Regina Bushell still remembers having to be brought in "kicking and screaming" on her first day at primary school, just a few weeks after her fourth birthday.
But it’s highly unlikely there will be such trauma for children who have attended any of the five Grovelands Childcare centres she operates in the midlands when they take their places in “big school” this autumn.
"We make sure the child is confident and independent, to manage that transition from pre-school to primary," says Bushell, who is chairwoman of Seas Suas, which lobbies on behalf of early education and childcare providers.
With more than 95 per cent of children being enrolled for the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme, the first day of school is no longer the one big leap out of the home it once was. Today’s junior infants are, generally, a more confident, competent and socially adjusted bunch of inquisitive learners. They are also likely to be that bit older, thanks to ECCE, the length of which is being doubled from one to two years from this September, with children eligible from the age of two years and eight months.
Indeed, the question being asked in the early childhood education sector now is not are the children ready for school, but are the schools ready for these children, in all their diversity, says Frances Byrne, director of policy and advocacy at Early Childhood Ireland. While the play-based Aistear curriculum framework that is designed to provide challenging and enjoyable learning for children aged 0-6 straddles both pre-school and primary school, Department of Education inspectors have observed that children experience this approach less frequently as they progress through junior and senior infants.
The sense that most children now settle happily into primary school was backed up by new research published earlier this summer. The Economic and Social Research Institute study, commissioned by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, reports that the vast majority of five-year-olds are positive about school, look forward to going to school and say good things about school.
5% of five-year-olds regularly complain or are upset about school
The research, conducted by Prof Emer Smyth and drawing on data collected for the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal study, finds only about 5 per cent of five-year-olds regularly complain or are upset about school. However, it also shows that children start school with different skills and capacities and some children face greater challenges.
Those more likely to have problems are children with additional needs, those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and boys in general. While the inclusion of the first two categories would seem to be self-explanatory, the reason for the gender bias is that boys tend to have poorer communication skills than girls at that age, which may act as a barrier to building good relationships with teachers and classmates
Smyth concludes that these findings indicate the need to develop supports for children to enhance the transition to primary education.
Of course, that transition is not just a matter of walking into the school on the first day. It is a process that starts way earlier, in pre-school and at home with parents, and continues for weeks and months into the first school year, points out Áine Lynch, chief executive of the National Parents' Council (Primary). "Children will go through that process at different rates and that is okay," she says. "A lot of children are very ready for this. It is not a big hurdle in their life."
However, what might appear to be an easy transition at the beginning may throw up issues farther down the line. “There can be a lot of positive attention in the early days and, when that wears off, that’s when difficulties can occur.”
The NPC, which earlier this year expanded into the early years sector, ran information sessions in every county in June on this transition.
“Some parents are just very anxious about their child starting school,” Lynch says. “I think the session in terms of the information we could bring was useful to them but also just being with other parents was maybe as much use – knowing the worries they had, other parents had, and it wasn’t that unusual to feel like that.”
Bushell also sees an important role for early education centres in building links with local primary schools and supporting parents who may be unsure of what lies ahead. Among the things they need to be aware of is that their child may “regress a little bit” at the start and also that school finishes early for infants for the first couple of weeks.
The routine in primary school can be quite a change from pre-school in regards to things such as going to the toilet, lunch breaks and playground time, says the director of operations at Grovelands, Deirdre Frampton-Bushell. It will help if children are prepared to know what’s coming.
She also says that just because a child is confident in pre-school “doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to run in the door of their new school”. Parents may underestimate the effects the move can have.
Among the measures Smyth suggests for helping children adjust to this new stage of education is the transfer of information about an individual’s skills and challenges from pre-school to primary school. While there is a formal process to do this for all children with identified additional needs, for other children it may happen informally, or not at all.
However, this autumn the NCCA is due to produce templates of something similar to the “education passports” that are now mandatory when children transfer from primary to secondary level. The council, which is currently working on a redevelopment of the primary school curriculum, is intent on strengthening the relationship between the pre-school years and the early years in primary school.
Lynch hopes this transfer documentation would include information from parents and the child as well as the pre-school.
‘The child’s voice’
“Everybody sees a child from a different perspective and all those perspectives are equally important, particularly the child’s voice in that. A very young child can still very clearly articulate what they like.
“Sometimes we think we know what children like and dislike and then when we ask them, we are kind of quite surprised in what they tell us,” she adds.
There is much talk of “school readiness” but what does it mean? Parents, early years educationalists and primary school teachers can interpret it differently.
Two years ago, inspectors from the Department of Education started visiting pre-schools to assess implementation of the ECCE programme. "One issue that came to the fore early on for us as we observed practice in these settings was the pressures that settings felt to 'prepare children for school'," the Department's chief inspector, Harold Hislop, told a seminar on transitions across early years education, organised by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation and Early Childhood Ireland in June.
Some practitioners said they felt this pressure from the expectations they believed parents, primary schools and inspectors had of them, he continued. They thought, rightly or wrongly, that in the competitive commercial world in which they operated, parents believed that a mark of excellence would be when early years children had “learned their letters” or begun reading before they went to “real school”.
Teachers rate children being able to manage personal care and to communicate their needs and thoughts as the two most important competencies for starting school
Ironically, Hislop remarked, Smyth’s research shows the majority of teachers in primary schools do not hold these views. Instead they rate children being able to manage personal care and to communicate their needs and thoughts as the two most important competencies for starting school.
The majority of teachers (71 per cent and 65 per cent respectively) deem it “not important” or “not very important” that children can count to 20 or more or know most letters of the alphabet. However, more than one-fifth do see these skills as “somewhat important”.
Valerie Gaynor, manager of Creative Kids & Co in Walkinstown, Dublin, says she hates the term "school readiness" and prefers to use "ready for learning" or "life readiness".
Nor does she see “transition” as preparing children for primary school, but rather a matter of preparing them for changes that happen throughout their life. “It’s more than looking at an education system – it’s more looking at the holistic child.”
The social and emotional aspects are the most important. “I don’t really care how many numbers a child can read or write – can they be with other children and can they be without you [the parent]? Can they use the toilet properly and can they put their own coat on?
“We have four-year-olds who will stand waiting for you to put their coat on because everything is being done for them. The parents, with the best will in the world, think they are looking after them so well but they’re not actually teaching them these really important skills,” she explains.
They also need the social skills to know how to be in a group, how to share and take turns, how to react if they don’t get their own way. “If somebody takes a toy off you, what do you do?”
While Gaynor welcomes the idea of a “passport”, she stresses that “it’s really important that each child has their own voice going with them” and wonders if the forthcoming template will capture that. She also questions where primary-school teachers are going to get the time to review the information “and how relevant is it going to be considering that we break up for the summer – two months is a long time in a four-year-old’s life?”.
In Walkinstown’s Creative Kids & Co there are usually about 70 children going on to primary school. However, this year it is just 45 moving as the rest are staying for a second year of ECCE.
Nearly a quarter of those moving on are four-year-olds who have done only one year of ECCE. This can be down to childcare considerations, Gaynor says, because instead of 2½ hours daily of ECCE, they will be in school for more than four hours and then there is the option of after-school care there.
Creative Kids & Co shares premises with Assumption Primary School, to which most of the pre-schoolers progress. So at least "they have the environment conquered", Gaynor remarks. "It is a huge advantage to the children."
For those children lucky enough to have enjoyed an outdoor pre-school, an indoor classroom is a significant change of environment. Irene Teeling, who runs the Natural Start outdoor playschool near Swords, Co Dublin, agrees "it will be a change but I think they are ready for it". The children are older and now, with the second pre-school year, a lot of them will be 5½, she points out, "which is very different to having just gone four".
How does she define school readiness? “Being resilient – in a word,” she replies. “Instead of preparing them for the exact issues they are going to face in primary school, we just try to generally build their resilience.”
Outdoor early education is proven to be beneficial for building up children’s ability to recover from little challenges and to solve problems.
“We obviously do things to help them manage their stress and feelings of anxiety. We try to build their coping mechanisms.”
Teeling believes resilience is the most important thing that will determine their success, not just in their transition to primary school but in life.
What parents can do
With just a weeks to go before the “Class of 2026” start their eight-year journey through primary school, what can parents do now that might help with the transition?
- Don't talk incessantly about "starting big school", as that may increase anxiety – or build it up so much that it will be an anti-climax when the time comes.
- Do answer any questions as they arise.
- Read stories to them about children starting school.
- Walk or drive by the school a few times and maybe take a stroll around the yard when it's empty, if accessible.
- Try to ensure they can recognise their name labels, so they can be confident in identifying their lunchbox, school bag and jacket among lots of others.
- Make sure they can deal with zips etc on their uniform or own clothes for toileting.
- Have a few practice runs with opening and closing the lunch box and water bottle and putting them away in the school bag.
- Play "school" at home to explore some scenarios they may face.
- Let your child have fun trying on the uniform.
- Plan what the home routine will be like after the summer break and make sure you know how long it will take to travel to the school on the first day.
- Recognise any anxieties you may have as parents and don't project these onto your child.