Work Matters: Leadership and Management - Self-evaluation Part 3 - Open the door to new ideas

Nursery managers overcame their wariness and learned from visiting each other's settings on a course run by Laura Henry.

When devising this course, I wanted managers to have a learning experience out of the 'classroom' during which they could form lasting professional relationships with each other. I decided it would be a good idea for the managers to visit each other's settings.

Managers are inevitably so tied up with the day-to-day managing of their own setting, that rarely do they get the opportunity to visit others. They go through an emotional conflict deciding whether it is worth leaving their setting for a few hours, when they could be writing their SEF! Also, some see it as a threat - another competitor visiting and 'stealing ideas' for their setting's own gain. However, in the spirit of keeping children at the centre of quality, I strongly believe there are huge benefits in visiting other settings, which involve sharing and adopting ideas with each other. While training, managers are keen to share their ideas and stories, so it is even more positive to see these ideas in practice. Importantly, they are able to act as a critical friend and as a 'fresh pair of eyes' to each other.

I also wanted the managers to formally record the visit as part of the accredited process of this course. With this in mind, I devised a concise pro-forma for them to focus on within their visits. I thought it important that during their visits they focus on the EYFS and how it was embedded within different nurseries.

The pro-forma included:
- A brief description of the setting
- An area of good practice
- An area that needs to be developed
- An area that I would use within my setting.

Effective Support Network

As part of our training, managers from Cheshire were asked to undertake a visit to a partner setting. The idea behind the visits was to strengthen the informal support network we had begun to establish and encourage the sharing of ideas and practice. The delegates found it reassuring to meet with others in the same situation, making them re-evaluate their own practice and provision.

They clearly found the visits valuable in terms of their personal development. Delegate Lucy Davies of Princess Street Pre-school in Knutsford said, 'I have found it one of the best parts of the course. It was a great opportunity to glean tips from similar settings and also have a great pool of support from colleagues doing the same job as me. It has helped my confidence and my knowledge base and improved my sanity!'

Ms Davies was paired with EYP Sam Higgins (see box) and has now been inspired to gain the status herself.

Managers were also able to pick up lots of practical tips on organisation. Adele Townend of Little Scallywags Day Nursery in Macclesfield visited Linda Cooper of Peter Pan Preschool in Middlewich. She commented, 'I liked the storage of child observations and evidence from their development portfolios. These were simply put in plastic wallets and strung up on the wall, one for each child. I thought this was a simple, practical and attractive way of storing these until they could be stuck into children's files. I also thought it would be ideal to ask parents to slot in their own observations/photos so they could be more involved in their child's learning and development.'

Ms Townend said that she was so impressed with the idea that she had implemented it at her own setting by the end of the day.

A further benefit of the joint visits has been to support practitioners in identifying areas for development and considering how this might be achieved. Margaret Sanders of New Life Pre-school in Congleton visited Caroline Thorley of Adventure Pre-school, also in Congleton. Ms Sanders' Focused Improvement Plan centres on enhancing the outdoor learning environment, so she found it useful to visit a similar setting with a well-established outdoor area and observe free-flow play in action.

Ms Thorley found it reassuring to see that her partner setting was facing many of the same issues, such as how best to link observations to planning, and gained some useful strategies for supporting children with challenging behaviour. Observing differences in snack time organisation made both practitioners question their practice, but on reflection they both felt that their current routines were best suited to the needs of their setting.

The paired visits have also had a positive impact on developing practitioners' learning. One manager found that the visit gave her new-found confidence in reflecting upon current practice in her setting. As a consequence, she has identified areas of practice that needed work, such as allowing children to access resources independently. She said the course has helped her to gain greater trust and empathy with her staff team, and she now feels ready to support them in making the necessary changes.

Melanie Jenkins, Cheshire East pedagogue, felt that the most significant benefit of the paired visits has been the development of an effective support network. 'The majority of delegates had expressed concerns about being isolated as managers at the start of the course. They relished the opportunity to get out of their own settings to meet with others to share practice, ideas and concerns, and discuss solutions to common challenges and dilemmas.'

Janine Sayle, pedagogue with Cheshire East EYFS team, said the paired visits had provided a valuable opportunity for managers to observe similarities and differences in provision and practice, to reflect upon their own settings and be inspired to make changes that she feels will make a real difference to children.

Laura Henry is managing director of Childcare Consultancy. E-mail or phone 0208 689 7733


By Samantha Higgins, Early Years Professional and supervisor at Alderley Edge Pre-school

I think, initially, we were all a bit nervous about the setting visits, especially about inviting others in. What might they think of us? It is easy to focus on our shortcomings and areas for improvement, and forget about all that we are doing well. Fortunately we had already spent a couple of days together on the course, and had begun to become used to working together, developing and sharing challenges and dilemmas.

Having been briefed on what to look for during our visits, they actually flew by in a flurry of note-taking and ideasharing. All the staff were keen to be involved and talk with the visitors. It soon became apparent that we all had a lot more in common than we had thought. Especially useful was feedback on the visit. It was good for staff to hear positive comments about how the setting appears to others and the good practice they had observed. It also gave me the opportunity to hear how well my staff know and understand their job role, talking confidently about what they were doing and the reasoning behind their activities.

The opportunity to go and have a nose at another setting was a delight! It's amazing how many different approaches there are within the childcare sector and the imaginative ways in which settings have adapted to get the most for their children from the environment they have.

They do say a problem shared is a problem halved, and this proved true when considering areas to develop in each of our settings. When you stare at the same problem every day it becomes overwhelming and impossible to find any resolution to, but if someone from outside comes in, they have fresh, new ideas. Even if there is no easy fix it's great to have their support and reassurance to keep you trying.

Now we have started this collaboration, everyone is really keen to keep on with it. We seem to have gotten over the 'closed door' mentality and now realise that through sharing ideas and working together, we can all achieve benefits for our settings and the children in them.

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