Early pioneers

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Professor Cathy Nutbrown, the new president of Early Education, looks back at how the organisation's leaders have campaigned for nursery education and equality


Professor Cathy Nutbrown

I am delighted to be honorary president of Early Education, and looking forward to working with its members, trustees and vice-presidents to continue its work and mission over the next three years.

Early Education was founded in 1923, then called The Nursery Schools Association, and is now the leading independent national charity for early childhood education, as well as being a membership body for early years practitioners. Early Education has a campaigning and supportive role, focusing in particular on the right of all children to education of the highest quality. With members all over the UK, and activity in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, Early Education provides a national voice on matters that relate to effective early childhood education and care of young children from birth to eight.

I am Early Education’s 19th president, and I have been looking back at the history of the organisation and the work of some of its earliest presidents.


It was one of my heroes of early childhood education, Margaret McMillan, who first took on the role in 1923, providing an example of multidisciplinary practice, working on a practical level with mothers and their children and, on a political front, lobbying Westminster to right the wrongs of poverty. Margaret and her sister Rachael, working with James Keir Hardy, were instrumental in the passing of the School Meals Act in 1906, which ensured that children did not spend their day in school hungry, and with decent nourishment could focus on playing and learning. It is a national disgrace that many children in the UK still experience hunger on a regular basis. Poverty in early childhood is an issue that I hope we shall be able to do more to address through Early Education in the coming years.

Grace Owen was president from 1941-1948. She stressed some different priorities in her own pioneering of family-orientated nursery schools as places where children’s well-being and healthy growth were fundamental to their lives and learning. Grace argued that nursery schools should be at the heart of any community, making a point that housing developments should all have a nursery school with facilities for children to play – including the outdoors space. Today, the Grace Owen Nursery School in Sheffield, housed on the ground floor of city centre flats, still bears testament to her belief in nursery schools, which provide high-quality play experiences for young children in their local communities.

Pioneering play and space for play, especially the inclusion of disabled children, Lady Allen of Hurtwood was the fourth president from 1948-1952. She was a ‘doer’ and highlighted the need for exciting and stimulating spaces for children to play, especially in inner cities, made with input from the children themselves.

Several women MPs have occupied the role over the years, including two campaigners in support of nursery education. Eirene White, later Baroness White of Rhymney, was president between 1964 and 1966. As a Labour MP, she promoted equal pay for women, nursery education and free public libraries. Renee Short served as president for some 16 years between 1966 and 1982. A Labour MP and among the first to raise the issue of the hours of the House of Commons preventing more women from becoming MPs, Renee campaigned for many equality issues, most notably with long commitment to nursery education.

I don’t have space here to celebrate the contributions of all the Early Education presidents who have preceded me, but suffice to say that their work as Her Majesty’s Inspectors, academics and campaigners together tell a formidable story of tenacity and commitment to young children’s early learning and well-being.

Their work in moving forward the development of high-quality provision for young children is still being taken forward by Early Education members today. Involvement in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nursery Schools, Nursery and Reception Classes has highlighted the importance of this provision and of the threats to its future. Past presidents supported Early Education’s mission to provide rich learning opportunities for young children, and this is what Early Education stands for today.

There is much work to do to ensure all young children experience high-quality education and care that meets their needs and upholds their rights. There are many major issues to address, including Baseline assessment and the nature of the Reception Year, the future of nursery schools and the disgrace of child poverty. I look forward to working with the Early Education team and its members on these and other challenges in the coming years.

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