TEY speaks to owner Alyson Burton about the hard work and outstanding practice that saw her setting named NDNA’s nursery of the year for 2019…
For Ducklings Day Nursery – its founder and owner/manager, Alyson Burton, and its team of experienced and highly qualified educators – receiving the National Day Nurseries Association’s Nursery of the Year Award for 2019 was both a shock (“We had no clue we’d win even the Central award, let alone the overall one!”) and validation of 20 years of commitment to providing a fantastic learning environment for the under-fives.
The setting, located near Stourbridge in a large Victorian building that also serves as Alyson’s family home, has been rated ‘outstanding’ for as long as it has been possible to earn the accolade – so what is the philosophy and practice that lies behind the success?
Last year, Ducklings opted to implement in-the-moment planning. “Our staff were already very skilled at seizing on teachable moments to extend children’s learning,” Alyson explains.
“It means that rather than observing, for example, a child’s interest in dinosaurs and saying, ‘Oh, we could do that a week on Thursday,’ it’s, ‘No, they’re interested now, so how are we going to extend that now?’”
The team enhances this approach by providing invitations to play based on children’s recent interests. When those interests change, staff are on-hand to scaffold their learning as it moves in new directions.
These efforts to support child-led learning are aided by the setting’s high staffing ratios, which give educators the freedom to access all areas of the nursery and its grounds with small groups.
As for the benefits, Alyson identifies a boost to language development: “It’s giving staff lots more opportunities to introduce new vocabulary and concepts – most importantly, though, the children are very happy.”
The nursery places great importance on engaging families in their children’s learning. Their efforts begin with home visits that help familiarise both children and parents with the former’s key person and allow staff to record details about their new charges’ routines and lives.
Individual care plans and settling-in sessions follow: “The intention is to build a strong, trusting partnership with parents before they start leaving their child,” Alyson explains.
Contact with home is ongoing, facilitated by e-learning journey software from 2Simple: monthly PDFs keep parents apprised of children’s learning and invite contributions, while weekly emails provide updates on what’s been going on and what’s coming next.
More detailed insights come via the setting’s termly ‘focuses’ on every child, around which staff touch base with parents to gather details about any developments at home.
Regular events – from parents’ evenings to Mother’s Day breakfasts and even first aid and signing training – further strengthen the connection between setting and home.
“We have a big emphasis on outdoor play,” Alyson tells us. “We go out all year round; if it’s pouring with rain we’ve got some little all-in-one suits and some wellies and we go anyway!”
Ducklings’ sizeable garden features a real-grass lawn and lots of trees, shrubs and flowers – “we’ve deliberately planted lots of scented plants, like roses and lavender and herbs, so it’s really relaxing and a nice sensory experience for the children, and the adults,” she explains.
Recent additions include a mud kitchen and minibeast and woodworking areas.
But outdoor learning at the nursery doesn’t begin and end on-site. Ducklings also benefits from its own allotment, located a 10-minute walk away.
“The children go there regularly, sometimes several times a week,” Alyson says.
“They grow a lot of fruit and vegetables, with the help of a staff member who’s an expert gardener, and bring back whatever they’ve harvested to include in their meals.”
The nursery has already earned its Level 4 RHS Gardening for Schools Award, and the team are working towards Level 5.
Last but not least, the nursery’s staff and children are familiar faces in the local village too, often venturing out to the library, park, garden centre or train station, or visiting the shops.
Alyson is quick to identify her team as Ducklings’ key strength. “From day one our intention was to recruit really well-qualified staff,” she explains.
“They’re our most valuable asset – you can have the most expensive resources in the world, but if you haven’t got people who know how to use them, there’s no point.”
The team is packed with expertise – its members include two teachers with QTS, one with a Masters in Education, as well as three EYPs and an EYT. A number of staff members either have or are working towards their early years degrees.
Alongside them work others at Levels 2 and 3, and Alyson draws attention to the broad age range that exists: “At one end we have lots of experience – some staff have been with us since the day we opened – and at the other, lots of energy and enthusiasm that comes with being new to the job.”
With turnover at the nursery low, all the knowledge long-standing team members possess is available for new arrivals to draw upon – and Ducklings’ strong emphasis on staff training ensures that fresh information is regularly flowing into the setting.
When positions do become available, the nursery is in the fantastic position of being oversubscribed in terms of applicants, and can afford to choose the ideal candidates: “We deliberately recruit people with very different qualities and strengths, and then delegate responsibilities and research opportunities to people who are really interested in those areas,” Alyson says.
“None of us is an expert in everything, but between us we’re a really strong team.”
Despite Ducklings’ success, Alyson has never been tempted to open a second setting. “We could have filled many nurseries over, and people often ask if we’re going to expand,” she says.
“We’ve even been offered premises. But I know I can run this one well. We’ve always been a setting that’s put the children first, not profit; the provision is the important thing. I think if I were to try to spread myself more thinly, even if I put great managers in the other settings, I would feel that I was diluting my input.”