Start date: ISSA was registered as an international association in the Netherlands in 1999.

Stage of development as a network: performing and adapting – fully operational, implementing key activities based on multiyear strategy and annual work plans.

In 1994, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) launched the Step by Step Program – an early childhood education reform initiative in 15 countries in Central Europe and Eurasia. Initially conceived as a two-year program, Step by Step introduced child-centred practices and community and family-based approaches into existing early education systems through a series of pilots in government kindergartens.

The program is illustrated in this comprehensive guide Child-centered Democratic, Pre-school classrooms: The Step by Step Approach, which is specially addressed to early childhood educators and pre-school staff who work with children aged from 3 to 6 years.

In the years that followed, the program extended to 29 countries, to serve children from birth through the first four grades of primary school, reaching substantial percentages of preschools and schools in most of the participating countries. The program inspired changes in early education and teacher training policies, as well as in-service and pre-service training institutions.

To ensure sustainability and independence of the program, in 1998 the Open Society Foundations began a process of building a civil society sector in early childhood education across the region. Step by Step Programs, which had been run by national foundations affiliated with the Open Society Foundations, were spun off into independent NGOs with start-up funding and technical training and support provided by OSF. In October 1998, a founding coalition of Step by Step NGOs voted to establish the the International Step by Step Association (ISSA) – a formal network which would both support the national Step by Step NGOs and provide a voice for professionals promoting progressive early childhood approaches.

More than 25 years later, ISSA continues to build on the Step by Step network, and has grown into a platform for organizations and individuals working together to improve the lives of young children and families. The association has broadened its scope and has expanded to welcome members from all corners of Europe, becoming the pre-eminent early childhood network for Europe and Central Asia.

ISSA’s first major network-wide activity in 1999 was to launch the Early Childhood Quality Initiative, aimed at promoting ongoing professional development and ensuring the quality of the program as it scaled up in a variety of country contexts. A taskforce of experts developed the ISSA Pedagogical Standards for Preschool and Primary Grades (ISSA, 2005) along with supporting materials to provide a common framework for teachers to develop and measure professional growth with the support of trained mentors. To put into practice the principles of Step by Step, the pedagogical standards built on long traditions of education and psychology that pre-date the Communist regimes, emphasizing inclusion, diversity, and the values required in open, democratic societies. These ideas have flourished and grown, incorporating international, contemporary research on brain development and best practices in early education, culminating in a second edition, Competent Educators of the 21st Century: Principles of Quality Pedagogy (2010), and a comprehensive Quality Resource Pack, with an array of tools designed for a diverse audience of early childhood stakeholders.

ISSA’s work on improving process quality is captured in this documentation study that explored how the association supported member organizations in their efforts to influence systems and practices in their respective countries. The set of resources, tools and mechanisms provided by ISSA around the Quality Resource Pack supports the members to promote inclusive quality practices in early childhood education and care (ECEC) services for children aged 3 to 10. This study was commissioned to learn to what extent the resources and the support provided to ISSA members resulted in new approaches, new practices and influence new policies. Equally important was being able to share the learning journey of ISSA both as a learning community and as a reflexive network which deeply believes in the co-construction of knowledge, transnational networks of support, nurturing innovation and empowering agents of change.

There have been several stages in ISSA’s development. In the first years of formation, with financial support and leadership from Open Society Foundations, ISSA served as an umbrella for the organizations implementing the Step by Step Program in CEE/CIS. During this stage, ISSA began strengthening its structure and processes as an independent organization, including a stronger focus on pursuing other sources of income. After that came a phase of setting foundations for an expanded vision of the association: the statutes were changed to accept as members (and thus to serve) other organizations embracing ISSA’s values. A new organizational vision was launched to strengthen ISSA as a broader platform..

With continued support from the Open Society Foundations, more donors and partners started to engage with ISSA, as the association pursued growth and depth towards its expanded vision. This stage entailed growth by significant expansion (the membership more than doubled), broadening the focus beyond the early education to other areas of ECD, and serving as an umbrella for Western Europe as well, thus filling a unique niche of bridging parts of Europe which historically have been divided. Various resources have been developed, strengthening ISSA’s position as a player in the ECD field on issues related to quality, equity, cross-sectoral approaches and supporting the early years workforce.

Building on the past work, in the current phase, ISSA strives to further develop as an association which simultaneously grows its members’ capacity and at the same time contributes significantly to the ECD field in Europe, Central Asia and beyond.