NEW BEGINNINGS Stephen Allen and his wife, Catherine.
After 24 years working as an engineer, Stephen Allen has switched to a career in early childhood education
To many, ‘Bob the Builder’ is a fictional character from a children’s television show. To a group of preschool children in Westport, he has been a real person for many years.
This coming September, ‘Bob’ – aka Stephen Allen – is opening up a preschool facility at Cogaula National School in Islandeady.
Stephen told The Mayo News how his endearing nickname led to him leaving a 24-year career in engineering to embark on a new one in early childhood education.
The Dublin native says: “It was really through my wife, Catherine, that I got roped into it. She’s been working in a naíonra in Westport [Naíonra Céimeanna Beaga in Gaelscoil na Cruaiche] for a number of years, and she also owns Bright Beginnings Childcare Centre. I’m known as ‘Bob the Builder’ in there because I’d always be going in and out fixing things. Then I sort of retired and got involved in the early childhood education with Catherine, and then I did the Level 5 and Level 6, and now I’m doing the degree.”
With three grown children and a wife who has worked in the sector for over 20 years, Stephen has recently dipped his toes further in the water. As well as progressing towards a Level 8 qualification in early childhood education, he has been running the naíonra after-school for over a year.
“Through my wife, I’ve seen so much of it,” says the former engineer. “I got on very well with the kids and it just connected with me. It’s very rewarding. It’s a very different background to working in a business; there are no head games, kids are straight up and front – they don’t hold back!” he says.
For the past number of weeks, Stephen has been flat out preparing to start up his own preschool in Cogaula National School, close to Westport in Islandeady, and he is hoping to open the doors on August 31.
As he explains: “The principal of Cogaula approached my wife and asked me would we be interested [in setting up the preschool]. Catherine said she couldn’t take it on but I said I’d be interested. I’m very happy to have been asked. I think it’s a great honour. There’s ten or eleven signed up so far.”
He added: “We’ve spent the whole summer going in and out of the room getting it ready, so it’s been a labour of love really. Everything’s in it that a child could possibly want. Parents are excited, they’ve been sent photos of the rooms to know what everything looks like.”
The ongoing Covid-19 situation has substantially increased the number of guidelines, red tape and regulations that have to be followed by early childhood educators. One-hundred-and-fifty pages’ worth of documents and a €700 order of child-friendly hand sanitiser are just some of the hoops that had to be jumped.
Despite Covid-19 regulations, Stephen is looking forward to bringing the unique ethos practised by his wife in the naíonra to his own preschool, one that cultivates creativity, responsibility and curiosity.
As he explains himself: “The main thing with the naíonra is the resilience programme. It teaches children about their feelings and how to speak up for themselves. Some kids wouldn’t have the words to describe different emotions. It’s a great way for kids to gain confidence and be able to speak for themselves.
“We’re open to every type of background and religion. All the learning is child-led. It’s not me saying ‘Let’s build this’, it’s the children’s interests that determine what happens. We might ask kids what they want to learn about during the year.”
He adds: “Once it starts off the kids work really well together. We made a globe last year in the naíonra and we started learning about different countries, different continents, different oceans, children from different backgrounds, and even different hairstyles. One little project can snowball like that.”
While Stephen says being a man in an almost entirely female profession is somewhat daunting, he believes that he can provide a positive influence for children in the preschool going forward.
He says: “It’s been proven that males have a bigger influence in physical activities than women do in children’s development. I’ve got a lovely girl with me called Katie Lavelle who has a Level 8 degree so it won’t be male-dominated.
“A lot of kids don’t have a male influence in their lives. It’s not a thing that Daddy’s not around it’s that Daddy works an awful lot or has to travel a lot. A lot of males find it easier to come into the setting when I’m there. I think it’s good for males in society to see that as well.
“I love working with kids because it’s so rewarding. I love seeing those happy faces. It’s a huge honour and I take it very seriously. I’m delighted I’ve been given this opportunity and I’m really looking forward to it.”