Making economic sense in the classroom

‘Early intervention’ is a buzz word among policy-makers. But what does it mean for families living in a disadvantaged area?

Tue, Feb 18, 2014, 01:00

Fifteen senior infants in wine-coloured uniforms are scurrying around a classroom, pencils and clipboards in their hands, searching for words on laminated notes dotted about the place.

There’s a sense of urgency as teacher Eilis O’Brien counts down the last 10 seconds. Then the children pop their boards into a box and settle down on cushions in a semi-circle to voice the sounds she is holding up on flashcards.

Their rapt attention is striking – even though it is past the end of their normal school day. But for these participants in this thrice-weekly, after-school literacy programme called Doodle Den, learning is clearly fun.

This bunch of enthusiastic five and six year olds at Sacred Heart Junior School in Killinarden have no idea that, statistically, they are at a disadvantage because they live in the Dublin suburb of Tallaght West.

They are blissfully unaware that a judge sitting in the local district court has talked of “a total breakdown of social order” in their community.

Nor, when they are armed with fly swatters for an exciting “wasp words” game, do they know that they are recipients of what, in policy-speak, is called “early intervention”. In this case it’s simply a chance – welcomed by children, parents and teachers alike – for them to practise their reading and writing to try to ensure, in the words of the US Act, “no child [is] left behind”.

Doodle Den is one of the success stories of the Childhood Development Initiative (CDI) in Tallaght West. Funded jointly by the State and Atlantic Philanthropies, the CDI has supported a range of programmes in the community from 2007 to 2013.

The lessons learned, both here and in similar Prevention and Early Intervention Programmes in Ballymun and Darndale, have informed a new scheme called the Area Based Childhood (ABC) Programme.

Again co-funded, almost €30 million has been allocated from now until 2016, for continuing work in the three areas and its expansion to another 10 sites around the country.

So what difference does early intervention make on the ground? Below, some participants in CDI programmes share their perspectives.

Chief executive
The head of the Child Development Initiative, Marian Quinn, is wary of over-emphasising the struggle for families in Tallaght West. Many are very driven and very able, she stresses, but her organisation is there for a reason.

The fact is that Tallaght West, with a population of 29,241, according to the 2011 Census, is a very poor area. Almost 40 per cent of people live in local authority housing, compared with a national average of just under 8 per cent. Almost 54 per cent of children here live with lone parents, compared with a national average of 29 per cent.

“A lot of the work we do is simply targeting families in Tallaght West because we know that the community, like many others, has really struggled to do the best for its children,” says Quinn.

A targeted approach to disadvantage is about looking at the statistics – early school leaving, involvement in the justice system, unplanned pregnancy, drug use – and it is very clear where you need to put your resources, she says. The “where” has not changed for several decades but the “how” has.

“For 20 or more years there were lots of services in Tallaght West trying to improve the situation for families and yet actually very, very little changed,” she remarks.

Meanwhile, there was growing evidence, particularly in the US, “that what you have to do, and of course it makes complete sense, is to get in early and try to prevent things from happening, as we do with our health”.

There are three elements to everything the CDI does: while the focus is always on the child, parents are also involved as are professionals who work with the families. Quinn points to the CDI’s speech and language service as an example.

“You want the child immersed in an environment that promotes their speech and language development. If you work only with the child, you limit the opportunity for doing that. You just think about who the child is spending time with and you try to work with those people.”

The work of the CDI has been independently evaluated to make sure it achieves its targets. People enjoying a service isn’t enough, she explains, if it doesn’t demonstrably improve things for vulnerable families.

Now they have the opportunity to share what has been learnt over the past six years in the rolling out of the ABC scheme, under which the CDI has been allocated €4.1 million until 2016.

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