What’s the point of nurseries? Why are the ages of three to five so crucial? Are today’s children part of a giant, unplanned experiment?
Claudia Williams – Reporter
Phil Sansom – Producer
David Taylor – Presenter
David Taylor: It’s 9am at Sheringham Nursery in London… and the children are flowing in to say hello.
Teacher: How are you today Yusuf! Get your badge Hoorain! Hoorain?
David Taylor: And when you put this many three year olds in one room, it gets a little bit chaotic.
David Taylor: These very young children have left the safety of their parents and families behind to come here: to nursery, where they will spend up to six hours of their day.
And it wasn’t always like this.
This is the first generation of kids in the UK where the majority are spending so much of their time in education and formal care.
There’s probably never been a more exciting time to be a young child – or a more demanding one.
David Taylor: And that’s why we’re spending this episode looking through these children’s eyes.
Welcome to the world of the nursery networkers.
This is Episode Two of Life, Changing. A three-part podcast from Tortoise, in partnership with the Nuffield Foundation.
David Taylor: For the children, Sheringham’s playground is usually full of familiar faces, but I heard recently there was someone new in their midst… Tortoise reporter Claudia Williams! Claudia, what were you doing there?
Claudia Williams: I was basically there to try to blend in, and to find out what these kids do every day at nursery. I wanted to know about their lives and what they think of the place, I suppose.
I wasn’t quite undercover. In the classroom, with my recording equipment, undercover wasn’t really an option.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Do you want a go?
[CHILDREN YELLING INTO MIC]
Claudia Williams, on recording: Nice.
Claudia Williams: I was armed with a list of names – the children I had permission to record – and I was specifically looking for the kids with duck stickers.
But it turned out children aged between three and five years old don’t respect either parental permission forms or the animal sticker system, because within genuinely one minute I was surrounded by a sea of children running towards me: caps, backpacks, everything, wearing every single kind of sticker, and some having taken their stickers off.
Yusuf: Are you going to be here still?
Claudia Williams, on recording: Yeah, I’m going to be here all day.
Yusuf: All day?
Claudia Williams: One of those kids was Yusuf, who was a bouncy little boy who was immediately chatty, he was wearing a baseball cap. He noticed the microphone straight away and absolutely wanted to get involved.
Yusuf: I’m going to forest school today.
Claudia Williams, on recording: You’re going to forest school! Can you tell me what you do there?
Yusuf: I’ve climbed a tree. That’s my favourite part.
Claudia Williams, on recording: You climbed a tree? That’s really cool. And do you see animals?
Claudia Williams, on recording: Do you see insects?
Yusuf: Yeah. And spiders.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Do you like spiders? Yeah.
Yusuf: But I’m scared of them.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Yeah me too. But you can still like them and be scared of them, can’t you.
David Taylor: As you’ve heard from the previous episode, we’re also covering some landmark research by the Nuffield Foundation about early childhood and how it has changed over the past couple of decades.
So let’s welcome back the lead author of the reports, Carey Oppenheim. Carey, what do we know about nurseries – how important are they?
Carey Oppenheim: So we know this period of life is such a critical period for children’s development. And they’re developing in so many different ways: the physical development, their social and emotional skills, and obviously they’re learning communication and language.
And nurseries play a vital role in proving and enabling children to develop those skills, and we have lots of research evidence to show that it has an impact, not only when children are young, but well into their adult lives.
David Taylor: And what’s changed particularly over the past couple of decades? Are more children going to nurseries in different forms now?
Carey Oppenheim: Yes. Most children are experiencing a kind of formal early education or childcare, and we see a really big expansion in services over the last 20-25 years.
David Taylor: And what kind of state are nurseries in at the moment?
Carey Oppenheim: Well, many nurseries are really under severe pressure. And that is in part because of funding. And we can see that if you look internationally, we have lower spending in relation to, say, the European Union average, or the OECD.
And we’ve also seen that under COVID, fewer children are attending nursery, and that then puts pressure on those people who are providing that nursery care because they’re not getting the same funding in.
Claudia Williams: That’s partly why I visited Sheringham. Like many nurseries, Ofsted has rated them outstanding. But they’re also in an area of East London with pretty high levels of child poverty.
And Carey, am I right in thinking that this means you get quite big inequalities between the kids’ education levels?
Carey Oppenheim: That’s right. So if you’re from a poor background, on average, young children are already four and a half months behind other children by the time they get to the end of the first year of primary school.
Claudia Williams: It’s really interesting to hear you say that, actually, because I spoke to Sheringham’s headteacher Julian Grenier, and he told me at their nursery, the kids – and those in the broader area, so Newham – they actually break that pattern.
Julian Grenier: What’s very exciting about working here in Newham is that our school system here doesn’t show that sort of impact of disadvantage. By the end of reception, they’re doing really well. By the end of primary, they’re doing better than the average child in England.
Claudia Williams, on recording: And is that children in all of Newham, or is that specifically children who come to Sheringham?
Julian Grenier: So that is children who come here, but it is also true…
Claudia Williams, on recording: It’s remarkable!
Julian Grenier: …of Newham overall. It’s also true of Tower Hamlets overall. It is an incredible achievement.
Claudia Williams: So the question for us, really, is: what makes Sheringham successful? And one reason might be that they are what is called a ‘maintained’ nursery school, which basically means they’re funded by the local authority.
Julian Grenier: These schools were set up in poor areas of England, many of them in the 1970s, in fact, when Margaret Thatcher was secretary of state for education. So the mission is all about supporting disadvantaged children to get the very, very best start to their education.
And we have qualified teachers working with the children. So there’s a big investment in those highly qualified staff here in the nursery school.
Carey Oppenheim: Well, that big investment in the workforce is a very important part of quality. And that’s what the research shows: that it’s associated with improvements in how children develop.
And it is true that maintained nursery schools tend to have more qualified staff, and then that’s reflected in the kinds of Ofsted ratings that they get.
Claudia Williams: So with all this in mind, what is an average day at Sheringham like?
Julian Grenier: So children start arriving at 8:45 AM. They pick up a kind of lanyard with their picture on it and give it to their key person as a way of saying, “I’m here”.
Children then get a badge to put on, and then the first thing children do after all of that is they brush their teeth.
Teacher: Listening! Put your toothbrush up so I can see if you have it. Does everybody have their toothbrush? Hold it up please.
Julian Grenier: So we know that here in Newham, children suffer much more from tooth decay than the average child in England. We see kids under five having teeth extracted, sometimes even all their teeth extracted in hospital, which is really horrific for them.
Teacher: Brush your teeth. Up and down. Brush your teeth. Round and round.
Julian Grenier: After they brush their teeth, they then have a lot of choice in our play-based early years curriculum. So the children can choose who they want to play with, where they want to play.
A lot of our children are growing up in very cramped housing conditions. So outdoor play, the space to run, to learn to ride a bike, to swing, to climb, to experience nature, that’s a big part of what we do too. So those children can play outside pretty much as much as they want to here.
Most of our kids are learning English as an additional language. So there’s a very strong focus on sharing books, stories, rhymes…
And then the session ends after tidying up with what we call key group time, which is when the children come back together. There will be a story. There’ll be a song. And then they head off home.
Claudia Williams, on recording: I think it sounds like a really lovely day.
Julian Grenier: I hope so!
Claudia Williams, on recording: So I’m in the playground at Sheringham, watching all the kids play. They’re pouring water into watering cans. They’ve got a jungle gym, there’s a slide with a sandpit.
Oh and there’s a little den! There’s a secret den behind some bushes in the corner. And this is just one side of it. I mean, it’s kind of magical.
Claudia Williams: As I was touring the playground, I spotted a familiar face…
Claudia Williams, on recording: Oh hello Yusuf! We’re almost face to face, look how high up you are!
Shall we go climbing?
Claudia Williams: He was keen to take me up to the treehouse…
Yusuf: No, you have to climb over this.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Okay. Is that what… you have to climb over?
Claudia Williams: …which was actually a bit of a struggle while carrying all of my recording equipment.
Yusuf: Put one knee over… now the other one…
Be careful of that tree branch!
Claudia Williams, on recording: Is this your special treehouse?
Claudia Williams: Yusuf’s special treehouse is really just a wooden platform in the corner of the playground…
Yusuf: Let’s get out.
Claudia Williams, on recording: We’ve only just got in!
Claudia Williams: …and once I got down, he stayed up there.
Yusuf: Let’s measure our heights.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Okay, let’s measure our heights. Oh, you’re way taller than me, way taller than me Yusuf!
Yusuf: I’m really tall. I’m like 90 years old. But I’m four years old. How old are you?
Claudia Williams, on recording: Guess.
Yusuf: 80? 40?
Claudia Williams, on recording: No! I’m 29.
That’s my door number!
Claudia Williams, on recording: Is it?
Yusuf: Yeah, 29!
David Taylor: Carey, one of the first things we heard was the kids brushing their teeth. And I suppose I want to ask: is this generation more or less healthy?
Carey Oppenheim: So if you look over the last 20 years, young children’s health has actually improved, but we see some of that improvement stalling.
And we also see big inequalities: inequalities by your socioeconomic group, but also by ethnic minority groups, and also by region.
Claudia Williams: The teeth brushing struck me as well, and the other thing that I noticed is that there is this massive wall of ivy. And what I didn’t realise until it was pointed out to me was: that is a health decision as well.
They have to have that there because of the pollution around the nursery. They have to have the ivy to make sure the outdoor air quality is good enough for the kids.
Carey Oppenheim: So that’s interesting, because when we were doing our health report, we found that this issue about equality of the air and respiratory health… we don’t really know very much about it, and it’s going to become an increasing issue given climate change and all of those things.
David Taylor: So there’s already a whole set of challenges for children in areas like Newham. We can’t really have this discussion, really, without thinking about COVID and the consequences of that, and we’re still really trying to pick our way through them.
What effects do you think it’s had? And do you think these kids are going to be playing catch up with their development?
Carey Oppenheim: Absolutely. Many children have fallen behind on all their different aspects of development.
So whether that’s their physical health – so for instance, obesity has really taken a big leap for that age group – or whether it’s their learning, in particular, their communication and language.
And then we also see big increases in inequality. So for some children they’ve fallen further behind. So a big task is how we can help them to catch up.
David Taylor: So these kinds of play at nursery: they seem joyous, you might imagine they’re trivial, but actually they’re really important, aren’t they?
Carey Oppenheim: Incredibly important. And I think as you listen to the children play and chat to each other, and with the staff, you just get a sense that they’re really developing these very different sorts of skills.
They’re learning to share, they’re learning to get into the treehouse, and they’re managing their emotions and their conflicts with each other.
And those are such important skills. They’re important when you’re two, three, four, five, but they’re…
David Taylor: 29?
Carey Oppenheim: 29, 40, or 80!
David Taylor: Did you manage to get into that treehouse Claudia?
Claudia Williams: I did but it was genuinely quite tough. And that’s why I did get out quite quickly, I was worried about that…
David Taylor: Getting stuck?
Claudia Williams: Yeah!
David Taylor: So did you see examples of the kids learning these kinds of skills, of playing, negotiating, cooperating with each other?
Claudia Williams: Yeah, the whole time! At any point outside you could see these things just happening in front of you. And one of the things that really struck me, actually, was with counting…
Yusuf: Five, six, seven, eight, nine…
Claudia Williams: I had, I think, three different times when a child just spontaneously wanted to count to me.
Yusuf: …sixteen, twelve…
Claudia Williams: You know, that kind of thing, that kind of processing and learning out loud, and showing you what they’ve been learning.
And there was this one instance where I was speaking to one child…
Claudia Williams, on recording: Radha?
Claudia Williams, on recording: My name’s Claudia. Nice to meet you.
Radha: My brother did her school…
Claudia Williams, on recording: Your brother’s at school?
Claudia Williams, on recording: And what’s your favourite thing to do with your brother?
Claudia Williams, on recording: What’s your favourite thing to do with your brother?
Radha: I catch bees with my brother.
Claudia Williams, on recording: You catch bees?!
Radha: With my brother.
Claudia Williams: …and while I was interviewing Radha, along came Yusuf to basically do my job for me, and to do it better than me.
Yusuf: …outside with your microphone as well.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Yeah, inside and outside. I’m just talking to Radha.
Radha: Tomorrow is my birthday!
Yusuf: Are you three years old?
Radha: Yeah. I’m three years old.
Yusuf: Well it was already my birthday, but now it’s not my birthday anymore. Do you celebrate your birthday Radha?
Claudia Williams: And there was also a moment of quite high drama between a two children at the crafting table…
Claudia Williams, on recording: What’s your name?
Hoorain: I just told you my name!
Claudia Williams, on recording: I didn’t hear it. Can you tell me again?
Hoorain: It’s Hoorain.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Hoorain.
Aishah: I’m Aishah.
Claudia Williams: These two were a real microcosm of the highs and lows of being friends aged three.
Hoorain: Aishah’s making my hide under the table.
I want to go home and go to Aishah’s house!
Claudia Williams: Aishah and Hoorain were very keen to tell me that they are the best of friends. And their friendship seems to involve a lot of gift-making, and actually a lot of secrets – with some varying success.
Claudia Williams, on recording: You’re making something for Aishah?
Claudia Williams, on recording: What are you making her?
Hoorain: It’s a secret.
Hoorain: And we’re going to find googly eyes like this one.
Claudia Williams: To the untrained artistic eye, it appears to be an empty tissue box covered in glitter and with some googly eyes stuck on.
Hoorain: That’s a hat!
Claudia Williams, on recording: That’s a hat!
Hoorain: That’s the last thing…
Claudia Williams, on recording: Is it done? Can I come with you when you go to show Aishah?
Aishah: Did you make that for me?
Hoorain: Aishah, do you like this?
Aishah: Ooh, that’s pretty…
Claudia Williams: Unfortunately Hoorain didn’t get quite the response from Aishah that she expected for this gift that she’d so lovingly made, over a period of quite a long time.
And I did later see it in the pile of things they’d made that day to take home, and it had Hoorain’s name on it, not Aishah’s. So I think probably Hoorain was keeping that for herself.
David Taylor: I don’t know, it all sounded a bit like the newsroom to me! Unpredictable demands, raised voices, a few tears…
Claudia Williams: I think you might be right!
So I was a firsthand witness to this tiny soap opera, as you say. But it also gave me quite a good idea of what effect the nursery was having on the kids’ development.
And actually, it wasn’t just from looking at the kids and watching them play and interact together; it was also from speaking to some of the adults there.
Lucina: Oh hello, I’m Lucina, I’m Aurora and Leo’s mum. But I like crafts so I just wanted to come in and teach them stuff.
If you want a child that will talk and talk and talk and talk, Leo is your man. And if you want to start the conversation, talk about hoovers, and I promise you, you will get hours of content. I promise you, I’m not even exaggerating.
Talk to him about… he’s right behind you there. Leo! Would you like to meet Claudia?
Claudia Williams, on recording: Hello! Nice to meet you.
Lucina: And she’s thinking of buying a new hoover. Which one do you think she should buy?
Leo: Uhhh… a Henry Hoover!
Claudia Williams, on recording: A Henry Hoover! Is Henry Hoover your favourite?
Leo: A Henry Hoover!
Lucina: What’s on his head?
Leo: It’s a black motor unit!
Lucina: A motor unit.
Leo: A Henry!
Lucina: And he loves them so much, he smuggles sand from the sand pit into his shoes to go home so he can tip it on the floor and hoover it!
Claudia Williams: Together with his twin sister Aurora, Leo can quite clearly be a bit of a handful. And because they’re twins, they arrived at Sheringham at the nursery, on the same day at the same time.
Lucina: Before I moved here they didn’t really go out and socialise much. So when they started here, I wasn’t sure how well they’d adapt to socialising with lots and lots of children, and I was really pleasantly surprised that they got along really, really well. So that was a relief because I was worried about what effect it was having.
Claudia Williams, on recording: How often do they come?
Lucina: Every day from one till three, with picking-up and dropping-off time.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Have you noticed a difference in your two since they started?
Lucina: Absolutely, yeah. They’ve developed a lot more coordination and they talk to me a lot more. So I’ve gotten to know them a lot better as well.
That’s actually really nice Leo! It looks like a little chick came out of its egg and grew all its feathers. Flap-flap-flap-flap-flap-flap-flap-flap…
David Taylor: Carey, kids at Sheringham are in a really well-funded, beautiful environment… but obviously this is only one side of the story of nurseries. What’s the overall picture?
Carey Oppenheim: Well, there’s a very good deal of variation between nurseries, and also their quality. So this is a maintained nursery school, Sheringham…
David Taylor: And that means it’s local authority funded?
Carey Oppenheim: It’s main… that’s right. And those types of nurseries tend to have staff with higher qualifications, and tend to be higher quality in terms of the outcomes that they get for children.
But I think it’s also true to say that there’s some very good quality in some of the private/voluntary sector and independent nurseries, and although those qualifications are really important, it’s also: what goes on inside the nursery?
What’s the actual… how are staff interacting with the kids, and what’s the quality of that experience? That’s also important, as well as qualifications.
David Taylor: And what’s the balance between private nurseries and maintained?
Carey Oppenheim: Yes, so I think people would be surprised to hear that around half of childcare places are in private nurseries, and only a fifth are in state, maintained nurseries or schools. And the rest is provided by this voluntary and independent sector.
David Taylor: Do parents get any help paying for it, or do they just have to swallow the cost?
Carey Oppenheim: So it is pretty complex! I’ll try and explain it very briefly. So all three and four year olds are entitled to 15 hours’ free childcare a week.
And for those whose parents actually are in work, they can get up to 30 hours, so long as they’re not on an income above 100,000 pound a year.
If you’re a parent, say, of a two year old, then you’re entitled to 15 hours’ free childcare if you fall into a disadvantaged category.
There’s also help with the cost of childcare. You can get up to 85 per cent of your costs paid if you’re on Universal Credit, say. And there’s also tax-free childcare. So it is a complicated system, and very hard for parents to navigate.
David Taylor: I was going to say, do you think that most parents understand that, and does that have an impact on the takeup?
Carey Oppenheim: It must have an impact on the takeup. And I think also, if you’ve got children of different ages, then you’ve got one child entitled to one sort of entitlement and the other child to a different entitlement.
So we do know that while the takeup of the universal three- and four-year-old entitlement is very high – nine out of ten children are getting it – that takeup of the two-year-old offer, which is for disadvantaged children, is much lower. And has got much lower also since COVID.
David Taylor: That sounds like a worrying thing to know.
Carey Oppenheim: It is worrying. Because actually it’s the children who most need – and would probably most benefit from – good early years education and childcare, who are least likely to take it up. Whether that’s by region, or socioeconomic group, or ethnic group, there are real gaps in the takeup.
David Taylor: And did you feel like you discovered new things in your research that will help inform that debate?
Carey Oppenheim: Well I think there are different reasons why people might not be taking it up. So it’s both about the complexity that we’ve talked about, but it’s also they may not be in work, or they may as a result of COVID also just have got out of the habit of sending their child for childcare. Or they maybe don’t see it’s for them!
So it’s a complex mix. But what we’d like to be able to do is to increase the takeup, particularly where we think that would be beneficial for the children.
David Taylor: Okay so we’ve really learned a lot about nurseries, and we’re moving on with the day at Sheringham. Claudia, just bring us up to date with what’s going on.
Claudia Williams: So at this point, the morning group has gone and the afternoon group of kids have arrived.
Claudia Williams, on recording: So we’re back outside and the bikes are out, which is really cool. Everyone’s riding around on their bikes…
Claudia Williams: Although there are some familiar faces who stay for the whole day…
Claudia Williams, on recording: Here comes Yusuf on a bike! Yusuf! Can I ask you a few questions Yusuf?
Claudia Williams: What you can hear there is the sound of Yusuf pretending to come up to me, skidding up, leaning to speak into the microphone, then zooming away as fast as possible.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Just got bullied by a three year old again.
Claudia Williams: Meanwhile, back inside, it is time to say goodbye to some very special guests…
Claudia Williams: So in the corner of one of the classrooms there is a cage. And inside that cage are four very small, very sweet, actual, genuine ducklings. And these ducklings have been class pets for a while – I believe since they were eggs – but not for much longer…
Teacher: Today we are going to do something a little bit special, a little bit different. We are going to say goodbye to our ducklings today because they are going back to the farm.
Claudia Williams: This isn’t a euphemism – these ducklings are actually going back to a farm.
David Taylor: Thank goodness for that.
Teacher: Are we going to miss them? Yeah we are! We’ve enjoyed having them haven’t we? We’ve enjoyed watching them grow. Were they always a little duckling?
You think they’re going to turn into chickens?
Claudia Williams: So to say goodbye, the kids are all sitting in a circle while one of the staff takes the ducklings from the cage into the middle, where they’ve set up a paddling pool, and the paddling pool’s got a slide in it.
And the ducklings are put in the water and they’re swimming, they’re ducking under the water. The kids are so excited.
Claudia Williams: There is genuine delight in the room – the ducklings look entirely unfussed.
David Taylor: It’s pretty obvious the children are learning tons of social skills at nursery, but a lot of parents have concerns about how much time their children are spending in formal education, and a bit of guilt I think, really.
It’s sort of left me asking: are we all just in a giant experiment here?
Carey Oppenheim: Well, you’ve landed on an issue that’s quite controversial, but the evidence is pretty clear that actually, good quality early education and childcare really makes a difference to how children develop through their lives.
But I think we don’t actually know what the ideal number of hours of childcare should be. But there’s so many issues, actually about not enough children taking up quite low levels of entitlement, that I would think that’s what we need to focus on.
David Taylor: Next time…
Leah Chikamba: …that’s it!
David Taylor: …in the final episode of Life, Changing…
Rukhsana Ahmed: We absolutely work with the family until the job is done.
David Taylor: …we’re visiting the front lines of state support for families and young children…
Sanah Rashid: And they help us as well. They help to come out from depression.
David Taylor: …to get to grips with the massive issues of poverty and inequality that affect them…
Leah Chikamba: …for most of our parents, the current issue is with housing…
David Taylor: …and pinpoint exactly how the government is hanging them out to dry.
Selena Haye: I’ll stay. Definitely. I’ll stay because this is something that’s very, very needed and useful for the community. And I like that about it.
David Taylor: Life, Changing is a Tortoise podcast in partnership with the Nuffield Foundation.
It was produced by Phil Sansom, reported by Claudia Williams, and presented by me, David Taylor – with special thanks to Carey Oppenheim.
If you’ve been enjoying this series, please do leave us a review, or recommend us to a friend.
We’ll be back next week for the finale – thanks for listening!