Parent mentoring scheme giving a new start to education

Research on north Dublin project shows early intervention is key for kids to reach their schooling potential

Marion Dennis with her son Jamie  (3) at the Preparing for Life programme managed by the Northside Partnership.   Photograph: Alan Betson

Marion Dennis with her son Jamie (3) at the Preparing for Life programme managed by the Northside Partnership. Photograph: Alan Betson


Marion Dennis was 14 when she dropped out of school but she says “I am not as laid back now about education”. Her 18-year- old daughter is doing the Leaving Cert this week and her son – aged just three – has started in a playgroup.

“They need their education; that’s one thing I’ve learnt,” says Dennis, a single parent living in Coolock, north Dublin.

Her own attitude to both schooling and parenting has changed dramatically since she came into contact with a pioneering community support scheme set up shortly before Jamie was born. “I was 42 when I became pregnant and it was a big shock. I was in the Rotunda and they told me about this programme,” she said.

The Northside Partnership scheme has just announced the start of its second phase, extending its service to up to 200 parents a year over the next three years. It follows impressive results from the pilot phase, which saw over 200 families being monitored since 2008 as they applied learnings from the project’s mentors, teachers and healthcare workers.

Significant improvements

Researchers at the UCD Geary Institute found that when children in the Preparing for Life scheme had reached the age of 24 months, they had shown significant improvements across 21 per cent of recorded outcome measures, from improved language and social skills to reduced incidence of asthma.

Dennis has no doubts about its efficacy. “Every two to three weeks my mentor would come out and show you things. They’d teach you how to chastise without smacking; how to do ‘time out’ and rewards systems . . . If Jamie is looking for a treat he asks for fruit or raisins. He doesn’t like sweets. And he doesn’t throw tantrums.

“It’s a totally different way of teaching right from wrong. I always go down to his level and give him eye-contact. He even says to me now if I’m talking to him: ‘Mammy, you have to kneel down’.”

Maggs Salmon, a mother of three from nearby Darndale, vouches for a similar experience, saying she feels “very lucky” to be on the programme. “It’s very different to my own upbringing. Instead of giving out to them you are trying to set an example for them to follow.

“It’s about turning negatives into positives – getting away from ‘don’t say that, don’t do that’.”

Schooldays, she admits “weren’t the best years of my life but I would completely encourage my kids in their education. I have turned into my mother.”

Speaking of which, Preparing for Life includes a training module for grandparents, and both women admit they have moments of tension with their mothers over babysitting and parenting practices. “Mam is old school,” says Dennis. “She is nearly 80, and you don’t give her cheek or back-chat. She’d say, ‘I’ll give you the back of my hand’. But it’s my rules, it’s my way, and she accepts that.”

The project is the brainchild of Noel Kelly, a former primary school teacher in Darndale who over the past 20 years has developed home school liaison teams and an early school leaver initiative to tackle the area’s high drop-out rate. In that time, however, he has become increasingly convinced that reaching children from the earliest possible stage is key to boosting their future engagement in school.

The programme, he says, is about “using existing resources to achieve better outcomes”. Bringing together 48 different organisations, from schools to health agencies, it draws upon “Irish and international evidence of what works”.

The main cost is four full- time staff working on parenting, costing around €160,000 a year, combined with a research budget. Half of this had been covered by Atlantic Philanthropies, but its money runs out in 2016, creating a need for extra Government funding , notes Kelly.

While Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan expressed support for the project on a recent visit, Kelly noted there was an irony in celebrating Preparing for Life while next door “we have a a high-quality centre struggling to stay open”.

This was a reference to the Darndale Belcamp Integrated Childcare Service, the largest childcare centre in the country, with 250 children, which has warned the Government it faces closure unless it can fill a €200,000 hole in its budget.

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the Preparing for Life programme is how it acts as a research trial and not just a new service.

Treatment group

The 233 women recruited in the first phase of the programme were divided in two: a high- treatment group and a low-treatment group, and a further 99 women were recruited from a matched comparison community.

Only the high-treatment group received mentoring, which had a significant impact on scores. The proportion of children identified as “school- ready” when entering junior infants rose from less than 50 per cent to 63 per cent thanks to the intervention.

The scheme – which Kelly believes can very easily be replicated nationally – has also encouraged a number of the parents to enter further education. These include Dennis, who has just completed a Fetac level 5 course. “It was hard going back to school; it was like doing a Leaving Cert.” Last week, she heard she had received a distinction in her exams.

As for Jamie, she says proudly: “He likes school; he’s a happy little fella.”

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