Research is seen as vital at a centre which cares for under-fives in an economically blasted area. When the steelworks closed in Corby, Northamptonshire, 5,000 men lost their jobs. The area became a ghost town. Out of that devastation, however, came new life, specifically the Pen Green Centre, which is housed in a former secondary school. To say it provides education and care for the under-fives is inadequate. It also gives support to their families, as well as the space and staff time for many services - adult education, a drop-in centre, community health, welfare rights and advocacy.
The morning of my visit there were parents playing alongside children in the nursery, a separate playgroup run by mothers, and a baby massage session. The centre also houses a youth club, writers' group, men's group, yoga, and craft workshop.
Tomorrow the centre is holding a conference to show how the multidisciplinary staff - teachers, nursery nurses, social workers and health visitors - engage in research while working. Margy Whalley, the centre's dynamic director, has set up, with the support of the local county council, an early years research, development and training base on site. It is hoped that the base will be self-financing after a year.
"When the centre opened we made training a priority because we needed reflective practitioners who were intellectually rigorous," explains Margy Whalley, who is a qualified teacher and who did an MA at the centre. "It's not a coincidence that we have staff doing doctorates, MAs, MBAs, adult teacher certificates, advanced counselling courses and NVQs, A-levels, GCSEs. Parents also study alongside staff."
When the centre began to do its own action research, other organisations took an interest in the integrated way that Pen Green worked. Although more than 40 centres combine education and care for under-fives in the UK, not all have the same range of professionals.
Because of that range, Pen Green has become a training centre, taking social work students on masters courses, trainee teachers and nursery nurse students and encouraging them to work innovatively. It is also an NVQ assessment centre.
"We've been trying to get everyone equally well-qualified to ensure they are competent to work with children and so that there is a high quality nursery curriculum," says Margy Whalley. "In these newly integrated services they also need to be able to engage parents and help them to stay involved in their children's learning. If you don't engage the parents, you don't bring about real change."
More than 60 per cent of parents using the centre left school at 16 and many have little confidence in their abilities. "We're rebuilding a lot of that and helping parents to look on their children's learning in a creative way, and feel that they're part of it," says Margy Whalley.
One member of staff, for example, is doing an MA project which involves working with a few parents who have audiotaped diaries about their children's learning at home. The staff member is videotaping children in the nursery. That exercise has produced a real dialogue between parents and nursery staff, according to Margy Whalley.
She has good links with universities, particularly Leicester University and the University of Wolverhampton (where she is doing her PhD) and will be applying for research grants.
Her doctorate - on female management and leadership of early childhood services - is looking at how women perform these functions. "I think women manage and lead in a very different way from men," she says. "Most early childhood services are run by women. Nobody has looked at how we do it. We work on the edge of chaos. We work in a very exciting and collaborative way. "
In other European countries, such as Denmark and Italy, research is considered fundamental to practitioners. Pen Green staff agree. They value the five hours non-contact time a week, which lets them reflect on what they're doing and develop their practice. For Margy Whalley, staff learning is a priority.
Early childhood education must be a research-based profession, she thinks. The hope is that parents will be involved in research, too, and help to find out what is effective in getting them involved in their children's learning.
The centre has applied to the Department of Health for funding for that project, and does not yet know whether it has been successful.
"We don't want the research to be seen as people coming and doing things to other people," says Whalley. "That's why we want to empower teachers as researchers and enable parents to feel they own the projects, or are part of them."
Proposed Pen Green research projects
uManagement and leadership in early years settings. Women's particular style of running services for children and families. How do outstanding women managers do their jobs?
uNature of support for parents. What helps parents? Parents will be asked to define what support they need and what is effective and to do some of that research themselves.
uParents' involvement in their children's learning. How can parental interest best be built upon and maintained? Compare with a matched group of children in a traditional nursery setting.
u Men as carers: how fathers can best be involved in their children's learning.