The Play versus Formal Debate: A study of early years provision in Northern Ireland and Denmark

  • Glenda Walsh

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This study was designed to investigate examples of Year 1 provision in Northern Ireland schools in the context of the debate about the relative importance of play-based and formal approaches to learning and teaching. Northern Ireland schools, though they follow a similar curriculum to schools in England and Wales, are often said to be conservative in their approach to learning and teaching. In some primary schools this is manifested in a relatively traditional adherence to the 3Rs while in most primary and post-primary schools the influence of the selective ‘11+’ system is all too plain to see. In Year 1 classrooms, the perceived effects of tradition (the 3Rs approach) and prescription of the Key Stage 1 curriculum combine to fuel the view that the experience of 4 to 5 year old children is too formal and lacks the benefits thought to be offered by more play-based systems in other parts of the world. This study has therefore attempted to evaluate the quality of experience for 4 to 5 year old children in Northern Ireland schools and has used kindergartens in Denmark as an example of play-based approaches to early years education.

    In order to achieve the objectives of the study, data collection included observations of early years settings (in Northern Ireland and in Denmark), surveys of teachers’ and pedagogs’ attitudes in relation to early years schooling, and teachers’, pedagogs’ and parents’ perceptions of high quality early years provision. Innovative aspects of the research design included the development and use of an observation schedule termed the ‘quality learning instrument’, QLI. This enabled the evaluation of the observed settings to be accomplished against judgement criteria, which were in turn established through a calibration process involving a panel of early years experts.

    Data analysis was principally qualitative (primarily thematic analysis of observation and interview data) supported as appropriate by descriptive (frequency counts, means etc.) and inferential statistics (factor analysis, ANOVA and t-tests). The last stage of the empirical work involved the findings from the various research approaches being presented to three focus groups of early years experts (members of the Inspectorate and advisory services, teacher educators and Key Stage 1 co-ordinators respectively) to assess their validity and generalisability, and to consider their implications. The findings from the study focus on nine identified features of a learning context (used in the thematic
    analyses and including motivation, concentration, and confidence etc.) and the three parts of the learning triangle: the pupils, the teachers and the environment. They are set out in detail in the appropriate chapters but the main ones are mentioned briefly here.

    In terms of their environment, the early years settings observed in Northern Ireland suffered from a number of ‘blights’ such as lack of space, insufficient staff, inappropriate surroundings and so on. These problems were not evident in the kindergartens. The Northern Ireland teachers were mixed in their views on the importance of play versus formal ‘academic’ learning (as required by the Key Stage 1 curriculum) though there was consensus that the curriculum constrains the teachers’ flexibility to enable a greater proportion of play-based experience for the children. By way of direct contrast, there was almost complete consensus among the Danish pedagogs that play in an ‘educare’ system was the paramount consideration for young children. Northern Ireland pupils were also found to be displaying signs of failure, and a lack of interest in learning, as a result of the competitive atmosphere generated in the Year 1 classes. This was not evident in the kindergartens but meaningful ‘challenge’ was found to be lacking in both the Year 1 classes and the Danish kindergartens. Finally, almost two-thirds of the surveyed Northern Ireland parents defined a high quality early years provision in terms of care and natural development instead of basic skills teaching; a finding that flies in the face of their perceived conservative attitude to education.
    Date of AwardSept 2000
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Queen's University Belfast
    SupervisorJohn Gardner (Supervisor)

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