Professor Mathias Urban was appointed as the Desmond Chair in Early Childhood Education at DCU in 2017. The Chair was created thanks to the generosity of businessman and philanthropist Dermot Desmond.
Mathias is a prominent name in the field of early childhood studies who is known for his research in international early childhood policy and professional practice. His work on professionalising the early years workforce is particularly well-known in Ireland. His research collaborations reach across Europe, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and Africa. He is President of the International Froebel Society and Chair of the International DECET network (Diversity in Early Childhood Education and Training).
Professor Urban is leading the establishment of a new Centre for Early Childhood Research at the DCU Institute of Education that will contribute not only to scholarship but to the development of national and international public policy in the sector.
What attracted you to the Desmond Chair in Early Childhood Education position?
I was impressed by DCU’s ambition to take leadership in this field and to invest substantially in early childhood education by creating the only early childhood chair at an Irish university. I also found it attractive that the Chair is clearly situated in what I call the Bermuda triangle of research, policy and practice. DCU weren’t looking for somebody to conduct disconnected ivory tower research. Instead, they are interested in research that can make a difference to children’s lives by influencing policy and impacting on practice in early childhood care and education.
I enjoy getting things off the ground and feel honoured and humbled to be given the opportunity to shape the Centre for Early Childhood Research, its vision and research agenda. As the only early childhood Chair in Ireland, this opens a unique opportunity, and a huge responsibility, to influence the future direction of the early childhood sector in Ireland and beyond.
What are the major research projects and initiatives that you are currently focussing on?
My work in recent years, in collaboration with many others internationally, has focused on the support systems we build around young children and families in our societies. I am interested in what I call ‘Competent Systems in Early Childhood’: How do the various (human and institutional) actors in early childhood education and care interact and come together, or not, as the case may be, to enable more just and equitable early childhood experiences and outcomes for all children, regardless of their background? How do all actors – in crèches and preschools, in county and city administration, in colleges and universities, in professional associations, and in government departments – use their capacity, their agency, to make a difference? We are asking similar questions in locations in Ireland, in Europe, in Latin America, Africa and Asia, so we can learn from and with each other.
I am really interested in what we can learn from initiatives in so-called developing countries in the global south, for instance in Latin America, where early childhood is seen as a public responsibility and where the policy discourse extends beyond education and childcare to include well-being, health, nutrition, (in)equality and social cohesion. Early education and childcare are important without doubt, but they have to be developed in the context of all factors that influence a child’s life. The reality is that an increasing number of children, including in the most affluent countries, are growing up under what some used to call, carelessly, ‘third-world conditions’: marginalisation, poverty and malnutrition.
In our new Centre for Early Childhood Research we will be hosting a world class research team that builds on existing expertise in DCU’s Institute of Education and other faculties, together with international doctoral research students, and supported by a global network of the leading critical scholars in our field. This will, I am convinced, enable us to look at the early childhood sector in Ireland with fresh eyes.
What do you see as the particular challenges in the Irish early childhood sector today?
The past ten years have seen remarkable progress in the early childhood sector in Ireland with the publication of the Síolta and Aistear frameworks, and the ‘Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Charter and Guidelines’. These form a great basis for further progress but coordination, bold leadership, and substantial investment at Government level is required.
The Irish early childhood sector is incredibly dynamic but it is also very fragmented. Unlike in other countries in Europe, in Ireland we see a lot of small, independent, private providers of services for young children. Such a structure can lead to a conflation of interests between business requirements, professional practice, and workforce interests. There is currently no strong professional organisation for early childhood practitioners in Ireland, and although the picture is changing, in the past it has made it very difficult for the sector to speak with one voice. There are many highly committed practitioners out there and some excellent practice, but significant issues remain in terms of recognition of the workforce and pay.
What impact do you hope that your research will have on the early childhood education landscape in Ireland and internationally?
I am confident the Centre will contribute to the debate and provide strategic leadership to adopt a new comprehensive systemic approach to early childhood. We will proactively promote close collaboration between research, policy and practice in the field, and we will encourage and facilitate shared learning from and with partners in the global south and north.
My aim is to place our Centre, and the developments we initiate here in Ireland, firmly on the map of global early childhood research so that DCU becomes a go-to place for cutting-edge systems research in our field.