme or child care system is the starting point for defining its future. This does not mean there is
no place for innovation or assimilating alternative child development models. But the impact of
externally-initiated innovations will depend on how they link into the intrinsic dynamic within the local
context, on how far they address an issue that is already being recognised by those most closely
concerned with the programme and by the community it serves. Or to put it in Richards’ terms, how far
they resonate with a ‘growth point’ within the programme or setting.
For example, programme managers attending the Bernard van Leer Foundation workshops in Caracas,
Madras and Paris were asked to specify the priorities for quality development within their programmes.
The answers were very variable indeed, and included improving basic health facilities; strengthening
crèche workers’ understanding of children’s family circumstances; enhancing the quality of individual
attention provided to infants; strengthening mother tongue teaching in a multi-lingual context, and so on.
Thinking in terms of growth points for quality within a particular context has implications for the issue of
how, and how far quality standards should be assessed and regulated:
Governments can ... play a role in setting standards and regulations. ... These are often set at levels
that are too high. They effectively exclude the vast majority of pre-schools and community-
initiated programmes. When this is the case, the standards tend to undermine community
initiatives, rather than support them. The standards are often at real odds with parents’ efforts to
pursue and organise alternative forms of child care facilities for their children. (Bernard van Leer
Setting standards, assessing standards, measuring indicators – these are all key stages of quality
development – with a number of provisos. If the aim is enhancing quality in context-relevant ways they
are best seen as: formative not evaluative; practical not bureaucratic; participatory not prescribed;
offering guidelines not regulations, in a way that is dynamic and not fixed.
Chapter 9—Steps towards quality
In this report I have proposed a contextual approach to quality founded on negotiation among
stakeholders. My starting point was the evidence of diversity in early childhood development and early
childhood programmes. Diversity is apparent in cultural beliefs and expectations about childrearing
practices; in family/community systems for care and learning; in the extent and design of organised
programmes; in the training and orientation of workers; in the availability of material and human
resources for programme development; and in the infrastructures that can monitor, support and regulate
quality in early childhood.
This diversity in practice is not matched by an equal diversity in theory. Students of child development
and early education are offered a relatively narrow vision of the parameters of socialization, growth,
learning and teaching. This vision originates mainly in Western scientific and pedagogical traditions, but
it has a far-reaching influence on beliefs about quality in early childhood programmes. Debating the issue
of what constitutes quality is especially important at a time of rapid economic, political and social
transformation of children’s lives, marked by increasing pressures towards globalisation.
To counterbalance these normative trends, I have argued that quality is not a fixed, objective standard to
be universally applied, but a context-specific, dynamic process. Meaning different things to different
interest groups, in different settings, and at different times, the quality of a programme cannot be judged
independently of the social environment in which it is located. As in perceiving a rainbow, perceptions of
quality are strongly dependent on perspective, which in turn is strongly dependent on context.
Consequently, quality should not be seen in a restrictive, prescriptive way, but in a holistic, relativistic
way, where the context of human and material resources and the social ecology of lifestyles, values and
expectations of childhood are acknowledged. It is not something that can be achieved as an end product;
rather, ensuring quality is a continuous process of innovation to new circumstances, and shifting
priorities. Quality can best be achieved through active negotiation and collaboration, with children and
parents contributing to quality as much as care workers and managers who formally ‘run’ a programme.
Rejecting universal, individualistic views of quality in favour of a more relative, holistic framework for
quality development and evaluation might seem at first sight to be self-defeating, in that this fails to offer
clear, unequivocal indicators of quality standard, against which to assess programmes, initiate changes
and improve the lives of children. This is not the case; I have argued that quality is relative but that it is
not arbitrary. This means that I reject unquestioned replication of particular programme models, quality
indicators, concepts of basic standards and so on in favour of encouraging locally-relevant models,
indicators and standards. To guide this process, I offer a series of general principles.
The first is about resources, the idea of basic standards. There are gross inequalities in the material and
human resources available to sustain early childhood programmes. Some large scale programmes are
functioning at a minimal resource level consistent with children’s basic care, health and welfare.
Increasing the resources available to these programmes would be highly desirable. But pragmatically,
there are many more possibilities for low cost, non-institutional solutions than are currently being
applied, and in some circumstances, conventional solutions would in any case be inappropriate (see the
Bernard van Leer Foundation Newsletter number 80, 1995). Employing ‘basic standards’ usually means
applying external criteria derived from other contexts and child development systems. A preferable
approach builds on the resources and the positive opportunities that do exist within a given setting.
However, there are limits. There are boundaries of adequacy, defined in terms of children’s universal
biological and psychological needs and rights. These are important boundary markers for quality. The
problem is that many quality indicators that are taken to be about children’s fundamental needs are
actually about socially-constructed, contextual needs.
There is considerable scope for negotiation about what is contextually appropriate for young children.
This applies as much to principles of child development and child care practice as to beliefs about
children’s needs. While scientific research offers some universal principles that can inform
developmentally appropriate practices, much that is taken to be ‘developmentally appropriate’ is based
on the particular cultural niche in which dominant, expert early child development knowledge has been
generated. An alternative framework emphasises that practice should be PACED, that is, that it should be
appropriate to the context of early development.
To put the point another way, the quality of young children’s care and education is not just a by-product
of resource availability, but reflects the very widely differing social contexts into which early childhood
programmes are embedded. Childrearing traditions, family networks, school systems and especially
parental belief systems shape what is valuable for early childhood and how it can be achieved. At the
same time, child development specialists, teachers, and care workers are informed by other sets of belief
and knowledge, often derived from Western psychology and educational theory.
A first step is to identify, articulate and negotiate these frameworks of belief and practice. The territory
of childhood is marked by numerous possible pathways to development but professional practice,
unfortunately, all too often assumes there is only one pathway. In her analysis of the impact of poverty on
child development, Terezinha Nunes cites studies on pathways to moral development (by Edwards 1982)
and literacy (by Brice-Heath 1988) along with her own work on mathematics (Nunes et al 1993). She
An intervention programme that seeks to transform the children living in threatening environments
into what one might call ‘textbook children’ risks losing sight of the strengths of those children
on whose behalf it is acting ... (Nunes 1994).
A prerequisite of quality assessment is the understanding that multiple factors shape how children
experience a childrearing setting. Recognising the interweaving of traditional with modern, indigenous
with imported, adaptive with dysfunctional can provide a strong basis for quality development (Evans
and Myers 1994). Taking account of differing perspectives and negotiating a vision of childhood futures
is part and parcel of this process, which can be carried out in different ways, at different levels in the
child development system, from care workers talking with parents to state authorities preparing a policy
Accepting this perspective has significant implications for the role and training of early childhood
specialists at every level, from the individual crèche worker to the field officer of an international NGO.
The specialist may feel undermined by the prospect of taken-for-granted certainties being replaced by a
more reflective recognition of possibilities. A role change may entail negotiating perspectives, being
aware of tradition and change, and of applying child development theory and research in a context-
The first step is to achieve greater self-awareness. All those with responsibility for early childhood
programmes can benefit from making explicit the personal experiences, beliefs, values and theories that
inform their perception of the needs and development of children, and the characteristics of a ‘quality’
programme. This reflective self-awareness can be the starting point for making explicit the rationale for
programme organisation, the approach to teaching and learning, the character of adult relationships with
children, and children’s relationships with each other. Any programme appraisal must include an
historical dimension – re-evaluating programme traditions in the light of changing circumstances and
expectations. Account must also be taken of the other influences that shape children’s lives. Children’s
experiences of learning in a pre-school setting will have repercussions for their experiences in other
settings, in family, school and community; and vice versa. Criteria must be established about when low
levels of resource threaten children’s welfare, and when situations and practices violate children’s
fundamental needs and rights.
Research and evaluation have a crucial role to play in this process, but over-reliance on imported theory
and data must give way to locally-cultivated research and development. Under all these circumstances,
the process of change can be most effectively approached within a framework of commitment, energy
and openness. We have inherited a legacy of lifestyles and childrearing systems that have been evolving
over hundreds and thousands of years. We have to embrace the challenge of modernity in a way that
encourages and empowers those that take care of, nurture and educate young children to take
responsibility for planning the present, with a view to shaping the future.
Towards dynamic, contextually-appropriate quality development
In this final section of the report, I summarise many of the key emergent themes by offering a model of
the cycle of quality development. Figure 4 (Figure 4 not available) summarises ten phases, each of which
can be elaborated as a series of questions.
Phase 1. Define ecology of development
What are the major contexts for young children’s care/education? What are their characteristics in
terms of physical setting, social organisation, caregiver beliefs, expectations of and interactions
with children? How stable are these contexts? In what ways are they changing?
How do characteristics and functions of each of these contexts interrelate in children’s
development? How far are they complementary? Where are the points of conflict? How far do
they actively cooperate?
In what ways do other community contexts impact on children’s experience of care/education
settings? For example, in what ways is children’s experience being shaped their parents’
What are opportunities and/or constraints of the wider economic, legislative and political structure
including changes in these structures, levels of poverty etc?
Phase 2. Make stakeholder analysis
Who has an interest in early childhood development as providers and/or beneficiaries? What is
their interest in early childhood development? Which aspects are they interested in and at what
level? What is their status, and their level of power and influence?
Phase 3. Appraise multiple perspectives
What are the stakeholders’ beliefs about beneficiaries of the programme, goals, needs, approaches
to practice, design and funding of provision, and so on? Where are the points of complementarity
and convergence? Where are the conflicts of interest? How might competing perspectives be
reconciled? What is the perspective and interest of the initiator of the quality development
Phase 4. Contextualise ‘scientific’ knowledge
What research, theories, models and approaches are relevant? What are the implicit assumptions
and values about approaches to childrearing and goals of development? Can research be
generalised to local settings? Where are the points of congruence/conflict between ‘scientific’
knowledge and local practice? What key themes would benefit from locally-based research,
including small-scale practitioner-based studies?
Phase 5. Assess resource opportunities
What are the existing costs and resources, in terms of buildings, materials, human skills,
infrastructures, training facilities, and so on? What is scope for low-cost resource enhancement,
in terms of using local human and material resource (for example, volunteers, parents,
community, alternative settings, locally-found/crafted equipment, training opportunities)? How
might positive community resources be harnessed? What are the cost effectiveness issues
Phase 6. Negotiate contextually appropriate ‘needs’ and practice
What are the developmental characteristics (‘needs’) of children in the context of
family/community experiences? How do existing programmes fit into the ecology of children’s
development? Are they consistent with a PACED approach? What programme goals for
development/care/education emerge from consultation with stakeholders? What are appropriate
group sizes, curriculum emphases, play opportunities, teaching approaches, discipline styles,
extent of individualisation, forms of parent cooperation, and so on?
Phase 7. Safeguard basic needs and rights:
Are children’s basic nutrition, health and safety being protected? Are programme characteristics
consistent with basic needs and rights, and sensitive to children’s ages during various stages of
their development? How can protecting children from abuse be ensured, for example, through
professional training, selection and supervision of care workers and volunteers?
Phase 8. Identify quality indicators
What basic, input standards are contextually appropriate? What would be observable indicators
that agreed practice standards are being achieved at the level of process? What locally relevant
outcome indicators can be identified/constructed, in terms of health, school adjustment, and so
Phase 9. Implement appraisal system
What low cost systems will best monitor indicators of quality, at the level of input, process and
outcome? How can this be implemented in the local context in a simple, supportive, non-
bureaucratic way? What procedures will ensure that those concerned with the issue of quality are
closely involved in the process of quality appraisal, including appraisal of their own roles?
Phase 10. Identify areas for growth and change
What aspects of the programme might benefit from innovation? What issues might become
catalysts for change? How can energy for positive change be harnessed? What are the
implications for resources, training, relationships with parents and community, and the like?
How can change be most effectively implemented? What would the repercussions of change be
for the wider aspects of the early childhood development system?
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