This article describes a means of evaluating early years classrooms from the perspective of the child's experience. Nine key themes, such as motivation and independence, are identified as representing significant aspects of a high-quality environment for learning. The manner in which these manifest themselves in relation to the three elements of the interactional trianglethe children, the adults, and their physical environmentis assessed by means of an observation schedule called the Quality Learning Instrument (QLI). The paper illustrates the design and validation of the instrument with data from a project involving observations of classroom practice in Northern Ireland primary schools and Danish kindergartens. It describes how judgments made using the instrument can be triangulated or "calibrated" against the judgments of experts not connected with the data collection. The article concludes with the argument that the instrument may be successfully used to provide a basis for external quality assessments or as a means for early years teachers to reflect on the environment for learning that they generate in their own classrooms.
Few would disagree that the earliest years of a child's education are fundamentally formative, and throughout the world, governments and educators are investing their respective resources in the development and enhancement of learning opportunities for young children. In Northern Ireland, where the research reported here was undertaken, there has been a tradition of relatively conservative education (see, for example, Caul, 1990) characterized by early enrollment to formal schooling. Children in Northern Ireland are required to attend primary school in their fifth year, from 4 years 2 months of age onward. In their Year-1 classes, they are presented with the formal curriculum at Key Stage 1, the first of the four stages of curriculum that schools are required to adopt in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (though it should be noted that children entering schools in England and Wales will be a year or more older). The relatively prescribed curriculum of reading, writing, listening, numeracy, and so forth, has given rise to a continuing concern that it detracts not just from children's enjoyment of their first experience of schooling (though some may have attended nursery and other forms of preschool) but also from their experience of childhood (Elkind, 2001). Should this initial formality in learning prove difficult for the children, some of whom may not have the requisite motor or social skills, their future development may be inhibited by an early sense of failure (Sharp, 2002). One popular alternative to formal curricular approaches to early years education is the play-based learning environment favored by Scandinavian countries such as Denmark. The suggestion that Northern Ireland early years education adopt play-based principles and practice, even if only in conjunction with formal activities, generates considerable debate between those who espouse the so-called "3Rs" approach (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic) and those who view the play-based model as more appropriate and beneficial to early years learning. Although much of this argument is discursive, evidence suggests that the prevalent "formal" approach is not appropriate. For example, a study conducted by Sheehy, Trew, Rafferty, McShane, Quiery, and Curran (2000) found that the more formal Year-1 curriculum was not meeting the needs of disadvantaged 4- to 5-year-old children in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the Northern Ireland Council for Curriculum, Examinations, and Assessment (CCEA) has canvassed views widely in several major consultation exercises and has committed itself to a more constructivist approach for the young child, stating: Children learn best when all areas of an integrated, carefully planned, curriculum are implemented...