TEY visited Olympus KeyMed Day Nursery and discovered a setting whose innovative approach is delivering truly ‘outstanding’ early years education…
If you were asked to decide upon your ideal early years environment, the space and atmosphere in which you felt you would be most capable of delivering ‘outstanding’ practice, it’s a safe bet that a corporate HQ wouldn’t be at the top of your list. Arrival at the home of Olympus KeyMed in Southend-on-Sea and a few minutes spent in its immaculate but minimalist reception area is unlikely to change your mind. But prejudices and first impressions can be deceiving; take a short walk, descend a flight of stairs, and this site of international business shows another side, one that is affording the children of KeyMed staff as considered and stimulating an introduction to education as anyone could wish for.
Outwardly, Olympus KeyMed Day Nursery’s corporate roots don’t lie far beneath the surface. Situated within purpose-built premises on the ground floor of the expansive KeyMed House and registered to care for up to 59 children, its rooms and outdoor spaces are conspicuously spacious, well-maintained and -resourced; its noticeboards display professionally produced leaflets highlighting the work that’s going on in the setting. It’s impossible to escape the sense that money has been spent on what is, after all, a perk-of-the-job for those parents working next door. Speak to manager, Judit Horvath, however, and it quickly becomes clear that regardless of their circumstances, nursery staff take childcare very seriously indeed.
“In the past, perhaps, the nursery was seen more as an extension of the company – to the extent that it looked beautiful and tidy, but wasn’t necessarily that child-friendly,” admits Judit as we sit down to discuss a setting packed with talking points. “It was run from the point of view of the customers – the parents. When I applied to be manager, I presented a different approach, one that focused more on the children’s point of view, and the company was very happy to let me take it. Today, the parents matter to us because they matter to the children; but what we’re here for is the children, and that’s the one thing that’s never going to change. To be honest, I think that’s exactly in line with the company’s own aims – they have this service to make these children happy so that they’re parents can be relaxed and concentrate on their work.”
Making children happy might sum up the nursery’s raison d’etre quite nicely, but it somewhat underplays the thought and hard work that goes into achieving that goal. Judit, a former secondary school teacher from Hungary, has strong views on education. With Qualified Teacher and Early Years Professional Status to her name – and research towards her PhD under way – her approach is multifaceted, drawing inspiration from a range of sources, from Danish forest schools to Reggio Emilia. She stresses the importance to staff of a sound theoretical knowledge of childhood development, but also of having the right attitude. “We believe in children, we believe in their abilities,” she explains when asked to put into words what makes the setting ‘outstanding’. “That’s really important. It’s not the actual physical activities we provide, it’s the way we deliver them; the way we let children choose and the way in which we are brave enough to say ‘This isn’t chaos, it’s children’s choice’.”
Upon this core philosophy has been built a wonderfully creative learning environment. In our tour of the setting we see a host of stimulating activities under way, not to mention an outdoor area complete with a very popular mud kitchen and forest school. Children splash, paint, run and jump, practise their fledgling writing skills, build and explore a variety of role-play opportunities. They are clearly confident in the setting, and Judit is keen to emphasise that from the moment children enter her care, practitioners are proactive in supporting their development. “I’m a strong believer in the idea that the way babies develop will determine their whole life,” she says. “So, we give them lots of different experiences – textures, temperatures, smells, all their different senses. They are born with no finger pad sensitivity, but when they have all these different experiences, their senses, the connections in their brain, develop. We have free provision for babies in terms of water, sand and paint. We sit them in all sorts of textures – from cereal to beans to jelly, to goop, to paint and sand. We have heuristic play with them once a week; treasure baskets
are part of our ongoing provision.
“And it doesn’t stop with the babies – we have lots of free and open-ended play resources in all the rooms,” she continues. “We also play a lot with lights and darkness; we have a sensory room and a UV painting room, which we call our art expression room because the children can paint literally anywhere they like – on the walls and the floor, and themselves! There are pretty much no limitations.”
In keeping with Judit’s approach, practitioners go to great lengths to offer every child at the nursery choices, and to take into account their interests. A free-flow system is in operation for much of the day and, drawing from HighScope, even the youngest are encouraged to show staff which activities they would like to spend their time on: “The children plan during morning circle time,” Judit explains. “They have their own planning cards which they stick to Velcro boards to tell us where they’d like to play. It provides us with the opportunity to give a voice and choice to those who are not able to just stand up and tell you ‘that’s what I will play, and that’s how I’ll do it’ in the way the pre-school children can.”
Providing children with opportunities to express their preferences also feeds into practitioners’ planning, with children’s expressed interests used to guide different ability groups towards achieving specific skills. Here, the aim is not only to promote development but also to recognise that every child has different strengths. “We have skills in focus, things we’d like the children to achieve – even if the reason is simply to make them more confident,” explains Judit. “Collecting ideas based on children’s interests enables us to achieve what we believe it’s important for them to achieve while avoiding classing each child as ‘able’ or ‘less able’; it accounts for the fact that while they might be less able in one area they may be in the top achievers in a different area.”
At the heart of any successful setting is its staff. Olympus KeyMed’s team is a well-established one comprising a mix of ages and experience – Judit is happy to admit that the financial backing the nursery receives from its parent company, and as a consequence the setting’s capacity to pay higher wages than the norm, is a major advantage in this respect. But again, she stresses the importance of attitude: “I expect my staff to have a good relationship with the children, and they can only do so if they have a good relationship with each other,” she says. “We have a completely open door policy for staff, so when we have conflicts – which is completely normal in a working environment – I encourage people to talk it out there and then. We’re a big family, really,” she continues. “We have the time to listen to people and their problems, and they’re brave enough to tell us what they’re not confident with. There will be times when we give them support to help them get better at what they’re struggling with, but we may also allow them to do something else. Using staff’s strengths is the key to success because if practitioners are confident the children will be confident too.”
In practice, this policy has seen the introduction of a wide range of different roles and responsibilities for practitioners. There are language champions, outdoor, parental involvement and Olympics coordinators; one staff member has a floating role that allows her to move between rooms to play with the children when more adult interaction is required. Ofsted’s report notes that every role or responsibility seems to have just the right person filling it. But if the impression given is one of a team already working to its potential, there’s no question of anyone resting on their laurels; as you might expect given Judit’s impressive qualifications, a great emphasis is placed on staff development. “We provide a lot of non-contact time for the staff,” she confirms. “All the girls have two hours time out every fortnight, and they also have monthly room meetings where they can plan and share ideas. We make sure everyone gets to go on the training that they want to go on, too.
“If you love what you do, you don’t mind working hard for success,” Judit says, and there’s no doubting that she and her team have worked hard for their ‘outstanding’. In an environment, with its captive customer base and subsidisation, in which the less conscientious might be tempted to relax, their practice is innovative and their commitment clear to see. Despite the narrow base from which the setting draws its children, Judit actively engages with other local nurseries and hosts cluster meetings for the local authority, ensuring that her ideas are shared and developed. You couldn’t ask for more proof that she loves her job – and when you combine the enthusiasm that brings with her thorough understanding of the latest academic thinking, ongoing success seems certain.
1. New ideas
“As a manager I find it very important to go out looking for new ideas,” Judit says. “I search on the internet, I go to conferences; I read lots of modern research.” But she is also carrying out her own research, the results of which are on display in the nursery’s ‘gallery’. “I took in famous artists’ drawings, talked to the children about them, and then recorded their various responses,” she says. “The children weren’t always able to tell me exactly what they thought of the pictures, but in the copies of the pictures they did you can see that they have strong opinions about what they find important in art.
“I think that’s another example of how we are listening to children,” she adds. “We take into account what they say and shape our nursery according to what they find important.”
2. Value for money
There’s no denying the nursery benefits from the financial backing it receives from the wider company, but Judit highlights the fact that many of the innovative activities and resources her children have access to are within the financial reach of any setting. “The UV bulbs in our art expression room cost very little money – you can find all kinds of different bulbs to fit into existing lights, so we didn’t have to change anything,” she says by way of example. “All we do is keep providing stuff that is fluorescent – the stuff the children enjoy the most is our fluorescent goop, which is basically cornflour, water and fluorescent paint; it lasts for ages.
“Our forest school and mud kitchen weren’t expensive at all either,” she continues. “The projects were very cheap as they are put together from rubbish that the gardeners would throw out. You can find solutions for anything.”
3. Parent partnerships
“Every six months we send out a performance questionnaire to get feedback on the nursery,” Judit says when asked about the positive relationship the nursery enjoys with parents. “There is a space on the form where they can explain what they would like to change, and based on one of the questionnaires we’ve introduced a family social event – one of the parents thought there wasn’t enough time available to see other parents socially, because they were all working long hours. So every three months or so we have this event where families – not just parents – can come in.
“In general terms, I think making the children’s learning visible is the key to the success with parents,” she adds. “They want what’s best for their children, so if you can provide them with the reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing, they’ll be happy.”
4. Times of transition
A lot of thought is given to transition between rooms at Olympus KeyMed. Judit is a firm believer in moving children when they are ready, rather than sticking to pre-defined age ranges. “It’s really important that it’s based on their readiness,” she says, “and this is where how well we know the children, and their parents, comes into play. There is a joint and happy decision made about when the children move from one room to another – you’ll see a 15-month-old baby in our nursery completely at ease in the ‘toddler room’ because of the way she’s been nurtured; the way she sees her parent handing her across to her key worker confidently and happily at the start of the day means she is confident and happy too.”
Teach Early Years visited Olympus KeyMed Day Nursery in 2012.