Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The education system in N.Ireland

I am very conscious that when I am talking about 'my school' most people don't know much of anything about the education system in Northern Ireland where I teach. Like most things about N.I it is complicated & if you are as confused at the end as you were before, then I have done my job correctly!
Stormont, N.I Parliament Building.
N.I is under British rule but at present we have our own government that sits in Stormont, outside Belfast, so have our own Department of Education (DENI) & Minister for Education.
Traditionally there have always been 2 main communities in N.Ireland - Protestants & Catholics - and so these each have their own education sectors; The Controlled and Maintained sectors. All schools up until the early 1980's fell into one of these 2 categories & it was quite usual (and still is today) for someone to be educated just within their 'own' community. The teacher training colleges were also separate so many teachers have not only attended religiously segregated schools but also university before going back to teach in one of the 2 sectors upon graduation.
However at the height of the conflict in N.I. groups of parents came together to establish schools that were neither controlled or maintained and therefore neither Protestant or Catholic. The ethos of these integrated schools was to be Christian. These new schools came under the wing of an organisation called Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education or NICIE.
Originally all these schools were self-funding however since 1989 DENI funds all established integrated schools the same as the other 2 sectors.
In recent years Irish Language schools have also been established. 
Windmill was established in 1988
I teach within the integrated sector, the photo above is of the new school building we moved into in 2006. Children attend our school from the age of 3 until 11, then they move onto the secondary level.
The preschool system is also not straightforward - there are 3 different types of settings and a child is entitled to a free preschool place for one year before starting formal learning at the age of 4. This free place is for 5 days a week and can range from 12.5 hours to 25 a week. As I said there are 3 types; statutory, voluntary & private. (Even within the former there are 2 types - a stand alone nursery school with a teaching principal and a unit within a primary school.) There are only teachers in the statutory sector working with an assistant in classes of 26 children. Many leaders and assistants in the voluntary sector are educated to degree standard but do not have a teaching qualification. the staff/child ratio is lower in the voluntary sector. The private sector is usually daycare or creches run as a business.
As a nursery teacher I am also qualified to teach other age groups - I do sometimes have to remind primary colleagues that 'yes I am a qualified teacher, and no I don't just play all day'. I am also paid the same as my colleagues who teach in the primary & secondary settings. This is not the case in other countries as I have come to realise and for this I am grateful. However, sometimes I do wonder if  it would be better to be paid a little less and have an another assistant? 
Children attend preschool the year they turn 4 on or after the 2nd of July. This means you can have a child who is 3 and 2 months in the same class as a child who is 4 and 2 months. They do not have to attend but most parents choose to take up their free place and in recent years there has been a shortage of places for those who want to attend.  
As an integrated school we have children attending from the 2 main communities - in fact the school must have an equal percentage of each 40% with 20% left for 'others'. Originally intended for people of other faiths but now more recently these 'other' places are taken up by children whose parents do not wish them to be labelled as being either Protestant or Catholic. Staff and management are also drawn from the 2 different backgrounds. 

Traditionally controlled schools would reflect a British identity and the maintained an Irish one. As an integrated school we can reflect both. We teach our children to respect both communities and their flags and sports teams. We can celebrate the Queen's Jubilee and a win for the local GAA football team.
The Queen
Tyrone winning an All-Ireland
One thing an integrated school is not is 'neutral', some parents think that their child will taught no religion or hear no talk of cultural identity, but this is not the case. The chair of our Board of Governors stresses at new parent induction evenings that if they want a neutral space they need to look elsewhere. Instead it is hoped that those who attend and work in integrated schools will have a better understanding of the 'other' community and be less likely to feel threatened or intimidated by them. I am proud of my Irish heritage but more importantly I hope I am making a difference in the lives of the citizens of the world of tomorrow.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Settings around Europe

The beautiful kindergarten setting in Eikefjord, Norway
The children go on regular walks around the village
Cooking around a fire is a regular activity
Over the past 7 years I have been lucky enough to have had the chance to visit preschool settings in a variety of different European countries. This was all through the brilliant Comenius Programme funded by the British Council. Most of my visits were through the School Partnership Programme but one was through their job shadowing scheme & this afforded me the chance to work in a Norwegian Kindergarten for a week in 2008, you can read a little about that experience here.
The staff in Norway were bemused at how involved I got in the play - they laughed at me sitting in the middle of the sand pit with the children. I suppose I started to realise that as a teacher you don't have to be in the middle all the time for learning to be taking place - it is hard to step back & not 'be in charge' all the time.
I have visited Poland, Italy, Norway, Sweden & France and guess what everywhere is totally different in their outlook, set up, resourcing, routines etc. but the children are always the same! It didn't matter that I didn't speak any of those languages, little children don't really care or worry whether you understand them or not, they just want to show you their toys, paintings, how fast they can run etc.
Nursery class in Arcola, Italy

Norwegian, Polish & Irish friendships forged in Arcola
I was most drawn to the Scandinavian settings if I am honest & they have probably had the most influence on my own teaching - especially my outdoor play approach - but I did gain different insights from the others too.
Nursery in Helsingborg, Sweden
Natural outdoor play spaces, Sweden

I loved the relaxed meal times in Arcola in Italy and Confolens in France, it was a real social experience. Children & staff take time to enjoy food & each others company. I really felt the dedication of the staff in the kindergarten in Lodz, Poland. They work long hours for very little money but are so passionate & informed about their work. They had lots of  plants in their classrooms & I have tried to recreate that in my own.
Kindergarten in Lodz
I speak no Polish, they speak no English - it doesn't matter
All the partners together in Poland
I found the structure just too much in the Polish kindergartens, the children were time-tabled for every minute of the day but then some of them were 7 at that stage. Now they go to school at 6. The laid back nature of the Norwegians was not possible here - where parents objected to their children going outside on cold days, never mind wet ones.
Nursery in Confolens, France
We always bring a bear or 2 with us to break the ice!
One major thing I learned from the visits - I am very well resourced and have no right to be complaining. Settings in mainland Europe tend to be under funded, I was shocked sometimes at how little they had compared to us. They really have to make do with using nearly all home made resources and outdoor play is not a big aspect of the preschool day.
I have made life-long friendships over the past 7 years and have even been back to stay with one of my Norwegian colleagues for a family holiday. It is always refreshing to meet like-minded people in different countries and the bond is instant.
This Autumn I am off to Turkey to meet up with new colleagues from Poland, Greece, Spain and Romania, this will present a whole new experience of preschool settings and I look forward to learning more new things to refresh my teaching approach & to making some more new friends.

Monday, 15 August 2011

A little bit of heaven in the middle of a busy city - Part 2

As I wrote in my previous post I was lucky to get the chance to visit Cowgate Under 5's Centre in Edinburgh. The first thing that hits you when you enter is the smell of fresh bread - they bake it everyday with the children for their snack.
Each of the 3 rooms has a kitchen area where the bread is baked
This is a local authority run children's centre or creche. However it is unlike any one I have ever seen in N. Ireland. The ethos of the place can be read about here.
I was most interested to see how their outdoor space worked as it was this area that had caught my eye in other blogs. Unfortunately it was very wet the day I visited, so the children were still inside drying off after their journey to the centre. However I did get to take some pictures & pick Lian's brain about how the area had changed over the 10 years they had been on the site. Initially, she explained it had been a concrete space with wooden climbing frames that had to be taken in & out everyday. (Anyone who worked in a nursery setting over 10 years ago knows the ones I mean!) Lian showed me photo of the old space so I could see the difference. What struck me most was that what they have achieved at Cowgate is possible for any setting, it hasn't had a load of money thrown at the space to buy fancy resources. They have built up interesting areas over the 10 years, with clever use of plants, tyres and small wooden structures. There is safety surface underneath the sand pit area where the wooden A-Frame climbing structures used to be placed - but how much more fun must it be to slide down into the sand. There is also a water pump nearby so the children can make wet sand too.
Usually when I see photos of other places I always think 'that's fab but I couldn't achieve that in my playground' but not this time, I really think that I could help to transform our play area into a softer more inviting space like this one. There is no way that any child will ever run aimlessly around in this space. To learn even more about this wonderful place check out Juliet Robertson's piece here.
I would now love to get a chance to visit here with the other staff from my class so we could all experience the calm atmosphere in Cowgate.
I have also been inspired by Teacher Tom, who when he moved into new premises created the most amazing outdoor area in a matter of days! It can be done - so watch this space to see how our outdoor area develops......

Sunday, 14 August 2011

A little bit of heaven in the middle of a busy city - part 1

The outdoor play area

I am relatively new to the whole concept of blogging - 8 months is nothing - one of the first people I ever came across has now been posting away for 3 years!! Juliet Robertson first mentioned the wonderful Cowgate Under 5's Centre in this post and I was immediately drawn to their outdoor area, as it seemed to be around the same size as my own playground but oh my goodness what they had achieved in a concrete space was amazing.
Fast forward a few months & I was heading to Edinburgh for a week for my holidays to take in the Fringe. I decided to contact Cowgate & see if I could go along for a visit (Juliet, again had a hand in this, as she had just posted a new note on Cowgate & reminded of it). I was delighted when Manager, Lynn McNair passed my request onto Lian Frizell and hey presto I was going to visit for myself.
The centre is off the Royal Mile in the centre of Edinburgh - it is also where the festival box office is sited so it is a very busy little passage way to make your way down. I went for a little recce the day before & the thing that alerted me to the centre was the giggles that I could hear from over the fence. 

I was so excited to visit the next morning & Lian made me so welcome from the start. The whole ethos of the centre is so calm & relaxed. I have been lucky to visit early years settings in Sweden & Norway & this Scottish setting feels very like it should be in Scandinavia. I was struck by the respect that exists between staff & parents and staff & children. I was so happy to see that parents are encouraged to stay with their children as long as necessary, they even have a parents room in the centre. This is a lovely space where parents can go to while their child explores the setting, it means they are close to hand if they are needed.
I was buzzing with ideas after visiting here & would love for all those who work with me to get a chance to see it too. What struck me most was the atmosphere - calm, relaxed and quiet. I love my job but there are days when I am frazzled by 26 children & only 2 adults, I do find myself having to rush children through their stories or activities and I don't like it. I cannot imagine this happens very often, if ever, at Cowgate. I need to reassess how my class works & why we do things a certain way. There is a lot of trust between the children & the staff at Cowgate. An adult is not always watching each & every child, they are trusted to be on their own in an area. I also saw this in the Mindstretchers nature kindergarten in Auchlone, perhaps it is a Scottish thing? I also saw this in Norway where the teachers didn't feel they had to be in 'instructional mode' all the time - they allowed the children to be responsible for their own actions. In the area in the photos below the children are free to play unsupervised and move from room to room.

I start back to school in 2 weeks and I hope that I can bring a little bit of Cowgate's atmosphere to my class as I would love to provide such a calm, happy and relaxing learning space.