Early school play is the key to a higher standard in young adults
Parents can now get a free year of nursery care for kids, but we need to raise the status of staff
For decades it was the poor relation of Irish education. In the public mind, the country's pre-school sector was regarded as little more than a glorified babysitting service.
Now there is growing awareness in education circles that good quality nursery schools can play a crucial role in raising standards right through the education system.
OECD surveys suggest that 15-year-old students who have attended pre-school education tend do better in Maths and literacy tests than those who did not, even allowing for different social backgrounds.
The recent Draft National Plan To Improve Literacy and Numeracy in Schools suggested that problems have to be addressed long before children arrive in school.
The national plan said: "Research has consistently shown that three- and four-year-olds who attend high quality pre-school are more successful in primary school and beyond -- both academically and socially.''
Calling for the upskilling of staff in the sector, the report said: "Children who are at risk of school failure are strongly influenced by the quality of early childhood education.''
Anne Looney, chief executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), said: "Since the new primary curriculum was implemented in 1999 there has been a great deal of research about early childhood education.
"This research not only underlines the importance of pre-school education, but it has also increased our understanding of the importance of play as a means of learning and developing social skills.''
She does not advocate attempting to turn extremely young children into mini- scholars, cramming them with information at the age of three.
Instead, she emphasises the importance of learning though hands-on experiences.
"There is growing agreement that play has a crucial role in children's early learning,'' said the NCCA chief executive.
"As well as improving pre-school provision, we need to incorporate play into the infants' years of primary school. There should be less emphasis on children sitting at desks with text books.''
The free pre-school year has boosted the numbers in pre-primary education. Now, there is a strong emphasis on improving the training of staff as well as attracting well qualified young people.
A recent Government report on upskilling the workforce in early childhood care high- lighted some of the problems.
It suggested that poor job conditions, low pay, the lack of clear career paths and the low status of the job, acted as a disincentive to those with a higher level of education.
"One of the problems caused by low pay is that there is a high turnover of staff,'' said Irene Gunning, chief executive of the Irish Pre-school Playgroups Association.
"A vital part of good pre-school care is giving children an opportunity to build stable relationships.
"If staff do not stay for long in their jobs it is hard to have the consistency that children need.''
Others working in pre-school care say pre-school services are commonly run under community employment schemes. As a result the staff can be transient.
Anne Looney of the NCCA said the pre-school sector would have to strike a balance while it moves to professionalise its services.
"There should be well- qualified staff working in early childhood education, but many playgroups grew out of informal community groups.
"In the rush to professionalise the services we should not put off people by insisting that everyone should have high qualifications.''
In recent years the National College of Ireland in Dublin has been involved in a project aimed at improving the prospects of children in the disadavantaged areas close to Dublin's docklands.
The Early Learning Initiative aims to help parents, childcare workers and teachers to boost the learning prospects for children, particularly from birth to the age of six.
One of its key roles is in the professional development of childcare workers.
The staff at community crèches receive training at workshops run by the Early Learning Initiative.
The project emphasises the importance of involving parents in the education of their children. This is now seen by many education researchers as the key to raising standards.
Aoife O'Gorman , who works with the initiative, said: "We want to show that pre-school education is not just a babysitting service. The main focus has been on helping parents and early childhood and education practitioners to develop children's social, language and thinking skills from an early age and to ensure that children enter school ready to learn.''
The Children's Research Centre at Trinity College has recently carried out an evaluation of the Early Learning Initiative's work in upskilling local childcare.
Its report, due to be launched by the Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald later this month, is expected to be positive about the project.
Trinity College researcher Dr Michelle Share: "Overall it is a positive programme, particularly when it comes to upskilling staff. Those working in the centres are now more professionally-minded.
"The next stage of improvement is to get parents more involved in their children's education, both in the childcare centres and at home.''
As part of the Early Learning Initiative, instructors go to the homes of 60 families, helping out with language and reading skills.
Wearing a distinctive uniform, the home visitors are all local people, who have trained to deliver the programme.
The home visitors acts as ambassadors for the Early Learning initiative.
Aoife O'Gorman said: "They have created a ripple effect throughout the community, with more and more people appreciating and understanding the importance of education.''