Inspector with a bag full of life

Pioneer Margaret Robinson has been a forceful player in the world of education for the very young

It is not every day that a local authority inspector gets an honorary degree. But then Margaret Robinson, of Warwickshire authority, awarded an honorary doctorate of letters by Leicester university in October, is a bit special.

Qualifying as a teacher in the 1960s, she went on to pioneer some of the first integrated childcare and early-years settings: Hartcliffe in Bristol and the Maxilla centre in Notting Hill.

Then, from 1984, she worked as an inspector first for the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), then Wandsworth, up to her move to Warwickshire in 1997. Her degree citation calls her "a major force for change in the world of early-years education".

The news of Ms Robinson's distinction has sent waves of appreciation across the whole of the early-years community. Not only is it clear that the right person has been honoured, but there is huge delight that early-years education has been recognised in this way.

Meeting her, it is not long before you realise why she commands such respect. From the start she adjusts to how much you already know about her subject. She then goes on to provide a quality of insight into the world of early childhood that sends you away feeling, well, educated.

Warwickshire teachers feel the same. Mention Margaret's name to anyone who has encountered her and you get first a smile (maybe a wry one, because in the cause of children she takes no prisoners) and then a story.

Pat Steward, a Warwickshire deputy who did some time as an acting head in a school that needed Margaret's support, recalls her arrival, carrying the huge bag which is her trademark.

"She opened it and started pulling out all these papers with ideas on how to make and do things. At one point she grabbed a sheet of A4 from the photocopier and made a kite. She's always there with ideas you can use."

The honorary degree reaches beyond her inspecting role and acknowledges the work that she has done with Newman college in Birmingham (a Leicester university partner) in carving out a path by which support staff in early years can become graduates by part-time local study, and progressing from their existing roles.

"Early education has developed so fast that there just aren't enough trained people," she says. "What we did have, though, was all these nursery nurses who had been in early-years education, often for 10 or 20 years."

So it was that when she arrived in Warwickshire Ms Robinson quickly found like-minded people, both in the authority and at Newman college, whose principal Pam Taylor had been in ILEA with her. Together they wrote and secured academic acceptance for the degree of BA (hons) in early-years education studies.

It is aimed at workers in early childhood settings who have experience and wisdom but yearn for the higher-level theory and the academic accreditation that can open up their careers. A part-time course, it runs over two terms each year for one afternoon and one evening a week.

For students from Warwickshire and Walsall, there is an authority partnership whereby lectures are delivered within those authorities by Newman staff, but individual students come to the course from many other places.

There is also lots of home study, as well as projects based in the student's workplace, that invariably benefit the children there.

Unsurprisingly, the course has been eagerly embraced by the students, and Ms Robinson clearly loves to talk about the quality of her Warwickshire people.

"When you get the marks back you see all these distinctions," she says.

"They are mature people who really want to do this. They have a wealth of understanding and life skills."

She visits students and keeps a proprietary eye on their progress. Jane Bortell, an early-years manager who is on the Newman degree course, describes Ms Robinson's classroom technique.

"She can 'read' a room, when she walks in," she says. "She'll know just what's happening and why you're doing it. And she engages with children in a way that progresses their learning."

Ms Robinson herself offers the classroom as a metaphor. "You see a child building bricks upwards and they fall down, and he kicks the bricks and walks off frustrated. But you want him to wonder why they've fallen and whether that big brick was the best one to go on top after all."

You can tell when there is a good adviser or inspector in post from the way teachers on their "patch" use the same sort of language. So it is not surprising to hear Pat Steward summing up Ms Robinson's approach like this:

"She believes that education isn't just for life - being able to fill in forms - but for living."

It's like Martin Waddell's book, The Big Big Sea, where a child has been playing by the water and her mother says: 'Remember this time. It's the way life should be'."

For details of Newman college's early-years studies tel: Anne Farr, 0121 476 1181 ext Sure Start courses degree details at career opportunities at

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