Giving children a head start in school with the Early Start programme
Karen Cawley, Patricia Cleary, Mairéad Stewart and Siobhán Flanagan run the Early Start Programme in St Fergal’s JNS Bray, Co Wicklow
The Early Start Team (from left ): Karen Cawley, and Patricia Cleary, in St Fergal’s JNS in Bray.Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
‘I think that people often get confused when I say I work in Early Start. They mix it up with the free preschool year and things like that when it’s actually quite different.” Mairéad Stewart makes the point, but her colleagues all nod in agreement.
It has been a very busy day, but then, every day is busy for the Early Start team in St Fergal’s Junior National School in Bray, Co Wicklow. Every day, the team deals with 60 preschoolers and their parents. The day is split into two sessions, the first from 9am to 11.30am, the second from noon to 2.30pm.
Karen Cawley, a primary-school teacher, is teamed with Patricia Cleary, a qualified childcare worker, and they take 15 children for the morning session and another 15 in the afternoon. Stewart and Siobhan Flanagan do the same in their room across the hall.
We’re sitting in one of the two Early Start rooms in the school. It’s a big, colourful space with plenty of room and activity areas. There’s a dressing-up rail, a home area, reading corner, sand and water table and artwork and posters on the walls.
The Early Start programme runs in 40 schools around Ireland and was originally designed as a pre-intervention programme in selected schools in disadvantaged areas. The idea was to bring preschool-age children into school in the year before they entered junior infants to enable them to become accustomed, not only to the school environment, but also the workings of an infant classroom in a relaxed, welcoming manner.
That’s not to say that Early Start is junior infants on a smaller scale – it is definitely a preschool, but the structure of the day, activities, free play, the gentle etiquette of a classroom at that age, even things such as taking your coat off and putting it on your coat peg, is all useful information if you’re one five-year-old among 30 others when you start school. The programme has been running in St Fergal’s for 20 years now and Flanagan, also a qualified childcare worker, has been working in the unit for almost all that time. She has seen huge changes in the children over the years.
“The children nowadays are so much more confident coming in,” she says. “We’re at the stage where we actually had some of the parents in Early Start, but I think that generally the parents we deal with now have had a much more positive experience of education than the parents in the early days. That rubs off on the children.”
“The younger parents are much more confident than even parents who are 10 years older,” says Stewart. “You wonder whether it has something to do with the banning of corporal punishment or something. Certainly, the education experiences seem to have improved over the years.”
Early Start is not just about acclimatising children to a school environment, it’s also about welcoming the parents, and indeed whole families, into the school.