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Forty Years On

Sylvia Fields, Director of Lincolnshire Montessori is my guest blogger. Sylvia reflects on her forty years in education:

This year my twin sister and I are celebrating forty years in education – and what a journey it has been!

I can trace my first work in early years back to the 1970s. Following the birth of my first son we joined the local playgroup in a church hall, and from that point I knew that all I wanted to do was work with children. In those days – before baby cafe, drop in sessions and mumsnet, the Pre-School Playgroup Association, as it was, played a crucial role as a social function for parents and children. Committee led pre schools were practically the only early years provision in our area, and I was pleased to join with other mums running the group in a voluntary capacity.

Playgroups were very much a women-led movement, and our involvement was about having a sense of ownership and autonomy, with great emphasis on community development as well as play based learning for children. We became experts in fundraising, budgeting, free PR, and community engagement. In fact, just last week I found a press cutting of one of our sponsored pram pushes along the seafront in Cleethorpes from 1983.

I remember that, at some point, I took over the running of the group and stayed for 12 years, with all three of my sons enjoying their pre-school years at the group with Mum.

During this time I became chair of the local branch and spent a great deal of time at events and conferences around the country. The experiences of networking were very new to me and brought very real feelings of solidarity for a common purpose.   There was a great sense of camaraderie amongst members – feisty women taking to the stand and demanding more for early years!

Many will remember the 70s and 80s saw a real growth in the number of women who were joining together to open playgroups in a variety of premises, in both rural and urban communities.  The early years movement grew, but had yet to be heard in political circles.

Obviously, this was long before Ofsted were involved. Instead, we had the ear of Under Fives Officers from the local authority who were there to provide advice support and guidance to raise the standards for children and families. Guidance rather than regulation was the approach.  They would drop in for a cuppa and offer advice and support – long before the bureaucracy that we now see, and the whole new language of welfare consultants, NEG funding forms and quality improvement audits!

Some years later, I was approached by a private company to establish the district’s first workplace day nursery for children from birth. Certainly in our area, women were returning to work (increasingly full time) and there was a real shortage of services for young children. At this point, there was no help to establish a day nursery from the local authority.  It was go it alone.

I also joined NDNA (National Day Nursery Association) in the late 80s (again started by a handful of passionate dedicated professionals) and continue to be a member to this day.

Over the years there was inevitably a need for more and better trained staff and a variety of qualifications became available. I became part of an Independent NVQ centre, supported by the then Humberside County Council, when NVQs were in their infancy and delivered for the people they were intended for.  It was far less about bums on seats in a college and far more about accrediting knowledge gained in the workplace, so they were ideal for those playgroup staff who voluntarily gave up their time to work with children.  It was amazing to observe their confidence and self esteem grow.

I worked for a nursery chain in the 90s, a decade which saw the advent of nursery vouchers, the first national childcare strategy and tax credits. It was at that point I decided it was time to put personal values into practice and set up our own nursery.

In 2000 my sister and I opened our Montessori day nursery in a converted barn in a local village, driven by a philosophy for quality. The inspection regime had changed; no longer advice and support, but a regulatory inspection managed by the local authority. This process was difficult and many barriers were put in place.  But we were determined and opened our doors on 21st April 2000. Within year one, we had a significant waiting list and to be honest, we’ve hardly had chance to draw breath. Since 2000, we have developed a second site, a primary school and training centre and continue to grow and develop.

The change in the sector in the last forty years has been phenomenal and I never dreamed that the under fives would receive the political attention and scrutiny, as well as the investment, we now see. Whilst I still see many divisions and inconsistencies within the sector on policy, qualifications, group size and funding, we should not lose sight of progress made. I look forward to a day when we talk about ‘early childhood’ rather than ‘early education’ and ‘childcare’.

It’s a little overwhelming to consider the thousands of families we have worked with in the past forty years – a privilege certainly. And if I reflect on the laughter shared, the noses wiped, the lost wellies found, the play enjoyed and learning achieved, I feel very lucky that I love my life in early years.

For more information on Lincolnshire Montessori, please visit their website www.lincolnshiremontessori.co.uk and follow on www.twitter.com @LincsMont

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0 Comments

  • Vivien Sabel

    How wonderful for you to allow us to peep through your 40 year journey! Thank you for sharing this here. Sylvia, what a journey too! We see how the system has changed in some ways for the better and in others not. I love the idea of the ear of the Under Five Officers as oppose to heavy duty scrutiny that may somehow oppress creativity. Of course I fully support and appreciate the need to monitor service provision. Thank you once again for sharing your journey.

  • Angie Denford

    My son went to the Montessori Nursery and he loved every minute, as did we. After a gap and discovering our dislike of local education practices, he was then enrolled in the Montessori School . What a difference they made to my child and to our parenting. Sylvia, Theresa and their devoted staff have changed the lives of lots of children with their dedication and consistent comittment to their work with the children. I thank them wholeheartedly for their love in their work and wish them all the luck for the future.

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