As early years practitioners gather for this month’s Nursery World Conference, Lydia Cuddy-Gibbs, Head of Early Years for Ark Schools reflects on what drives her practice, and how to make a difference in early years.
I’ve spent the last few weeks attending various conferences and festivals – the first Sheffield Hallam Festival of Education, Wellington’s 11th Festival of Education and now I’m preparing for the Nursery World Conference. I have relished the opportunity to meet with incredible practitioners from across the education sector - it’s been inspirational.
Given the wide variety of approaches to childcare and early education (and the challenges facing the sector right now), it was particularly great to reflect in Sheffield on what we might agree on about the sector. We know that the early years are a critical phase in a child’s development. We know that access to excellent nursery care and education has a positive impact that carries through a child’s life. We know that a parent is a child’s first teacher, that it is vital to build strong partnerships between nursery and home. We also know the sector has often been undervalued and underfunded.
Early years is a vital time in a child’s development. A child’s progress in the first year of life is incredible. By age 3, 80% of a child’s brain has developed. While the brain retains plasticity beyond early childhood, change gets significantly harder with age.
As a practitioner, I believe early years is where you can make the most difference to a child’s future. It’s where you start building a fairer, more equal society, ensuring children are ready to learn at primary and don’t fall behind their peers. For me, care and education in early years are inseparable – good quality care is good education, through play, storytelling and child-led exploration. The EYFS is a game changer: I believe that if we get it right for 0-5 year olds, and we will see more equality further down the line.
Ark’s mission is to ensure every child has a life of opportunity through education. Our educational philosophy is founded on the belief in the potential of every child, regardless of background. Of course, learning – especially for nursery age children – doesn’t just take place in a nursery setting. There is a wealth of evidence on the importance of the home learning environment.
Research shows that the kind of activities that parents do with children at home - singing songs and nursery rhymes, reading, visiting the library, playing with letters and numbers, painting and drawing, taking children out and about, and providing opportunities for them to play with their friends - are more important than a family’s social class, educational background or where they live.
These findings strengthen what we know from our practice. We find that working with families through home visits improves children’s outcomes. We have 27 schools with children in the early years, and 18 of our schools have nurseries, some starting at age 2. We also work with one PVI in Portsmouth where children join from 3 months. Home visits are a key feature of the work we do in these settings. We’re not trailblazers in this: home visits are a well cited example of good practice, building that strong relationship between practitioners, children and families.
It’s a joy for me to meet children and their carers in the place they feel most at ease – their home. As a teacher, I carried out home visits with all the children in my class to get to know them better. I remember one young girl who didn’t speak much in class; when I visited her family, she talked non-stop. The barrier wasn’t that she couldn’t talk: the barrier was that she needed to feel settled and supported. For this child, seeing her parents and teacher engaging at home allowed her confidence to grow. The relationships became concrete. That practice in her ‘safe place’ helped her transfer language skills to the new environment of the nursery. That 45 minutes of my time created a space where she could shine.
We’re not alone in embedding this kind of best practice in our early years approach; it’s about nurseries and families working together really well. The real game changer is when there are follow ups. These ensure we understand the home context and help us create an exceptional nursery experience for every child.
Our early years approach continues and extends this practice of home visits, including working with families to improve the home learning environment where it might benefit a child. To do this, we need qualified and supported staff. Investing in their training and development is key. But most of us would agree that workforce continuity is a real challenge facing the sector. A combination of low wages, limited career prospects and poor-quality training means high turnover and a reliance on increasingly underqualified caregivers. There have been significant issues with funding and cost of early years centres.
It’s the most disadvantaged parents and children who suffer most as a result. But there is growing international agreement on the social and economic value of early years to society as a whole, and investment in early years education is a potential game changer for equality. We need a national, system-wide approach to meet the scale of the challenge, and we need to unite as a sector, and ensure our voices are heard.
That’s why Ark are delighted to be one of 66 projects awarded funding this week by the Department for Education’s School Nurseries Capital Fund. The fund aims to create new high-quality school-based nursery places, allowing us to extend and broaden our work at Ark Oval Nursery in Croydon and drive innovation across the sector. We also hope to develop our early years work at Ark Ayrton Nursery in Portsmouth.
Despite the many challenges, the early years sector is a joyful field of work – I am never happier in my role than when I’m out in the nursery garden, playing in a mud kitchen or reading with the children in my care. I know that the experience a child has in the earliest years of life is fundamental to his or her future. For the children and families we serve, what we do matters.
 Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Taggart, B. (2004) Technical Paper 12, The final Report: effective pre-school education. London, DfES Publications and Institute of Education