For Joanne Colton and staff at Acorn Day Nursery in Shenley Church End, recognising that every child has a voice is the secret to ‘outstanding’ practice,as TEY discovered…
There are different ways to ‘do’ high-quality early years education, but at ‘outstanding’ in all areas Acorn Day Nursery in Shenley Church End, a relaxed and homely approach is very much the order of the day. “We’re not as rigid as some settings; we have a routine but we adapt it to the children’s needs,” manager Joanne Colton explains above the sound of excited voices that greets our arrival. “You could describe it as organised chaos, but our families like that. There’s always a hustle and bustle – children talking and laughing.”
Even a quick survey of the setting’s three playrooms, which lead off of a central art and craft area, reveals the truth of that. With the exception of the very youngest, everybody seems to be on the go and engaging with a host of different learning opportunities. For visiting journalists it’s a job to know where to stand to avoid getting in the way.
Relaxed and homely seems an appropriately traditional outlook for a nursery based in a red brick building that was long ago the village primary school, but if there were any temptation to equate that to ‘old-fashioned’, it is quickly banished. Speaking to Joanne and Acorn Childcare managing director, Zoe Raven, it emerges that behind the success lies a focus on innovation, lots of hard work and the recognition that sometimes all it takes is a little self-belief…
“The thing is, I’m not the most confident person – I never thought we were ‘outstanding’,” admits Joanne when we sit down to talk about the nursery’s journey since opening in 1996. “I was told how good the nursery was and what a lovely place it was to be – by parents because their children were happy, and the early years advisers when they came in. But I always had the feeling that there was more that could be done.
“The day Ofsted came I’d come prepared to go to forest school, and suddenly there was a knock at the door and the inspector was there. I showed her around and she joined in with everything, sat, took notes and asked questions, and saw what was going on. I spoke to her, and I really couldn’t tell what she was thinking. But it was nice – she had lunch with the children, and it was just like a normal day. After being nervous about the experience it felt like, ‘Why did I worry?’.
“Then, when she came into the office at the end of the day, there were a couple of things that she’d picked up on, and I thought, ‘We’ll we’re not going to get ‘outstanding’’. When she said ‘‘outstanding’ in all areas’, I couldn’t believe it. It was just a really good day, a day for everybody to show off what we’re about,and they did.”
“Jo is quite a perfectionist,” Zoe explains.“It’s taken a lot to convince her that she’s as good as she is. I’ve never known her to sit back and say, ‘Everything’s fine’. She doesn’t have any difficulty finding things to improve. There’s always something she’s not happy with – but that’s why she’s so good!”
In Joanne’s own words, her nursery is always changing, whether in response to fresh ideas or the arrival of new children with new interests. This ability to reflect and adapt has clearly played a significant part in earning Shenley Church End – judged ‘good’ at its previous inspection in 2007 – a place in Ofsted’s very best books. But Joanne is also keen to highlight the difference studying for her Early Years Foundation degree has made to her, and as a result, her staff’s, practice. “I think through my study I was able to start believing in myself,” she says. “I could think, ‘Right, I know I’m doing this right, I know I know why.’
“I was also introduced to something called the Mosaic approach – it’s all about listening to children, and seeing things through their eyes. I really enjoyed finding out about what they were interested in through talking to them and getting them to take photographs of what they liked, and then analysing that information so that they could become the voice of the nursery. I think that’s when we went from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ – because we were listening more to the children.”
Putting the views, needs and interests of children first is at the heart of Joanne’s team’s practice. She also talks about the value of the local council’s training on the Leuven wellbeing and involvement scales, and the Effective Early Learning (EEL) project, both of which she believes have contributed to her ability to evaluate the setting and continue its development. But what seems as important is the hands-on nature of Joanne’s role, and the way in which it allows her to support her practitioners in particular.
“Jo doesn’t like going in the office!” Zoe explains. “She leads by example – that’s what makes her an effective manager. She shows that she genuinely cares about the children and wants the best for them. She’s always coming back from courses with ideas – and whereas some people might just think, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’, Jo will actually say ‘Let’s give it a go’ and persuade her team. She creates that kind of culture where people feel they can try new things out. That’s the key thing here.”
“I’m always inspired by others,” Joanne adds, “and I hope I inspire my staff to do the things I would do. If you can coach staff in person it helps them to develop their practice, and I think it’s good for them to see how I behave with the children; to see that they are listened to. It’s important, because staff who aren’t so experienced may not understand that children have a voice; they have to be mentored and they have to see what that means.”
What that means, Joanne explains, is not that children have free rein. While practitioners adopt a staunchly child-led approach, those attending Shenley Church End learn about the rules and boundaries that apply at the setting from an early age, and to respect each other and the resources they use. This in turn has been used to foster children’s growing independence. “If they use felt pens, they know they have to put the lids back on,” Joanne cites by way of example. “It’s only small things, but it’s a way of showing we have respect; we have labels around the nursery so that the children can access things but also so that they can help put them away.
“The idea of giving children independence has grown from that – it sounds really obvious but we looked at our lunchtimes a couple of years back and realised that mid-way through children would start to get restless; the noise levels would go up because they were waiting. So we decided to give them something to do – we introduced serving bowls so they could serve themselves. Then we took it further and encouraged them to clean their plates and put their knives and forks away. Now, in between courses they’re getting up, doing something and going back. Our lunchtimes can last for about an hour,just through eating, drinking, serving, talking and the tidying up at the end, and it’s a really nice occasion.”
The nursery’s efforts to foster a sense of independence in children aren’t confined to the indoors, either. As at each of Acorn Childcare’s nine settings, forest school is a major part of life at Shenley Church End, with preschoolers walking the short distance to the historic parkland at Shenley Toot every week, all year round. “For the children it involves a lot of problem-solving and working together as a team,” Joanne says. “For example, there’s a dirt bowl area with a rope,and we watch them helping each other to hold the rope so they can climb up it and work out how they’re going to get up the slope – it’s amazing, really, we’re talking about three- and four-year-olds but they’re working and playing together.”
“It gives them a sense of freedom,” Zoe continues. “There might be planned activities but the children choose what they’re going to do; there’s a lot of autonomy. Then, if they decide they’re going to make a den, they have to work out what they’re going to need. Play environments can be quite sterile and lacking in challenges, and children don’t always learn practical skills that we learnt as kids playing outdoors and now take for granted. They go from car to nursery to shopping centre to home – they might go for a walk in the woods with their parents but they don’t spend time playing in a natural environment; a lot of children these days don’t know how to play in a natural environment.”
Acorn’s forest school provision is provided by Tall Oaks, the training and forest schooling arm of Zoe’s not-for-profit business; needless to say, having access to its practitioners’ expertise is a major benefit for Shenley Church End and its fellow nurseries – there are no shortage of opportunities for staff to develop their practice, including a group-wide training day, which takes place in January. But training isn’t the only advantage being part of Acorn Childcare brings – help on matters as varied as health and safety, HR and marketing is but a phone call away at central office (above Zoe’s first nursery at Castlethorpe), the idea being to leave managers like Joanne free to do what they do best: “I don’t want my managers stuck in the office,” Zoe says. “As long as they check their email once a day, there isn’t a lot of paperwork they have to do!”
Backed up by this support network,Joanne and her team are providing a wonderful early years environment for the young children passing through their doors– even if they still don’t quite believe it, Ofsted certainly does.
1. From small Acorns…
“I had been looking for a nursery for my daughter but couldn’t find any I liked locally,” Zoe says when asked about her decision to set up her first nursery and the business’s subsequent expansion. “My dad made a flippant comment along the lines of ‘Well why don’t you start your own nursery then?’, so I thought ‘OK, I will!’.
“I went to the bank, borrowed a lot of money and bought a converted Wesleyan chapel – I lived upstairs with my family and the nursery was downstairs. Jo worked in the nursery with me, worked her way up and then moved to my second nursery, here. Eventually I moved out from above the nursery, and that’s now where our head office is.
“I only planned to do it for 10 years, then return to teaching,” she adds, “but I get a real buzz out of developing people like Jo from being inexperienced nursery practitioners to superb managers.”
2. High standards
Whilst Joanne’s hands-on role allows her to model best practice on a daily basis, yearly appraisals and half-yearly one-to-one supervisions provide more formal opportunities to mentor and develop staff. “The full appraisals are quite detailed,” Zoe says, “and Jo and her senior staff get anonymous feedback too, so it’s not just top down; everyone gets to have their say.” When asked what plans the setting has for the future, she cites the development of peer-to-peer observations, designed to further aid development through reflective practice.
Across the group, a range of audits such as Ecers and Iters are carried out to ensure standards remain high, while an EYFS coordinator is on-hand to support all settings with their planning and record-keeping.
3. Family friendly
Creating a family-friendly atmosphere means engaging well with parents, and staff at Shenley Church End place special emphasis on getting these important relationships right from the outset. “We’re lucky in that most of our families come from recommendation,” Joanne explains. “It’s built up over the years, and we’re more or less full all of the time. It’s important to establish a trusting relationship with parents as soon as they step through the door for the show-round; then you can build on it as time goes on. For example, we have stay and play sessions where parents are invited in, and an open door policy so they can visit at any time and share things with the children. We also ask parents to help out whenever they can.”
Zoe also reveals that a new, tablet-based system of recording observations and taking photos to email to parents will also soon be trialled – a high-tech way of including mums and dads in their children’s days at nursery.
4. Sustainable settings
Though Acorn Childcare is a not-for-profit business, with plans already under way to secure its full charitable status, the need for financial sustainability, and the resources to expand nurseries’ learning environments, means money remains a key concern. “Our priority is always what’s best for the children, not what’s best for the shareholders,” Zoe explains. “We like to be profitable so that we have money to spend – for example, on our dragon’s den, which is our new wooden classroom outside here.
“Our fees are competitive, and they vary a lot across the group, depending on where each nursery is. But we never raise fees simply because we can – we raise them if we need to, for example, to give staff a pay rise. When parents know all the money is all being put back in, it makes it easier.”
Teach Early Years visited Acorn Day Nursery in 2012.