In November 2022, the DfE announced the first 13 settings in England that would become early years Stronger Practice Hubs (SPHs), as part of its wider EY Covid Recovery Programme.
The idea is that these SPHs will provide advice, share good practice and offer evidence-based professional development for early years practitioners in their region.
The programme is supported by the Education Endowment Foundation, and the National Children’s Bureau. The Stronger Practice Hub for the East of England will be Highfield Nursery School, in Ipswich.
Shortly after the announcement, TEY took the opportunity to catch up with headteacher Ruth Coleman and ask her about the application process, and how she sees the programme developing over the next two years…
TEY: So, Ruth, could you tell us a little about your background?
RC I came late to teaching. I’d had a previous career as a project manager, but after staying at home when my two children were young, and thinking deeply about what I really wanted to do next, I trained as a teacher in 2009.
When I qualified, I knew that I didn’t want to work in a nursery class, nor to travel more than 10 miles; but then a job came up at Highfield nursery school, half an hour away from my house… and I changed my mind.
As the head teacher showed me round, I realised that the first five years form the most important part of a child’s education. I wanted to be a part of that, and as it turned out, I spent my whole, ten-year journey from NQT to headteacher here.
How early in your teaching career did you start to focus on the idea of evidence-based practice?
Oh, really early. Highfield became a teaching school not long after I started there, and then a research school – the first early years setting to be so designated.
We were also linked to an Opportunity Area (Ipswich), so there was a lot of funding coming in, and our role was to make sure that right across the area, evidence-based practice was happening, including in early years settings.
We needed to interpret guidance, and present it in a way that everyone could access and implement. I give out EEF guides to everyone who comes to Highfield; they can see what happens in our rooms, and then read about the research that underpins what we do.
It’s really fantastic to hear this synergy between active practice and ongoing research – because you can’t have either in isolation.
And you can’t stand still! You know, your practice has to develop – you can’t stay ‘outstanding’ by simply doing what you did last time. It’s about being at the cutting edge.
Presumably, then, as soon as you heard about the Stronger Practice Hubs programme, it must have seemed like the ideal fit for Highfield?
Absolutely! In the end, though, we decided to put in a partnership application. It’s a really enormous project, and as well as the maintained nursery here, we also have a children’s centre on site, and two PVI nurseries – one on site, and one in another part of the children’s centre reach area.
In addition, I’d been working with another group of PVIs through the Ipswich Opportunity Area – the Bows and Arrows group, with 7 PVIs across Ipswich, as well as the Oaks Primary School.
And it seemed to me that if I could bring us all together, we could have this really collaborative way of working together, alongside the Ipswich Associate Research School.
So that’s the partnership that makes up our Stronger Practice Hub, enabling us to take the work of the research school, and the opportunity area, and move forwards with that.
What did the application process involve?
It was very robust! It started with an extremely detailed form, where we had to talk about our understanding of evidence-based practice, and how to develop it in our own settings and more widely.
I think there were about 160 applications across the country. We were shortlisted from those, then interviewed by representatives from the EEF and NCB, who dug deeper into our application form, checking our knowledge and understanding, for about 90 minutes.
After another cut, we were visited on site, to see if what we’d been saying translated into practice. And at the start of December, we got the email confirming we’d been selected.
Have KPIs been decided yet?
Well, we have a list of criteria and objectives, from which the KPIs will be tied down. EEF has designed a set of programmes that each SPH will be able to offer in their area.
We’ve had a ‘roadshow’ of those, and put in our choices of what we’d like to offer in the East of England, making sure that it meets the needs of practitioners and we’re not duplicating what’s going on elsewhere.
We then need to sign up as many settings as we can to take part in the training, and support them to work through it and embed it. This is a two-year project – but it’s really about long-term investment in settings.
The NCB talks about developing a ‘shared language in the sector’. What do you understand by that, and do you agree that it’s important?
Yes; we have highly qualified, inspiring people working in this sector – yet sometimes the impression is that we’re all just people who sort of fell into it because the pre-school our children went to needed volunteers!
That’s detrimental to the sector as a whole, so it’s important that we think very carefully about how we offer training, when we offer it and how it meets the needs of all the people across the sector.
We want to unify the sector with a common language of professionalism; building a collegiate community of professionals.
What would you like to achieve over the next two years?
I’d like to set up a network across the East of England, where practitioners know they always have somebody else they can talk to, whether that’s through WhatsApp groups, newsletters, sharing research; all kinds of professional connections.
There is a huge desire for this within the sector, and I don’t want anyone who is part of the Hub to feel ‘done to’. Ultimately, it’s all about the children, and how, together, we can make a difference for them.
The primary mission of SPHs is to ensure research underpins everyday practice wherever possible; and this is certainly the case at Highfield Nursery School, as Ruth explains.
“The EEF guidance ‘Preparing for Literacy’, for example, talks about how important it is not only to have the quantity of exposure to language, but the ‘quality’,” she points out.
“That’s why we have a specially curated group of texts that we use for our story curriculum, which are designed to encourage children to be exploratory in the language that they use.
“One of the texts we use is Peter Rabbit; Beatrix Potter’s language is amazing, but some people ‘dumb it down’ for very young children. We’ve never done that – we expose our learners to all those lovely sounds, like the ‘lippity-lippity’ as Peter moves around the garden.
“When you hear the children outside, calling ‘lippity-lippity’ or ‘stop, thief!’ as they run and play, you know that language has been embedded. The guidance is the backup - it’s how you know that what you’re doing is right.”
Ruth Coleman is headteacher at Highfield Nursery School in Ipswich.