Reporter 410, 17 November 1997

Children’s centre celebrates OFSTED stamp of approval

The University Children’s Centre will celebrate its 45th birthday next term and the staff have just received an early gift in the form of a glowing report from OFSTED which recommends it continue its “excellent” practice.

Over the years the centre has changed with the times. Lunchboxes are just as likely to contain salami or sushi as sandwiches, and there has been the growing challenge of meeting the needs of working parents – most of whom are University staff. According to a recent survey all of the fathers and 80% of the mothers work. The centre, on Blenheim Terrace, currently attended by 30 children between the ages of three and five, is now open from 8.30am to 5.15pm. Centre head Pat Cooke says this allows for continuity of care, cutting out the bewildering array of childcare transitions many children often experience.

The centre – described by the Office for Standards in Education as well-organised, warm and inviting and providing a stimulating environment – prides itself on an adult/child ratio of 1:8 and the staff include a nursery teacher and three qualified nursery nurses. Having fun is taken very seriously, as the curriculum emphasises learning through experience and play.

Wide ethnic and cultural backgrounds are represented. The past year has seen children from Poland, China, Russia and Japan attend the centre and staff are often faced with different cultural expectations – in most European countries children do not start school until the age of six or seven, and Japanese parents have often been used to more formal teaching methods such as learning by rote. The children are also made aware of cultural differences at an early age – as they bring their own food it is not unusual for lunchboxes to contain more exotic meals such as sushi and festivals such as Diwali and Hanukkah are included in the curriculum.

Not only is the centre an invaluable resource for parents, but also for research staff and students. A pioneering study into language development by early years specialist Dr Joan Tough in the 1950s made a name for the centre and is still used today by psychology, medical and PGCE students. International MEd and PhD students have studied international differences, such as how children solve jigsaw puzzles in different countries. Parents are encouraged to become involved in the studies and copies of results are made available to them.

Pat Cooke, who lectures in the School of Education, teaches the PGCE nursery component at the centre. She says that credibility with students is enhanced “when an example of a child’s behaviour that morning can support a particular point made in an afternoon lecture.”

The Centre was inspected by an Office for Standards in Education team in September as part of a national programme of inspection for four-year-olds. The outcome of the report was that “the nursery should continue to monitor, evaluate and develop its current excellent practice” – no weaknesses were noted. Fiona Butler, the centre’s nursery teacher who trained at the University herself, said: “We’d all hoped for a good report and were delighted to be described as ‘excellent’.”

Sue Carden, whose daughter attended the centre last year said: “It’s brilliant news about the report but I’m not surprised as the staff work so hard with the children. They deserve it. The children have fun – but they don’t realise they’re learning things. Holli could read and write before she left, at four. She loved it, especially being in a real cultural mix.”

Singled out for particular mention were the children’s excellent behaviour, a print rich environment, a strong mathematics element, good links with parents and a strong sense of teamwork among the staff with effective leadership. Children were noted to be confident with numbers and were happy and polite with good relationships with other children and staff. In short, OFSTED had only good things to say about the Centre and its staff.

¤ There are some vacancies at the Centre. Morning sessions cost £6, morning and afternoons (until 3pm) are £12 and all day £15.

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