Nursery school with knobs on

1st April 2006 at 01:00

A new children's centre in West Sussex is raising standards through multi-agency collaboration. Martin Whittaker reports

It used to be called a nursery school, but it has now been re-branded as Chichester nursery school and children's centre. This new, purpose-built centre in the middle of a housing estate now has a much wider remit than just pre-school education.

Candy Daffern, headteacher, has a bold vision for the centre, and hopes it will collaborate with a range of agencies to improve the well-being and raise educational standards of local children.

But she says pulling together all the functions of a nursery school with childcare services while also working with outside agencies presents a major challenge.

No one has yet written the book on running a children's centre, and the Department for Education and Skills is now looking to new centres such as this one to provide models for leadership.

"There are times when, I have to say, I'm pulling my hair out," says Mrs Daffern. "I have to remind myself, `It's OK, you're a pioneer.' "

Children's centres are seen as a key part of the Government's strategy for raising standards and integrating early-years education, healthcare and family support under its Every Child Matters agenda.

Some are being built on existing Sure Start programmes while others are entirely new. But they differ from Sure Start: as well as providing full daycare integrated with early education, they offer child and family health services, family support and outreach to parents.

The Government sees these centres as acting as "service hubs" within communities - offering, for example, links to out-of-school clubs and extended schools and other services such as training opportunities or benefits advice for parents. It aims to have 1,000 children's centres by 2008 and claims there will be one in every community by 2010.

But they have already faced staffing issues. Last year, a study by the National Children's Bureau found that the centres were struggling to attract teachers. The study highlighted the gulf between teachers' pay and that of other childcare workers. While a qualified teacher can earn more than pound;30,000 in the classroom, nursery nurses earn an average of pound;14,664 a year.

And while children's centres are open for 10 hours a day, 48 weeks a year, teachers' contracts say they only have to complete 39 working weeks.

West Sussex county council is certainly doing its best to help the Government to reach its target. It has opened six children's centres and has plans for another 30. Within four years, more than 20,000 children and their families will have access to one.

Chichester nursery school was built five years ago as part of the Sure Start programme and became a designated children's centre last September.

It was declared outstanding in its recent Ofsted inspection for the quality of its childcare and education.

While the south coast city is largely affluent, the east Chichester ward served by the children's centre has significant pockets of deprivation. As well as providing early-years education and childcare from 8am to 6pm for children aged from six months, the centre offers a range of other services, including childminder networks, parent and toddler groups, parenting programmes and a toy library.

There are also drop-in sessions from agencies such as Jobcentre Plus, health visitors and speech and language therapists. Two dozen staff work directly with the children, five of whom are qualified teachers. The centre also offers parents help with basic-skills and runs a computer course in partnership with Chichester college.

Some of the centre's programmes are designed to deal with more entrenched problems, such as tackling isolation among parents, or encouraging fathers to become more involved with their children and their community.

Mrs Daffern has lured dads in with sausage-and-bacon sandwiches to help dig over the nursery's vegetable garden. The centre is superbly designed and well-equipped, stacked with play equipment and facilities, and has a large outdoor play area. It is still early days, but the head's aim is to establish a "locality board" involving leaders in key services such as education, health, social services, police, local charities and businesses, as well as families, to meet the needs of the community and improve outcomes for children.

The DfES innovations unit is taking a keen interest in the centre's work as a model for leadership beyond a single institution.

For Mrs Daffern, 38, this job is a first headship. She was an early-years teacher before joining West Sussex's school improvement service. She has also worked as a project officer for Sure Start.

At present, she is building links with the heads of local schools, particularly Portfield primary, which shares the site. She says collaborating with the primary school and sharing information about families has already helped to flag up potential child-protection concerns.

But she says leadership and governance of the centre is a huge issue. As well as managing the nursery-school budget, which is overseen by the governing body, she has to manage a separate budget for the centre's provision for under-threes.

There are also issues with staffing. The centre's qualified teachers are entitled to 10 per cent planning, preparation and assessment time. Other members of staff also have teaching responsibilities, so the head has to stretch the budget to give them non-contact time.

Governors are also on a steep learning curve, particularly in terms of where their responsibilities begin and end.

"My governing body is thinking, `How on earth do we make this work?' " she says. "We are all feeling our way through."

This is a traditional maintained nursery-school governing body, but the head encourages it to look at the needs of the whole centre, not just the nursery school. As well as the usual committee to deal with finance, curriculum and premises, the body is also setting up a new multi-agency committee so that outside professionals such as health visitors and speech and language therapists will act as associate members or advisers. But this also raises tensions. With another five of these centres in West Sussex and plans for 30 more, questions such as how already-stretched health professionals will find time to attend so many governors' meetings have yet to be answered.

Mrs Daffern is enthusiastic about the potential of children's centres for helping to regenerate communities and improve care and education for children. But she admits that she also has a lot to learn.

The National College for School Leadership does, though, offer a national professional qualification in integrated centre leadership, aimed at the leaders of children's centres. The governing body in particular finds itself in uncharted waters.

"The issues are major," says Val Hughes, chair of governors.

"We know what our role is with regard to the maintained nursery school, and we can follow all the usual guidelines about being the heads' critical friend and monitoring and evaluating.

"When you add on the up-to-threes nursery and the daycare aspects, I think governors are - naturally enough - uncertain and not getting a lot of guidance.

"When you go into the further reaches of involving the primary care trust and Jobcentre Plus and working collaboratively with other agencies. We are asking who we are relating to as a governing body, and what our role is."

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