The lead-up to Christmas was busier than usual for staff in independent nurseries who were in the final stages of submitting responses to a new Development and Planning Manual from the Scottish Independent Nurseries Association.
SINA offers its members a quality assurance scheme which was endorsed by the Scottish Office in 1998 as "a very comprehensive quality assurance scheme which covers the whole range of key areas important to running a nursery" (Meeting the Childcare Challenge: A Childcare Strategy for Scotland).
Since then, HM inspectors have visited independent nurseries affiliated to SINA, and reported that "where good practice was noted, the centres had used their umbrella organisation's quality assurance systems" (The Quality of Pre-School Education in the Scottish Pilot Scheme 1996-97). It was also found that most playgroups and private nurseries had yet to devise effective development plans.
Recognising the value of diversity, and the need to respond to national and local demands, SINA's new Development and Planning Manual offers a systematic tool for self-evaluation which will help nurseries monitor improvement and develop greater transparency and accountability.
Devised by Professor Eric Wilkinson of Glasgow University and Dr Christine Stephen of Stirling University, the manual builds on the association's quality assurance standards and has four components:
* aims, which includes an audit for determining how the centre is performing in relation to its objectives;
* response, to SINA's Quality Assurance Report, including points for action specified in the centre's HMI report;
* action plan, where an agenda for setting priorities in each key standard is planned and supported by evidence; and * continuing professional development, in which each staff member is provided with a log book to record their own training and identify their future professional training needs. A new feature in the future monitoring of quality will be a visit to every centre - rather than a random sample - by the quality assurance independent team.
So how does this enormous commitment to raising and maintaining the quality of provision affect the individual SINA nursery or out-of-school care centre? One of our members, Mulberry Bush Kindergarten in Killearn, recently received a visit from its local MP who had read its outstanding HMI rport, in which each programme of activity was classed "very good".
Mhairi McIvor-Clark, the director of Mulberry Bush, attributed its success to having just completed SINA's quality assurance scheme, whose framework for improving standards enabled the centre to reach new levels of attainment. Mulberry Bush Kindergarten comes under Stirling council which operates a policy of setting criteria which allow pre-school education to be commissioned in a way that reflects and rewards the varying input and performance of individual nurseries. This is not an easy option for Stirling council. It would be far simpler for it to take the corporate view and commission each partner at the same rate and set up the same training courses for them.
A prescriptive, dominating council negates a partner's ability to take ownership of its own development alongside national strategies. There needs to be greater recognition of the value of allowing a higher degree of self-determination by nurseries through a more consultative approach.
Innovation, plurality and diversity between partner centres should be embraced and helped to develop. Imposing training without listening to the views of the practitioner and failing to take the time to recognise the contextual challenges will result only in demotivation.
Sally Brown, professor of education at Stirling University, wrote in a recent article in Nursery World that "the concept of training carries with it connotations of 'us', instructing 'them' how to do it... Such strategies are largely ineffective... because they emphasise the inadequacies of current practice... and so encourage emotional resistance".
The acquisition of a SINA Quality Assurance standard should be seen not just as a valuable asset of the particular centre but as a jewel in the corporate council crown, with encouragement given to others to aspire to the same standard.
SINA members regard their new Development and Planning Manual as a long-term investment in their future. The association's willingness to embrace Government strategies, from universal pre-school education to projects tackling social exclusion, is not merely an exercise in short-term quick solutions to expedite pre-school places while there is a local authority shortfall. It is part of a coherent plan to demonstrate that their professional ability will contribute greatly to the ultimate visionary goal of best practice.
Patricia McGinty is vice-convenor for strategy at the Scottish Independent Nurseries Association