How We Got Here

The present situation is an interim stage in a battle that has gone on for a good seventy-five years. At the turn of the century there was great concern on the part of a few people, such as the MacMillan sisters, for the need for nursery provision. It was to be one solution to the appalling health problems and needs of young children especially in urban areas. Infant mortality rates were high everywhere but particularly in towns. Town babies were far more likely to die than their counterparts in the country but the comparative death rates for toddlers showed an even higher bias against town living conditions. This explains the Open-Air Nurseries and the emphasis on a healthy environment. Then follows a gradual acceptance of the idea but little practical application. Succeeding Education Acts included clauses to the effect that local authorities could, if they wished, provide nursery education facilities. A very few did which ex-plains the approximately 450 nursery schools which existed in 1939. War-time nurseries then sprang up for obvious reasons, none of them to do with the specific welfare of children. The 1944 Education Act again contained clauses which allowed local authorities to provide nursery education – indeed envisaged provision for a specific proportion of the under-five population. But again it was not made a statutory duty. Some local authorities responded by taking over the old day-nursery buildings and converted these for use as nursery schools. Others did nothing -materials, labour, teachers and funds were all in short supply in the post-war period. Only a handful of new nursery schools were built.

During all this time there had been pressure on governments and local authorities by professional people concerned with the welfare of young children. The grounds for their concern however were changed. With better public health procedures and provisions, vitamin supplements, an increasing prophylactic programme and the trend towards much smaller families the standard of health in young children was very much improved. The pressures on young children and their families were still there but of a different nature. Nursery schools with long waiting lists were hard put to keep a balance in their intake of children. There were those whose needs were special and who were therefore put forward as needy cases by Health and Welfare Departments. There were others whose mothers asked for places because they could see the benefits to young children of being able to play in a structured environment. Attempts at pressurizing for more nursery schools failed – the experts who were asking for them were not usually personally involved and in the long term were able, if unwilling, to wait for jam tomorrow instead of bread today. The number of mothers who saw nursery schools as desirable seemed to increase rapidly and it was these people who were incensed by a circular issued in i960 by the then Ministry of Education banning the building of new nursery schools and more general expenditure on existing nursery buildings. These people followed the example of a few groups which had started previous to i960: they formed their own play- groups and, incidentally, became founder-members of the Pre-School Playgroups Association. Their strength lay in the fact that their need was immediate, that two years’ effort was enough for their own children, that mothers are always more concerned for their own children than anyone else can be and, last but not least, there were a great many of them.

Information about nursery education was not very widespread even in i960. There were very few nursery schools, those that existed were necessarily small and so there were few nursery teachers. Where nursery schools did exist playgroups were modelled on these as far as possible except that they offered only part-time instead of full-time attendance. Obviously lack of money, lack of space and lack of knowledge led to differences between the two. In many cases nursery-school teachers were a valuable source of information and strength to nearby playgroups.

Most of the new groups had great difficulty in finding ‘ suitably trained’ people to act as staff in their groups. One or two found nursery-trained teachers who did not wish to work full-time in a school, many found other trained teachers for the same reason, some found trained nursery nurses, some found state registered nurses. These early ‘supervisors’ in most cases enjoyed this work but after a while began to press for ‘playgroup training’. The state registered nurses found that the wards full of sick children they had been trained to cope with were very different from the group of healthy, active children who were there simply to play. Teachers trained to teach other age groups found that their training was often no help at all with this kind of work. Nursery nurses who had been trained to act primarily in an assistant capacity found themselves overwhelmed with the heavy responsibilities of a group. Even nursery-trained teachers found that their traininghad not prepared them for parent involvement and the necessarily hand-to-mouth existence of playgroups – where equipment had to be saved for or made, the room needed to be completely cleared at the end of every session and then put out again next morning, and where caretakers were non-existent or perhaps frankly hostile. These were the people who saw the need for further information and rethinking. The idea of playgroup courses evolved slowly, starting in different ways and under different umbrellas and indeed even now there is a confused pattern of provision. Perhaps the most interesting thing that happened was that once courses were planned’ ordinary’ mothers who were interested also came along, enjoyed the courses, and found they had just as much of a contribution to make as the ‘trained’ students. In many cases they found that they too could very successfully run groups if they were upward extensions of the home rather than downward extensions of school. Sadly, some courses were less useful and often students realized this but were too polite to say so in the right places.

In fact playgroup training is one of the most exciting ‘ spinoff’ aspects of the move towards general nursery provision. Students do not have to be there unless they choose to be, and consequently motivation is high. They can choose the time at which they wish to attend, so taking part in a course usually coincides with the peak of interest. No entrance qualifications are demanded which gives a good cross-section of background and previous education. The field covers a wide variety of subjects so there will always be a proportion of the group keenly interested in every aspect of the course. Because it is usually an ‘ in-service’ training there is instant feedback. The students themselves have a vast amount of knowledge of small children which perhaps needs putting in perspective, but it is there, waiting to be tapped. There is always something new to be learned or a different viewpoint to be explored. Even tutors with a great deal of experience behind them consider it a bad day if they do not go home having learned something new or turned some idea inside out – and an untypical day if they do not have to spend some time questioning and rethinking what their own views are. Such courses may have their ‘ failures’ although there are no final examinations -but perhaps it should be counted as ‘success’ if a student decides that playgroup work is not for her. Often in the same breath she will say ‘But I have decided what I really would like to do’, and frequently goes off and does it. The one universal comment is ‘ I now know so much more about my own children. I wish I had attended a course before now -1 might have been a better mother if I had.’

Where Should We Be Going?

For many people the battle was considered over with a proposed plan for nursery education included in the 1972 White Paper This lays a duty on local authorities gradually to increase nursery provision over the next ten years so that by 1982 90 per cent of four-year-old children and 50 per cent of three-year-olds will be able to attend non-fee-paying nursery groups (this was the ‘ demand’ estimated in the Plowden Report pub-lished in 1967). The White Paper also suggests that local authorities consider local needs and resources, in particular the contribution that playgroups have made and could make.

It may well be that the real battle is just beginning. Playgroups may see themselves and all that they have achieved both for the children and the community in which they exist threatened. The ‘ educational establishment’ may feel it is not being given a clear field in which to work. Local authorities consist of people who have personal views. No one knows if truly widespread nursery education really works and pays dividends and if so what works best. It could well be that what we gain on the nursery swings we lose on the home roundabouts.

Any adult concerned with these problems is likely to have a vested interest. The people with most to lose or gain are the children. From their point of view the first question to be asked is: do they need an upward extension of home or a downward extension of school? Whatever answer is given the fact remains that children have to start from where they are now. The children are the same and it does not matter what the group they attend is called, where the necessary money comes from as long as it can be found, who the adults are and what their training was so long as they have the necessary skills and knowledge, what the building is so long as it is suitable for the purpose. If the needs of young children have to be ignored or pushed to one side in order to make nursery education fit into existing schemes and patterns which have evolved to suit older children, we may be doing something just as damaging as making young children wear older children’s shoes.

If nursery education is to be an extension of school downwards there are many points to be considered. Fortunately the idea of full-time nursery education which happened as a follow-on from ordinary education has been changed. Originally, while teachers could see that a 9 a.m. To 4 p.m. Day was too long for nursery schools they only shortened it a little from 9.15 a.m. To 3.30 p.m. Since many of the children were there for special reasons this was sensible. It took a long time to get round to the idea that half-day nursery was enough, indeed that ordinary children might be missing out on other valuable experience by being a whole day in the nursery. Now perhaps we should question whether the five mornings or afternoons that are offered arise from administrative tidiness – could it be too much, or too little, for some children? Should we, indeed how do we, make clear to parents who equate school with fixed hours and regular compulsory attendance that there may be times when it would be better for a child to come a little later, leave a little earlier, or not come at all that day? How do we get across to mothers that their children need them to stay for a while in the early stages of settling in -worse still, how do we get across to some teachers the necessity for this? This is quite a new departure in the educational world. Mothers have never stayed in schools with children. If we look back in history we can see why. In the earliest days of compulsory education schools were small as were the areas they served, families were large, neighbourhoods were close-knit. The five-year-old of those days possibly knew the teacher before he went to school, certainly knew other children from the same neighbourhood, probably had a relative in the same widc-age-group class (which these days we call family grouping) and had probably been free to trot along and watch through railings whenever he wished, since there were no traffic hazards. The situation has changed – and so must our procedures. Old habits die hard however and while it may be enough for some mothers to be told that they are welcome to stay others may need to be assured that they are expected to stay.

A total group number of twenty-six children and two adults may seem generous when compared with older classes of thirty or more children with one adult. But is it generous compared with, say, the three children/one mother situation the three-year-old is used to? Groups this size can be far too much for some children. The usual answer is that the adults are trained and can manage perfectly well. From the child’s point of view there are twenty-eight people in that room which leaves twenty-six of them untrained and requiring varying amounts of attention. Research into literacy shows that the influence of a ‘good’ home is of paramount importance since efforts within the educational system seem unable to make up for home deficiencies. It seems reasonable to infer that the problem in a large home is lack of individual attention from the adults there. In the second case it seems likely that it is the adults in the home who are the important factor. The two-adult, twenty-six-children nursery group might well reproduce the conditions of the large family where one has to say ‘ I’ll listen in a minute.’ Obviously children do have to learn to wait. At five they can wait. At three they may just gradually switch off as their interests and thoughts are on a much more’ here and now’ plane.

Parent involvement is a term that is much bandied about. It is seen as desirable from many points of view. A child’s experience in a nursery group can be reinforced at home by mothers who know what goes on there. Mothers often gain ideas for play activities and information about developing language skills. A child who sees his mother valued as a person is more likely to be confident within the group. The help and attention children receive is no less valuable for being from an ‘untrained’ person. The mother who can see what the staff achieve is more likely to value and respect their efforts. The staff who can rely on help and support from mothers find their work much easier. The spread of talent and ability within a group of mothers is going to be pretty well similar to that within any other group. Such a pool of available talent should not be wasted.

The benefits and rewards of involvement to mothers seem obvious and yet are difficult to pin down since no one has as yet systematically asked the people who have the answers – the mothers themselves. Playgroup leaders and nursery-school teachers may know about the specific help they have been able to give. What they do not know about is the less quantifiable help playgroup mothers give each other. There is no magic wand which can conjure up involvement. It could well be that parents are willing to cooperate and be involved when some very purposeful activity is in view. The same group of parents could well decline to become part of a group which meets simply because of a common factor rather than a common cause.

One of the dangers of bringing the aura of’ school’ down to the three-year age group is that it might well damage the confidence of mothers still further and earlier. It is no doubt an unreasoning throwback to the early days of education when teachers did know a lot more about’ school’ skills than parents but there is still a feeling that children go to school at five because mothers are no longer clever enough to teach them. Most of this feeling comes from the mothers themselves and one can hardly blame the teaching profession. Nevertheless, mothers are exhorted -’ Don’t try to teach your child to do this or that as you don’t understand modern methods/will confuse him/were not properly trained for teaching.’ There is so much mystique arising quite simply from personal opinion, personal preference, limited personal experience (within many professions, not just teaching) that even professional people themselves become diffident when they meet people in the same profession who are dealing with their children. In these early years any overlapping of interest in the three-to-fives by parents and the educational world will need to be a true partnership where each has an equally valuable role to play, where each has knowledge and skill that can be valuable to the other, where each can support the other. All these problems are long-term and need to be resolved slowly and carefully. There are others which are immediate as soon as a nursery group is planned.