Southway Nursery School is not for the faint-hearted, highly strung parent. If you like your nurseries orderly and quiet, places where children sit down and practise their letters, have a break during which they play with brightly coloured plastic toys, then come back and get on with their number work, Southway is not for you.
Here, things are different. In one corner, a little girl is hammering a conker into a block of wood. That's with a real nail and a real hammer. A minute earlier, she had been experimenting with a small hacksaw, a tool that requires patience and effort, both of which the young carpenter demonstrated admirably.
Across the room, tiny boys are peeling and cutting carrots for vegetable soup as if they did this sort of thing for a living. Next to them, a boy who has been grating carrots for a cake suffers a mishap. Howls and blood are quickly dealt with and he's back at the frontline within five minutes. Meanwhile, another boy breaks eggs into the cake mixture with a great flourish, good-naturedly picking out bits of shell from the gooey mess as he sings to himself. Elsewhere, a sticky brown mass is becoming a chocolate crispie as a girl patiently stirs melting chocolate over a burner.
In the next room, a girl wants a splash of orange for her picture. So, following illustrated instruction cards, she takes out the red and yellow powder paints and mixes the colours and water carefully. She produces an orange as radiant as her own face, so pleased that she has created something "just right".
Southway Nursery School in Bedford is the sort of place that buzzes with purposeful activity, where children stick with one thing for up to an hour and then move on to whatever else they want to do. There is no formal decision-making, no pledges to follow a particular route, no attempt by staff to tell children what to do. They just get on and do it. Even to the extent of taking a drink of milk and then washing the glass and putting it away.
Under headteacher Katrina Foley, the eight staff, including one full-time Section 11-funded community language teacher, are committed to children learning through experiential play. The activities on offer have been carefully considered and designed for their educational value, and the level of supervision depends on the child and the activity.
In its inspection report published in June, OFSTED found that Southway children exceeded the expected national average in all areas of learning, as well as in physical and creative development. "A strong feature of the school,'' it said, "is the commitment to developing pupils' independent learning. Pupils are encouraged to make their own choice of learning activity. "
Ms Foley, who has been headteacher at the nursery for eight years, says: "All their experiences here are from the real world. Each activity involves desirable learning outcomes (the Government's targets for five-year-olds). For instance, when children do cookery, there is a physical element in handling the materials, language and literacy through instructions that we give, and through using cookery books, scientific elements through what happens to ingredients when they are cooked, and maths through weighing, measuring and counting. '' She calls her approach a mix of Froebel, Montessori and Susan Isaacs, with an emphasis on structure through a planned curriculum delivered through play.
Katrina Foley is big on the traditional pedagogical vehicles of natural resources and gardening. In the spring children sowed the seeds that have now grown into the carrots that the children are chopping up for soup and grating for their carrot cake. Their own tomatoes, too, have now ripened and will soon become chutney.
The stress on the natural - clay, not plasticine; wooden blocks, not Lego; mix-as-you-go, primary-coloured powder paint, not the ready-made stuff; bread-making and baking birthday cakes, rather than buying in - gives the nursery an old-fashioned quality. There's classical music playing on tapes (alternated with Asian music, to reflect the nursery's ethnic mix), a piano waiting to be played, art books for anyone who fancies a browse through Monet, Van Gogh and Renoir. Oh yes, and a sewing corner with - you guessed - real needles.
Side by side with all the equipment and resources from the real world are high expectations of behaviour. "Children aren't allowed to do what they like in the full sense,'' explains Ms Foley. "They choose what they want to do, but they know that each activity comes with responsibilities that must be fulfilled. '' For instance, the 27 children who have lunch (out of the 65 attending each of the two sessions) are expected to serve themselves food and then clear up afterwards. Children can do finger or foot painting when they like, but also with the proviso that they clean up the mess when they've finished. The same is true for the junior cooks and for the woodworking area, where all tools must be put away - for health and safety reasons as much as for tidiness.
Children's progress is assessed and monitored in "blue books'' where staff comments, analysis for desirable learning outcomes and plans for progression are logged, and where parents also note down their observations. Entries are made twice termly and are illustrated with photographs of the child engaged in different activities.
Like all good nurseries, Southway values its parents. There are usually two or three per session working voluntarily alongside staff, and fathers are encouraged. As part of its outreach philosophy, a women's group has been set up for support and to discuss child development and curriculum issues, during which Katrina Foley explains the developmental reasons for encouraging woodworking, cookery and the like.
Rossitsa Kostov, has had two daughters at the nursery. "The range of activities is amazing," she says. "Children develop individuality being here. They can speak their own mind and make choices, and in the process they learn co-operation and discipline. They do things here that I wouldn't allow at home. When I first saw my four-year-old doing woodwork with nails, my heart froze. But I realised that there's always supervision, that there's someone here for my child all the time."
Given the social and economic problems that more than 30 per cent of Southway families have to deal with, the nursery is offering not just opportunities but an ideology that parents are encouraged to adopt at home. When they leave for big school, all the children can write their name without having been given any formal instruction. They are also, according to OFSTED, articulate, motivated and independent. And they wield a pretty mean hammer, too.