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

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.

Useful information
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.

“We have an open-door policy when it comes to parents,” Cleary says. “They are welcome to stay in the classroom if they want. In fact, we have had times where children with separation issues have had their mammies with them in Early Start until March.”

“We have siblings in, grannies, granddads, you name it,” says Flanagan. “It’s great for them and it’s great for us.” There is a rota for parents to come in and help out in class. The idea is to give everyone a gentle introduction to the school.

Gentle is the word. In September, children begin with just an hour of activities in Early Start. This is then built-up over the weeks. The children take part in school life. They have little jobs to do around the school, such as collecting batteries from older classes as part of the Green Schools Initiative. In summer, they play out in the schoolyard and when their junior infants teacher is identified, there is a handover of information and experience.

By the time they are ready to start in junior infants, the children are accustomed to the school bell, they know their way around the building and they are used to the structure of a classroom. The adjustment for them is far less than for children coming from another or no preschool environment.

All Early Start units are made up of teams of teachers and childcare workers. They follow Aistear, the curriculum for early childhood learning, and plan like any primary school classroom. The structure is there but it’s a fun structure.

The relationship between the teachers and the childcare workers is a close one. That partnership is crucial to the success of the day. “It really is teamwork,” says Cawley. “I’d say each of us knows what the other is thinking at this stage.”

“It’s great to have two people,” says Flanagan. “If one of you is flagging, normally the other has enough energy to carry things along.”

Sense of independence
Indeed, it’s an extraordinarily taxing day from the team’s point of view. Two sets of preschoolers and a full set of activities for each, with barely a break in between.

“It is,” says Cleary. “You’d love a little bit more time in between sessions. Theoretically, the children are supposed to be gone at 11.30am so that we can grab something to eat and set up the rooms for the next session, but it doesn’t always work that way.”

However, they are all firmly convinced of the benefits. “Karen and I were infant teachers and we would always have noticed the difference,” says Stewart.

“Definitely,” agrees Cawley. “You know the Early Start children. They know to put their hands up. They can wash their hands, button their coats, blow their noses – they have a sense of independence and belonging from the beginning. It’s a huge advantage for them.”

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