Tales from the nursery Times

28th October 1994 at 00:00
With nursery schools high on the political agenda, authorities like West Sussex are investing heavily in the under-fives.

Jon O'Connor looks at the setting up of Wickbourne Nursery, where the educational philosophy was in with the bricks. On the head teacher's door at Wickbourne Infant School in West Sussex, there is a poster stating: "None of us is as good as all of us". Visiting the school confirms the presence of a real ethos of mutual responsibility and commitment to quality, among children and staff.

Mrs Rabey, who has been in post for 10 years, has nailed her flag clearly to the post of Total Quality Management. She has a high regard for the complementary values of the West Sussex education authority, and its success in retaining human values in the context of local management for schools.

In 1993, research into population trends and studies of HighScope nursery programmes, an American initiative to help deprived pre-school children, led West Sussex to undertake a comprehensive audit of its under-fives provision and accommodation. In May this year, director of education Richard Bunker set out three main strands for the authority's practical strategy: extension of rising fives provision; continuing development of nursery education; support for the voluntary playgroup sector. Out of this came a rolling programme of modifications to existing accommodation for the needs of younger children and a programme of entirely new nursery provision.

Wickbourne County Infants was allocated a place under the second part of the programme. The LEA commitment was considerable. Building costs alone amounted to some Pounds 110,000. Long-term staffing requirements, set-up costs for furniture, equipment and associated environmental improvements also had to be taken into account. The school's successful experience of building and equipping a purpose-built nursery from scratch serves as a useful case-study for those involved in equipping, remodelling space or otherwise improving provision for nursery children.

Wickbourne is working in partnership with researchers at Worcester College of Higher Education, looking into the qualities of effective early learning. And it has taken cues from the Rumbold Report, the National Commission on Education and the RSA Start Right Report. Staff and governors also considered carefully the issues of continuity throughout the school. Places in the nursery are at a premium already. With its reputation well established in the neighbourhood, there are five or six children chasing each place available. "The children enjoy the place, they want to come even if they're not feeling well," said one parent at the school gate. "The staff know what they're doing," said another.

The children start the day by selecting their own resources for a preliminary activity. After about 15 minutes, they meet in groups for a planning meeting with staff, each child carrying business-like folders and action plans. Throughout the session, they then select and manage resources with minimal direction, which provides a relaxed atmosphere in which learning experience and effective intervention can take place. Their development is clearly affected by their environment. Steven (aged four) was able to describe confidently his collection of leaves culled from the forest, to a receptive audience of children, some only in their third week of school, and a fair-sized group of visiting adults.

Wickbourne County Infant School had been patiently making the case for nursery provision since the Seventies. Financial constraints prevented progress until a phone call in January 1993 "came like a gift", in the words of the school's head teacher Mrs Rabey. The 26-place nursery class opened for business in September 1993, moving into the new purpose-built classroom earlier this year - a creditable 18 months after commitment in principle.

Local residents, the school governors, school staff and a range of advisers, from early years to physical education, were brought into the consultation and planning process. The county catering service was also involved.

Health and safety arrangements for the workforce were scrutinised by a panel which included school, LEA and professional consultants. Hoardings were erected to screen off construction materials on site and there was an absolute veto on construction traffic during school hours. A no-smoking policy was agreed, and mobile phones and independent toilet facilities were provided for the workforce, all designed to minimise disturbance to the school.

Seen from the outside, the new nursery blends in pleasantly with the original 1950s building. Scouting trips were made to match the original pinkish brick stocks; the portico and the brickwork rose above the doorway echo the main school entrance. Relief patterns in the brickwork and red clay roof tiles match the original architecture.

The nursery is positioned at the front of the school campus. Set into a curving wall with chunky coping stones, twin black ironware gates lead children into the world of school. In front of the double-glazed lobby, a small buggy parking area helps preserve the condition of the nursery. On the playground side, beige pillars support a shelter for outdoor play in wet weather. Exterior lighting is controlled by photosensors, giving protection against intruders who would also encounter a sophisticated Thorn intruder detection system.

The inside of the nursery consists of a common central area with activity corners and alcoves, a quiet room, staff stock room and cloakroom and en-suite toilet facilities around the perimeter. The degree of child visibility is excellent throughout.

The natural light is extremely good, but uplighters along each wall and discreetly-recessed fluorescent fittings for darker days, give real control over working conditions. Radiators behind modern child-proof panelling have individual thermostatic controls linked to the nursery's own heating system. A 50-50 flooring split between carpeting and vinyl allows wet and messy activities to take place without cleaners resigning in tears.

Provision for remodelling the adjacent classroom was included in the scheme, in particular, allowing for high-level windows to retain natural light and a shared internal wall with a connecting door between the nursery and reception groups. The new nursery occupies what was originally an outdoor facility for the younger children. So in compensation, an area has been designed for the children to entice bats, birds and climbing plants into their immediate environment.

The LEA met the full cost of the building development and provided some Pounds 6,700 towards initial equipment and set-up costs. The long-term commitment amounts to an annual budget of around Pounds 46,738 for running costs. The yearly costs of the nursery are, according to Mrs Rabey, inevitably higher than other areas of the school, due to the younger age-group's need for large and expensive items of equipment, which will suffer a degree of wear and tear through intensive usage.

There are currently three nursery staff: the teacher, a qualified NNEB and a welfare assistant who work closely as a team. All speak unanimously of the benefits of the new building for their curriculum. Yes, there is scope for further improvement. The conservatory-style canopy over the veranda area could be extended, since the wind-direction tends to blow rain back towards children in inclement weather. There are ideas for further spaces, possibly a larger quiet activity room, a room for parents to meet.

The approach to furnishing the nursery reflected the overall priorities at Wickbourne: quality, value for money and awareness of the messages which children absorb from their learning and the adults who work with them.

Basic furniture, including practical melamine surfaced tables and a small batch of little chairs came from the competitively-priced Steltube range. Tray unit trolleys, with a mix of deep and standard plastic trays came from PEL, storage specialists from the West Midlands (around Pounds 130 a set). Extensive research was done to compare value, durability and suitability for the purpose with a number of other suppliers. The school also ordered a tray cart from PEL, for moving around sand and water play resources which are used inside and out.

Beech shelves are used in the nursery's graphics area for children to select materials literally off-the-shelf (ex-stock from Ellis Furniture). These were ordered through YPO the Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation, which also provided a wide range of nursery teaching materials.

In establishing the layout of the adjacent activity area, loose furniture has been minimalised by the installation of a low-level sink and drainer with a long worktop over storage racking for craft materials in plastic curver boxes. A four-sided art easel for young painters was obtained from GLS Fairway (Pounds 57.80) and clear perspex sand and water trays with two levels from Hope (around Pounds 170 including stands). The nursery's double-sided display bookcase and the Kinderbox full of good books for the quiet activities room came from NES (Pounds 140 and Pounds 65 respectively).

The potential for language enrichment and drama is brought out in a role-play area which changes regularly from optician or dentist's surgery to underwater set, without neglecting the staple diet of home simulations. The byword here is minimalism, a box on wheels for storage and small play partitions from NES. At the time of my visit, raffia beachmats and a backdrop painted in autumn shades represented a hedgerow which produced a new generation of would-be wildlife. A full-length non-breakable mirror (also NES Arnold) allowed children to practise the essential pose of a Nineties weasel or stoat.

Looking into the toilets, which requires a degree of anaesthesia in some schools, reveals functional and easily-maintained arrangements. The sinks, which children pass on their way in and out, are equipped with hospital-style single mixer Levataps with extended arms (from Shavrin). The toilets facing them are enclosed in new airline-style cubicles, and the vinyl flooring has even been sculpted into dirt-free hygienic curves at all the vertical junctions with wall surfaces. There is also an adult stainless steel sink and a washing machine which starts up towards the end of the morning session. Ventaxia provided the hand-driers.

The classroom materials purchased for Wickbourne Nursery reflect the key aspects of early learning experience: mathematical, scientific, linguistic and literary, technological, physical, aesthetic and creative, personal and social, spiritual and moral. Identifying the equipment that was to convert the new classroom from empty space into learning environment and the theory into practice presented challenges ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

There were the more mundane but essential materials to be stocked up for the teacher's toolkit. Many of the consumable materials were purchased from YPO. Another favourite supplier for value and quality was EDCO of Leeds, who provided basic essentials from paperclips and drawing pins to paintbrushes and paints.

At Wickbourne, the children use microworld materials such as the Little Tikes Wee Waffle Castle, suitable for the practising orator (from Step by Step of Bristol) and reliable favourites, such as Galt's farm sets, road and farm playmats. Duplo vehicles, zoos and Toolo construction packs, Briomec, Playmobil, Mobilo and Luna Park were purchased for their long-established educational and entertainment value.

Role-play furniture includes a fridge, cupboard, cooker and sink (all from YPO), and a full-length safety mirror from Hope. Anatomical dolls and family models for play depict a healthy regard for social diversity.

YPO appears consistently in the school's invoices, because of the sheer value for money of its range: in August 1993, Wickbourne was able to buy PVC aprons from Pounds 1.90, bucket balance Pounds 7.60, packs of mirrors for Pounds 1.77 per pack of 10, and a first-aid kit for Pounds 10.35.

For materials promoting fine motor skills, reading readiness and developing wider interests, YPO again came up trumps with a collection including sequencing puzzles at Pounds 12.90 and jigsaws from Pounds 7.20. NES Arnold was chosen for a collection of other basic science resources.

The quiet activities room at Wickbourne is set up to explore the jigsaws that need real concentration and commitment or to enjoy a good collection of books from a corner Kinderbox by NES Arnold. Here too, the children can make use of a BBC Master computer and a Centronics printer. When they want to listen to story or music cassettes, they use a good-quality Coomber 393 cassette player.

The school has a set of the very large hollow blocks from Community Playthings - superb for developing and exploring spatial concepts. They appear expensive at Pounds 499 for the major set, but they are immensely absorbing to work with and will probably last until the grandchildren of current users turn up to class.

Smaller-scale resources for developing early mathematical concepts include natural and commercial materials for experience of using money, classifying setting and sorting.

The use of natural resources begs a mention of the school conservation area. This carefully thought-out area adjacent to the school hall extends the nursery principles of the outdoor classroom, with apple trees, a herb-garden and bat-boxes in a safely-enclosed area. The children will continue throughout the school to use the wet and dry log areas, the pond and the compost heap. The value of this experience is reflected in the quality of the nursery's first-hand observation work.

For music, the nursery has its own child-size wooden instrument kit, called the Children's young orchestra (Pounds 79.95), but it also has access to the skills of a specialist teacher in the hall each week. Here, the children have access to a wide range of percussion, tuned and untuned, together with scrapers, maracas and essential space to move during lessons with their own staff. They were busy during my visit, practising the ubiquitous "If you're happy and you know it" - once more with feeling!

Advice on setting up the Wickbourne Nursery playground came from a number of sources, including the County Landscaping experts and the local authority's PE adviser, who suggested ways in which the nursery curriculum could exploit the space outdoors.

Giant Feber construction blocks from Galt, for building castles and exercise centres complete with slide, allow the excitement of moving around and exploring a safe environment on a grand scale. A 3-metre durable play tunnel from NES Arnold cost just under Pounds 70 - over Pounds 20 a metre, but was worth every penny for the same reasons.

The mixture of sources for large play vehicles reflects the school's approach to selecting each item on its own merits. Community Playthings' unique double tricycle is very much in evidence. Other tricycles are produced by the Swedish firm Hags, and an unusual four-wheel scooter with a long benchplatform made by Nathan was parked casually in the lot.

The roadway itself, with its circuit around a "large mansion" on the green, successfully achieves a subtle diversion of peak-hour traffic away from potential collisions in the main hard surface area.

The house is quite something, and supplements the role-play area in the indoor classroom. Even the name is grand: the Regency "Clockhouse" was supplied and erected for Pounds 424 by a local firm, Garden Leisure Buildings. Inside, it is set up with the domestic essentials for conventional role play, including Hope's bright red chubby chair set: ideal for the house with colonial pretensions.

The key virtue of the playground area at Wickbourne is the fact that supervision sightlines for internal and external space are unobscured. The two aspects of the nursery meld together seamlessly in the children's use of activities and facilities. Plasbric building blocks and a Hope water tray are easily and regularly transferred from inside to outside. The building design incorporates a secure store for outside vehicles, play tunnel and large blocks, which reduces the endemic potential for back trouble among staff working with younger children.

The pine tree in the centre of the playground will soon be embellished by a surrounding seat for moments of quiet reflection. The gardens already contain specimens such as Esconomia, leanothus, Potentilla dahnsica and Euonymus fortunii.

The money for many of the features in the playground has come from the school's own fund-raising and LMS budget. More poignantly, some of the improvements to the outdoor facilities for children which are a particular feature of the school were made possible by a bequest from the estate of Miss Johns, a former teacher at the school. I'm sure she would have approved.

Contacts and key suppliers

Effective Early Learning research project, Worcester College of Higher Education 0905 425681

Garden Leisure Buildings, Chichester 0243 774940

Hope Education 061-633 6611

West Sussex LEA, County Hall, Chichester 0243 777100

Gamble Cook, Architects, Worthing 0903 206022

Groundcare 0243 777997?

Gent Alarms 0533 462000

Thorn Security 081-755 3333

Community Playthings 0580 882250

Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation, Wakefield 0924 294834

Ellis Furniture, Huddersfield 0484 514212

EDCO, Leeds 0532 300112

PEL, Oldbury, West Midlands 021-552 3377

GLS Fairway 081-801 3333:

Coomber Audio, Worcester 0905 25168

Steltube, Essex 0621 857273

Step by Step of Bristol 0454 281200

Galt 061-428 8511 The West Sussex approach to new developments

Stage 1

LEA commitment in principle

Stage 2

LEA property department consults with school to develop brief

Stage 3

LEA feasibility study

Stage 4

LEA commissions private architect

Stage 5

LEA goes to tender on contract

Stage 6

On-going consultation procedures during building phase

Wickbourne Nursery Costs

Building Pounds 119,000

LEA start-up grant fittings Pounds 6,700

Yearly nursery budget Pounds 46,738

Total in first full year Pounds 172,438

(does not take account of additional school investment from own resources)

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