Early learning helps lives thrive in Dublin docklands

Local home visitors work with children under three, and their parents, to boost future opportunities

Early learning: Sandy Bolger with her daughter, Daisy, and Michelle Moore, a home visitor with the Parent Child Home Programme. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Early learning: Sandy Bolger with her daughter, Daisy, and Michelle Moore, a home visitor with the Parent Child Home Programme. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

It’s lunchtime in Dublin’s International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) and “the suits”, as the locals call them, are emerging from office blocks to enjoy the fading warmth of the autumn sun.

Half of the world’s top 50 banks and half of the top 20 insurance companies have bases here, according to the IFSC, which has extended downriver from the Custom House Docks, where it was set up 28 years ago. Meanwhile, the IT crowd have moved in on the other side of the Liffey, creating the so-called “Silicon Docks”.

Clusters of young professionals, with corporate swipe cards dangling from their necks, sit at tables outside restaurants, while others find a spot to eat takeaway lunches and relax with their smartphones.

In 20 years’ time, two-year-old Daisy Bolger-Montgomery may join their ranks in this hub of economic activity on her doorstep in the docklands. That she will, at least, be able to pitch in her CV with the best of them is what a community-based Early Learning Initiative (ELI) is trying to ensure.

Daisy and her mother, Sandy Bolger, are starting the second year of a two-year Parent Child Home Programme. It’s one element of the ELI at the docklands-based National College of Ireland and is designed to eliminate the disadvantage that many children growing up in the inner city face from day one of school.

But, as far as Daisy is concerned, it’s all about having fun when home visitor Michelle Moore comes twice a week for half an hour during term time. Most weeks “Shelley”, as Daisy calls her, brings a new book or toy for the little girl to keep and explore. She shows Bolger how to use it in interactions with her daughter and to further Daisy’s learning through conversation, reading and play.

“Everything is to do with building up the child’s confidence, their self-esteem,” says Moore, one of 25 home visitors trained and employed by the National College of Ireland to deliver the programme, with that number due to rise to more than 30 in the coming weeks. “We want them to feel when they are reading a book it is a good time, a happy time, and that will stay with them.”

Daisy absolutely loves it, Bolger confirms. “Shelley will explain [to me] the reason she is getting a toy or a book and how to progress on it, so I watch Shelley do it and then I do the rest.”

Home visitors, who receive five days’ training initially, work with about five families each and they also meet as a group every Monday for ongoing training and supervision. Just 15 families participated in the scheme’s first year, in 2008, but that has risen to 120 this year and there is a waiting list.

Priority

Priority is given to families referred by public health nurses, while children whose parents left school before the Leaving Cert are next in the pecking order, although the bottom line, says Moore, is “if the child needs it, the child gets it”. But they work only with one child in the family, because the parents will then know how to do it with any younger ones.

As the economy improves, home visitors are working with more grandparents as they are the ones spending most time with the children if both parents are out working.

Daisy has cystic fibrosis and, for a time, her parents thought she might have to be home-schooled. However, she is so healthy they have been told there will be no problem with her going to school.

Moore is confident that by the time Daisy has finished the programme, she will be well ahead of the game.

“She is confident; she’s well able to speak and wants to talk. She is not afraid to make a mistake, because Mam is not correcting her every two minutes when she does make a mistake. She is thriving.”

Daisy’s little brother Ricco, who turned one in June, is also reaping the benefits – both through what his parents are learning, and his sister’s re-enactment with him of Moore’s visits to their home in Gallery Quay, beside the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

“She gets a handbag and puts her books into it and says ‘I’m Shelley’,” says Bolger, laughing. His first words were “brown bear”, from the title of the first book his sister was given on the programme.

Both Bolger and her partner, Noel Montgomery, agree that their daughter has come on hugely over the past year.

“Even himself,” says Montgomery of Ricco, who he usually takes out in the pushchair during the home visits, so there are no distractions.

Moore is always keen to stress to parents that the work they do between visits is what really makes the difference in the long run.

“Sandy is an absolutely fantastic mother: she allows Daisy to talk, she allows her to answer, and she does the same with Ricco now,” says Moore. “She has learned a lot from the programme. And Noel is brilliant: they are great parents, they really want the best for their children.”

Both parents are from Pearse Street, although Bolger moved to the flats in Sheriff Street when she was 11, before returning to Pearse Street some years later. She did her Leaving Cert, but he left school at 15 and while neither of them went to college, they are hoping Daisy and Ricco will.

The essence of the Parent Child Home Programme is to ensure – maybe for the first time in three generations – that local children are really ready for school, explains Dr Josephine Bleach, the director of the ELI.

“The other element is, because they are starting on a level playing pitch, they will succeed the whole way up, to getting jobs here in the docklands.”

Aspirations into reality

Once the financial services moved in, the residents didn’t expect to be able to work in their own area any more, she says. But this has changed and the ELI wants to help parents turn their aspirations for their children into reality.

“When we started first we would have focused purely on getting them into college,” says Bleach of the 30-year outreach programme to which the National College of Ireland committed when it opened its new campus on Mayor Street in the IFSC in 2006. “It’s bigger than that now, because of all the corporates that have come in, and their influence. It’s about getting them high-quality, high-level jobs.

“We want them to be able to go down to Dublin Port, and any of the other big companies, to put in their application, have their qualifications and get them on a par with any other child from anywhere in the world,” she continues. “We don’t want them going in feeling they are second-class citizens.”

Indeed, companies such as Dublin Port, HSBC, Deloitte, McCann Fitzgerald and Facebook, that are supporting the ELI – which is also funded through the Government’s Area Based Childhood Programme – recognise that true integration is through education rather than token community events.

“All our corporate sponsors are people who think deeply and want sustainable change, and they want to see these kids back in there doing interviews,” she adds.

Training

Moore was among the first people in the area to be trained as home visitors at the end of 2007. She wears the smart uniform of mauve tunic top over navy trousers with pride and describes its introduction as the “best decision ever”.

“We’re noticeable in the community,” she explains. “People come over to us and they always say ‘Are you the book people?’ We have names and addresses [of interested families] on bookies’ dockets, pieces of paper, envelopes, and so on.”

The uniform is also professional, she says, “and we didn’t see ourselves as professional people when we first got those jobs”.

The original reason for bringing in uniforms was safety, explains Bleach, so that people would know who they were and where they were from. It indicated that they weren’t social workers, welfare officers or undercover detectives.

Growing up in Pearse Street, Moore says, “My dad’s whole family worked on the docks, and my dad worked on the boats, so we would be a typical family from around the area.

“I did my Leaving, but it wasn’t good. I had no aspirations for college.” Her perception was that it was people “who had a bit more money” who were encouraged to aim for college. “We came from ‘the flats’. But in fairness I don’t see that any more in schools.” And she certainly wants better for her own two sons, who are nine and 13.

“I want them to do the normal progression. We missed out on so much not being able to go to college at 18 or 19.”

Now she, along with programme coordinator Linda McGrath, is starting a degree in early childhood education at the National College of Ireland. “That is a huge step for us.”

There is plenty of research to show how difficult it is to close the gap between disadvantaged children and their more privileged peers as they progress through the education system. Indeed, a recent study on the outcomes of children in the free preschool year, led by Kieran McKeown, concludes that this is already apparent at preschool.

Among its findings, published in September’s Irish Educational Studies, were that children with more or better skills at the beginning of the study period tended to have more or better skills at the end, and vice versa, “indicating that the broad parameters of a child’s progress during the free preschool year have already been set by the child’s development during previous years”. It also found that child and family characteristics have the most influences on child outcomes, by comparison with the preschool system itself, with social class being the single biggest influence.

This is exactly why the ELI’s Parent Child Home Programme targets children two years before they are due to start the free preschool year, and shows parents how to do the groundwork to enable their children to thrive in the education system.

Among the under-threes there is a window of opportunity to develop their language, which will be the foundation for their future learning, says Bleach.

“By the time they’re three, they have to have the oral language, the thinking skills, cognition – all of that brain is in place and they are building on it” – to ensure they are not coming into school at a deficit.

Junior infants

The principal of St Laurence O’Toole Junior Boys’ School on Seville Place in the North Wall, Mary Moore, sees the impact of what she describes as “a wonderful programme” on the incoming junior infants.

“The children are far more ready than they ever were, they really are. In terms of language development and social skills, we can see that they are far ahead.

“With language development, you have to catch the children between one and a half and three and a half, she stresses, “because after that a lot of the [brain] connections have been already made and it is very hard then”.

The home visitors use a Child Behaviour Traits process in November, and then again in May, to assess children’s progress.

In May this year, 74 per cent of children on the second year of the programme were meeting their developmental milestones, compared with only 44 per cent the previous May.

Some 88 per cent showed an increase in positive verbal interaction and behaviour between November 2013 and May 2015.

Home visitor Michelle Moore says they are seeing more children with speech and language difficulties across the board. She presumes it’s because there is too much screen time for everybody.

“And not just among people who are disadvantaged,” interjects Bleach, who says the programme helps to sort out children who are having language problems due to not being talked to at home, as opposed to those with an underlying speech defect. Some have actually come off the waiting list for speech and language therapy as a result of participating in the programme.

The Parent Child Home Programme, which also operates in Finglas, in conjunction with the Travellers’ support group Pavee Point, is now expanding. The ELI is helping Garryown Community Development Committee to start it in Limerick, and Galway Education Centre to do the same in Ballinasloe. Meanwhile, McGrath is heading up the quays to co-ordinate its introduction by Grangegorman DIT.

It means the love of books is going to be fostered among many more children like Daisy who, the day we meet, is really more interested in leafing through the pages in front of her than looking at the camera to have her photograph taken.

The box of books is her “haven”, her mother says. “She can sit on the sofa for hours just looking at her books.”

swayman@irishtimes.com

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