Putting the Quality Back into Qualifications!
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
I have been asked to produce my certificates for a provisional contract and as I looked through them I took a walk down memory lane.
One of my reflections was looking with pride at my Nursery Nursing Examination Board (NNEB) Nursery Nursing Certificate. How at the time completing and achieving this qualification meant so much to me! I still have the exam paper from 1989. If you would like a copy, please contact me.
I left school at 16 with hardly any qualifications. I was dyslexic and this condition was rarely picked up during the late seventies and early eighties. I always knew that I had a learning challenge; I only had this officially recognised six years ago.
When I left school I worked in a busy solicitors’ office, as a clerk typist, and enjoyed my time there, typing report after report- the skill in typing with great speed certainly came in handy again when I was an Ofsted Inspector!
I loved the solicitors’ office and still keep in contact with a few of my work colleagues who have become great friends. However I felt so unfulfilled and thinking was this what the rest of my working life would be like?
I remembered my work experience placement at school, Clare Gardens Day Nursery, North Kensington, where I had the most inspirational time working with 2-3 year olds. My supervisor at Clare Gardens, was called Shan Jones and much later in my career I met up with her when we were both Ofsted Inspectors. I remember Shan being very dedicated in her job and knowing all the children she cared for. She even let me do a string painting activity with the children!
This memory helped me with my decision to apply to college to start my NNEB qualification. Thinking (because of my lack of qualifications) I would be shown the door, to my delight I was accepted onto the course to start in September 1987.
I embarked on my NNEB course at Paddington College, West London. My tutor was the remarkable and inspirational Val Jackson. Within our first week we watched the film, the ‘Colour Purple’. I remember going home and saying to my mum that we had watched a video. Somewhat shocked, she said, ‘You gave up a good job to go to college to watch videos!’ As my mother had been educated in St. Lucia, her view was that books are education whilst videos are not.
However, to me the Colour Purple links very closely to early years practice, separation and loss, family dynamics, abuse and social class.
Within our first lesson, I always remember Val explaining why we never call a child ‘naughty’ and why we should explain to children their behaviour and actions.
Val also introduced me to Piaget and one of my all time favourite books ‘Dibs in Search of Self, Personality Development in Play Therapy’, by Virgina M. Axline. Also, the wonderful biographies by Maya Angelou. Virginia M. Axline (Author)
Another of the positive aspects of this course was the placements. My first placement was a nursery class attached to a school, Wilberforce, in Paddington. Wilberforce is a school that is on the edge of Mozart Estate, a large social housing estate. The school plays a huge part in the community and the school’s namesake William Wilberforce would be proud of how this school integrates every child irrespective of their background.
I have so much to be grateful for to the team within this nursery class: Mrs Meg North, class teacher, Mrs Gloria Fletcher, Nursery Nurse and Jackie (can’t remember her surname). They took me under their wing and showed me everything I needed to know about how a nursery class operates. I was shown how to make paints, how to display children’s work and how to set up the classroom both inside and outside. Mrs North was quick to tell me if I did something wrong, in her loving way! Children attended either in the morning or in the afternoon. When it was a child’s birthday, they made a cake the day before and the child was allowed to choose what to include from raisins to coconuts. The next day they would ice the cake. Mrs North was always saying that she made sure that every child was made to feel special, irrespective of their home life, and their birthdays were a huge part of this. In fact we did a lot of cooking within this nursery class. Mrs Fletcher stated once, ‘Meg, I don’t know why those teachers in the school don’t cook with their children, as maths and science is all part of cooking!’
Mrs Fletcher trained after the war and always told me that nothing should be thrown away as children will always make use of it and so she entered the classroom every day with a bag of materials and resources from home! I must have made an impression on the team as I was included in their social events outside of work. Whenever I am in a setting today, I ask myself what would Mrs North say about this setting?
Other placements included; working with a family as a nanny, working in a Special Educational Needs School and the world famous Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. My final placement was in a day nursery, St. Quintin Day Nursery, North Kensington. This nursery has been in the community for over 70 years and in fact my younger brother went there and he used to call it ‘Tibey-Tab’! Heaven knows where he got that name from. The St. Quintin centre is now a Children’s Centre. Within this placement I worked with the babies and toddlers. My supervisor was Helen Stevens who I also met up with as an Ofsted Inspector. Helen took her role as a supervisor very seriously and ensured that my practical work was achieved and even allowed me to plan the Chinese New Year and St Patrick’s Day celebrations. She even organised for me to observe a health visitor completing a two year check. It was wonderful to go back to St. Quintin to do a mock inspection in 2006!
As well as the placements and the inspirational lessons, we also did cooking, sewing, computers, woodwork, drama, visited numerous places of interest and had talks from a range of inspirational professionals.
Another lecturer I should mention was Sylvia Donovan, a trained health visitor, who taught the child health aspects of the course. Admittedly, Sylvia and I did not always see eye to eye; I think my over enthusiasm and bags of energy were perceived as a tad bit annoying. Sylvia and I became friends in the end and when she returned to health visiting she then became my health visitor! They do say our nursery world is a very small world. Unfortunately, Sylvia passed away a few years ago, but I do have fond memories of her sessions.
On my travels I often hear the comment that we need to bring back the NNEB and I would agree with this. But, we would need to evolve this qualification with up to date practice and a philosophical approach to how children learn and develop.
If, when carrying out consultancy work in a nursery, I observe inappropriate practice and feed this back to the manager, more than likely they will state, ‘Laura, that practitioner is level 3 trained and even though they come to me as a level 3, I have to re-train them.’ How sad is that? In no other profession would you have qualified individuals who are unsuitable because of the content of their training. Imagine a doctor, lawyer or teacher not being suitable for work due to being poorly trained? So why do we accept this in our sector?
For me the issues are the quality of the syllabus and content of the qualifications which do not fully prepare individuals for work with young children, especially in child development and theory; some individuals do not experience a quality placement and quality teaching and learning.
We need to have a joined up approach and start with what do we want a level 2 or level 3 practitioner to do, to think, to know, to act? It is important that all the stakeholders involved communicate effectively to make sure that individuals have a quality learning experience.
I also strongly believe that we should look at the potential of the individual, as I certainly would not have been accepted onto a level 3 course now if I was tested on my then standard of English and maths at the time, due to my dyslexic tendencies. I recently heard an owner saying that she tests all applicants in English and maths at the interview stage prior to employing them and another owner saying that she asks applicants to write a short piece. This is good practice if gaps can be identified and the applicant is encouraged to take a functional skills course (perhaps in the evenings?)to get them up to a basic standard. However, I would rather employ an individual who is passionate and able to engage with children emotionally rather than focusing only on their literacy skills and mathematical ability. Is that the grammar police, disagreeing with me I hear? One nursery has a list of key early years terms written out to help practitioners who have a learning challenge. Also, individuals like me, whose handwriting and spelling has a lot to be desired, can be assisted with various forms of technology. Also, some argue ‘But they have to write reports’ (computers can help with this) ‘and observe children’ (remember that observations are not meant to be a book but a short caption and more importantly identifying the child’s next steps in their learning). Likewise practitioners who have to write reports for parents and other professionals, should always have their work quality assured by another colleague, irrespective of whether or not they have a learning challenge. You don’t need a degree in English language to do this, but an understanding of how a child learns and develops. Would we ask an individual who has a physical disability to run around in the outside area as part of the recruitment process as they need to help children with their physical development? I think not.
The other discussion that I have had is that individuals who are not academic are signposted to work with children as an easy and safe option. On the one hand we should strongly discourage this approach; because this gives the perception that childcare is ‘easy work’. On the other hand, I would say let us encourage some of these individuals as long as they are willing and able and show potential. As mentioned, with the correct help and support they can achieve their GCSE in English and maths or the equivalent functional skills exams.
Learners should also experience a range of placements as I did during the old style NNEB. This would ascertain if indeed they are suitable to work across the age range of children and in different types of settings. The range of placements that I experienced challenged me and prepared me for working across the sector, in the variety of positions that I have been in since – from nursery manager to college lecturer. How can you effectively assess an individual who has only been in one setting and assessed by one individual to determine if they are suitable to work with children?
In addition, we also had to do 60 observations on children as part of the qualification. This is always an opening topic when one meets another fellow NNEB. Oh, yes the 60 observations! It seems like a huge amount, but bear in mind that this was achieved over the two year course and one noticed the improvement in observation skills within this time frame. However, the observations had to be on children from across the age range, in different settings and of children of different abilities. I loved doing observations, using the theory learnt in our sessions and linking this to the observations. One of the main reasons why some practitioners still do not grasp the fundamentals of the EYFS, is due to their lack of understanding of child development and observation skills.
The theory and practical balance that was in place during my training worked on many different levels. Having time to reflect and link the learning from the knowledgeable tutors into what we were experiencing in the different settings was invaluable.
We were assessed at every step of the way, by supervisors in the placements and different college staff. The grand finale was a multiple choice and standard exam papers.
I know that today we have more progression routes for individuals, for example foundation stage degrees and EYPS and there is an argument that the current initial qualification is suitable and individuals can progress over time. But we can’t say to children the practitioners who look after you are progressing in their careers and don’t worry as they will achieve their degree soon! So, we need to get the initial qualification right in order for individuals to progress onto the next steps in their learning journey, confidentially secure in their knowledge.
I do remember Val Jackson saying that after the NNEB, our learning does not stop and should continue. Over the years I have been on numerous training courses and achieved a variety of qualifications. This has only been possible because of my initial early years qualification, the NNEB, which gave me an enquiring mind and a love of learning.
There is a big but to this, and that is financial investment. We have been asked to contribute to the qualification review. I am hoping that in order to have a quality early years qualification we need sound financial investment. Now that there are cuts being made left, right and centre, we must ask what is the point of this review if we are not able to finance this? After all it is the individuals who work with children who can make a huge difference in their early years.
It is time for the sector to work towards devising an initial early years qualification that is fit for purpose and prepares individuals to connect and enhance children’s learning. Dare I say it, a qualification that is the envy of the world!
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