Northern Ireland

Invest in early educational experiences to ensure all children are given best start in life

The CCMS report into nursery provision highlights a dedicated and professional workforce
The CCMS report into nursery provision highlights a dedicated and professional workforce The CCMS report into nursery provision highlights a dedicated and professional workforce

THE Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) values the important contribution made by pre-school education in giving our children the best start in life, writes Gerry Campbell.


Whilst pre-school education is non-denominational, the values of Catholic education are reflected in the ethos of our nursery provision, which recognises the uniqueness of each child and aims to develop their full potential.

A newly-published report was written as a result of engagement events with Catholic maintained school leaders in 2018, but the messages and recommendations are even more relevant today as research has shown clearly that children have been impacted significantly by the pandemic.

They have experienced fear, uncertainties and social isolation and have missed valuable pre-school experiences for prolonged periods.

Poverty, resulting in children coming to school hungry and unable to concentrate, often suffering from low self-esteem, has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

CCMS believes that, as we emerge from the challenges of dealing with the impact of Covid-19, high quality pre-school provision and access to a wider range of services and support mechanisms will be essential in the recovery of our youngest children.

Recent Northern Ireland specific research, undertaken by Save the Children, has shown that children who attend high quality provision enjoy a broad range of benefits which in turn improves their performance in school and can lead to better economic and social outcomes in later life. By the time a child begins their pre-school education there can already be a gap of as much as 19 months.

The CCMS report into nursery provision highlights a dedicated and professional workforce committed to providing high quality learning experiences and to supporting children and their families.

Engagement with parents/carers, through a range of workshops and interventions, is often provided without additional funding.

A survey of nursery principals and teachers in the Catholic maintained sector revealed that many children are beginning their pre-school year with a range of challenges including speech and language and social and emotional needs.

The nursery leaders reported that, with a ratio of one adult to 13 children, a lack of non-contact time and difficulty accessing outside support, it is very challenging to support the needs of all children.

CCMS recognises the vital role that nursery schools and units play in children's development and learning as, in many cases, they are the first formal educators of pupils experiencing adverse childhood experiences.

The research clearly indicates that timely, supportive interventions must take place in the lives of the young people, and indeed their parents, in order to diminish the negative effects of trauma and hardship. This report demonstrates that staff within the nursery sector are already focussed on supporting children and their care givers through a wide range of tried and tested interventions. This hard work and effort needs to be recognised, supported and encouraged by policy and proper investment.

CCMS is making a number of key recommendations:

:: A review of the common funding scheme, including the common funding formula. Further investment in the nursery sector would allow for a more equal and consistent approach to appropriately funded and resourced support interventions and programmes for all children and their parents and enable staff to provide high quality teaching and learning within a manageable workload.

:: Investment in the workforce to: increase the ratio of adult to pupil; provide for development of support programmes for additional needs and parenting workshops; permit tailored programmes of continuing professional development and an allocation of funding to allow for principal release time for the delivery of strategic and administrative tasks.

:: A review of the special educational needs process for nursery children to enable them to access appropriate support prior to the formal processes of gaining a statement of need.

:: Establishment of area learning clusters to ensure high quality collaborative opportunities for all staff and disseminate best practice beyond social boundaries and between nursery schools and units.

:: Establishment of more effective and more formal lines of communication between nursery settings and the health service, Sure Start and other pre-school providers to ensure important information is recorded and shared at key times enabling a smooth transition in a child's educational journey.

All initiatives intended to give children the best start in life should be planned and supported across government departments as outlined in the Children and Young People's Strategy and through full implementation of the Children's Cooperation Act.

CCMS council believes that investing in early educational experiences helps to ensure all children and young people are given the best start in life. It welcomes the ongoing work by the Department of Education on addressing the issues raised by nursery principals and the current review of special educational needs provision by the Education Authority.

CCMS will continue to work with our nursery providers and our partners in the education sector to ensure the best possible preschool experiences for all children.

:: Gerry Campbell is CCMS Chief Executive.