In a rural area where families face poverty and isolation, Julian Grenier finds a centre whose outreach work with pre-schools provides vital support
Chipping Norton is a pretty market town in rural Oxfordshire which appears to be inhabited mainly by professional couples commuting to Oxford and Banbury, and some second homeowners. It seems an unlikely setting for the ACE Centre with its mission to support families facing issues like poverty, isolation and other typically urban issues. But Sue Clempson, the centre's charismatic director, confirms that 'there is a high level of poverty both in the town and in the surrounding villages. For example, there are lone parents living in the villages who are isolated, unemployed and stuck at home. Public transport is negligible. Families can easily end up feeling trapped in a pretty environment which has absolutely nothing for them.'
ACE stands for Activities, Childcare and Education. The centre provides a multitude of services in each category, including a nursery school, a daycare nursery, a family centre, computer training, adult education, space for clubs and support groups. The centre also runs an afterschool and holiday club for children aged from four to 14.
The Department for Education and Employment has funded an outreach service to support local pre-school settings. Some of these have even been saved from closure by the centre's programme of support and development, and by the centre's help through its Ofsted inspections.
These vital services have been kept going in villages which have alarmingly few public services and often lack schools, buses and even post offices and pubs.
'The outreach work is our most special facility,' says Clempson. 'We work with 29 rural pre-school settings and offer training opportunities which are tailored to their needs. Recently we have provided a series of courses on the new Foundation Stage, showing how the curriculum can be accessed through play and rich experiences. Leading on from that, one group has requested a course on report-writing linked to the new curriculum. We want to show that the Foundation Stage is something that practitioners can cope with, that they can carry on being creative - that they can do it.'
Clempson's love of learning constantly sparks into life. 'I am so passionate about children's rights to be who they are,' she says. 'Children should not be put through the mincer. I have seen so much education which is just about processing people of whatever age. The ACE Centre is about providing the exact opposite of that. Adults and children need to be motivated, inspired, excited, praised, valued and always need to be listened to. It comes down to basic respect of other people as human beings. Children are people too - it's just that they haven't been around as long as the rest of us.' NW
Julian Grenier is deputy head of Woodlands Park Nursery, part of the London Borough of Haringey's Early Excellence Network
How to work together
As projects like Sure Start and Early Excellence expand, more and more early years practitioners are working together with other professionals like social workers, adult educators and health visitors. Some ideas for developing joined-up working:
1 Working together means sharing ideas and not being afraid to make mistakes.
2 Professionals have to be committed to listening to the views of users - adults and children - and changing how they work in response to feedback.
3 Services will have to be developed to meet users' needs, rather than trying to fit everyone into the traditional types of service on offer.
4 People from different services will have their own needs. Everyone will require the understanding and support of managers, and also have to support other people with different training and experiences.
5 Local needs have to be researched and clarified so that all professionals are clear about the context they are working in.
6 In times of change, people need to hold onto what excites and inspires them about their work to avoid being overwhelmed.
7 Everyone must work together to create trust in the users and provide the same welcome and quality in every part of the new service.
8 Joined-up services need to establish clearly what users are entitled to - and how this will be delivered by each service.
9 As new staff and new services join the venture, values need to be renegotiated. This means that newcomers will be aware of existing values and practices. It creates an opening for people from different professional backgrounds to contribute their own unique insights.
10 New services always have a history. A new multi-service centre may have once been a social services nursery, or perhaps a nursery school. The original staff may feel that they still 'own' the new setting. Settings are actually 'owned' by local people and not by the professionals from any service.