The nursery that teaches its pupils to boldly go

One Nottingham kindergarten finds taking risks is educational, reports Richard Garner
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The Independent Online

The question parents most often ask of their children, "What did you do at school today?", usually elicits the somewhat grumpy response: "Not much."

Not so, though, if the children have been attending the Nottingham Nursery School, where the answer is likely to be: snail racing, followed by making mud pies, then playing on the hanging tyres before lighting a fire.

Welcome to a school which believes that a certain amount of risk is a normal part of developing a child's character, and which has taken a stand against pressures to bow to health and safety demands to mollycoddle their charges.

As Jill Robey, the school's headteacher, puts it: "I think whatever children do they're going to fall, they're going to get bumps, they're going to get cut. With the best will in the world, you can't make sure they're protected from that."

The nursery's philosophy – that children should not be kept in cotton wool but should learn to experience risk-taking – has led to it winning recognition at the "Go4It" awards to be announced tomorrow. The award scheme is an antidote to an obsessive fear of health and safety regulations that can lead to school activities being cancelled. Fear of litigation (and the consequences for a teacher's career) has prompted one teachers' union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASWUT), to advise its members not to take part in school trips. The paperwork demanded by risk assessments is excessive, it argues.

Yesterday a case emerged of parents who were warned they could be reported to child protection services if they continue to allow their eight- and five-year-old children to cycle to school.

The children of Oliver and Gillian Schonrock, from Dulwich, south London, cycle unsupervised on the pavement to and from school for a mile. Mr and Mrs Schonrock say they do not blame the school for threatening to report them, but do blame the rules it has to obey on child protection.

Nottingham Nursery, on the other hand, is not the sort of school to ban children from playing conkers or to insist on them wearing safety goggles.

The award they have won was set up by a group called Heads, Teachers and Industry which devotes itself to ensuring today's youngsters learn the skills that industry needs for tomorrow.

And they need the risk-takers, the youngsters who gain confidence from the kind of activities the Nottingham nursery promotes. Simon Woodroffe, the Dragon's Den celebrity and Yo Sushi founder who is a patron of the awards, said: "We mustn't use health and safety as an excuse to say 'no' to healthy adventure. Risk is a fact of life, and learning to manage risk is a key part of growing up: pretending otherwise stunts development."

Ms Robey believes the tide of public opinion may be turning. Witness, she says, the coalition Government's decision to review health and safety legislation just a couple of weeks ago.

She answers safety-conscious critics by stressing the educational nature of the activities that take place in her children's garden. Take the making of the mud pies: the children pour water on the mud pies prior to baking them, and therefore see the impact water can have when added to a substance. It is an early science lesson.

So what if the children do splash each other with the water? They are given waterproof wellies. Then there are the youngsters banging away with nails on the woodwork bench. Only two are allowed to bang nails in at any one time, under supervision to avoid any possibility of them hitting each other.

The school starts each day with play and lessons inside the building, but from 9.45am each child has the choice of whether to play inside or out. It opened two years ago as an amalgam of the closure of three nurseries in the city centre and has space for 93 children at each session (morning and afternoon).

Ofsted, the sometimes begrudging education standards watchdog, says of the nursery: "Children get a wonderful start to their learning. It is clear from watching them for a short time how much fun and learning occur each day."

Parents are flocking to snap up places at the nursery, prompting other heads to visit to see if they could copy some of its practices. Meanwhile, back in the garden, the children have started their own snail race – supervised by adults.