Hold the gold

20th February 1998 at 00:00
Jack is trying to match numbers to items on a puzzle board. He concentrat es hard, aware he hasn't made the matches quite right but refusing to give up until he has. In a room next door, other four-year-olds play with sand, mix paints or slosh water through tubes in an atmosphere of blissful contentmen t.

This is Chipping Norton nursery, proud owner of a glowing Office for Standards in Education report. Nestling in glorious Cotswold countryside in a chocolate-box market town, it is one of the first seven new early excellence centres which were announced by schools minister Estelle Morris before Christmas.

Along with the nursery school there is a drop-in family centre, computer centre, crche, after-school and holiday play schemes, community education,a hall that can be hired by local groups (for yoga, keep-fit and family literacy) and a resource centre for parents and childminder s. But Val Johnson, the county's child care co-ordinator, says: "We don't see ourselves as an early excellence centre yet. We're working towards it."

The reason for her modesty is that the ACE centre (ACE stands for activities, child care and education) has been bedevilled throughout its three-year existence by inadequate funding and a lack of management. Initially a co-ordinator was appointed to run the centre part-time at #163;7 an hour. It was an impossible task. Her job was to carry out routine administration, set up the crche, recruit staff for the crche and the play scheme, develop and publicise the centre, and pull it all together. At present there is no paid manager, which means that essential administrative work is being done by an unpaid trustee.

As Virginia Makins points out in her study for the National Children's Bureau Not Just a Nursery, the centre's three largest components - the family centre, nursery school and computer centre - have been running independently of one another with their own lines of management supervision.

They were also funded separately: the family centre by social services, the nursery by Oxfordshire education authority, and the computer centre jointly by the Rural Development Commission, British Telecom and local fundraising. The computer centre is now well on the road to being self-financing.

"The nursery head, not the co-ordinator, was the site manager," says Ms Makins. "The three managers met regularly with the co-ordinator, and tried to develop a centre ethos and ways of sharing resources and equipment. But most of their time was taken up in establishing their own service, and there could be no dynamic leadership of the centre as a whole."

One local professional told Ms Makins: "We could write a handbook on how not to set up a combined centre."

Now the hope is that the money from the Department of Education and Employment will put the place on a new footing. A manager is being recruited on a salary of #163;30, 000 to plan strategy, develop uniform policies and promote the centre. He or she will be helped by a full-time administrator.

The centre will remain a partnership between education, social services and other bodies, but the intention is to ensure the parts are integrated.Willem Van der Eyken, a consultant who evaluated the centre for the Rural Development Commission, emphasises the excellence of its services. He is particularly impressed by the drop-in family centre. "That parent room is very valuable, " he says. "It provides a refuge for a large number of families who are either isolated or depressed or have difficulties as parents. I monitored its impact over a year, and it was being well used."

The National Children's Bureau study reinforces the point. It found that the siting of the parent room within the ACE centre meant that parents were introduced to other activities. One woman, for example, moved on to do a basic education course.

The lynchpin of the centre is in many ways the crche, according to the NCB study. Oxfordshire wants this to become daycare wrapping around the nursery. The aim is to have a joint curriculum with the nursery and to expand into some of the space now used by the drop-in family centre. But the family centre staff do not like that idea.

The county is also planning to employ a part-time outreach worker who will take ideas from the centre to playgroups and childminding groups in surrounding villages and provide training for those who want it.

Chipping Norton's mayor, Don Davidson, also chairman of the centre's trustees, hopes the new funding will usher in a period of stability and enable the centre to overcome the potential for conflict that comes with change.

Val Johnson says: "The fact that it has been made an early excellence centre recognises all the good work that has been going on and some of the problems we have faced. It will enable us to address these issues and enhance the quality and range of services we can offer to children and their families."

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