Why has Fennies’ Beech House Nursery been awarded two consecutive ‘outstanding’ judgements? Because, says manager, Hannah Mills, its staff are consistently going above and beyond…
Ask a parent and a practitioner to share their thoughts on the merits of a nursery with which they are both associated, and you’re likely to receive quite different responses. Even where both are united in their high regard for a setting, it’s a matter of perspective: the practitioner might reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the provision as a whole, perhaps how it is regarded by the sector’s inspectorate, while the parent’s experiences will be shaped by far more personal concerns – how happy her child is to attend, how he or she is progressing, whether the fees represent good value for money.
To get a complete picture, you need to take both into account – if both are happy, and Ofsted concurs, you can be pretty confident that things are going right.
Unusually, Hannah Mills, manager at Fennies’ Beech House Nursery in Sanderstead, Croydon, gets to view her setting’s qualities from both sides of the fence. In charge since May 2015, and having secured an ‘outstanding’ inspection outcome just two weeks after her arrival, she is accompanied to work each day by her two sons, both of whom are based in the preschool room. She speaks from the heart when she describes the experiences of her eldest, in particular, who recently spent a week in Great Ormond Street Hospital being treated for severe eczema: “Before he had his appointment, the staff here were brilliant with him,” she remembers. “He just wanted to be on his own all the time; he didn’t want to go into the garden or play in the water because it was hurting him. That’s when you saw his key person doing different things to support him, so he had as much of a life at nursery at possible.
“I can’t praise the staff here enough for what they did.”
Hannah’s very personal insight into her nursery’s provision highlights some of the many strengths that have resulted in Beech House receiving two ‘outstanding’ judgements in two years, and sheds light on the approach of the Fennies group as a whole. There is a clear focus on individual children here, a willingness to adapt to meet all needs, and a commitment to maintaining, not just reaching, the highest standards. It is how this philosophy is being put into practice, of course, that is the key…
Situated on a quiet residential street, Beech House was converted from a prep school to a nursery by Fennies founder, Sarah Fenn, 20 years ago. At the time her second nursery, it is now one of eight, located across the south and south-east of London and Surrey. Having undergone a major refurbishment in 2010, it offers 44 places to babies, toddlers and preschoolers across two floors, with a well-equipped kitchen providing meals cooked on site. The building has plenty of space and houses no shortage of educational opportunities, but it is the practitioners who work within and the approach that the setting has adopted that’s making the difference.
Hannah is effusive in her praise of her team, who she picks out as the driving force behind the setting’s continuing success. “They’re very positive, they go above and beyond,” she says, summing up the prevailing attitude. Even though we’ve just had our inspection, I can see that they’re working hard to carry on being ‘outstanding’, that they’re trying to make sure it’s not going to slip.”
She views their latest top mark as a great motivator in that respect: “Because it’s about what the inspector saw on an ordinary day, the staff think, well what we did then is what we’re doing every day, so if we keep it going, we have ‘outstanding’ practice,” she explains. “It’s a nice recognition of the hard work that goes on here.”
But while the Beech House team is a motivated one, maintaining standards isn’t left to chance. A central part of Hannah’s role involves carrying out regular peer-on-peer observations, watching how staff interact with children during activities, and feeding back on areas where quality is high and those where’s the room for improvement alike. “There are always things to catch up with in the office, but I try to get out as much as I can to spend time in the rooms,” she says. “Once a week, I’ll do my quality monitoring checks, too, to make sure that planning is being done, that nappy charts are complete – simple things like that. And, then there are the monthly learning journey checks, where I’ll select two folders to go through, to identify if anything is missing and what I can do to provide support…”
Systems for ensuring good practice extend beyond the setting, too – the managers and deputies of all eight Fennies settings meet regularly and share ideas at every opportunity, whether that’s via email, on the phone or through Fennies’ regular staff newsletter (see Talking Points), while childcare director, John Warren, offers an additional level of quality control and support across the group.
All the hard work, the reflection, the leadership is geared towards providing flexible learning opportunities for children. There is a free-flow system in place, and those so inclined are welcome to spend much of their day learning in the great outdoors. Carefully planned activities are set up, but if children want to take their learning in different directions, practitioners follow their lead. Hannah points to one child’s chance discovery of an insect recently, which led to more than a day’s worth of creepycrawly exploration for many, all driven by natural curiosity.
Even where there’s a need to plan adult-initiated activities to boost development in a particular area of learning, staff endeavour to use children’s interests: “It could be that a child loves the cars but doesn’t like the messy play – and so there might be an area of the EYFS that they’re not accessing as result,” Hannah explains. “Our solution might be, okay then, let’s put the cars in the paint – we can make little tracks in different colours, and things like that.”
Creative ideas abound too – ‘musical painting’, for example, sees children wielding their brushes as they listen to different tracks, expressing themselves on paper according to how the music makes them feel. “You can see the difference in the children’s art depending on whether we have a slow, relaxing piece playing, or something really fast-paced,” Hannah says. “It’s really interesting.”
Given Hannah’s dual managerial/parental perspective, it comes as no surprise to learn that Beech House’s partnerships with home are another strength. Relationships with mums and dads are developed from the very beginning: home visits are carried out two weeks prior to children starting at the setting, attended by their key person and Hannah or deputy manager, Amie Corbett. These are followed by a settling-in stage, during which parents are invited to stay, to calm their and children’s nerves.
The close contact continues throughout children’s time at nursery. Practitioners complete a summative assessment of each child every 12 weeks and parents are invited in to go through it and share their own thoughts – “a child might be able to count to 20 at home, but at nursery be too nervous, so it’s handy to have parents’ views!” Hannah explains – and there’s a monthly parent forum, too, providing information about upcoming plans and opportunities to share ideas.
It all adds up to a nursery where nothing is being overlooked.
1. Working together
“Leadership and management of the setting is excellent. The provider, manager and staff work very well together to make effective changes to the nursery and drive further improvement for the benefit of children. Parents are very well involved to provide consistency for children at all times,” says Ofsted of Beech House – when all concerned collaborate effectively, outstanding outcomes invariably follow.
2. No pressure
“I’ve had quite a few inspections during my 12 years in childcare,” Hannah tells us. “Our latest one wasn’t too stressful. The inspector we had blended in. Some you’ll see writing every little thing down, but the lady we had sat back and let the staff get on. She allowed what they were really good at to shine through, instead of making them really nervous, which was nice.”
3. All change
In Fennies settings room transitions are based upon the academic year. “We do one big move round,” Hannah explains. “So last September, toddlers due to go to school in 2017 joined preschool with children going to school in 2016; babies moved up to toddlers due to go to school in 2018, and new babies came in.” More on the thinking behind this next issue…
4. Happy staff
“One of the good things about working for Fennies is that you feel appreciated,” Amie says. “It’s just the little things that make you feel valued – like our Christmas event, a masquerade ball, which all the staff and their partners were invited to. And there are lots of opportunities – you have the chance to step up if you want to.”
5. It’s good to share
“We have a monthly newsletter across all eight nurseries so that all staff can see what other nurseries have been up to, and think ‘Maybe we could do that too…” Hannah explains. “We also have staff awards – a regular star of the month. It’s nice to share people’s success and hard work with everyone.”
“The nursery was already ‘outstanding’ when I arrived. You think, fantastic! But then the pressure’s on to keep it going. If we’d got a ‘good’, I’d be thinking ‘What did I do? Was it something I missed? Have I let the whole team down?’ and things like that. We were confident, and it was lovely to get ‘outstanding’ again – but the pressure is still on!”
“It’s really interesting to follow where the children take you. I might ask, ‘What shall we put on the messy table today?’ and they’ll come up with the most random things! We always find whatever it is they want, or go to the shop and get it for them – children learn best when they’re doing things they enjoy, just like adults.”
Teach Early Years visited Fennies Beech House Nursery in 2015.