Martin Whittaker visits a children's centre whose good practice has been lauded by the Department for Education and Employment
The door bursts open and a three-year-old totters in with a big grin on his face as he helps carry a bucket of sand. And that's the beauty of running a nursery at an FE college - run out of sand and you just go to the construction section and help yourself.
Thirza Ashelford, co-ordinator of the Children's Centre at Bridgwater College, Somerset, says: "The children go in and collect wood for the woodwork bench, and sand. If we were doing a project on building there would be plenty of bricks we could borrow. We also get to use the dance studio and the gym. And we have a special children's corner in the library."
The nursery's "child-centred" approach, its integration with the college and its partnerships with the local education authority and social services have led to it being one of seven selected by the Department for Education and Employment as an early excellence centre. It's the only FE college in England to be chosen.
The accolade is timely. It follows a recent call by Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett for FE colleges to play a big part in the Government's attempt to boost childcare services. Recognition as an early excellence centre also allows the college to follow through with a big capital bid to the DFEE to create a new state-of-the-art centre, incorporating childcare with college student training.
Currently housed in temporary classrooms in the corner of Bridgwater College campus, the Children's Centre combines a local-authority nursery class with a day nursery for students and staff, as well as accommodating a wide range of the college's childcare training programmes.
There are 60 children here at any one session. Thanks to the partnership between college and LEA, 20 of the places are allocated free to children most in need. The authority pays for these children, sponsors a room and provides a nursery teacher and nursery nurse. The remaining places go to children of staff, students and other local people. Students pay no more than Pounds 5 a day, and the maximum charge is Pounds 95 a week.
The rooms are bright and cheerful and well stocked with play equipment.
Thirza Ashelford says: "Each of the rooms has the usual areas you might find in any nursery, but the children have the free choice of where they play and how long they're there, provided there aren't other children waiting.
"There's a very big emphasis on the social and emotional development in this nursery. We encourage independence."
The Children's Centre also runs the Forest School - the only one of its kind in the country. A patch of private woodland is rented from a farmer some six miles from the college. Once a week the centre takes toddlers, usually town kids, out there.
The children spend a day gathering and sawing wood, lighting fires and generally learning tasks that would have many parents throwing up their hands in horror. Once a year, the children are taken camping overnight under canvas.
"We've noticed a huge difference in the children at our Forest School - in their independence and their emotional development," says Thirza Ashelford. "They're very much calmer, much more confident. The sort of work they do there is geared very much to making sure they achieve."
Independence is very much the order of the day at the Children's Centre too. Children can freely wander inside or out into the fenced-off play area. They can even climb a tree, as long as there's a nursery assistant standing by.
"The small fencing and the tree house there were all made by students with additional learning needs. And the brickwork was done by students. All the outdoors was landscaped and designed by them.
"It's also very good for other students to come in and work with the children. All our nursery nursing students come here on placement, and we have teacher-training students from local universities who come here as well.
"It's not just about caring for the children - it's about other aspects as well. And it's important for the children to see other people coming in. "
The centre puts all its 15 staff through a training programme at the college. One of them, nursery assistant Sue Kennett, goes to the college on day release to do a BTEC national certificate in nursery nursing.
She says: "It's wonderful - absolutely wonderful. I really enjoy it. Each key worker here has a number of children, so each child who comes is allocated to a member of staff. So it's really nice to develop with the children. You get to know them really well. A lot of them start off as young babies and progress right the way through."
Parents are enthusiastic too. David Morgan, a police PE instructor, and partner Mary-Jane, a deputy head, both have busy working lives. Their daughter George is three-and-a-half and has been at the Children's Centre since she was three months old.
"We are really pleased with it," says David. "The structure of the place is such that a child is always on a learning curve. Each child has their own key worker and then the other staff are very much in support of the child as well. They are always doing little assessments and we are kept abreast of what's going on."
So what is the Bridgwater Children's Centre's secret? How has it done it?
The college has had a creche for 15 years. But five years ago, when Somerset County Council was seeking to expand its nursery provision, Bridgwater College saw the opportunity to link up with the LEA and expand its childcare facilities. "With the LEA partnership it really gave it a much better focus, " says Thirza Ashelford. "The college began to take a bit more notice of us as something that was worth having."
Another factor in the centre's success, she says, is the quality of the staff. "It's their total commitment to what they're doing and their real belief that what they're doing is right.
"We're fortunate that when students from the college come on their placements here, we can begin to identify those who would fit in very well, and when a vacancy comes up we actually head-hunt them."
And, she says, it also helps having a college management prepared to subsidise the centre to the tune of Pounds 50,000 a year.
Jo Brooker, Somerset's early- years education officer, wants to see this kind of provision expanded throughout the county. "It's fantastic really because it encompasses all the philosophy for childcare in education, doesn't it?" she says. "Especially with the links with the college. I think they're very brave.
"This is in a deprived part of Bridgwater. So you've got the most needy children on our register coming in free, and the others paying up to Pounds 100 a week.
"If you went in there, you couldn't say look - these are the deprived children and these aren't. They all look the same and they're all having exactly the same education provision."