Research shows that spending time in pre-school or nursery education enhances a child’s development and supports their school readiness.
There are a variety of different types of preschool provision; independent nurseries, statutory stand-alone nursery schools, nursery units attached to primary schools, private and voluntary preschool centres.
The focus of this article is not about giving preference to one provider over another, but rather is an opportunity to look more closely at the benefits of having a nursery unit attached to the primary school, and the “do’s” and “don’ts” for headteachers of this particular model.
Primary schools are well suited to offering preschool provision as they are in a prime position to ensure smooth transitions for children as they move from preschool to primary school. In the best provision, headteachers and foundation teams get to know and form relationships with the children right from the start of their school years. There is an opportunity for facilitating progression and continuity where reception, year one teachers and assistants can readily spend time in the nursery and vice versa.
Relationships can be established with parents from the very earliest opportunity, enabling trusting and authentic parental engagement as the children continue through the primary school system. Children with additional needs can be identified early and support programmes established, often with the support of the SEN coordinator from the primary school. Continuity in systems for children with additional needs and their parents is another real benefit. The nursery team also enjoy the benefits of being part of a larger school community; they are able to establish more friendships, avail of more staff expertise, support, resources, events and career movement.
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts that will guide headteachers in maximising this potential of having a nursery unit attached to their school.
Do ensure that you, the headteacher, are visible in your nursery unit. Make time on a regular basis to visit the unit to get to know the children, staff and parents. Spend time with the children at play so that you form positive relationships with them and become more familiar with their stage of development. If early years is not your area of expertise, then it is really important that you get to know the routines of the nursery, understand how children learn and develop, and know how the adults interact with children, observe and plan for learning.
Do attend training with your nursery leader to show your support and also to learn about their role. Become familiar with the content of the preschool curriculum. Be aware of the observation and assessment process which is integral to planning for learning. Be aware of the more fluid approach to planning for learning which must be linked to observations. This means that detailed plans cannot be submitted to leadership teams weeks in advance of learning. Do consider alternative planning approaches and submission timeframes for nursery, reception and foundation stage teams.
Do maximise the opportunity for communication between nursery, reception and foundation teams. It is important that both teams are aware of, respect and share what each year group is doing. Where possible, make time for the reception and foundation teams to spend time in the nursery viewing how children learn in a less formal environment; and how the adults observe, plan for and deliver learning across the curriculum. Also make time for whole school subject coordinators to observe what is happening in the nursery. It is important that they recognise and value that the curriculum starts in nursery and not just in reception or year one.
Do facilitate shared staff training sessions for nursery and reception/foundation staff. There are many generic areas that the teams can productively address together; observation and assessment, creativity, emotional well-being, outdoor learning, interactions and role of the adult are just some of the areas that all early years practitioners should be considering regardless of which particular year group they teach.
Do ensure that the nursery team have appropriate time for observations, assessment, planning and administration, particularly if they operate a dual day system where they have back-to-back sessions running in the morning and afternoon. Considerable time is also required for the sourcing and preparation of engaging low cost and no cost materials to support learning. Additional time is required for communication with parents and making links with other agencies and professionals. When appropriate time is allocated, teams excel and are in a better position to provide an excellent service to the children and their parents. The primary school reaps the benefits in the long term.
Do ensure that the development objectives for the nursery are clearly linked to whole school development objectives. In the best practice, the nursery leader is co-opted on to the senior leadership team and is aware of the whole school strategic plan. They are well placed to ensure that the nursery is fully integrated into the working life of the whole school and can ensure that the nursery is fully aware of what is happening throughout the whole school.
Do ensure that the nursery team and children are fully involved in the life of the school; that they are invited to and included in school assemblies when appropriate, and invited to concerts and other events. This can be difficult given the different structure of the nursery day and the possible physical separation from the main school building, but in the interest of staff morale, professional development and children’s well-being at transition stage, every effort for inclusion should be made.
Don’t redeploy staff from the main school to your nursery unit without appropriate training. This is a highly-skilled job that requires staff who are well trained and in tune with how young children learn. The delivery of the nursery curriculum requires a less formal approach. Adults must be able to deliver the curriculum in a non-prescriptive manner.
Don’t assume that your nursery leader can manage independently. They will require support and continuous professional development like any other member of the school team.
Don’t forget how lucky you are to have a nursery unit attached to your school. It is a privilege to have influence over the quality and delivery of the pre-school experiences of these young children. You will reap the rewards!
Don’t forget to celebrate nursery success within the main school - too many people have limited appreciation of how crucial the pre-school experience is, and lack knowledge of what children gain during their pre-school year. It is important to share all the gains, particularly with reception and foundation stage teams, as they need to know where and how to pitch the next level of learning.
Clare Devlin is a provider of primary and Early Years training for individuals, early years settings, primary schools and other organisations.