Nursery and early years education supports student outcomes through to sixth form

With all three of its nurseries full and a fourth nursery planned for the autumn, Stephen Perse Foundation’s head of early years, Sarah Holyoake, talks about how they are laying the foundations for lifelong learning

The schools in the Stephen Perse Foundation focus on equipping our young people with the skills they need to be inquisitive individuals, with the confidence to ask questions and to challenge the status quo. We want our students to leave us as good citizens, in an increasingly global society.

This all begins in the nursery. We currently run three Stephen Perse nurseries in the Foundation, across Cambridge and in Saffron Walden, with another site to open soon. The nursery is where a baby’s development is driven by their innate curiosity.

They learn about their surroundings through frequent testing – dropping food from their highchair, for example, making different noises to see how adults close to them respond, prodding an object and putting it in their mouth to try and find out its purpose. Through these actions, the babies are asking questions about the environment and challenging their perceptions of what is going to happen next.

Our young children soon become good citizens, developing tolerance for each other’s differing needs. This is frequently evident in our toddler classroom.

A recent observation involved one of the toddlers who noticed that their friend was finding it difficult to settle to sleep. They responded to this by finding a blanket and placing it on their friend while patting their back to help them settle. Even at such a young age, they are capable of naturally supporting and caring for one another.

As a toddler begins to discover that the decisions of their peers can have an impact on their own choices, they learn to negotiate and compromise. When one child has the toy that another seems to want, he might be kind enough to share – but also might arrange to find an alternative for the friend, so that they get to keep their toy but still make their friend feel happier about the situation.

These are qualities and skills a student needs to be elected for school councillor, house leader and the student president team when they reach the senior school and sixth form at Stephen Perse, and they are being taught and encouraged in the early years.

It is the role of the nursery practitioner to verbalise for the children what they are doing and to help them understand the skills and attitudes they are developing. For example, praising the children when they share and support their friends.

In simple phrases we help the children to become resilient and to try new things. As the children’s verbal skills and understanding matures we can employ different strategies to help them understand how they are learning.

From trying to be more curious and inquisitive, like the story character Peter Rabbit, to having a magnifying glass as a visual representation of critical thinking, in age-appropriate ways we enable the students to recognise the skills they need to be successful learners.

The Stephen Perse Foundation follow the forest school process


Prioritising wellbeing

Increasingly, parents are searching for nurseries that prioritise children’s mental wellbeing, and as a result they desire continuity and familiarity for the children through the nursery experience and on to school education.

It is therefore vital that alongside nursery practitioners and teachers with the relevant qualifications, we need staff that instinctively have empathy with the children and notice the subtle details of the children’s interactions with each other and their environment. With this information, we can sense and respond to the mood within a classroom and provide the children with the experience they are searching for.

On a warm summer’s afternoon after an outdoor play session, the children might want to take the time to lie in the cool classroom listening to soothing music with their teacher, together imagining dipping their toes in a swimming pool.

As the children become older, the staff need to have the confidence to take time out of the timetabled sessions to ensure the children are ready to learn, such as perhaps introducing a 10-minute break for mindfulness before starting the next lesson. This active approach to supporting children’s wellbeing is vital to the success of the teaching and learning.

As the children move up through the school and lessons become more formal, it is important to recognise and nurture their natural learner instincts.

It is vital that alongside the relevant qualifications, we need staff that instinctively have empathy with the children

Providing problems to be solved and the opportunity for children to take risks in their lessons is fundamental to ensuring students can advance their ability to investigate, demonstrate commitment and develop their social understanding. Forest school, outdoor adventure learning, and ‘plan, learn, do, review’ are some of the many vehicles through which we achieve this in our schools.

Until I joined the Stephen Perse Foundation and learnt about the skills and experiences universities and future employees are seeking from our school leavers, I had not appreciated how closely these were aligned with children’s early development.

It is our job to ensure their independent thought, risk-taking and a collaborative approach to learning is not educated out of them through limiting timetables. I am proud to work for an organisation that recognises this. Our approach is to structure the curriculum and pedagogy to ensure the natural ability to learn in babies and young children is the starting point for our educational experience and is nurtured and developed from 1-18 years old.

The recent expansion of life sciences and high tech businesses in Cambridge and surrounding areas is attracting skilled workers and entrepreneurs. The Cambridge Science Park, host to 130 companies and 7250 employees, including AstraZeneca, is part of the transformation of Cambridge from a small city with a world-class university to one of the leading technology hotspots in the world.

Many of the employees there are young parents, and their needs are fuelling demand for nursery and early years places in the Cambridge area. New parents tell us that Stephen Perse nurseries and schools are particularly attractive as we reflect the values with the innovative and forward-thinking organisations that are now part of the so-called ‘Cambridge Phenomenon’.

That we can offer an education from 1 through to 18 years with a consistent vision for the curriculum with positive student outcomes adds to parents’ interest in our nurseries.

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