At Harlequin Day Nursery there’s no room for complacency; for staff, there’s always more that can be done to raise standards and support children and their families, as TEY discovered…
I think you can see walking around why this is an ‘outstanding’ setting,” Katy Crysell, cluster manager for 4Children’s Essex nurseries says. TEY has made the journey to Harlequin Day Nursery in Witham, a 37-place setting situated on the same site as the local children’s centre – also operated by 4Children – and next to the local infant and junior schools. On one hand she’s absolutely right: Harlequin’s learning environment is bright and packed with educational opportunities for developing minds; the atmosphere is lively but children are calm and engaged as they free flow between the Toddlers (Honey Pots) and Preschoolers (Marmalade Fun) rooms, and into an outdoor area dominated, on the day in question, by a large and enticing puddle; the walls feature displays designed both to support children’s learning and reinforce good practice for staff.
On the other hand, a tour of the nursery only really reveals the end product of the hard work put in behind the scenes by manager Emma Clow, her team, and Katy and the wider 4Children support network. There’s the emphasis on reflective practice and continuing professional development, the focus on tracking children’s progress that ensures all are as ready as they can be when the time comes to step up to Reception, and the forging of strong parental partnerships and links with both the children’s centre and schools to consider. While Harlequin’s last, and only, Ofsted inspection to date came back in 2009, not long after it first opened its doors, there’s no hint of complacency, just a commitment to delivering the highest standards of early education to children, whether they attend five days a week or for just a few funded hours.
Maintaining and raising standards in any early years setting requires a regular process of reappraisal: an awareness of what is going on currently and how it could be done better. Such a process is firmly embedded in the day-to-day running of Harlequin Day Nursery. “The key is lots of reflective practice,” says Emma Clow, the setting’s manager since September 2011. “And we have very robust policies and procedures in place to make sure it happens – I’m always talking to individual staff members, ensuring there’s a shared vision, and identifying training needs, and we have regular staff, room and room leader meetings so we can discuss what we want to develop. On top of that we review our self-evaluation form every month, so we’re constantly thinking, ‘What can we do next? What can we do better? How can we progress?’.”
Emma’s efforts to improve the quality of her setting are mirrored by her efforts to improve her own qualifications. Having gained a Foundation degree, a BA in Early Childhood Studies and her Early Years Professional Status, she is now working on a BA Honours degree. All have been achieved thanks to a day release each week from her role, and a talent for time management: “It can be hard balancing work and study,” she admits; “you need to be good at prioritising! It helps that I have a really strong deputy, so when I step out of the setting I know that she is working to the same ethos as I am.”
While paperwork and study inevitably mean time spent away from the children, Emma is committed to being a room-based manager: “I really enjoy spending time in the rooms,” she says. “It’s important to have a presence there as manager, modelling good practice. We carry out peer observations on a weekly basis, too, though it’s not only me who’s observing. In particular, I like to be very involved with new children when they start, so the girls will come to me and point the parents in my direction to book their settling in visits.”
The reflection taking place at Harlequin underpins many examples of good practice. Its Ofsted report notes that its rooms are ‘breathtakingly set out’, while staff have been working hard on improving the setting’s outdoor environment, a highlight being the introduction of an inspiring fairy garden that is capturing children’s imaginations (see Talking Points for more).
Emma herself picks out the quality of the team’s parent partnerships as something she is proud of. Cultivated from the moment mums and dads come to look round, these positive relationships are based upon being available – “I always say to parents, ‘If you have any more questions, here’s my number, here’s my email address. If you want to come round again, please do.’ We want to give them as much information as possible!” Emma says – and a strong key person system that ensures good ongoing communication and support.
This support includes simple things like regular newsletters, featuring recipes and ideas to extend learning taking place in the setting to home, as well as signposting the services of the children’s centre to those who require them. But it also takes the form of things like the nursery’s transition evenings, which aim to offer advice to parents whose children will soon be starting school: “They start right from the school application process,” Emma explains. “Some parents might not know how to fill in the form correctly, so it’s about being there to support and advise them, and giving them the opportunity to come to us and ask questions. We also invite teachers in, so that they can address any queries or concerns that parents have got.”
Help for parents also comes in the form of Harlequin’s popular wraparound care provision, which is offered to those attending both the nursery and neighbouring infant school. Its ‘walking bus’ provides safe transit for children between the two settings at various times of the day, with breakfast and after-school clubs both available. Every effort is made to provide flexibility for parents: “One mum approached me the other day because her son wanted to go to a science club after school, which meant he would need to be picked up a quarter past four,” Emma says. “When we agreed, she said to me, ‘You make parenting so easy!’. Without us saying ‘yes’ he wouldn’t have been able to attend the group because she commutes to London, so it makes a real difference.”
Back in September the government officially announced the roll out of its funded places for two-year-olds, but eligible children at Harlequin have been benefiting for some time already, the nursery having participated in Essex County Council’s pilot scheme. For Emma and her team, being involved has meant closer links with the children’s centre, a boost to occupancy and, most importantly, the chance to make a real difference to children’s and parents’ lives.
“There’s been a huge take-up of the ‘two year old’ places. Currently, I have 35 children on roll in my 2–3s’ room, and out of those, 13 are two year funded,” Emma explains. “The pilot lasted for two years, and we’ve already been able to see the difference it has made – because we carefully track children’s progress.” More on that later.
Asked about the impact the funded two-year-old places are having, Emma and Katy point to a number of factors. There are the obvious benefits to a child of having earlier access to a nursery place than they might otherwise have had; but in particular they highlight the difference being able to call in specialist support at age two makes. “Referrals for things like speech and language therapy are happening a year earlier,” Katy says by way of example, “and that’s giving us a head start. It’s helped with waiting lists, and assisted with encouraging parents to implement actions at home too.”
The nursery’s ability to be flexible is also helping parents: “Stretch funding has made a huge impact on assisting families,” Katy continues. “The idea was not only to support the development of the child but to aid parents going back to work. We were discovering that 15 hours a week, term-time only, was restricting parents to term-time only jobs, but we’ve been able to offer 10 hours a week for up to 49 weeks a year for two- and three-year-olds. That means families can go back to work – and they then often increase their sessions each week because they can afford to.
“It’s beneficial for families because they can work, for children because it means they get the consistency and the routine of coming here all the time, and for the other professionals we work with for referrals because it means, for example, that we no longer have that big break with speech and language over the summer because the children are still attending.”
“And that’s a big thing,” Emma agrees, “because sometimes it meant seven or eight weeks away, and it’s almost like you have to start again come September.”
Tracking children’s progress is a key part of every nursery manager’s job, and for Emma a responsibility to help demonstrate that the ‘two-year-old’ funding is making a measurable difference has given it added significance. But at Harlequin, the cycle of observation, assessment and planning that allows practitioners to support and extend children’s learning is everyone’s responsibility. 4Children’s group-wide OAP toolkit is a system that combines the formative and summative assessment processes, and presents them in a format that’s accessible to all – as Katy puts it, “Everyone uses the toolkit: from lunchtime assistants to managers.”
The toolkit is comprehensive, facilitating the initial gathering of information about children and their families, and their baseline assessment, as well as the planning of next steps for every area of learning, and the adult-led activities and continuous provision that allow children to reach them – as well as termly progress wheels and graphs produced by Emma to track children’s development and identify weaknesses in practice or gaps in the nursery’s resources.
Nor have children been excluded from the process. The child’s view, which Katy stresses is crucial to the assessment process, has been incorporated into the entire toolkit: “The children are allowed to draw on their observation sheets; in fact, the sheets have a section for them to complete,” she explains.
As well as providing staff with a practical tool with which to carry out their roles, its value, Katy tells us, is that it gives practitioners ownership of their key children, allowing them to respond to their needs from the floor. And having practitioners, like those at Harlequin, who know their children inside out, she adds, is something the Ofsted inspectors want to see.
Freedom to learn
“You need to have some structure in place,” Emma says of balancing child-led learning with the need for a calm environment. “Yes, our children have free-flow between rooms, but there are times when, for example, the older children want to do circle time, so we have a traffic light system that we use on our gate. There are boundaries and structures, but also flexibility and freedom.”
“Our fairy garden is a very recent addition – it’s only been running a few weeks, but it’s been really fantastic for the children,” Emma tells us. “Each week we plant something different that we tell the children the fairies have left; this week we’re planting wildflowers that they can take away to create their own garden at home with their parents.”
Ideas to help improve practice at each of 4Children’s settings are disseminated by the charity’s National Childcare Team. “They go round to settings and inspect them as Ofsted would,” Katy explains; “they’re building up an ‘outstanding’ practice manual that managers can access for ideas on how to develop their settings further and carry out all internal training.”
Back to basics
Katy is philosophical about recent changes to the emphasis of Ofsted’s inspections: “The inspectors are now tracking children, focusing on their development in the rooms and the practice going on. It’s going back to the basics, which I think is a good thing. It makes practitioners more aware of what they’re doing on a daily basis rather than worrying about everything Emma needs from them by the end of the week. That’s really important for children.”
Teach Early Years visited Harlequin Day Nursery in 2013.
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