Childhood futures in Dublin’s fair city

July 4th 2011

This week I went to visit Dara Hogan at Fledglings Nurseries, part of An Cosán, a community organisation and charity in Tallaght, Co Dublin.  I was accompanied by Heather Fernandez, our lead Research Associate on social franchising, scaling and replication, with Middlesex University.

The term franchising freaks many people out because they associate it with aggressive, profit-focused commercial growth like McDonalds. Instead, I like the opportunity it presents as a business model with the potential to help replicate good, socially enterprising nurseries across the UK.  In doing so, many more children would benefit, more quickly and effectively, and greater strides could be taken toward eradicating child poverty; hence our research.

It is also the shared view of Dara Hogan who I met on a Scaling Up programme run by the School of Social Entrepreneurs in January this year.  He has set up five nurseries in this deprived part of Dublin, on the basis that good quality Early Years can help mitigate some of the worst aspects of social deprivation and potential educational failure.   Like me, he thinks franchising may be a good model to speed up the dissemination of good nurseries and touch the lives of many more children, and so he is in the process of growing the nursery group.

The Irish are renowned for their friendliness and hospitality and this was very evident during our visit.  We were taxied around Dublin by Denis, who gave us a guide to each locality and pointed out a range of areas of interest from a political and social perspective.  He could compete with London’s best Black Cab drivers with his knowledge of heritage sites in central Dublin.

Our programme of visits was wide and varied, but each person gave generously of their time and engaged in a way that made us feel we had something to offer them – although at times I could see their puzzlement, as we tried to understand the different ways we design and support similar services.

The social problems of Dublin and London are not dissimilar; drugs and alcohol abuse, unemployment, poverty and emotional deprivation are the issues of the day, and the people we visited are looking for solutions that work just as we are, solutions that can be scaled up and measured to show a benefit, both now and in the future.

Our two day visit began in Tallaght with a visit was to Breda at Barnardos. She runs a Government funded childcare and family support programme in a building down a littered windswept alley.  Her passion and enthusiasm was palpable, and she could link to the work being done in the UK through her daughter – an educational psychologist in Southwark who had been challenging her to dump the notion of school readiness in favour of ready schools.  It initiated an interesting philosophical debate. She was keen on giving a voice to the practitioner, whilst also finding a way to support free childcare for more two year olds.  I was pleased to be able to say that we were going to develop this in the UK as a result of a successful pilot.  She introduced me to Maria Aarts and Marte Meo and was as shocked that I had not heard of her as I was when she told me that Irish Barnardos were not in anyway connected to the UK charity.

Our second visit was to a very modern, architect designed building which housed the Childhood Development Initiative.  We were welcomed with a pot of tea by Grainne Smith and her colleagues Marguerite and Tara.  They are part of a commissioning and evaluation team developing childcare initiatives, funded by government and matched charity funds. We had a lively conversation about evaluations and randomised control trials of organisations and services with a heavy emphasis on evaluating process.  I was particularly intrigued to hear this, as it’s something I am keen to develop as part of our multi-generational project.

After a lunch which included homemade scones, we spoke to Jean Courtney who confirmed the importance of business skills among childcare providers in all sectors, but especially in areas where the continued success of nurseries and family support services is particularly needed by children.

Our last visit took us into the centre of Dublin, where we had a tremendously animated conversation with Beth Fagan who runs the Parent Child Home Programme  at the National College of Ireland.  She was passionate about helping parents apply learning in their homes, so we know it changes their beliefs, behaviour and attitude, and pointed us in the direction of much new reading.  It also led to a proposal for her colleague Aoife, who heads up the CPD programme, that we try and apply the same thinking when it comes to making sure we better embed and measure action learning in childcare settings – so we know the training and support we offer practitioners is actually embedded and applied consistently to ultimately change behaviour (a philosophy already very much embedded in the LEYF approach to learning and development).

Dara rounded off the long and fascinating visit with a dinner prepared by his good wife Mary.  It made me realise why hospitality needs to be a core value of any organisation looking to reach out and make a difference to those who feel alienated and isolated.

Our second day was spent at An Cosán, the umbrella charity which incubated the Fledglings idea.  Its main service is to provide training at all levels for local people, with a real emphasis on opportunities and learning for local women – so they were very hot on community leadership and ways of empowering women to develop their confidence and abilities.  Once again, the day was punctuated by hospitality and kindness – and more scones!  We learned a lot more about the importance of talking and extending ideas, as I had some passionate exchanges with their lively CEO Liz Waters.  It was a another great lesson in the importance of taking time out of the ordinary day to engage with other people; to stretch your thinking and learn something new.