I visit many settings as a consultant, I recently had the privilege of visiting a day nursery that was in every way Outstanding. It was so exciting, it was as if I spent the day opening gifts, as so many little things happened that demonstrated the brilliance of the nursery.
I have reflected much since my visit to try to pinpoint exactly what made the difference, I have concluded there was not one thing, but it was the sum of all its parts. It begins of course with the manager and her deputy. The manager told me she had absolute confidence and belief in her team, she nurtured them, championed them and importantly involved and included them. This was reflected in the approach and practice demonstrated by her team.
In the nursery there were four base rooms and each was in the fortunate position of having their own outdoor area. The setting had no idea I was visiting, so everything I saw was not specially put on, but was just how the nursery is every day.
Every practitioner I spoke with knew their key children well and were able to talk about their personality, their likes, interests and next steps and explain clearly how and why their activities supported the children’s learning and development. Let me describe some examples:
• A practitioner was leading a maths activity outside, the children were looking at large shapes, drawing round them and counting the sides. She explained how counting and shape recognition was a next step for one of her key children and how on the cohort analysis it flagged up maths as an area where the child was making less progress, however she realised this wasn’t a true reflection of the child it was just there was a lack of observations. She would be able to use the evaluation of the activity to demonstrate the child’s knowledge and understanding. The activity was outside as she knew her children preferred to participate and learn out of doors.
• Another practitioner described how her focus was STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and that she planned a series of activities over several days, around volcanoes, to stimulate and interest the children, it was proving a hit. The idea had developed from an interest the children had in potions. The children had watched a video of a volcano, worked together to make a papier mache volcano and were in the process of working together to paint it. Later in the week the children were going to make the volcano erupt. They were able to recall each stage, consolidating their learning. [Editor's note: this CBeebies video is a good starting place: volcanoes]
• I chatted with another practitioner about their child and we discussed his next steps and what they were and he said, actually I just did an observation reflecting them, which he showed me and we discussed.
There were many other examples of learning being extended spontaneously, reference to cohort analysis and reluctant children being effectively supported to engage and become involved. Perhaps the pinnacle of the reflection of how well staff knew their children, is the conversation I had with a pre school child. I chatted with her about what she enjoyed doing most at nursery, she replied drawing. Later on when I was reading her most recent assessment, I saw that her key carer had described how much she enjoyed drawing imaginatively. That moment was just perfect. That I thought, is what it is all about, practitioner and child on the same wavelength.
Throughout the nursery, staff had high expectations for children’s behaviour, this was especially evident in the pre school room. This was supported by enabling children to resolve their own differences, enabling self regulation. Children are given prompts and support to resolve differences, e.g. ‘what do you think you should do?’ In one example, two children wanted to sit in the same place at lunch time and were trying to put their placemats down. The practitioner asked ‘what do you think you should do?’ and a child replied 'move round here', indicating the other side of the table. Independence is encouraged actively, a child asks where paint pots should go at tidy up time, the adult asks if they are 'dirty or clean?' The child responds 'dirty,' so is then asked where to they need to go? He indicates by the sink. That few seconds to encourage the child to think of what needs to be done instead of telling them makes a huge difference.
Crucially all of this positive practice was evident consistently across the nursery, that consistency is not easy to achieve, so to identify why, we need to look to the manager. The manager herself did extra in a multitude of ways. Much of this surrounded the cohort analysis, not only she did she share her evaluation of the analysis with all staff, so they understood, she actively put in place programmes across the whole nursery to address any imbalance. However, she went a step further and actively sought data from her local authority about any issues in her area, to see how that reflected what was found internally and what could be done in the nursery. By role modelling herself going the extra mile, it is easier then to get the same response from her team. Ideas and contributions are actively encouraged.
This brings me on to staff meetings. Many settings have issues with staff meetings and they are held infrequently. I have always maintained that for a setting to be effective and consistent, especially a multi room setting, regular whole staff meetings are essential. They are needed for cohesion and team work, an opportunity to discuss ideas, practice and issues, for information sharing. They are supportive of consistency and a collaborative approach. In this nursery I lost count of the number of practitioners who volunteered information about the current focus for involving parents. This nursery has monthly staff meetings, and it showed. It showed in the consistency and the shared awareness and understanding. Obviously not staff meetings alone can be attributed to this, but they worked in conjunction with effective performance management and a manager who is visible and approachable to her team. She actively welcomes ideas and the views of her team and encourages partnership working. As a consequence team motivation and morale is high.
Being outstanding isn’t about focusing on that word and what it means to Ofsted, in fact it is the opposite. It is about having a passion for early years, wanting to be the best you can be and utilising what tools are available to provide the best possible start for the children. It is about knowing what that means and basing it on a sound philosophy of good early years practice. Bucket loads of enthusiasm and commitment help too.
Sometimes though, expectations and what we are asked to do can be of benefit. An example is the cohort analysis, yes it is time consuming and working out the best approach can be tricky, but once it is mastered, as I was told at this setting, it is fascinating.
Without exception, throughout the nursery, in every room, there were interesting and innovative activities planned for the children. All were engaged, whether that was the babies exploring paint on a foil covered low table or the pre school children listening animatedly as a practitioner read them a story with great flair and expression. The manager told me she felt one of the key strengths of the nursery, were ideas, that her team were full of great ideas. For those ideas to flourish and be realised there has to be opportunity and encouragement to put them into practice.
Children moved effortlessly from experience to experience as their play and learning evolved. There were high levels of interaction between the children themselves and many examples of collaborative play. It felt like each day must be an exciting adventure for the children, a journey. There were lots of little touches, for example in the 2 – 3 year old room in the area leading to the outdoors, opera was playing quietly and it worked really well in a calm and serene way. The manager explained it was about introducing children subtly to music that was different and new and wasn’t Disney.
I feel I gained and benefited from spending a day at this nursery and witnessing all the children’s enjoyment and learning and the outstanding practice demonstrated by staff. It seemed so effortless and everything flowed seamlessly, but hard work and commitment, plus a joy and pleasure at being there were behind the atmosphere and environment created by the team. It reminded me and refreshed my philosophy and believe in what is effective early years practice. I can take that forward with me into further training and consultancy work.
I remember a few years ago, Ofsted produced a document entitled ‘A Passion to be Outstanding’ reflecting good practice seen in outstanding settings. The passion has to be there first and foremost as without that, no one will achieve or benefit least of all the children.
As I left the manager said to me one other thing about this nursery is the laughter, there is always lots of laughter and why wouldn’t there be, when the learning experiences for the children are fun, interesting, creative and tailored to their needs? As Jean Houston , American Author and co founder of ‘The Foundation for Mind Research’, says ‘at the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.’ New possibilities is the essence of exploration and learning within good early years provision and that was definitely at the heart of what was happening at this nursery, as children and practitioners discovered together.
Edited by Rebecca