Early Years Voices: 11 Lessons from the Nursery of the Year

Helen Bowlby from award-winning Spring Bensham shares the secrets to their success.
October 9, 2019
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What's in this article:

  • Spring Bensham were the winners of Nursery of the Year 2019 at the Nursery World awards.
  • I spoke with manager Helen Bowlby to hear about the secret to their success, and try to get some ideas for how all settings can change the way they look at their practice.
  • We spoke about SEND provision, her amazing staff team, the power of tailoring the way you do things for every child and parent – and much much more.

Helen Bowlby, manager of Nursery World’s Nursery of the Year, Spring Bensham, is pretty humble about her role in their win.

Like all of the talented managers I get to speak with, Helen has an ability to make great early years practice sound simple and give credit for the setting’s success to everyone but herself.

And yet, throughout our conversation about the way they do things at Spring Bensham, it became clear to me that she is someone who excels at helping others shine. Our chat was littered with a hundred small ways that she has helped her fantastic team to make a big difference to the lives of the children they care for.

I caught up with Helen to hear all about the amazing work that culminated in them winning Nursery of the Year, and to get some lessons from her that might help you change the way you do things at your own setting too.

A nursery inside a nursery…

One of the first things Helen admits to me is that the nursery’s unique environment can be a little tricky to get your head around.

“It really is a bit hard to explain without seeing it, but we’re not just sharing a site with the local maintained nursery school – we’re actually in the same room,” she explains.

Downstairs, for example, is the area for three- to five-year-olds, and it’s one big open space shared by both settings. It means there’s a pretty unique challenge when it comes to continuity of care.

“The school deliver the core funded hours, and we deliver everything else,” says Helen, “which means often we’ll have children for breakfast, then they’ll be at the main school, and then they come back to us later in the afternoon.”

When she first took over as manager in 2015, her core focus was on making the relationship between the two settings even stronger. She had a big impact, ensuring that they follow the same planning systems, go on trips together, having her staff attend the full staff meetings. After all, with many of the children at both settings, it needed to be as seamless as possible.

“It has to work,” Helen tells me, “because working seamlessly together is for the best of the children.”

The big ideas

So how does the funding work?

One of the things commented on by Nursery World Chief Judge Wendy Scott, was the “careful arrangement of seamless provision” that meant “families with children eligible for funded places can take advantage of their entitlement in a flexible way.”

This is a huge benefit to the families, according to Helen. Because the school only offers the core 15 hours, Spring Bensham decided to offer full wraparound care, meaning they sometimes just have children for breakfast and then again later on, or just during the holidays.

It works because of this close partnership, with staff moving into the baby room as more babies arrive and the older children move over to into the maintained school provision. It’s a real lesson in finding a way to make a unique situation really work for the children and their families.

SEND provision at Spring Bensham

A good way of understanding the attitude that has made the setting at Spring Bensham such a success, is by taking a look at their SEND provision.

The Nursery World team praised them for their outstanding SENCo team, and the way they had formed well-established links with other specialists. Also impressive is the way that other staff take it upon themselves to make sure they understand and can support every child’s needs too.

“We have an amazing SENCo and now a SENCo assistant who are both working towards their Level 3 inclusion course,” explains Helen. “But we allocate a non-SENCo key person to each child too, so that they can do some work in the action plans and hone in on small next steps for those children, working in collaboration with other professionals from the LA all the time.”

This attention to detail also shines through in the way they work with the parents.

“The whole process of diagnosing and getting a healthcare plan is so overwhelming even for the professionals involved, let alone the parents of that child,” says Helen. “I can only imagine how they must feel, all these people with different advice – it must be hard to process.”

That’s why the team work so closely with every parent to make sure they’re getting the support they need too. Helen told me of any number of cases where parents didn’t think they’d be able to go back to work until they came to the setting. It was the team’s approach to going that extra mile for parent and child that allowed parents to do so, knowing their child was happy and safe.

“Again, it’s just about personalising the child’s learning,” Helen explains. “You can’t underestimate the difference that can make for a parent.”

11 lessons from this Nursery of the Year

So with that little bit of understanding about what makes the nursery tick under our belts, I wanted to dive into some lessons that I took from the inspiring conversation with Helen. Here are some of the things that Helen thinks made a difference at Spring Bensham, and they just might help to inspire some change at your setting too.

1. Every child (and parent) is unique

“The most important thing we can do, is to make sure we’re looking at each person individually, parent or child,” Helen says. “What works for one, doesn’t necessarily work for another.”

One great example of this philosophy is when a new boy started who had an additional need that his key person hadn’t come across before. After taking her own time out to research it, his key person worked with professionals to make sure they could do the absolute best by the boy.

“It’s very emotional in that situation, because it just meant so much for his mum,” Helen says. “But that’s the same approach we have for every child. It might just be that we need to learn a few words from a different language or slightly adapt what we do, but we always remember that each person is an individual.”

2. Get to know them from day one (or day minus one)

Before any child starts, the team at Spring Bensham complete a home visit.

Normally that involves the key person and the room leader or Helen herself, but she much prefers it when the people who are going to be in the room with the child can go. As she says, they’re the ones working with those children and parents every day.

“Once they’ve done that, they come back and write up a short report and we make sure there’s always some actions in the setting off the back of that,” she explains.

From there, it’s all about tailoring the settling-in period to the different child’s needs.

“We’ve had one girl,” Helen says, “who has been visiting for the last month for 10 minutes a day. And that’s OK, because that’s the way she needs to do it.”

Helen also spoke to me about the importance of involving the parent in those settling-in visits. It’s not just about picking up the child at the door, she says. You need to invite the parents in, and get them involved, tell a story, sing a song. And the child needs to see the relationship form between the parent and their key person too.

“When a child sees that relationship,” Helen says, “it just makes it much less stressful for everyone. It helps to build that trust.”

3. Every spare space is an opportunity

When I asked Helen for her favourite bit of their current provision, it didn’t take her long to answer.

“Right now, I love our sensory room,” she tells me. “It started off as a laundry room, and sometimes we’d use it for naps – but we weren’t really getting the most out of it.”

So the team got together and decided that it would be perfect for a free flow sensory room. They had hardly any budget, but with a few shrewd buys from Amazon, a bit of black paint, a few donations from parents and some creative thinking, they ended up with a space that the team are really proud of.

“The children with additional needs love it,” Helen explains, “and the babies too. It’s a fantastic sensory experience, quite dark, so the older children can talk about what they can see as well. It’s made a boring space into an area that makes a real difference to a lot of the children.”

4. Working with parents goes both ways

The team try to have as much regular interaction with the parents as possible, something that the Nursery World judges thought was particularly effective for the children.

Everything from little gardening sessions and different physical activities to simply going to the park. Next week they have a grandparents day where their grandparents are invited to come and share stories.

‘We try not to have too many people at once in these sessions,” Helen explains. “You have to remember that not everyone has the best association with education from their own childhood. Coming in the door can be tough.”

For Helen, it’s important to remember that it’s not just about what you can help the parents with. That information-sharing goes both ways.

“We get our parents to do observations from home, which means we can sit and talk with the children about their weekend,” Helen explains. “So being able to share those observations through Famly has really helped enhance those partnerships. They’re always raving about the app when we ask for comments from them.”

“Over the last little while we’ve really pushed our staff to look at the whole environment, at every feature of it. Look at individual areas and think about bringing the outside in to make it more continuous. So there’s lots of plants and wooden objects inside, or if a member of staff goes to the beach they might come back with sand and shells and tell the story to the children with those things.”

- Helen Bowlby, Manager, Spring Bensham

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5. Give staff the canvas for their creativity.

“We’re really lucky here to have staff that are so creative,” Helen says. “But working together is the key to making those creative ideas come out. It might be that one person has the vision but someone else has the idea for how we actually get it done.”

One innovation that helped was simply introducing a place to collect all these ideas – a whiteboard in the staff room.

“They were having these ideas anyway,” Helen explains, “but they just weren’t putting them down. So if they had an idea for an adaptation, it was often something someone already noticed or thought about. Now that they write it all down, they can bounce ideas off each other and that helps to bring the idea to life.”

But to get creative, it has to start with giving staff the breathing space to do so…

6. Help give staff time back

This article isn’t about tooting anyone’s trumpet but the team at Spring Bensham. But Helen was pretty insistent that Famly has had a big role to play in the time staff now have available for this sort of work.

“Everyone needs to have Famly. It’s a god-send,” she tells me. “Because when it came in, it was so new and exciting that it brought a lot of other changes too. But mostly, it just freed up a lot of time.”

Before Famly, Helen told me that her staff were drowning in paperwork. They’d have conversations and implement new things, but they didn’t always have the time to discuss it and jot things down.

“Now, they just take a quick snapshot of the child’s day, link it together, and in a couple of seconds they’re done, so it frees up time to do the important stuff. We really do love it,” she laughs.

7. Trips can be perfectly ordinary too.

Enough about us.

“People get really hung up on trips,” Helen explains, “but for us, it’s sometimes just about those tiny bits in the community. Practising crossing the road, going down to the shops, even just getting outside and walking around is great for their physical development. It doesn’t have to be a beach every day.”

This struck me as a fantastic reminder that embedding your practice in the local community doesn’t mean all-singing all-dancing trips every time. Sometimes, it’s just about getting out and about and seeing what learning opportunities come your way.

8. Training starts with you

While a big part of Helen’s job is cultivating and supporting her staff’s intuitive passion, she also knows that she does have to give them the time to do that training and research whenever she can.

“Often, my staff will take some of their own time to learn about something new, or do some research about a child. But you have to give them that time in work as well,” she explains. “If you do that then you’re also showing them that it’s important, and they have a bit more respect towards why it needs to be done. If I have to go into the room to cover, so be it.”

9. The value of apprentices

Helen admitted to me that she wasn’t always sure about the idea of bringing on apprentices. Well, her mind has certainly been changed about that.

“I always worried that we’d be better with a full-trained member of staff who can just be fully in ratio, and who has that experience,” she explained. “But I have to take that back now. The three young girls I have are full of fun, they’re a breath of fresh air, and it’s been so lovely to see them develop.”

According to Helen, you can’t teach that enthusiasm, but you can help to give them that experience and understanding. You certainly can’t account for the impact that their enthusiasm and energy has on the rest of the team either.

10. Nurture and promote passion and ideas

“My staff are so good at sharing ideas, and I’d never correct or dismiss anything they say,” Helen says. “Otherwise, you lose that culture of creating exciting new ideas. You have to make every idea feel valid.”

Yes, of course some ideas need to be reworked or adapted, or might not be quite right at all. But according to Helen, it’s far more important that you don’t quash that enthusiasm and passion with too much criticism.

Helen has a pretty simple formula for staff retention too. Make sure everyone is happy and motivated.

“If you make sure your staff are happy, and they love doing what they do, then they’re not going to leave,” she says. “Let them play to their strengths and give them areas of responsibility that you’re not going to take away. Trust them with it.”

11. Don’t take yourself too seriously

“I don’t think anyone would say you go into this career for money,” laughs Helen.

But what they do go into it for, she says, is the children.

“It’s OK to be a bit silly and totally mess things up and do completely random stuff,” she says. “It shouldn’t just be ‘We’re doing this because it’s what we do on a Monday’.”

A nice freeing thought to finish on. Sometimes, it’s OK to pull things back, and just make sure that you’re having fun with the children.

“I try not to take myself too seriously, and make sure I’m always finding time to have a bit of fun with the staff” she finishes. “Because at the end of the day, we’re all doing this job because we love children, and we want the best for them.”

Do you have your own story about some changes you made that had a big impact on the children you look after? Get in contact with me at ma@famly.co.uk with a few of the details and we can talk about setting up an interview. I’d love to hear from you.

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

Learn more about Famly

Find out below from Neil Leitch about the impact of Famly at the Early Years Alliance, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.