'This is early intervention of the best kind'

14th March 2008 at 00:00
Last month The TESS revealed government funding will cease for a pound;2 million early intervention project giving free nursery education to the most vulnerable 2-year-olds in Scotland. Emma Seith meets the families benefiting and examines what the future holds

In July 2006 the Scottish Executive launched 900 free nursery places for 2-year-olds of the most needy families, such as those dogged by poverty and drug addiction.

The then communities minister, Margaret Curran, claimed the scheme would give children who "face more challenges than others ... every opportunity to fulfil their potential".

Three local authorities were to benefit: Glasgow, Dundee and North Ayrshire. And Strathclyde University was to evaluate the impact of the scheme.

In June, as The TESS revealed last month, the funding for the 900 half-day nursery places is to end under the new agreement between local and central government. And, while the evaluation is not due to be published until September, it has already been decided the initiative will not be rolled out across the country.

This decision has been seen as flying in the face of the Scottish National Party's promise to "tackle early the things that hold children back in life".

Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, argues that the Government is "committed to supporting children in their vital early years" and "while a nursery place at the age of 2 might be the right solution for some youngsters, other children might be better served by other forms of family support with their mothers". Local authorities, she says, can fund the places if they choose.

Dundee City Council's choice is that the scheme (for 102 places) will end in its current format, but it will look at possible provision for under-3s in nurseries as its new public-private partnership schools open. North Ayrshire is undecided about the fate of its 100 half-day nursery places. But Glasgow most definitely will continue "the hugely successful scheme", says Margaret Doran, the city council's executive director for education and social work.

"We created the space in our nurseries, put in the best equipment, created a demand and an expertise in our staff. Why, therefore, would we want to stop doing it?

"It's disappointing that government funding won't continue - we could fill these places three times over - but this is a step towards our vision of the future: education and childcare, from birth to 5, 52 weeks of the year."

Bellrock Nursery in Cranhill is one of about 15 family learning centres and nurseries in Glasgow to have extended its reach under the scheme. It has 30 places for vulnerable 2-year-olds - 15 in the morning and 15 in the afternoon. Bernadette Owens, the headteacher, says: "Some of our families have social difficulties, they suffer depression and ill health. There is a lack of employment in the area and many have had poor experiences in education. Some of the young and single parents don't have anywhere to go for advice and guidance.

"Our parents really value what we offer and we see the progress that has been made in their children's development and learning."

Children accessing the free places will often be on the child protection register or deemed "at risk", because of parents' mental health problems or addiction problems, for instance.

Ms Owens, however, is at pains to emphasise that children access the places at Bellrock Nursery for a host of reasons, including a death in the family or as a form of respite for parents.

The mothers dropping off their children certainly reflect the eclectic mix she talks about. Catherine O'Brien, a part-time teacher on maternity leave, has five children aged 12 weeks up to 12 years. Her son Finn has been given a morning place to give her a break.

Also, she feels the benefits to Finn are "tremendous", making him more independent and giving him opportunities to take part in events he might otherwise miss out on.

Gillian Doody has two children but the elder, Heather, suffers from developmental problems. Health professionals at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow thought starting at nursery early would be beneficial.

Debbie McDougall, who is a single mum with two children, says the nursery gives her much needed support and a bit of free time.

Stacey Bryson had her first child when she was 16. Now she has four children; the eldest is 5. Two of her daughters have places at the nursery as part of a support package which includes parenting classes.

Catherine appreciates being able to put her son in nursery for a few of hours every morning. It "relieves the pressure a bit", she says.

"Having five children places a lot of demands on your time and energy. This gives Finn the opportunity to get involved in different things and take part in celebrations and events I might not have the time or energy to give him."

Debbie, whose daughters Megan and Holly are 5 and 2, describes the support she gets from the nursery as "brilliant". And, like Catherine, finds it gives her more time, a precious commodity.

When Stacey's daughter Amy, 5, is at school and Cayce, 3, and Zoe, 2, are at nursery, she gets a rest and two hours of "special time" with her youngest daughter, Jodie, who is a year old.

"Because of the other three, now I find I miss steps," Stacey says. "The other day Jodie was clapping her hands. My sister pointed it out and it was the first time I had seen her doing it."

Stacey's partner works long hours as a driver, so she is frequently home alone with their children until 9pm. To be a mum of four girls is what she always wanted, but it can be exhausting, she admits.

Cayce and Zoe also benefit from their time at Bellrock Nursey, she says. "The other day we were walking past a piece of grass with a bit of fence round it and Cayce said: "That's a triangle". I couldn't believe it.

"The songs they do and the games they play are all about learning, but they don't even know they're doing it.

"When I try and do it, they get bored and distracted."

For Gillian, having the nursery place is all about her daughter's development. Heather did not walk until she was over 2-years-old, but a physiotherapist visits the nursery and staff have a repertoire of exercises they have learnt to do with her. Now, aged 3, Heather can climb the steps of the climbing frame in the nursery garden.

"When I see progress like that, I wonder if I'd have been able to do it alone," says Gillian.

Heather turned 3-years-old in January but is going to remain in the toddlers group for the time being, instead of moving up to the 3-5s group. "She would have struggled with the size of the room and the amount of people," her mother explains.

Ms Owens says the under-3s room is a valuable additional resource. "With that degree of flexibility, you are better able to meet the developmental stages of the children. When children experience difficult times or trauma, they often revert to an earlier stage in their development. When that happens, we can provide an environment where there is a different set of expectations."


North Ayrshire offered nursery places for under-3s before the Scottish Executive's pilot got under way. The aim was to give more families access to the support, says Johanna Brady, the council's childcare strategy manager.

"Research has shown that if vulnerable children are not given the care and stimulation they need, by the age of 3 they can be as much as a year behind other children in their development," she says.

However, the authority is undecided about the fate of its 100 half-day nursery places after the government funding stops.

The service on offer in North Ayrshire differs from that in Glasgow. Parents can only access it with a referral from a professional - a social worker, a health visitor, an educational psychologist - and, unlike Glasgow, they cannot self-refer.

Also, parents and carers are obliged to get involved when their children attend the Friday sessions. Instead of just dropping them off, they take part in activities designed to improve parenting skills and build confidence.

Ms Brady highlights the fact that, as in Glasgow, a wide variety of families access the service. There are the parents suffering addiction and poverty, but also grandparents who have become principal carers as a result of parental drug addiction, as at Corsehill Primary in Kilwinning, where there are places for 20 under-3s.

"They may be in full- or part-time employment," explains Ms Brady. "Coming to the nursery allows them to keep their job."

Corsehill Primary also cares for a set of triplets to give the parents, who have two other children, some respite.

Linda Lesperance, the headteacher, was initially unsure about opening her school up to children under 3. "This was our first experience of 2-year-olds in the school," she says. "We were full of doubts and trepidation."

Now, however, she is a convert: "It's one of the best things that has ever happened."

Both parents and children have grown and blossomed, she claims. The parents are more confident, thanks to the Friday activities and support from staff; and their parenting skills have improved, especially when it comes to behavioural issues.

The school has also managed to forge a closer relationship with families as a result of the early contact. Their confidence in the school has grown, says Ms Lesperance, and they know they do not have to wait until parents' evening to approach the staff.

"This," she concludes, "is early intervention of the best kind."

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