Harry is four and is one of 26 butterflies - three to five-year-olds - at the Highbury Lodge Day Nursery in Hitchin, north of London. Harry has been at the nursery since he joined the baby unit (caterpillars) at nine months.
His mother, Meryll Birch, believes Highbury Lodge has been the making of Harry and is delighted by his self-confidence and highly developed social skills - his sense, as she puts it, "of who he is".
Highbury Lodge is owned by Child Base, the nursery chain which, since 1989, has acquired or built 29 day nurseries in southern England and the Midlands. In 2002, managing director Mike Thompson decided to create an entirely distinct, age-by-age development programme, to be informed by research and a best-practice review.
The result is Sound Foundations, a programme which embraces the Government's "birth to three matters" framework and the foundation stage, but which aims, above all, to build self-esteem and the capacity to communicate with confidence, through consulting with children and following the child's focus of attention.
The planned approach and the use of resources at Highbury Lodge would not look out of place in any early excellence centre and would probably be beyond the knowledge base of many school nurseries. For younger children there is an emphasis on exploration and sensory experience, with treasure baskets, mobiles, fabrics, fairy lights and fibre optics contributing to a rich and satisfying environment. In the one to two-year-old group, two babies, stripped to their nappies, are testing the properties of paint, while others experiment with texture and sound. Upstairs, the theme for the foundation-stage butterflies is body parts. There is a range of linked activities, but children are free to move from one area to another, to initiate, explore and - if they feel like it - do something unrelated to the theme.
Although the children are grouped by age, babies and older children come together at some times of the day. They move into the next age group when they are ready, rather than by the strict dictate of their birthdays. A key worker system helps ensure each child is recognised as an individual, his or her abilities and interests recognised and understood.
It is this flexibility, and the freedom for children to make meaningful choices, which Sue Andrews, educational co-ordinator for Child Base, believes is the key to building self-esteem and personal identity. Meryll Birch agrees. Her two older children went to nursery. She's sure they benefited, but not to the same extent as Harry. As she sees it: "Social skills carry you through life. If you can relate to people you can achieve anything."
The open-ended and sensory-rich curriculum of Child Base is not unique. Its strength is that it reflects an eclectic mix of evidence from High Scope, the Government-sponsored EPPE (Effective Provision of Pre-school Education) research project, the renowned early years system in Reggio Emilia in Italy and other sources. What is perhaps unusual is that it is the private sector at the cutting edge of innovation, a sector often caricatured as playing to parental pressure for children to start formal learning early. In reality, Child Base is demonstrating that what's good for children is good also for business.
Staff would agree. Following the initial review, the programme was piloted in three nurseries before being rolled out across the chain. A first priority was to ensure all managers should be inducted into the programme, but in each nursery a mentor - not necessarily the manager - has been chosen to ensure that all staff understand the principles of Sound Foundations and receive appropriate training. The programme now provides the content for a level 3 qualification, currently awaiting accreditation by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
No parents are to be seen at Highbury Lodge, but photos of mums, dads and pets are suspended at child height together with reminders of home. Parents were consulted about the programme at an early stage and some use its principles at home.
Sound Foundations is now the subject of an independent research study. If the child-led approach reflected in Highbury Lodge is shown to accelerate personal and social development and enhance communication and language skills, it could influence the shape of private nurseries for years to come. It might also serve to underline more widely the importance of personal identity and emotional well-being for children's healthy development.
For Meryll, the important thing is that Harry is happy and doing well.
"Harry has a sense of value for the family. He knows who he is and his place in the family. The home is in the nursery. When I drop him off I know he is well cared for and safe and there is no price for that."
* For more information contact Sue Andrews
Tel: 01908 211699
Showing the children we value them by following their focus of attention-making our interactions with them purposeful and individual.
Environments that allow the children to make choices and develop their independence in a variety of age-appropriate resources.
Taking the time to admire the children for their own efforts and discoveries through open-ended and child-initiated activities.