It’s teatime at the Bright Beginnings nursery in Leeds and the children in the Grasshopper room are sitting expectantly at their little tables awaiting their cheesy pasta.
They have spent much of the afternoon outside in the playground and there is a happy burble as the last of the three-to-four year olds wash and dry their hands before joining their classmates to eat.
The calm order of the dining arrangements of this inner city nursery attached to Leeds University which provides day care for 144 children from 32 nationalities (with 100 more families on the waiting list) would appear to contrast sharply with the perception of education minister Elizabeth Truss.
She has irritated the childcare profession by suggesting that in “too many settings” youngsters are being allowed to “run around” with “no sense of purpose”.
Ms Truss, whose two daughters are looked after by a nanny, has further bemused British providers by suggesting that they look across the Channel to France for inspiration where, she claims, children enjoy a more structured environment being looked after by graduate-level teachers improving their manners and preparing them for the rigours of the classroom.
They are observations which cut little ice with Fiona Hakin, early years’ curriculum support manager at Bright Beginnings who has 22 years of experience. “It is a feeling of being lumped together,” she said.
“The Government has a (early years foundation stage) curriculum. It is strict but we can deliver it in a way we feel is appropriate although we still have to follow it in a way that we can prove it is being done and that it supports children’s learning,” she explains.
“You have to love children and there is no mention of that from Elizabeth Truss … higher educational qualifications have to be coupled with passion,” she adds. “Our idea is that a child needs to develop as an individual. They are going to spend enough time in a group at school and we want to support them to think for themselves,” she said.
Ms Truss has angered some childcare experts by previously proposing to cut the adult-to-child ratio in some settings so that each staff member can look after up to six three-year-olds.
It is part of the coalition’s aim of bringing down child care costs whilst persuading providers to employ fewer, better qualified staff. Meanwhile, last week Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools and children's services, warned that thousands of nurseries and pre-schools in England could face closure unless they improve.
Christoph Steigmann, 22, is in Leeds on an exchange programme from his native Germany where he is studying to become an early years’ educator. He said he was looking forward to taking some of the British ideas home with him.
“In Germany (like France) we have certain rules. The kids have more structure in their day but here they have more freedom to do what they want,” he said.
“In Germany if they want to play with mud we will say `no, it’s too dirty’. I wouldn’t say one system is better than the other. Each system has its positive factors and each has its negative factors. But here it feels freer,” he said.
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said that three quarters of nurseries were currently rated either good or outstanding – up 10 per cent in the past three years – although she conceded there were always improvements to be made.
But she said the UK system was widely admired around the world. “Sometimes you have to knock the notion that the grass is always greener on the other side. There is some fantastic work being done here,” she said.
“We need to understand that every child is different and every nursery is different. It is a balance between free flow play and structural learning. It is a balance that cannot be dictated by a one-size-fits-all policy for everybody. Structure in a child’s life is important but equally that individual personality needs to come out. Some of it needs to be child led and some of it needs to be adult led.”