Lessons from Ireland: Social Policy and Civic Discourse

During my first semester in Ireland studying early childhood education, I was quite surprised that we had a class on “social policy”. It was the very first class I attended, in fact, and it had me very intrigued. The whole premise of that module was that, whether as educators or citizens, we should be looking at social policy, studying it and even critiquing it. The assignment for class involved writing a paper about the Irish government’s overall policy objectives with regards to children and education.

In tutorial sessions, we outlined suggestions for child and education-related policies in Ireland and Malaysia, discussed human rights issues, and brainstormed ideas for the development of our countries.  We actually looked at living conditions of groups such as refugee children and marginalised groups. We discussed the need for better physical education and rural education, among other issues.

During the academic year, various developments such as the Affordable Childcare Scheme, minimum qualifications for early childhood educators and the new national budget were announced or implemented. These were discussed in many of the classes. In fact, whether the class was about curriculum development, entrepreneurship or special education, policies were a large part of the discussion.

One of the first things I realised was that, as a Malaysian, I had never thought about critiquing social policy before. It seemed like something to be approached with sensitivity and caution. Now, my interest is not in poli-tics but in poli-cies, especially with regards to peoples’ lives and education. This blog will never be a political blog. 

Studying in Ireland opened my eyes a little and gave me a different perspective. I think that we should be teaching children to be active citizens and to have civic consciousness, to care about the society we live in and want to advocate for a “better future and brighter outcome” for children. Lecturers and students were very vocal and forthcoming about their opinions regarding education policies. The impact of larger issues such as minimum wage and economic policies on early childhood education was discussed, as well as how education affects society.

My dissertation ended up being partly about education policies and their effect on early childhood education in Ireland. Another thing that struck me was how academicians and policy advisors studied successful early childhood polices and practices overseas – what works, what doesn’t work and what could be applied in Ireland. This was a common theme in the media as well.

Because it was a separate “honours year” course, I think the idea was that now that we’ve learned a lot about education, it was time to learn more about the “big picture” and broader issues that affect early childhood education. Hence, there were classes about social entrepreneurship, business innovation, inclusive education, and, most importantly, academic research – things that didn’t always have a direct connection with being early childhood educators. At the end, we were probably supposed to be more than just teachers or childcare providers, but active citizens with a broad range of knowledge and skills and able to engage with society at large. The experience made transitioning to a different field, media and communications, much smoother for me.

My experience overseas has inspired me to come back to Malaysia and make a difference, whether by being involved in an early childhood professional organisation or by writing about education. I would say that any student could benefit from living and studying in another country whether for postgraduate  or undergraduate studies, or even on an exchange or gap year programme. You’ll come back to Malaysia having had different, richer experience. Furthermore, making friends and getting to know people from different cultures and backgrounds can broaden our worldview.

 

 

 

 

 

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