Lessons from the past

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The work of early years pioneers shows that change is always possible, says Professor Cathy Nutbrown


With continued confusion and contradiction about who teaches young
children and the status of those working with young children, I have
been looking back at the work of early childhood education pioneers and
thinking about their legacy.

Margaret McMillan was described by JB Preistley as 'a nuisance who worked miracles'. Her first nursery school was established with her sister Rachel in 1913 in Deptford, London, an area of deep poverty. Emphasising health and well-being as essential to learning, Margaret wrote in the Bolton Evening News, 'The open-air nursery school has come into existence to deal with causes. That is a real mission. It is going to take the child before disease has got a strong hold on it when it is only two years of age, and everything is promising. And it will get hold of the young mother when she, too, is plastic. These two members of society are going to be dealt with face to face, heart to heart, and hand to hand.'

Margaret drew on writers of the time and her own observations of children, their families and their communities to develop an approach to nursery education that provided for all the needs of the child and their mothers. She worked with politicians to change policy and at the same time addressed the immediate needs of children and families in the communities where she worked.

It became very clear to Margaret that the adults who worked with the young children needed high-quality training. She stressed observation and understanding of children's behaviour during their college training and taught the students how to study children -looking beyond difficulties and 'defects' to see what she called the 'real child'. Students observed children on a daily basis, discussed their observations and used what they learned to plan how next to work with the child.

Writing in the The Times Educational Supplement on 'The Training of Teachers' in 1919 she said, 'Of course the one year course is too short. The ideal is a specially designed three-year course ... equivalent to a university course. And this we shall attempt here (at the Rachel McMillan College) however difficult its initiating.'

We can learn many things from the work of Margaret McMillan - not least her example of working at all levels to bring about change, however difficult that might be.

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