6 July 2021

Early education

Zara is the deputy head of Ark Start and leads provision at Ark Start John Archer in Battersea. Zara has 16 years experience working with children as a nursery nurse, early years teacher, early years leader and as a primary school Vice-Principal. Last year, she taught the nation’s Reception children online for Oak Academy – the national online school.

My first child was born seventeen years ago and it was then that I first realised the significance of the first five years of a child’s life. I was lucky enough then to have access to free additional services and resources that are today on the decline: mother and baby groups, health visitor sessions; and various mother and baby/child packs (supported by Sure Start) and I used these as much as I could to support me as I learnt how to be a mother. I was also lucky to find a great nursery that nurtured and cared for my daughter while I went to work.

What I instinctively knew as a mother, I now know there is evidence for: that 80% of our brain development takes place in the period from zero to five and that by the age of five, 85% of our language is already in place. And that that means that educational disadvantage starts early, and lasts a lifetime: a child’s development score at 22 months predicts educational outcomes at 26 years and children with poor vocabulary at age 5 are four times more likely to have reading difficulties, three times more likely to have mental health problems and twice as likely to be unemployed as children with strong vocabulary.

It is for that reason that I have committed my career to working with the very youngest children and was so excited to join the founding team at Ark Start and open at John Archer last October. Ark Start aims to respond to one of society’s most intractable problems – how do we deliver excellent nursery provision while meeting families’ childcare needs, and ensure that every child, regardless of background, starts school ready to thrive? Too many children do not get the start they deserve, and too many families have to compromise on their child’s education because of the needs of their work.

Opening a nursery in the middle of a global pandemic is pretty unorthodox, and we have faced our fair share of challenges but it has also been exciting and fun. Our children and families have been amazing, as have our staff and we now serve almost 70 families across our two sites with the aim of reaching around 150 by next year. We stayed open through the January lockdown and are delighted that our children have thrived this year. With teachers nationally reporting that almost half of children were not school ready when they started Reception last year, this work feels even more important than ever.

Our success as a nursery rests on our relentless focus on ensuring that every child has the very best early education experience.  We base our provision on four pillars:

1)    High expectations: We set high expectations of our pupils, our families and ourselves. Every child has a right to a rich, stimulating and joyful early education that equips them with the skills, knowledge and attitude required to be successful at primary school and beyond.

2)    Excellent teaching: Our nurseries are led by qualified teachers who ensure that every member of staff is benefitting from ongoing training and development so they can deliver the very best provision.

3)    More time for talking: Our programme prioritises communication and language and ensures that every adult is specially trained in techniques for improving children’s language skills throughout the day.

4)    Partnership with parents: We work closely with our parents, at home and in the nursery, to ensure we are working together in the best interests of our children.  

 My experience this year has made me all the more committed to early years, and particularly our work with parents which has been so important through this period. At Ark Start our work with parents takes many forms: home visits; parent meetings; drop in opportunities and workshops. We run a peer parenting programme called EPEC, designed by Kings College London and the Maudsley, which helps parents help each other with some of the challenges we face as parents of young children. We have also just started a project in partnership with Citizens UK to use community organising techniques to empower parents to work together to make changes in their local community. 

 As we, hopefully, start to emerge from this period, I think we will start to see even broader social implications from the last year or so. And it’s our youngest children who often bear the brunt of these issues: of their parents’ economic situation; personal anxiety; mental health problems; and the rest. Working with families has always been at the heart of a strong nursery but that is even more true now. It’s a cliché to say that it takes a village to raise a child; but it’s true. And in this context, it is hugely disappointing that we are still experiencing such significant under-funding and the lack of an ambitious national policy for early years. However, I am optimistic that society will recognise its collective responsibility to ensure that every child has a strong start in life; and that, by focusing on working in close partnership with parents in the best interests of their children, we can ensure that every child gets the best possible start at school and in life.

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