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A nursery building society

Will vouchers finance new nurseries is the question in the UK. In Frankfurt it is where's the architect's phone number. Stephanie Northen reports

How many purpose-built nurseries designed by architects are there in the average English city?

Answer: None.

How many purpose-built nurseries designed by architects are there in the German city of Frankfurt?

Answer: 32.

How much time are English working mothers entitled to take as maternity leave?

Answer: 40 weeks And mothers or fathers in Germany?

Answer: l06 weeks.

One last question. Why isn't every parent, with the exception of those with Michael Portillo tendencies, clamouring to cross the North Sea?

So what's the difference between the UK and the German approach to the early years? The obvious answer would be money, but those who know about the under-fives insist that the disparities cannot all be explained in terms of the differing wealth of nations.

Frankfurt doesn't do things by halves. In the 1980s it decided it needed some new museums so it built 10, all designed by leading architects. Then, with the museums finished and nurseries moving up the national agenda as more and more women found jobs, the city applied the same political and financial commitment to kindergartens.

Now it has 32 new nurseries each designed by a different architect with 12 in the pipeline. Each one caters for about 200 children and costs between Pounds 2-Pounds 3m. When the 12 that are still to be built are taken into account the city will have invested about Pounds 120 million over l0 years in kindergartens.

Events in the country as a whole also had an impact. When Germany was reunited in 1989, it became clear that nursery services in the East far outstripped those in the richer West. To try to redress the balance, and to counteract a collapsing birth rate, the German parliament passed two measures. Since 1992 parents have had the right to three years off work from the birth of their child and last month all three-year-olds became entitled to a full-time kindergarten place, for which parents pay a small amount - about 10 to 15 per cent of household income.

Almost simultaneously, of course, a small band of parents of English four-year-olds have been sent their pilot nursery vouchers. However, many commentators say that, at Pounds 1,100 a year, they will neither pay for a full-time place nor provide the capital needed to build new nurseries.

Frankfurt's kindergartens are "the most beautiful imaginative buildings, " says Helen Penn, senior researcher at London's Institute of Education who helped organise a conference on them late last year. "They represent consistent high-priority investment in early-years' services," she says, adding that the British voucher scheme merely "shuffles money from one box to another, it doesn't spark debate on what is actually on offer".

Mark Dudek, director of the nursery research unit at Brighton University and author of a new book on kindergarten design, agrees. In this country he says nurseries are seen as small, unimportant buildings used for maybe two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. In Frankfurt, by contrast, they are regarded as major institutions for children and the community - a visible statement that this society cares for children. They are big, they are open all day and at weekends, and they are "slap-bang in the middle of residential areas, not a drive away".

These residential areas tend to be Frankfurt's poorer districts. The city has a large immigrant population and one aim of the kindergarten programme is to help the children integrate. This is helped by the fact that one local authority department - social welfare - runs the programme not the controversial mix of education-health-social services that prevails in Britain.

According to city architect Roland Burgard, the man who started the whole programme, as many as half the children in one kindergarten may not speak German. Because the nurseries are catering for up to 20 nationalities, including refugees from Bosnia, the staff: children ratio is quite high - one to 20 compared to one to 26 in other German cities.

The 32 kindergartens all look very different. One architect refused to include any "child-oriented" details on the basis that there is no such thing as "an architecture for children"; another designed his kindergarten as a small town with houses, street and square. Some buildings are sleek and modernist white, others are ecologically minded with solar panels, one is wood with a grass roof. One isn't even a building at all, but a converted river boat.

The architects are as varied as their buildings. Toyo Ito from Japan designed Mark Dudek's favourite: a slender elegant semicircle with a zig-zag roof and partly buried entrance. Inside homework rooms perch on mezzanine floors like birds' nests. By contrast, Austrian painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser intended his fairy-tale building, with its onion domes, cosy corners and roof meadow, as the embodiment of children's fantasies.

All the architects worked to the same generous budget - which did shrink when the bills for reunification started to pile up on Germany's doormat. They also had the same brief. Roland Burgard insisted that: "The quality of architecture should be directed towards children. The structural space should support the children in their social learning as well as in their sensory learning. The kindergarten architect's . . . spatial play should harmonise with the children's play."

The Frankfurt nursery programme has many admirers, hence the joint London Institute of EducationRoyal Institute of British Architects' conference last year. However, the admirers are not wholly uncritical.

Peter Coles is chief education officer of Hampshire, an authority whose schools have won design awards. He criticises some of the Frankfurt nurseries as "self-indulgent", saying that buildings should ultimately "be about their users, not their designers". And he suggests that they could have benefited from a more "collective effort - architects working with early-years workers, with heads parents, inspectors and even users".

Frankfurt, he says, is further along the road of providing an integrated service which combines care and education. This makes him "not just envious of the money", but also of the holistic approach they are taking.

Back in Britain Peter Coles yearns for a lead from central government and hopes that "the Government has not given up planning public services under pressure of vouchers. It is not encouraging to feel that naive market forces are in control".

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