At Homerton Children’s Centre, high-quality practice is ever-present. TEY spoke to its head, Harriet Price, about the advantages of teacher-led early education, the role of maintained nursery schools, and why technology should play a central role in the EYFS…
Foundation Stage provision in the UK is a broad church, but in a congregation of settings as diverse as childminders and Reception classes, one category is conspicuous by its dwindling numbers. In February 2014, charity Early Education, commenting on cuts made by local authorities to early years services, highlighted the fact that at present there are no more than 428 maintained nursery schools in England, a figure that has fallen from 520 in 1999. It also noted that 92 per cent of those currently open to the public are concerned about funding levels, suggesting that their numbers are at risk of falling further still over the years to come [fears that have come to pass - Ed].
For reasons why this matters, one needn’t look any further than Cambridge, and Homerton Children’s Centre, the home of a maintained nursery school with 100 part-time places, as well as a 12-place day nursery for two-year-olds (currently serving around 30 families), known as The Nest. ‘Outstanding’ in Ofsted’s eyes since 1998, Homerton’s nursery school was awarded Centre of Excellence Status in 2003 and the National Association of Advisors for Computers in Education’s NAACE mark in 2004, in recognition of the strength of its ICT practice. It is offering those in its care education of the highest standard, a fact evidenced by the progress children of all starting abilities make there; however, as important is the role Homerton, and other maintained settings, are playing in developing good practice, and communicating it to other settings throughout the sector.
Head of centre since September 2012, Harriet Price, is, she freely admits, amongst those concerned about what tightening local authority purse strings will mean for her provision. She has no doubt that maintained nursery schools, whilst more expensive to the taxpayer than private daycare, offer value for money, and even a short time spent in her setting reveals why that is the case…
Maintained nursery schools differ from private daycare settings in a number of important ways. Aside from their local authority funding, they require a headteacher to lead them, and must by law employ a member of staff with Qualified Teacher Status to work in each of their classrooms. At Homerton each teacher receives additional support from a nursery nurse and, when necessary, a teaching assistant, too. Children attend for 15 hours each week, and parents can additionally take advantage of the wraparound care (8.30–5.45) on offer; around a quarter do, Harriet tells us.
In combination, these factors mean that the structure of each day differs somewhat from that common to day nursery settings: “During the 15 hours we deliver a strongly educational approach – these sessions are led by our teachers, and the quality is very high because the staff have that background knowledge; they understand child development really well, and they come with a really good understanding of the areas of learning, and how to follow up children’s next steps,” Harriet explains. “No one can afford to put qualified teachers into daycare – you can’t have the expectation that families will be able to afford that. So it’s a huge advantage that we have in maintained nursery schools.
“At the same time, we believe that the children who are here all day have an entitlement to play for play’s sake,” she continues. “So rather than direct the remainder of their activity towards learning, we support them, and provide them with different opportunities. Children are not just based in their classrooms – for example, they’ll visit the park every week, cook regularly, have visitors, and use our garden and community room. They’ll have different experiences, which we feel makes it more equitable in relation to the children who are going home, who have similar experiences going on.”
The Nest, Homerton’s two-year-old provision, is a relatively recent addition to the centre’s services, having launched in 2012. Unlike the nursery school there is an hourly charge for parents, though funded places are available for those eligible. Here, a room leader oversees a team of playworkers; however, ongoing support from the nursery school team – an example of the integrated approach in operation at the centre – ensures that even the youngest children benefit from the teaching staff’s considerable experience and expertise.
Said experience and expertise lies at the heart of Homerton’s legacy of success. While Harriet – a qualified teacher with a great breadth of experience in early years as well as a primary, ICT consultant who worked for the National Strategies, and former business owner, amongst other roles – is relatively new to her current position, she has been associated with the centre since 1994, and became its assistant head in 2010. She speaks honestly about the challenges involved in leading the centre in its entirety, highlighting the constant need to communicate with, and draw together, the different strands of provision for which she has responsibility; but it’s clear that she feels well equipped to continue the good work.
As she puts it, “I arrived with quite a breadth of experience that I could bring to the headship role – in fact, in some ways I feel as if this role has brought everything together. And,” she adds, “my heart has always been in early years.”
Working with Harriet is a well-established team, some of whom have been practising at Homerton for 20 years. She points to her ‘outstanding’ teachers, all capable of modelling best practice for less-experienced members of staff, as well as the considerable expertise offered by her complement of nursery nurses and TAs, and is quick to acknowledge the work of her predecessor, Heather Lowe. She notes the importance of a low turnover in staff in maintaining high standards, adding that, as a consequence, “the weight of our practice is so good that we can incorporate new people while maintaining our quality”.
But despite its wealth of experience, there is no hint of anyone resting on their laurels at Homerton; indeed, Harriet stresses how quickly a new leader can change the path of a setting, for good or ill – even one judged ‘outstanding’ for the last 16 years. “I knew I needed to build on the existing provision,” she says, “so one of the first things I did with the staff was to look at our values. We shared what we wanted to hold on to; what it was that we felt made us get out of bed in the morning, what it was that we loved about Homerton so much. We worked together and we came up with our values, and it’s something we now return to every year. I think a shared vision is very important – you have to know where you’re all heading to together.”
When asked to identify the source of the ‘fierce lack of complacency’ described in the centre’s most recent inspection report, though, Harriet has no doubt: “It comes from the staff. We’re lucky that we have a very dedicated team; it’s about their quality of practice.”
One of the responsibilities that comes with receiving state funding, Harriet says, is sharing best practice with other settings, of all stripes. It’s a role that Homerton takes seriously, and one that Harriet believes has been, and continues to be, vital to improving quality in the early years sector. “I would say that maintained nursery schools are a core part of what has made best quality practice across the country in early years,” she says. “You get a very strong early years voice from maintained settings, and they work closely with other settings around them. Here, I have visitors from other settings booked into my diary nearly every week, and not necessarily those who are local to us; some travel nationally as well, to train and share practice. Some are private day nurseries, some are neighbourhood and community settings; some of them are primary schools with Foundation Stage classes, and some of them are whole local authorities, who might book in 20 leads in a day. I think if the sector didn’t have places where you can really show exemplary practice for early years, the country would be poorer for it.”
In recent months Homerton’s role in this regard has taken a new direction thanks to its involvement in the piloting of 4Children’s Community Childcare Hubs scheme. In addition to helping to deliver blended childcare for parents, and identifying places of a suitable standard for funded two-year-olds, this has involved working in partnership with a network of settings to build quality. “It’s still very early days, but we’re already working with a network of 14 early years settings,” Harriet explains. “What has been really heartening has been the good will of the practitioners involved. They’ve been coming out in the evening, to meetings, and I feel like we’ve got a really good working team together. At the moment we’re working on communication and language, and we’ve all brought things to share with each other, things that we’re doing in our respective settings. The idea is to raise each other’s game, and take ideas from each other’s practice. I’ve got high hopes that it will be successful – it’s been an exciting start.”
Another aspect of Homerton’s efforts to develop its own and others’ provision involves the Cambridgeshire Nursery Circle, a group of six maintained nursery schools, including Homerton, which are working together to jointly develop their practice. In the past, the group’s projects have focused on Problem Solving, Reasoning and Numeracy – an undertaking that spanned three years, and which was shared nationally. Currently, however, the Nursery Circle’s focus revolves around ICT, and the use of mobile technologies in particular.
ICT has been a key part of early years practice at Homerton for a number of years, since its bid to become an Early Excellence Centre, and Harriet – unsurprisingly, given her experience – is a strong proponent of technology’s use in the Foundation Stage. “For me, it’s about the fact that technology is in our culture, our homes and our environments,” she explains. “What we try to do here is to replicate what children’s experiences are, because then it gives them the opportunity to play out those experiences, to understand them more, to feel that their environment is a home from home. If children feel that way, they’re more secure and they build more confidence as learners.”
On one hand this translates to the presence of plasma screens in all of the classrooms, and the aforementioned mobile technologies research, which has to date led to the addition of a small number of iPads to Homerton’s continuous provision. “We’re helping children to see technology as a tool, so they take pictures and capture video, and we’ve chosen a selection of apps that we feel are beneficial for children’s learning,” Harriet says. “We’re also using them for practitioners because they make observations quicker and easier, and allow children to reflect upon what they’ve done immediately.”
On the other hand, there’s no sense at Homerton that screen technology is dominating proceedings – as Harriet put it, “When you walk around, technology doesn’t jump out at you. Sometimes visitors assume they’re going to see something that’s all whizzy and bangy, but for me, it’s all about appropriate use.” As such, should you enter a classroom at Homerton, you’re just as likely to see children incorporating items of defunct technology into their role play as you are to see them using a touch screen.
Of course, you might well find them playing in the expansive sandpit or engaging in any number of other activities, instead too. Harriet and her team clearly have a firm eye on balance.
“ECaT is an area we give a lot of attention too,” Harriet tells us. “We’ve got a lot of experience on children’s speech, communication and language, and we’re very good at identifying children who need additional support, and then offering that support; we’re making a real difference.”
Homerton’s ongoing ECaT project has seen Harriet and her team address a range of factors that influence children’s communication and language skills, from the centre’s universal provision – efforts have been made to better signpost support for parents, and speech and language drop-in sessions, attended by specialist therapists, have been introduced – to the nursery school’s ‘talking hotspots’, designed to ensure that the most is made of opportunities to build language learning outdoors. “In each area, we write up core vocabulary, so staff coming into those areas can
immediately think, ‘Right, I’m going to engage more in the children’s language here’,” Harriet says of the latter. It means we’ve got more repetition of vocabulary going on, which is very important for learning new words. For example, we have a hotspot in the construction area, so the vocabulary will be about building, and another by the slide, where there’s a lot of prepositional language: ‘Are you coming down?’ ‘Are you going up again?’ ‘Can you get round?’”
“I think what we really try to do here is encourage independence and choice,” Harriet says of her school. “That’s fundamental to everything we do. It’s the reason why even the iPads are part of our continuous provision – to leave children in control and help them in beginning to make choices, and to really encourage their independence, so they leave as confident learners.”
Harriet is clear about the benefits of the integrated working at Homerton, though she warns budget cuts are putting it at risk: “As an example,” she says, “our room leader from The Nest has regular meetings with family workers, and with our school SENCo. So while we’re looking at how a child is doing, we’ll also be looking at what we need to support parents, and that makes a fundamental difference.”
Focus on fatherhood
“We’ve really proactively engaged with dads,” Harriet tells us. “We have a Saturday dads’ group once a month, which we’ve had a great response to. We also do dads early parenting courses, and, in the past, have even done ‘parenting in the pub’ – the dads asked for it at the end of their course because they found it so supportive; they didn’t want it to stop!”
Touch screen teamwork
“When we first sent out questionnaires to parents, it was clear that they didn’t feel the iPad was helpful for building relationships,” Harriet says, referring to Homerton’s research, “but what we’ve found in the setting is that the iPad is really helpful for building relationships – because the children are very motivated to use it, they will work together, sharing, talking and negotiating.”
Teach Early Years visited Homerton Children’s Centre in 2014. For more information on its provision, or to get in touch, visit homerton.cambs.sch.uk