The power of community
When I think about the power of community and the impact that educators have on children, it takes me back to the many magical moments I had as a little girl seeing my teachers (who also lived locally) outside of nursery ‘in real clothes’ doing ‘real things’. Like buying meat from the butcher's. I would often hide behind my mum when we spotted a teacher, as I had an innate feeling that I wasn’t allowed to see my teachers in this odd but clearly human capacity.
Such seemingly small moments are both meaningful and empowering for a small child, as these are the kinds of things that help children develop a strong connection with their educators and a sense of belonging within their community.
Community, according to the Oxford definition, is ‘the group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common’. Put even more simply (and as the word itself suggests) it’s people with a ‘common unity’.
Being able to unify because of the things we have in common and our ‘particular characteristics’ is so important and not something we can afford to overlook in the early years. However, with equity in mind it hopefully goes without saying that it is equally important to recognise, appreciate, and celebrate, the characteristics that make every child different. Because representation, in relation to human characteristics, also cannot be overlooked!
Working everyday with groups of children that (whilst in the same community) are all unique, provides a daily opportunity for educators to reflect on what makes us the same, what makes us different and what they need to know and do to authentically engage with families. Independent, community-based nurseries (such as pack-away nurseries) have a unique opportunity to decide how their knowledge of their locality can be threaded into the daily set up of their provision. The family support that these settings provide can also be tailored to the needs of the local community, according to the ever-changing local circumstances affecting them the most.
Thinking about each child’s family being their first community, helps us to understand why establishing strong parental partnerships is so important. A strong collaboration between the family and the setting speaks to the very popular African proverb that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.
Similarly, phrases such as ‘you are a product of your environment’ speak to the importance of not only the connections we make but the quality of these.
Now, thinking about the above phrase in relation to ‘cultural capital’ should hopefully highlight for educators the importance of being conscious and intentional about how and why they embrace the cultures, diversity and richness that exists as an accessible resource around them. It should also illustrate (when done right) how powerful community cohesion can be for children and families.
The nursery down the road in the community hall
With the above in mind, we must remember that the ‘little pack-away nursery’ down the road in the church/community hall, is well positioned to build on the many things that children who live locally have in common. Educators within these nurseries are loaded with local knowledge and insights about their area, and this enables them to tailor learning to ensure maximum impact on the outcomes of children within such localities.
Growing up in Peckham, London during the 80’s was where it all started for me. This was my community, my special place and where everything was familiar to me. My early years education started with a childminder then I later attended a Pan-African pack-away nursery in the centre of Peckham (now Peckham library), so from a young age I was very fortunate to have been nurtured in an environment where I was both understood and represented.
Everyone knows where their local places of worship or community spaces are (even if they don’t attend) and they are also likely to be familiar with the location of their local library, bakery and supermarkets. So, when educators arrange outings to these places, they are helping to add layers and further embed learning within spaces where children already feel confident and familiar.
My own positive experiences of attending a pack-away nursery in my community has been a key driver of the passion I have for the early years. Despite having over 20 years' experience in this sector, I am still very intentional with my commitment to further explore and learn about the very special and unique learning opportunities that pack-away nurseries and childminders can provide for children and families in those first five years. I think many of us can agree that due to these educators being tucked away in a side road, they are often forgotten.
Historically, and from what I have experienced throughout my career, the partnerships and transition arrangements that happen between childminders or pack-away nurseries and schools are not as strong as they could be. I have often (but not always) observed a snobbery against pack-away nurseries by schools (and oddly, this has appeared to happen less towards the bigger nursery chains). This apparent reluctance to engage and respect these community-based nurseries is unfortunate, and often results in the loss of what should be a central part of the information educators need to understand and plan for the holistic needs of the unique child.
However, it is my hope that with the focus on a reduction in paperwork (DfE, EYFS 2021, Section 2.2) this will mean educators are afforded more time to properly connect with previous educators to ensure information gathered about the first five years of children’s lives can become a springboard for the design of the curriculum in the year ahead.
Creating safe spaces through truly thoughtfully planned provision
Pack-away nurseries are often the pillars and helpful hubs within communities. Educators who work in these spaces have the opportunity to look through the lens of each unique child and consider which experiences children need that may not be afforded to them at home or within their local surroundings. The knowledge educators hold about children who live locally enables them to be the bridge between home and the setting that can create meaningful, safe spaces which reflect the familiarity and comfort of home.
Despite the challenges of running a pack-away nursery - which often includes the additional set up time, sharing the space with other community groups and ‘playing tetris’ with the storage cupboard! - there is no doubt that the advantage educators have to think critically about how they design their environment daily, outweighs these challenges.
Whilst maintaining a level of consistency is an important part of providing children with a high-quality continuous provision, the flexibility that pack-away nurseries have to renew their set up is a powerful springboard for inspiring creativity and critical thinking in children that nurseries who have a static environment aren’t always privy to.
Social mobility at the heart of the pack-away setting
To summarise, the DfE publication ‘Unlocking talent, Fulfilling Potential’ provides educators with some important and key considerations for what and how all education providers can do to positively impact social mobility.
Below are some short extracts and a few questions I have written that I hope educators will use to reflect on within their settings:
Levelling up opportunity - ‘Talent and hard work alone should determine how far people can go in life, whoever you are, wherever you are from’.
Q - How do you recognise and celebrate the unique talents and abilities of children in your setting?
A plan for improving social mobility through education - ‘To make a real difference, we must align our work and relentlessly focus our energy and resources to where it can have the greatest impact.... where it is most needed to unlock talent and fulfil potential’.
Q - How do you assess where the greatest need is in your setting and what are some examples of the targeted responses you take?
No community left behind - ‘In Britain today, the community where you grow up will shape your chances of attending a good school and your wider educational and career outcomes’
Q - How do you ensure that efforts to enhance ‘cultural capital’ are meaningful and properly take account of and include the unique needs of each child and their family?
Tackling the injustices that hold people back at each life stage - ‘Even in good schools, disadvantaged pupils underperform; and even when they succeed in education, they achieve poorer career outcomes than their more affluent peers with the same qualifications’.
Q - What is an example of how you provide equity for children in your setting?
Ambition 1: Close the ‘word gap’ in the early years - ‘Disadvantaged children are less likely to experience a home environment that can best support their early development, particularly with regard to early language’.
Q - How do you both work in partnership with parents/carers and design your setting to ensure good opportunities for early literacy?