Pre-school plan is a leap into unknown if issues unresolved
Published 18/10/2015 | 02:30
'No way am I holding my child back from starting school!" was a recent response from a parent when I suggested that perhaps her child, who had just turned four, could benefit from another year in pre-school before starting primary school, due to the child's young age and speech difficulties.
I can understand her firm response, as my suggestion may have been dashing her hopes of her child beginning in "big school" this September. I am a mother too and also have hopes and dreams for my children. What a professional suggests does not always fare well with parents, even though we offer suggestions with the best intentions for the children we are delivering a service to. At the same time, I could not help but think back to what a junior infants teacher had once said to me: "We are not a babysitting service." This referred to her frustration at having to manage a classroom of 30-plus children, some of whom were clearly not yet ready, but whom the parents had decided to send anyway, often due to their lack of finances to enrol them for another pre-school year.
In my communication with teachers, having children who have barely turned four can pose a real challenge for them as they are trying to teach a curriculum to a large classroom of children, all with different needs. Apart from their lack of maturity, some children have additional difficulties related to speech, learning, and behavioural or emotional issues. Some may lack basic self-care skills such as putting on their own coat and going to the toilet independently.
Up to now, parents, particularly disadvantaged parents, were pushed into a situation where they had to send their four-year-olds to school as they had already availed of the free pre-school year, which seemed like a double disadvantage as those children were more likely to fall behind in such a big class, both academically and socially with peers.
Since the first Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme was introduced in January 2010, there has been a lot of debate about the merits of extending the scheme to two years, with mixed opinion.
When this decision was delivered this week in Budget 2016, my first reaction was one of relief for myself personally as a mother of two young children, one of whom would be entitled to the extra year. I felt that this was a positive move for Irish children today and for their future outcomes. In conversations with colleagues, the common reaction was one of hope for the families we work with who have endured many cuts and have been struggling to make ends meet over the past number of years, many choosing to send their children to school at the earliest opportunity due to the high cost of childcare.
I reasoned that adding an extra free pre-school year would afford parents the all-important option of sending their children to primary school when they are actually ready, particularly the children I work with who have these additional needs.
The first five years of a child's life are a critical time in their brain development, which forms the psychological foundation for later life. In order to nurture this critical time in their development, we must consider the quality of the childcare which is being offered, which will have a direct impact on our children's daily experiences and on their overall development. My initial positive reaction to the extension of the ECCE scheme was short-lived when I scratched the surface a bit and found a different story underneath, which sobered my view of the whole issue.
Children's Minister James Reilly referred to the move as a "step in the right direction", but as Teresa Heeney, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland (ECI), recently commented, "making the investment is only one step but delivering on the investment is something different".
In advance of a mass protest held by thousands of childcare workers in February 2014 over demands that they continually upskill while operating on minimal pay, Ms Heeney pleaded that the extension of the ECCE scheme could not happen until the Government "got the first year right".
Reference was made to the lack of investment by the Government for capitation rates, holiday pay, pay for non-contact time and in childcare workers' professional development, none of which at first glance have been addressed by Budget 2016.
So whilst in principle the idea of an extra free pre-school year is "a step in the right direction", we may be taking a leap into the unknown without first addressing the outstanding issues.
In the best interests of our children, I wonder would it be wiser to iron out the problems rather than taking the risk of doubling them and further reducing the morale of childcare workers. Children are our future and we need to invest in them and their carers as no one "can pour from an empty cup". The jury is out on whether this decision will pay off for our children in the long run. I sincerely hope it does.
Doctor Malie Coyne is a clinical child psychologist and a mother of two.