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Chains that allow each setting to plan its own curriculum can still guarantee a coherent approach, as Judith Barrett discovers Next spring, when the Government reissues its guidance to early years practitioners, Birth to Three Matters and the Foundation Stage will re-emerge as one shiny, new, streamlined framework for working with children from birth to five years old.

Chains that allow each setting to plan its own curriculum can still guarantee a coherent approach, as Judith Barrett discovers

Next spring, when the Government reissues its guidance to early years practitioners, Birth to Three Matters and the Foundation Stage will re-emerge as one shiny, new, streamlined framework for working with children from birth to five years old.

New guidance is difficult enough for the staff in one setting to get their heads around and change their practice accordingly, but it's an even bigger problem for a nursery chain: just how can it ensure that every practitioner interprets the curriculum in a sufficiently similar way for quality to be assured throughout all the settings operating under its name?

It was with this problem in mind that Liz Richardson was appointed director of childcare and education at Asquith Nurseries in June this year. 'Asquith wants a coherent approach to the curriculum across the whole of the group.

My role is to deliver that,' she says.

No mean task, when Asquith has a total of 108 nurseries throughout the UK, with 8,500 daycare places and 2,400 employees.

Ms Richardson is clear that any definition of an early years curriculum must be all-encompassing. 'All the experiences we offer to the children are part of the curriculum. Just because a baby is having its nappy changed or a group of toddlers are having their lunch, it doesn't mean that they suddenly stop learning.'

Devolved planning

Previously at Asquith the curriculum was planned at head office, including the choice of themes, when to introduce them, and suggestions for activities. 'This was to support the settings and to make sure that staff were comfortable within the framework,' explains Ms Richardson.

This is an approach adopted by many other chains, but at Asquith Ms Richardson is making the move away from central planning. Only then, she argues, can the curriculum be truly child-centred. 'It is appropriate that we try to make sure that observation of the children informs what we are offering them,' she says. So in future all the planning at Asquith nurseries 'will be based on the staff's observation of the children and their interests and information from the parents.'

The other big change Ms Richardson is introducing to make the nurseries more child-centred is that of 'continuous provision'. This means that all activities (sand and water, large/small-scale construction, writing table, etc) are continuously available to the children, so that they can move freely between them as they choose, supported rather than directed by the adults. Asquith's nurseries are being refurbished accordingly, for example, with lower shelving units, so that they can easily access all the equipment.

Sue Meekings, who is director of childcare at Childcare Corporation, also believes that the planning of the curriculum has to be devolved down to each unit. 'How do you know what the children need, if you are not the one caring for them?' she says. 'We look at where they are, what interests them and we take that forward, plan accordingly.'

Staff within each of Childcare Corporation's 17 nurseries use the assessment and planning system designed by Ms Meekings, but within these the themes and activities are the staff's own decision. Practitioners are paid to attend planning meetings, over and above the time they spend with the children in their care.

Monitoring

Ms Meekings ensures quality across the chain by carrying out regular internal inspections. 'It's a support mechanism,' she says. 'I work co-operatively with the managers and they like the system.'

Asquith is introducing a similar way of working, though necessarily on a far larger scale. In addition to the post of director of childcare and education, the chain has also recruited teams of regional- and childcare support- managers to work with Ms Richardson, in the nursery chain's three regions - the north, the south and London. Based within their respective areas, they are not attached to any one particular nursery, but are out on the road every day to visit different nurseries, while meeting with Ms Richardson regularly and communicating with her and each other by phone and e-mail.

Won't this be difficult, however: newly appointed outsiders coming in to monitor the standards of care and education delivered? Ms Richardson thinks not. So far, Asquith's staff 'have been really receptive to the changes,'

she says. 'It's been a big culture change, but staff have reacted positively. As early years professionals, they are interested in what they are doing and keen to do the planning and preparation.'

Training

The staff have been motivated in part by the training Asquith's childcare director has organised for them. By January, one-third of the nursery workers - both Birth to Three staff and those working within the Foundation Stage - will have had two days' training in the new approach. 'Inspiring'

is a word that crops up often on their evaluation forms,' says Ms Richardson. The staff who have attended the courses will then in turn deliver the training to the others in their settings

Training will remain a large part of Ms Richardson's new role. She wants to ensure that the unqualified get NVQs, and that those with NVQs move on to foundation degrees. It will also be her job to keep abreast of the latest research and Government advice, and, with her team, to produce information in a form that can be used by staff in each of the settings.

'The idea is that I will enable us to have leaders of the curriculum in every nursery and that all staff will feel confident about the curriculum and be able to articulate their approach to both parents and Ofsted.

'But,' she emphasises, 'the crucial thing is the quality of the interaction between the children and the adults.'

Knowledgeable, motivated staff, careful monitoring systems, a dynamic leader - these are three of the elements essential to the successful management of the curriculum across a chain of nurseries. 'What we're working towards, says Liz Richardson, 'is a shared understanding of how children learn and develop.'

Places for Children

Places for Children is recruiting a designated curriculum development manager to look at the curriculum plans currently in use across its five nurseries. 'This is in direct response to the Government's plans to develop a single quality framework from birth to school age,' explains Carol Jenkins, the chain's managing director. 'We want to recruit a bright spark, an early years graduate, with three to four years' experience.'

Ms Jenkins hopes that the manager, once in place, will begin by evaluating the group's current plans for all areas of learning, and then work with staff to improve.

Currently, staff in each of the nurseries use the same planning sheets when preparing activities for the children, but each nursery chooses themes and activities in response to the interests of their particular children. 'Our nursery manager will then e-mail an outline of the topic and planned activities to head office, so that ideas can be shared across the chain,'

explains Karen Peters, manager of Places for Children's Watford nursery.

'And the senior practitioners from each nursery who are working with Foundation Stage children also meet up together for regular planning meetings.'

Quality across the chain is assured by a system of regular visits and inspections by the operations manager, both announced and unannounced.

While she is looking at the care of the children as a whole, once the curriculum development manager is in place, she or he will visit the nurseries with a specific eye to the learning of the children.

'The most likely plan at the moment, is that they will work with the children in two of the nurseries, in addition to ratio, but also visit the other nurseries regularly, to support the work of the staff there as well,'

says Ms Jenkins. 'We are very excited about the introduction of a single framework and everyone is keen to develop their practice accordingly.'

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