We need a Full National Debate on Scottish Nursery Provision

Thursday, May 1st, 2008 by Deepak Poddar

Everyone agrees our children deserve the best possible start in life, and that our nursery provision should reflect the critical importance of the nursery years in shaping young lives. Yet it’s a sad fact that in today’s Scotland the quality of provision you can expect depends to a very great extent on where you live.

Some nurseries, to be blunt, can be dismal and depressing for adults to visit, never mind children. It’s hard to imagine how children could ever feel relaxed or happy in such places. Too often we hear of nurseries run in ramshackle buildings, or customised out of spare office blocks in industrial estates – wholly removed from normal society; impersonal, ugly, uninspiring and ultimately unsuitable.

There are periodic government dispensations to local authorities to allow them to equip nurseries with, for example, new play equipment, but too often policy – of whichever government – can appear sporadic and ad hoc. Fundamental problems remain unaddressed.

The Importance of Location

I strongly believe it is time to launch an initiative to engage with all stakeholders in the sector including the Care Commission, local authorities, parents and private sector providers to seek ways to raise building standards. We have come along way already in developing a nursery care sector of which we can be proud, but by harnessing council planning departments to take a strategic role in the location and standards of properties used for nursery care and by setting minimum criteria for the physical environment of our nurseries to match the parameters we already have for key areas such as training and qualifications, we can deliver a nursery care sector fit for the 21st Century.

My company, Little Einstein’s, sets what we like to think are high standards within the sector, but I think it is time we entered into dialogue with the Government, both nationally and locally, to help find the means of making this level of care available to the broadest possible number of people.

The starting point should lie in granting local authorities an oversight role in their work with the private sector to develop a strategy on children’s nurseries which steers providers away from locating children’s nurseries in patently unsuitable accommodation. I am not saying that all nurseries have to be based in stunning, wonderful properties, simply that certain basic criteria ought to be observed – no child should have to endure an environment which resembles some sort of industrial site.

Our firm currently has six nurseries and we also run a care home – a sector in which the physical environment is obviously just as important. We have major expansion plans in hand for 2008, both for nurseries and in the care home sector, and a key element of our plan centres on newbuilds which we fully intend will act as exemplars of how modern services – care and nursery – should be operated.

Few would really consider it suitable that a nursery should be sited on an industrial estate or a run down building – and yet it happens all the time. The staff may be excellent, the interior well organised and the children well cared for, but what sort of signal does it send out if the building where they will be spending such an important part of their lives is second or third rate?

Perhaps the strongest demand for the highest quality of care is from professional people, but of course all parents who work want to know their child is getting a great deal more than a mere minding service – a concept which has no place in 21st century Scotland.

Raising the Game for Nurseries

So it is, I think, time for a fresh approach on the physical environment and this is, ideally, one which sets new national operating criteria across all authorities, making the system transparent and logical.

Private and public sector working together, we need to develop a system which allows nursery care providers to broaden the scope of their admissions without being trussed in red tape, or forced to run at a loss. And we need a proper dialogue about how we can take the whole concept of nurseries a step forward.

Too often we hear debates about education which don’t appear to consider nurseries as part of the equation – whereas I would argue that how children are treated at the very start of their progress towards school life has a vital impact on how they will perform later on.

The whole point of the debate I am seeking is to “raise the game” for nursery education at all levels, and it must start with the basic question of what the minimum criteria should be for buildings which house nurseries.

(On a related track we should be taking a long, hard look at where we expect senior citizens entitled to proper care are expected to live. Again, by integrating the issue wholly into the planning process and engaging with experienced private sectors operators with a track record of providing high levels of care we could make a great leap forward in standards.)

So much is rightly made of the crucial importance of education to Scotland’s economic and moral wellbeing, at all levels – but we simply don’t hear enough about nursery provision, where progress remains slower than it could be. We would all benefit from more decisive action now.

Deepak Poddar is Managing Director of the Little Einstein’s children’s nurseries across Scotland.

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