Down To The Grassroots - National EYN

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The National Early Years Network has its roots well and truly in the voluntary sector. Originally called the Voluntary Organisations Liaison Council for Under Fives (VOLCUF), it was set up in 1978 by Lady Plowden, well known for her report on primary education in the 1960s and as chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. It wasn't until 1995 that VOLCUF changed its name to the National Early Years Network, and Lady Plowden is its Life President.

The National Early Years Network has its roots well and truly in the voluntary sector. Originally called the Voluntary Organisations Liaison Council for Under Fives (VOLCUF), it was set up in 1978 by Lady Plowden, well known for her report on primary education in the 1960s and as chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. It wasn't until 1995 that VOLCUF changed its name to the National Early Years Network, and  Lady Plowden is its Life President.

Forty per cent of current members membership is mainly on a group basis are from the voluntary sector, the rest from private and statutory organisations. Among the organisations that join are playgroups, nursery schools, out-of-school clubs, Sure Start programmes, and Early Years Development and Childcare Partnerships (EYDCPs). Eva Lloyd, chief executive since 1998 and only the third the Network has had, says, 'There are, perhaps, more members in what has traditionally been the care sector than from nursery education. We represent those caring for children from birth, not just three- and four-year-olds and we've always been very much a grassroots organisation.'

There are about 1,200 membership groups and individuals, reaching 40,000 children under eight. At present only members from the voluntary sector have voting rights at the AGM.

The Network's offices are in London and there is no regional structure, but in 1992, the organisation encouraged the development of independent Early Years Forums of parents and providers around the country. These now number 350 and very often work closely with EYDCPs. In fact, in 1998, when the EYDCPs were struggling to send in their first plans to the Department for Education and Employment, the Network ran a seven-month support project for them on behalf of the DfEE, which drew on the local knowledge of the Early Years Forums.

Practical, attractive and easy-to-read publications are one of the Network's hallmarks. Members get a free quarterly magazine, Coordinate, which has just been re-launched with a pull-out series on reflective practice. 'We've always tried to unleash potential,' says Eva. 'Our publications try not to have a 'recipe' approach it's more a case of 'take this away and think about it'.'

The publications catalogue (members get discounts on books, which, like Coordinate, are available at full price for non-members) lists a string of books that are 'must-buys', such as Listening to four-year-olds by Jacqui Cousins and Action for racial equality in the early years by Jane Lane.

The Network's extensive training programme, which it has been running for ten years, has expanded due to demand boosted in part by the existence of the Standards Fund administered by EYDCPs. A programme running from September 1999 to June 2000 offers 33 one-day workshops on different topics for groups of early years staff, which works out at a very reasonable cost of 26.14 per person. Eva points out that giving evidence to the Select Committee for Education and Employment Inquiry into Early Years Education, the Network recommended that all early years staff be entitled to annual INSET days for training in the same way teachers are.

It may seem odd that Eva has architects from as far away as Glasgow currently calling her on the phone most days. But providing attractive environments for young children is something she's felt passionately about for a decade. Now that there is real investment in these buildings, the Network has held a number of events to highlight the issue. Earlier this week it ran a workshop, 'Making buildings work for young children', bringing together early years managers and architects. In March it organised a House of Commons debate, 'Is Public Architecture Failing Children?' A book is also due to be published on the subject.

The Network is committed to putting its members' views across. It believes that the Working Families Tax Credit will fail to boost early years provision as much as the Government hopes. 'We would like to see a directly funded Early Excellence Centre for children aged nought to five in every community,' says Eva. 'We need early years provision for children whether their parents are working or not.'               NW

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