Measuring the quality of the invisible part, or ethos, of the environment is difficult. A childminder is unlikely to have the same kind of resources as a large children’s centre, but could it be that the care and education she provides is of a higher quality than staff in well-resourced settings? And how are judgments made if the actual building itself is not appropriate for the children or there are very few resources, a situation many playgroups find themselves in? Melhuish et al.’s (2006) research ‘The effective pre-school provision in Northern Ireland (EPPNI) suggests that there is no ‘level playing field’ in early years settings. Staff training, salaries and conditions of service vary considerably, as do the accommodation and resources available. Nevertheless, those settings identified with quality provision had ‘a warm, caring, safe, secure and supportive approach to their children’ (Melhuish, 2006, p. 16). It is argued, however, that this alone is not enough, as quality of provision must also be judged on children’s developmental outcomes.
Goouch (2008) highlights the conflict between a utilitarian approach to education with an emphasis on curriculum documents and national requirements as opposed to a freer way of regarding learning and teaching where children have opportunities to explore and develop individually. It takes courage, she believes, to ignore or go against the prevailing doctrines. Teaching and learning, she suggests, cannot be put into ‘pre-formed moulds and packages’ because ‘unpredictability, spontaneity, unique response, innovation, subversion and interpersonal challenge’ are features of human activity (Goouch, 2008, p. 94). Dahlberg et al. (1999) also suggest that although it is more comfortable to seek definite answers, there is always an element of uncertainty, and there should be, when we work with children. They differentiate between judging ‘quality’ by using a technical language where judgments are made through externally determined norms, and ‘meaning making’. ‘Meaning making’ requires reflection and interpretation; it may involve debate and certainly requires discussion with others to understand the context and what is happening within it.
Children’s perspectives are fundamental in considering the issue of quality. In your research, you will have heard how children perceive your environment. They too are making judgments and may see aspects of your setting differently to you or reveal something you regard as insignificant as central to their experience. Listening to children can help us examine and be aware of our own values.