Compliments to hang on the washing line

30th June 1995 at 01:00
Linda Blackburne visited a nursery praised by inspectors and met its campaigning head.

A short walk from Vickers' shipyard, the docks and a gas terminal is one of Cumbria's oldest and largest purpose-built nursery schools, Bram Longstaffe in Barrow-in-Furness.

Its industrial environs look bleak but it is steeped in history. Grey rows of formidable old flats, where families still hang out their washing across the street, are listed buildings. Ironically for a town on the edge of one of the country's great national parks, 20 per cent of the nursery's pupils live in homes without gardens.

Many children come from "broken" homes, not because of domestic strife, but because Vickers laid off 11,000 of its 15,000 highly-skilled workers six years ago. Now the main earner, if there is one, is either working in another part of the country or abroad.

But despite the problems and the deceptive austerity of the buildings, Bram Longstaffe, named after Barrow's 1930s socialist mayor and supporter of nursery education, has strong community ties. Many of the children's parents attended the school, and their attachment to the 56-year-old state nursery is best summed up in the parent who was weeding a Bram Longstaffe flowerbed earlier this month - caring and keen.

These details were not missed by the Office for Standards in Education, which inspected the nursery in the spring and gave it a glowing report.

"Children's attitude to learning is very positive," they said. "In several aspects of their work they show a maturity beyond their years. This nursery school is well managed. The headteacher and deputy offer a visionary style of leadership."

The inspectors also praise the "good relationships" between staff and parents; the home visits that introduce the nursery to every family; the "high standards" of oracy among the children; their "well-developed" listening skills; and their standards of behaviour.

Only 24 nursery schools have been inspected since last autumn so headteacher Ann Hardy and her staff found the guinea-pig element of being shadowed by wide-eyed inspectors for four days extremely stressful.

But Miss Hardy, a vivacious, campaigning 45-year-old, was genuinely surprised and delighted by much of the praise in the report. It was, she said, the first pat on the back she had had.

This Sheffield-born trained graphic designer from Birmingham, who has worked hard to put Bram Longstaffe's "lost" identity on to the Barrow map since she took over four years ago, has wasted no time in using the inspectors' report to promote not only her own school but the concept of the nursery school.

She has written to the education spokesmen and women of all three political parties and has had two congratulatory replies from Margaret Hodge (Labour) and Don Foster (Liberal Democrat) but nothing so far from Education Secretary Gillian Shephard.

She hopes that by sending them the school's inspection report she will persuade them that nursery schools, as opposed to nursery classes or units, are the best way forward.

Her message to the politicians is this: "I was working in nursery classes and units before I came here. The inspection team picked it up straight away - here in Bram Longstaffe everyone is dedicated to the nursery-age child. All the staff are trained to teach three and four-year-olds, whereas in primary schools even resources are taken out of the nursery and put into key stages 1 and 2.

"When I was in a nursery class I was pulled out and put into school because that was classed as more important. Yes, I am an advocate of the nursery school."

She also hopes the report, which was not without its criticisms, will help her to squeeze more money out of Cumbria County Council to develop the nursery to its full potential. The pupil-teacher ratio of 26:1 (13:1 if nursery nurses are included), for example, is quite high and the nursery plans to move to 24:1 (12:1) from September.

In addition, for historical reasons, Bram Longstaffe is less generously funded than some of Cumbria's other nurseries. Miss Hardy has brought this anomaly to the attention of the county's director of education.

The inspectors' action plan to improve the nursery involves better monitoring of current practice and the development of curriculum guidance. But Miss Hardy is a full-time teaching head so without more staff and resources the school cannot fulfil the OFSTED requirements.

However, with OFSTED's help, the nursery's "visionary" leadership, and the anxiety of Cumbria's under-fives' committee over the break-up of Barrow family life, Bram Longstaffe seems destined to succeed. The old alderman would smile in his grave.

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