In education, the three Cs come before the three Rs
A pre-school shows how Aistear curriculum for under-sevens lays the foundations for learning
We are well used to the concept of the three "Rs" in education. Allowing for some licence with spelling, they stand for reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic.
But laying the foundation for those basic elements of the primary school curriculum, are the three "Cs": confidence, competence and creativity.
The three words crop up a lot in conversation with Mark Shinnick, principal of Rutland pre-school in Dublin's north inner city, as he explains the role and importance of early childhood education.
His school for three to five-year-olds has adopted the early childhood curriculum framework called Aistear, to guide teaching for their six class groups. At the heart of Aistear is learning based on play and child-centred activities.
"Aistear is all about, and it is our aim to have, competent and confident and also creative learners; we want them to be creative because that will help them in their adulthood as well," says Mark Shinnick.
Early childhood education has been very much the Cinderella of the system. Pre-schools exist under a variety of names such as creche, nursery, naonrai, playschool and Montessori. While Montessoris have an in-built educational content, elsewhere the offering varies.
That is about to start changing as Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan makes early childhood education a policy priority.
The minister's announcements to date include a review of training courses for staff working in this field as well as the recruitment of inspectors to support pre-schools in delivering quality educational content. Up to now pre-school inspections have focussed on health and safety issues.
There is universal acceptance that early childhood education provides a strong start to learning, the positive consequences of
which can be measured later in children's educational experiences.
Ireland has lagged behind other countries, and a recent report from the international think-tank, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) shows that the country ranks 16th out of 30 in terms of State spend on early childhood education. Although there is no requirement on pre-schools to follow any educational programme, Aistear was published by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) some years ago to guide not only pre-schools, but also primary schools in providing a learning structure for under-sevens.
Rutland pre-school, now part of the Lourdes Parish Schools complex in Sean MacDermott Street, was set up as the Rutland Street project in 1969, an early years intervention programme for three to five-year-olds to focus on developing strategies to prevent school drop-out.
It has embraced Aistear and some 45 years on, it is a beacon for learning, with 96 local children enrolled, across two-year groups. They could take more but a classroom is closed because of lack of funding, while resources they previously had for children with special needs were withdrawn because they were a pre-school, not a primary school.
"We try to include them as much as we can sometimes it is disquietening when we are not able to respond to all of their needs," says Mark Shinnick.
While pre-school education plays an important role in minimising disadvantage, it benefits all children.
The Aistear influence is evident in the Rutland classrooms, a sand tray in one corner, a water tray in another, a dedicated "home corner" that can be turned, for instance, into a shop one day or a hospital the next to create a setting for learning activities, based on children's real-life experiences.
One of the teachers, Judy Evans, who also acts as a tutor for the Aistear curriculum, explains: "Children learn through active learning so they have to be involved in an experience and in planning those experiences."
On a recent visit, the "corner" in her classroom has a holiday theme. "Children's learning has to be within a meaningful context, be something that they can relate to. Lots of them have been on holidays recently and have ideas about swimming pools, hotels, airplanes; we want to tap into that," she says. Children are invited to write and, at these ages, it may be no more than a mark, but for the child it has meaning.
During the mid-morning break in the playground that incorporates a sensory garden developed with the help of the Airfield Trust, a list system is used to decide whose turn it is to get on a bike. "It helps develop their literacy in a context they understand," says Judy Evans.
Mark Shinnick says that junior infant teachers know the children who have come from Rutland. "They are used to structure and are eager to learn.The foundations are laid".
Rutland is among the projects that will be showcased at the Teaching Council's annual Feilte Festival of Education in Learning and Teaching Excellence on Saturday, to mark World Teachers' Day.