We hear from Mel Braden about YMCA’s nursery group, and why their staff really are superheroes…
YMCA Black Country Group is part of a worldwide federation, but operates as a local community.
The oldest of our nurseries (Carters Green) has been running for 25 years and we’ve had significant growth from 2019 to 2022 when we opened five new settings.
We now have eight nurseries in our group and are taking a year to consolidate that, ensuring that everyone’s familiar with our ethos and values. So, we’ve stopped to catch our breath and launch our new curriculum.
We wrote our curriculum last year and were lucky enough to have a brand-new setting, which enabled us to do an early adoption and iron out any flaws. Our other settings adopted the curriculum this April.
It’s taken us on a journey about what’s important to us; what our influences are; what the children need; and how we can ensure that these children have the best possible start.
In our local authorities, the average attainment score is around 5% lower than the rest of England, but according to our attainment scores from July, we have overtaken the England average scores.
The new curriculum’s having a huge impact – we’re narrowing the gap for our learners and they’re starting in school on a level playing field with their more affluent peers.
The key to our curriculum is that our focus is on the child. Of course, the children have always been at the heart of everything we’ve done – they are the lead in their learning. But our curriculum has brought together a holistic picture. It’s not only the child; it’s their family, it’s their experiences. It’s everything that has contributed to our young learners and their journey so far.
We ask ourselves, ‘What does this child need? Where are they starting from? What does their family need? What are the priorities for this family?’.
The curriculum is based on our six pillars for learning: Mind, Body, Spirit, Belong, Contribute and Thrive. These are woven through everything that we do at YMCA.
Mind: We wanted to highlight the importance of children’s mental health, ensuring that they are empowered to say ‘no’; to ask questions; to make healthy choices; to build relationships with peers. We also want children to have that respect for each other and be proud of themselves and of their identity.
Body: When it comes to looking after our bodies, childhood obesity has been a rising issue, but it’s also the cost of living crisis, which is driving processed foods, quick snacks and unhealthy eating. We’re putting healthy choices, a healthy diet and exercise at the heart of our curriculum.
Spirit: This is about feeling part of something bigger. If you have faith, whatever your faith is, you can ask questions about it, and you can explore it.
We’re a Christian organisation, so our Christian foundation is where we start from, but it’s about everybody’s religion, faith and beliefs, and that sense of being part of something bigger outside of nursery and home.
Belong: The children feel that they really belong here, and the staff do too. With so much uncertainty during the pandemic, that sense of security – knowing that they’re listened to and their voice is valued – is really key for us.
Contribute: We’ve talked about social mobility in early years for so long, and we’re raising aspirations for these children. They have their own jobs to do in the settings: they contribute to their learning and the planning, to circle time and what the environments look like.
They all have a responsibility to help make the cogs of the nursery turn, which helps prepare them for later on in life.
Thrive: The children here are making rapid progress. Our big aspiration is that people will know that these are YMCA children because they are polite and caring, and they have a really positive attitude to learning and other people. They understand their community and their self-worth, and that they are valued.
Once we have embedded our new curriculum across our nurseries, we will look to grow again, with an aim of offering 825 places by the end of 2025.
Recruitment has been a huge issue for us, as it is across the early years sector. We have a lot of applicants, but not often with the qualifications that we need.
There has been a 65% increase in nursery closures compared with last year, and there’s still a shortage of qualified staff – the government are forcing a low economy profession and people are leaving.
We value our staff – they are professionals. They do a really hard job, but underpayments in grant funding mean that we’re limited in terms of how much we’re able to pay our employees. It’s especially hard as a charity, because we’re here to support communities – we’re in the hardest-to-reach areas.
An increase in funding rates could literally change everything. We’ve lobbied as YMCA and I’ve personally spoken to our local councillors. We receive a blanket response that they’ve invested a certain amount of money, but the amount is disproportionate between early years and schools.
There’s also the language of ‘free childcare’ which leaves you with an awkward conversation to have with parents, and the consultation on ratios brings the same issue. The DfE suggested that adjusting ratios could save the parents of two-year-old children £40 a week.
No, it won‘t. If ratios change, the only thing it’s going to do is cover some overheads – perhaps help us keep the lights on a little bit longer.
The DfE is changing this figure following complaints, but it sets us up for a fall because we’re going to be the people who have to explain to parents that we can’t discount their childcare fees.
The staff at YMCA are part of a bigger picture. They know that when they come to work, they’re not only helping the children in our settings; they are helping communities and the hardest-to-reach people. They’re part of a worldwide movement that is having an impact everywhere.
The income that we generate from the nurseries supports charitable projects in the community. We have homelessness projects where we provide hot meals, clean clothes and help to access doctors.
There are learning and skills projects, which focus on functional skills – level 1 and 2 in English, maths and ICT – as well as training in employability, budgeting and life skills.
We also have youth projects throughout summer holidays, so that children can come and have a hot meal and do some sport.
Our staff really are all superheroes. They come in every day and get stuck in. And all for the fact that they know they’re doing good for the children at our nurseries, and for the wider community.