Nursery Management: Technology - What’s changed?

Joanne Parkes
Tuesday, October 26, 2021

From using Tapestry in new ways, to contacting parents via Zoom, and other tech innovations, Joanne Parkes asks how Covid-led changes to practice look set to be long-lasting

Necessity is the mother of invention, and with lockdowns and families self-isolating over the past 18 months, many early years settings have found themselves embracing a range of technology to support their businesses through a challenging time.

Live and pre-recorded video for stories, singing and activity inspiration were among the most at-hand methods that quickly took off to sustain home learning links with families unable to access their usual early years settings.

Some settings say that since then, they have become even more tech-oriented. The pandemic has led them to implement approaches across the areas of parental communication, management and practice that they feel will endure.

COMMUNICATING WITH PARENTS

Caroline El-Semman, director of Little Jungle in Peckham, south London, says, ‘Financially we’ve suffered from the pandemic. But operationally and pedagogically, the technology we use has really made us reflect and develop how we work.’

Little Jungle had been using the online learning journal Tapestry for some time pre-pandemic, for documenting children’s development with photos and videos. El-Semman says that since Covid, these are frequently shared with parents via the app, which allows two-way contact.

She adds, ‘Before Covid, we would do it more to keep track of children’s learning, but now it’s more heavily around giving parents an insight, because we’ve lacked that face-to-face interaction.’

During lockdowns, the app was also used for staff to pre-record and share storytime videos from home, as well as personalised videos of themselves, with parents encouraged to reciprocate with their children’s news.

These more open channels have in turn boosted parents’ confidence in supporting learning, as well as giving them a better understanding of some of the setting’s own challenges. For example, a video quickly and effectively charts how a moment of conflict was managed between theirs and another child. ‘We could explain that, but that takes a long time, whereas when you have a film, you can really bring it to life,’ says El-Semman.

As a direct result of the pandemic, The American School in London (ASL) signed up to Seesaw, a popular classroom application in the US. ASL’s kindergarten teachers now use it to chart and share children’s learning journeys and get feedback from parents.

Creative arts teacher Melanie O’Leary believes that getting up to speed on novel technologies was daunting for many teachers. O’Leary, who learned to post herself demonstrating activities on YouTube, ‘like a TV presenter’, says, ‘Most of our kindergarten teachers are over 50 so you could argue that for us it was an even steeper learning curve.’ It has ‘definitely’ increased her confidence in using tech, with paper documentation now less likely to be used, she adds.

Zoom has also been transformative, according to O’Leary. Practitioners started by using the conferencing app to deliver live creative play sessions from their homes. This progressed to using it for regular online meetings with parents and to remotely involve them in sessions – such as reading or sharing cultures – once their children returned.

‘We were a school that allowed parents in all the time – it was very open door,’ says O’Leary, adding, ‘Now, when teachers need to talk to parents and vice versa, they might do a Zoom.

‘We’re continuing to do more Zoom contact with parents.’

Early years technology integration teacher Preeti Rana believes this also enables an ‘equity’ of involvement between working parents who may previously have found it difficult to come in person and those who are more available.

EVOLVING APPROACHES

Technology has also driven new ways of managing staff within and across settings. Rebecca Swindells, who owns The Blue Door Nursery in Seaford, East Sussex and was a part of Tapestry’s consultancy team, says that in the context of social distancing, her setting used the app ‘in a way that we’d never used it before’ as a management tool to support staff supervision, appraisal and professional development.

Staff, who all have an Amazon Fire tablet, would do observations on each other and record them on the app, which would enable the management team to feed back remotely. ‘That’s actually something we’re continuing with because staff are finding that really useful,’ says Swindells.

Staff are clear that the purpose of the app is to increase time with children so any use needs to be short and sweet. ‘The temptation to be poring over your tablet is always going to be there, but that’s for the staff training,’ she adds.

Across the sector, there has been a ‘massive acceleration’ of providers having to adapt during this time in ways that have permanently changed how they operate, according to Neil Leitch, chief executive of Early Years Alliance.

The alliance, which runs 65 settings, says the organisation has noticed improved efficiency in its own administration. For example, virtual meetings have allowed them to ‘deal quickly with real-time problems’, as well as cut printing costs with no need for hard-copy meeting documents. It and other larger operators with centralised administration are allowing for hybrid working where appropriate. Online training videos are also more widely used.

‘Quite a few providers are saying, “We won’t go back, this is what we’ll do in the future”,’ says Leitch. ‘That’s been forced by advancement in technology and the ability to communicate.’ He does caution that some direct interaction is necessary for staff wellbeing.

Some journal-focused apps are also helping managers by offering a complete package that includes invoicing, such as Blossom software and Nursery Story, with others, including Tapestry, looking to do this in the future.

MORE REFLECTIVE PRACTICE

‘Reflections’ on Tapestry is a tab that practitioners can use to record their concerns about an upcoming session, or to say they are pleased about something that they want to develop. Swindells explains, ‘That would pop up on my screen, so as the manager I can give them help and advice.

‘When you have a six-monthly appraisal, you plan for that appraisal, it tends to be quite “thinking in the past” and “making plans for what you’re going to do”. Working in this way, we’ve got in-the-moment reflective practice.’

El-Semman has also found this to be the case at Little Jungle, where she says the app has inspired greater collaboration between staff and enhanced their professional development.

‘We’ve all got different experiences and knowledge and if we work together, we can get better outcomes,’ she says, adding, ‘Technology is helping us to become more democratically professional because we’re constantly sharing ideas.’

Software support to implement the revised EYFS

Learning journal apps that have historically provided ticklists for settings to chart developmental milestones now arguably have no need to do so since the revised EYFS came into force this September. Instead, some apps are supporting settings by providing Birth To 5 Matters and Development Matters guidance as reference material alongside a simplified facility for recording how children are developing and learning.

‘We have made it easier to identify children who need support in a particular area, giving options of how you want to word this, to fit in with your setting’s ethos,’ says Nursery Story app’s product development lead Kat Learner.

Tapestry also has the option to create a curriculum, which gives managers the freedom to tailor the EYFS to the particular needs of the setting and children. Tapestry’s co-founder, Dr Helen Edwards, says, ‘The new revised EYFS states categorically you shouldn’t be doing all this data.

‘Ofsted are not going to ask for the data. Your senior leadership team shouldn’t be asking for the data. Local authorities shouldn’t be asking for it.

‘You do need to monitor children, of course you need to know how they’re doing, but monitoring them against the curriculum you’ve created, not an already prescribed list of learning outcomes. It’s music to my ears.’

Dr Edwards predicts that while the more child-centred approach is widely welcomed, there will be some settings who will ask for a return of the ticklist on the app.

‘What really helps us is Birth to Five has prevented any software providers from turning that into a ticklist, which was a really shrewd move,’ she says.

Blossom’s managing director, Sam Thakrar, says, ‘We’ve just updated the app to make sure that it isn’t a checkbox exercise and you’re able to use your professional opinion on a child and their development.’

Blossom also offers a bespoke curriculum, milestones and assessments service to settings and has just signed with its first nursery group, Banana Moon.

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