Preprimary & Primary Education
Irish children tend to start school at a younger age than do other world children. Both junior and senior infant classes are the equivalent of preschool classes in most other countries. Ninety-five percent of all five- to six-year-olds are in senior infant classes, and 59 percent of four- to five-year-olds are in junior infant classes. Provision in national schools for children aged four and five is an integral part of the regular school system.
Children in infants' classes follow a prescribed curriculum that was introduced in September of 1999. Teachers are trained national school teachers; however, parents and media critics are loud in their denunciation of the preprimary school program and what is perceived as less-than-strong interest on the part of the state in this area. Eleven major reports from 1980 to 2000 have criticized the preschool program. According to the latest figures (1998), slightly more than one percent of three-yearolds in Ireland were in school full-time.
The Department of Education, in addition to regular classes offered mainly at private preprimary schools, also sponsors an Early Start Preschool pilot program, a program for children with disabilities, and the Breaking the Cycle pilot project for at-risk children.
Children are not legally mandated to attend school until their sixth birthday. Nonetheless, nearly 100 percent of five-year-olds and 52 percent of four-year-olds attend primary schools. Four-year-old girls are four to five percentage points more likely to be in primary school than are boys. Primary schools have expenses for the site and 15 percent of the capital costs paid by local communities. The state pays 85 percent of capital costs, plus an additional 10 percent in areas designated to be disadvantaged.
The Department of Education pays the salary of teachers. Schools are given a grant for a portion of expenses such as lighting, heating, cleaning, maintenance, and teaching materials.
At this level, Ireland's educators have been asked to increased emphasis on active learning and problem solving in their classrooms. Parent satisfaction with primary schools has generally been high. However, the Irish National Teachers Organization in 1994 conducted a study of six comparable schools in Limerick and Derry, finding wide differences in school funding between the two jurisdictions. Primary schools in the Republic of Ireland were said to be "under-funded and under-resourced" compared to Northern Ireland schools. The Republic of Ireland also displayed higher pupil-teacher ratios than their counterparts in Northern Ireland. The findings created considerable concern in Ireland, and led to cries for curriculum reform and additional government funding.
Six years later, a curriculum reform committee and consultants had addressed most of the major weaknesses in the primary system. A new primary curriculum was approved by the Minister of Education and introduced by the Department of Education in 1999-2000 to 3,000 primary schools for the first time since 1971, but some of the courses such as a social, environmental, and science course were delayed until 2002. Initial reaction to the curriculum was positive from both an important teachers union and the National Parents Council, both of which were involved in curriculum discussion.
More than 10 years in the writing, the new curriculum attempted to address low rankings in science among Irish students who had earned schools the criticism of media writers and parents. The curriculum emphasizes child-centered learning with skills development. Math (with an emphasis on problem solving), history, and geography were also given emphasis, according to The Times Educational Supplement. Science; educational drama; and social, personal, and health education were added to the new curriculum.
The changes were implemented by 21,000 primary school teachers to their 460,000 pupils. The curriculum was broken into 6 main areas and then subdivided into 11 subjects. Other important aspects include a revised Irish curriculum "based on a communicative approach;" a new English syllabus; and updated educational methods in language learning, reading, and writing.
In the Republic of Ireland, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), although not a statutory body, takes an advisory role to assist with the formation of a new curriculum. The NCCA consulted with course committees for each subject before sending a recommended curriculum to the Department of Education.
Textbooks: With the adoption of the new curriculum, educators and administrators have also discussed what they perceive has been an over-dependence on textbooks in the primary school curriculum. Educators say that too many teachers allow textbooks to drive their classes rather than using them as a resource in moderation.
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