It is well established that the early years is an obvious opportunity to intervene when addressing the challenge of social mobility. The EPPE trials were clear about what positive intervention looked like. Beyond the home learning environment, it is high quality early years provision alone that was able to narrow the gap in child development between children from low income families and their more advantaged peers. The Sutton Trust has long made the case for tackling disadvantage with high quality early years education; in the Sound Foundations report, and more recently in the Closing the Gaps Early report.
Last week, hundreds of head teachers, parents, teaching assistants, governors and nursery practitioners marched on Downing Street to deliver a letter to the chancellor asking for a funding commitment to secure the sustainability of the maintained nursery schools. Among them, was Bridget Cass, Chair of the Governors of Old Church Nursery school. Bridget shares why she thinks maintained nurseries are a beacon for best practice, and why the government should ensure their future is secured…
“Maintained nurseries are places where ideas are developed, and where vital training happens which can feed into the wider Early Years sector. In an ideal world we should be extending these vital centres of excellence, not allowing them to close.
Old Church Nursery School, like most maintained nursery schools, is a bit of a secret – at the end of a cul-de-sac in Stepney, past a comprehensive school and overlooked by a 60s block of flats. Set up over 90 years ago to provide care and education for children from the local areas, so that their mothers could go to work, it still has the low, large classrooms and is surrounded by outside play-space. The area has obviously changed over time, but the school, in sight of the new landmarks of the city’s financial centre, continues to serve a diverse community. We have 40 places for children eligible for the two-year-old places (families with an income of £16,190 or less), 64% of children in our nursery have English as an additional language, 24% of our 3- and 4-year-olds are eligible for pupil premium and 27% have SEN including autism spectrum disorder, visual and hearing impairment and complex physical conditions.
There are staffing levels above the minimum requirement ratios which means that the children are able to develop good relationships with their key worker more easily, quickly allowing them to feel safe and nurtured – if their home lives are chaotic, this is absolutely crucial. Sufficient staff capacity also allows some flexibility within the system, enabling our staff to engage in constant research and training, building on the expertise of the team.
Compared to our colleagues in the voluntary sector we recognise that to date we have received funding at a significantly higher rate. This enables us to have a head teacher and a senior management team, all of whom are trained teachers and early years specialists. We have a qualified teacher in each of the classes and 17 graduates across the setting (47% of staff). The assistant head teacher is a qualified teacher and experienced SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-Ordinator). The SENCO is a non-teaching role which means they are able to train SEN support staff, co-ordinate the SEN provision and ensure that assessments are completed efficiently and quickly.
We also employ highly qualified nursery nurses who are specialists in child development and high-quality teaching assistants who are able to model complex language and act on their own initiative.
All staff receive speech and language training from a qualified speech therapist. The flexibility within the staff team allows us to release staff to run specialist language support groups within the nursery. They have the time to support SEN children prior to assessment and funding to run home/school liaison (with a trained counsellor) to support families facing extreme challenges.
We also provide a training hub for other providers within the sector, both maintained and private voluntary independent provision. We aim to be a centre of excellence and consider it part of our role to engage in the development of good practice across the sector, constantly hosting visits from schools and individuals.
We offer support for teacher training, teaching assistant training, nursing students, education psychologists and social worker trainees – all come for placements and require supervision.
We are able to run regular coffee mornings for parents, as well as workshops and training sessions to support the most isolated families. We offer stay and play drop in sessions for families with babies and toddlers in the local community, offering friendship, advice and support. We are open 8-5 for breakfast and after school clubs.
A nursery school for all
We are currently able to offer a wealth of experience broadening opportunities for our children including a forest school, theatre trips, visits to the seaside, museums, galleries and adventures in their local neighbourhood.
We are able to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged but at the at the same time we have a school that everyone wants to attend.
We are proud to be rated as Outstanding by Ofsted – but, along with all the maintained nursery schools in Tower Hamlets, we are so much more.
We know that maintained nursery schools cater for only a small percentage of 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds across the country, but like Old Church, they are mainly situated in inner city areas, serving the most disadvantaged communities. They’re therefore ideally placed to address the potential educational disadvantages of children most in need before they start school, rightly deserving the title of the “jewel in the crown of social mobility”, and as such we should treasure, nurture and make the most of them for the benefit of the children and families that they serve, as well as the whole sector.”
Bridget Cass is Chair of the Governors for Old Church Nursery school. Old Church is currently involved in an action research project focusing on support for Self-Regulation in the Early Years. The project is led by Dr David Whitebread (University of Cambridge), supported by the Sutton Trust, and funded by Headley Trust and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. Also involved in the project are early years teachers representing a nursery class from a primary school and a nursery from the LEYF social enterprise/charity. Dr Whitebread commented on all those involved in the project: “I could not have hoped to work with a more professional, dedicated group of early years teachers.”