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Nurseries learn to DIY

Four heads have formed a network to offer tailor-made training for all their staff. Stephanie Northen reports

Independence and self-reliance are encouraged in any good nursery school.

And not just in the children. In one east London borough the staff have had to call on these qualities to sort out their own professional development.

"It wasn't so much that we wanted to do it our way," says Sandra Campbell, head of Church Hill nursery in Waltham Forest, "it's just that no one else was doing anything."

The borough has four nursery schools. One is a beacon and Church Hill has just been commended in the chief inspector's annual report. The heads of all four work closely together and meet regularly.

They also organise continuing professional development. There are two guiding principles: the training must be of value to the nurseries as a whole and not just the member of staff; and it is for everyone, including office managers and governors.

The four heads set up the Early Childhood Education Network about eight years ago. Its events are open to any early-years worker in the borough, be they playgroup volunteers or managers of private nurseries.

The network organises an annual conference every summer. It usually attracts about 100 people. This year Sir Christopher Ball is top of the bill. The chair of the Talent Foundation is to speak on thinking skills and multiple intelligence. Ms Campbell is looking forward to it, but it is clearly not a day off: "We have to show that it (the training) has short-term and long-term benefits to the schools, not just the staff."

The network tries to pick a timely theme, she says, and evaluates the event afterwards, asking people for formal feedback. Their comments influence the plans for that year's CPD. For example, some of the workshops run for last year's conference on multiculturalism are being repeated in twilight sessions at the nurseries. Celebration is one theme, carnivals another.

All CPD at Church Hill responds to what the nursery needs - and it can do so quickly. When a child was bereaved, staff had a session on bereavement.

When a youngster with a new special need turns up, they organise training on it. There have been twilight sessions on music, on supporting refugee families, and on outdoor education.

Church Hill has a huge garden for its 80 children, which manages to look enticing despite the February drizzle. Saroj Taylor, one of Church Hill's four nursery officers, is an outdoors learning expert, so she took that CPD session. "You have to play to your strengths," Ms Campbell says. "Sometimes I will take a session, sometimes a nursery officer like Saroj, sometimes we will get in an external speaker."

Staff needs, as well as strengths, are formally assessed. Many of the procedures and the thinking behind them came out of Church Hill's bid for Investors in People status, which it earned two years ago. Everyone has an annual review and their work is observed to see where help is needed.

The distinction between teachers and other staff such as nursery nurses can easily be blurred in the early years, and resentment is a risk given the big difference in pay. "Defining roles and responsibilities can be difficult and we did a lot of work on this," Campbell says. "It would not be right for a nursery officer to feel they are doing more than a teacher."

Most of her CPD has been concerned with leadership and management. "I had a bit of an issue with delegation," she confesses.

The best CPD Campbell could give her nursery officers is the chance to progress to becoming teachers if they want to. "The Government must sort it out. It's terribly important that they have a route into the profession that they can access despite having a job."

Anne Swann, head of the Willows special needs nursery in Portsmouth, would agree. She has helped some initially unqualified staff on the road to becoming teachers. She says: "There are people with some sort of spark or interest, people who perhaps made a career mistake at school who are able to do far more than they think. I'm only too happy to help."

At a special needs nursery, CPD is particularly important. Knowledge of children's handicaps is improving all the time and the 40 staff at Willows, which is also an early excellence centre, need to keep up. "We've always valued training. We can always broaden our understanding and broaden our approaches," Swann says.

"We've just done some work on intensive interaction, which is a different way of approaching children with profound learning difficulties. Often this training has aspects that would be helpful in any classroom. For example, most youngsters would appreciate the pictorial timetables designed for autistic children."

In the spirit of being a beacon, the Willows is sharing its good practice and organising its own training. As well as running a five-day course called Get Smart, it has written booklets for primary schools, set up a website on children's play and made a video of its work - with more planned.

Despite all this, Swann has not neglected her own CPD. She is doing an MA in care in the early years. "Though sometimes I look at my neglected garden and think about my disappeared weekends and wonder why."

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