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The Development of Infant Education in Ireland, 1838-1948

Epochs and Eras


Maura O'Connor

Winner of the Kevin Brehony Book Prize, awarded by the History of Education Society (UK)

This is the first published historical analysis of the development of infant education in Ireland. It spans the period from the opening of the Model Infant School in Marlborough Street, Dublin, in 1838 to the introduction of the child-centred curriculum for infant classes in 1948. A study of early childhood education in Ireland in this period provides an understanding of how the child, childhood and the early years of school were viewed by society. Child-centredness had become a feature of educational practice in Europe in the early eighteenth century and was developed further by Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel. How it manifested itself in schools in Ireland is critically explored in the book through an examination of key reports, as well as through new original primary source material not previously in the public domain. The curricular content, pedagogical approaches and organisation of infant schooling reveal much about the attitudes of those in authority to the youngest children and their educational needs. Interviews with kindergarten advisors, national (primary) school inspectors, lecturers on early childhood education, teachers of infants, and adults who were students in the early decades of the twentieth century provide further insights and enhance our understanding of policies and practices of the time.


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CHAPTER 6 A National Curriculum Based on Child-centred Principles 145


CHAPTER 6 A National Curriculum Based on Child-centred Principles During the proceedings of the Commission on Manual and Practical Instruction the polarisation by witnesses of the intellectual and the prac- tical was evident. Distinctions were drawn between the educational benefits of handwork, as opposed to the perceived intellectual value of academic or bookwork, thus endorsing the dualistic nature of knowledge and learning. The Commission sought a consensus, and in its final report it suggested that practical instruction should permeate the infant curriculum, with a shift to a more intellectually challenging syllabus as children got older. The Revised Programme of Instruction in National Schools, which was produced as a result of the recommendations in the final report of the Commission on Manual and Practical Instruction, was introduced by the Resident Com- missioner Dr William J. M. Starkie (1860–1920),1 and came into operation in Irish schools in September 1900. This was a key policy initiative that had significant implications for primary education in Ireland in general, and infant education in particular. It was claimed that the appointment of Starkie as Resident Commissioner in 1899 marked the beginning of ‘the new era in the national school system’ in Ireland (Coolahan, 2009: 62). In February 1900, speaking at the distribution of prizes at the Albert Model Farm in Glasnevin, Dr Starkie announced that the government had sanctioned ‘a large scheme for the carrying out of the proposals contained in the Report of the Commission on Manual and Practical Instruction’ (Irish Independent, 20...

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