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1st ECEC Research Conference "The Challenges and Prospects of ECEC in Japan"

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ECEC Research Conference Starts Strong on June 30, 2013

The first ECEC Research Conference, organized by Child Research Net, was held at Ochanomizu University on the theme "The Challenges and Prospects of ECEC in Japan."

ECEC is an acronym for "Early Childhood Education and Care." International interest in it has been rising as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has emphasized the importance of "Starting Strong" in child care and education.

The program started with the keynote address delivered by Dr. Kiyomi Akita, Professor, Graduate School of Education, the University of Tokyo, titled "The Challenges and Prospects of ECEC in Japan in the Context of Globalization," illustrating the global trends of ECEC. Next, the moderator, Dr. Yoichi Sakakihara, CRN Director, Professor of the Ochanomizu University, gave a presentation on the challenges facing ECEC. Ms. Noriko Goto, Research Manager, Child Sciences and Parenting Research Office, Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD), reported on the findings of the Second Basic Survey on Early Childhood Education and Child Care. Following these presentations and latest data, a panel discussion was held with four panel members: Dr. Mariko Ichimi, Senior Researcher, National Institute of Educational Policy Research and Dr. Hirotomo Omameuda, Associate Professor, Tamagawa University, in addition to the two aforementioned speakers. Finally, the floor was opened for questions and discussion. Various issues were brought up by ECEC practitioners, which heightened expectations for the next conference. With such fruitful discussions, the first conference started strong indeed.

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Data and Evidence Collection Increases Quality of ECEC

Dr. Akita pointed out the following three issues in the current practice of ECEC in Japan.

  1. Lack of education and child care that will ensure that the individual child will lead a happy life in early childhood and beyond in a globalized, knowledge-based society in the 21st century
  2. Lack of education and child care that responds to diverse needs amid widening disparity (economic and regional disparities, etc.)
  3. Lack of facts and evidence to ensure the process of improvement in ECEC quality

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Compared to other countries that increasingly invest resources in ECEC, Dr. Akita pointed out that Japan's public funding for it remains low and emphasized the importance of discourse and evidence to ensure that the significance of ECEC can be widely understood. As the latest world trends, she introduced case studies from Taiwan and Korea as examples of the effective operation of the ECEC system through the integration of kindergarten and day-care center and also showed a short movie from Singapore where the integration was put into practice last May. Dr. Akita further referred to the evaluation indicators for quality ECEC and ongoing international trends, providing examples from Australia and Canada. These examples helped to understand the necessity of promoting data collection and monitoring to effectively increase the quality of early childhood care and education at the national level.

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Five Challenges of ECEC

Dr. Sakakihara, the moderator of the meeting, introduced the five challenges that face ECEC and ECEC specialists gave their thoughts on them. The following are the five challenges that were addressed in the conference.

  1. How can Japanese ECEC be positioned in the global context?
  2. Do we have an overall picture of Japanese ECEC? What is the average ECEC in Japan?
  3. What are the standards to measure the quality of ECEC? What is quality ECEC?
  4. How can we improve the quality of ECEC? Specific facts rather than visions and philosophies are necessary.
  5. What are essential differences in care and education between nursery schools and kindergartens?

The specialists then responded to the above questions. For example, it was mentioned that "ECEC in Japan has traditionally been based on the importance of proactive play by children themselves. This, however, is little known outside Japan. As a result, even though Japan was ahead in this field, it seems to have been too far ahead and ended up a step behind."

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What is needed to improve the quality of teachers

Following the aforementioned presentation, Ms. Goto introduced selected findings from the Second Basic Survey on Early Childhood Education and Child Care conducted by Child Sciences and Parenting Research Office, Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD), which was newly released on April 17. In response to the question "What is needed to improve the quality of teachers?" "Better salary for teachers" was the top answer in public kindergartens, private day-care centers, and Early Childhood Education and Care centers (nintei kodomo en). "Better placement standards for teachers" and "improving training program content" were ranked first in public day-care centers and public kindergartens, respectively.

What is needed to improve the quality of teachers
(5 most frequently selected items among 28)

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Source: The Second Basic Survey on Early Childhood Education and Child Care conducted by Child Sciences and Parenting Research Office, Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD)

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Evidence strongly needed to solve problems in the field

This was followed by a panel discussion based on the ideas that had been proposed and collected data shown. Dr. Ichimi stressed the importance of a government framework to manage early-childhood data in an integrated fashion and the mapping of ECEC so that the positioning of Japanese ECEC could be highlighted in the global context. Dr. Omameuda suggested that data collection and its utilization for ECEC are necessary in Japan, citing an example of a recent athletic performance survey utilized to initiate change in ECEC activities at the grassroots level. Dr. Akita also highlighted the importance of mapping with a view to reflecting on the features of one's own kindergarten or center in illustrating all the aspects of children's development. In this manner, the significance of evidence was clarified and widely shared during the panel discussion.

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In search of ECEC quality assessment standards

The difficulty of qualitative assessment of ECEC activities also sparked a lively exchange in the conference. Dr. Akita maintained that each kindergarten or center should take pride in its diverse characteristics and make efforts to improve quality on its own. This remark shows a stance that ECEC quality should be discussed based on the unique diversity of respective kindergartens and centers, rather than setting unified quality standards for ECEC activities. It was also proposed that, besides numeric data, communicating the reality of children in the community or society could serve as evidence, building upon the idea of "children as citizens."

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During the open discussion, a variety of important issues were raised from the floor, such as collecting first-hand experience of teachers, or suggestions on how to draw up standards from cohort studies, all of which were highly suggestive for setting standards to assess the quality of Japanese ECEC activities. ECEC Conference has truly taken the first step to "Starting Strong."

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