Sunday, 7 March 2010

The traditions and importance of the nursery school

This is the last column I will write as a nursery school headteacher: from the end of April I will be in a new job as Early Years Adviser to Tower Hamlets in east London.

Working in a London nursery school, I have always felt very aware of the history behind, in and around me. It is more than a hundred and fifty years since the great German teacher and thinker Friedrich Froebel invented the “kindergarten” and explicitly recognised the importance of the child’s activity in learning. It struck me how radical a way of thinking that still is, when the compere at last year's Early Years Professionals’ Conference described young children as “like an empty vessel ready to be filled”.

You can make your own choice between seeing children as fancy packages, ready to have stuff poured into them, or as inquisitive and thoughtful beings in their own right: I would choose Froebel every time.

The idea of the kindergarten inspired Robert Owen, who built an infant school for the children of his factory workers in New Lanark, Scotland, and the Macmillan sisters, who worked to open nursery schools in some of the poorest parts of inner London. The early decades of the twentieth century saw an increase in the momentum for a more enlightened style of nursery and infant education. Children were to be offered space, time, and plenty of materials to manipulate and play with, in the presence of thoughtful adults with specialist training. We live in an era that is sceptical of progress: but who can deny that the new nursery and infant schools released children from a kind of prison? Close to where I live now, in East London, was one of the first free primary schools. The youngest children were kept in a big wire cage and the older children of six and above sat still in rows, in classes of fifty or more, under the direction of a teacher on a high platform with a big stick.

Of course, no movement is ever entirely for the good. You could argue that the Macmillan sisters had a misguided notion of the child as a romantic free spirit, needing to be rescued from a debased working class culture. When the nursery school movement got mixed up with the early days of Freudianism, an idea took hold that the child needed “free development” – and if anyone interfered, the child would suffer life-long psychological problems. Wars between nations were seen to result from adults interfering in the natural course of early childhood. These ways of thinking are still around, but they are well past their use-by date.

The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright said that the “secret of whatever got into the architecture of the world” could be found in the early kindgergarten experience of playing with blocks (you can read the full quotation in its proper context here). By and large, the nursery school has kept with that Froebelian idea: learning starts with the child actively engaging with and making sense of the world. Various educational fashions have come and gone: nursery schools have stayed true to the values of play, outdoor learning, and the child’s need for thoughtful, specialist-trained staff. These ideas also have a strong hold in many other parts of the education system, beyond the few hundred nursery schools we still have left in the UK.

I hope that I have engaged with this tradition with enough energy, conviction and thoughtfulness, so that – with the help of many others – a little nursery school by King's Cross is being handed on to the future in good shape.