For the deprived child living in appalling surroundings, the nursery school is often the only refuge
Originally published in January 1970
Nursery schools, until the £3 million programme announced in 1969, had been quietly forgotten by successive Governments - forgotten in the political sense that is, because the money simply hasn’t been around. So education has to start in the home, where in any case it all begins with those first fumbling lessons given by loving mother.
The transition from home to the nursery school should, ideally, be almost imperceptable - the child’s mother an ever welcome visitor and on occasions an active participant in the life of the nursery, and the atmosphere utterly relaxed and ‘un-school’. Connor’s Nursery in Portsmough, by the City Architect, succeeds admirably in bringing the home into the nursey - and what architecture cannot supply comes from sensitive teachers coping with the problems of physically handicapped children.
Connor’s Nursery in Portsmouth is a unit for physically handicapped children sensibly linked to an existing day nursery so that they can mix and play with other children of their own age group. An additional aim was to give the mothers a break from the non-stop care needed by handicapped children. Although Portsmouth council saw the need for such a unit there was no money in the kitty so the then Lord Mayor launched an appeal year which raised enough money to build, equip, and staff it for the first year. Thereafter the local authority will take it over. At the time of designing it remarkably little information - written or built - was available, so the health department carried out studies watching children at play and in the home. The final unit is 1,000 sq ft accommodating eight children with a large playroom stocked with go-karts, storage, rest beds and cloakrooms. The nursery furniture is mostly gaily coloured curved polypropylene chairs. The building cost just under £5 per sq ft and for speed a prefabricated structural timber system was used.
Walking rails encourage children to strike out on their own without the aid of calipers. The fact that the children are frequently incontinent by the nature of their paralysis involved designing a very careful open loo system under constant supervision, with handles on cubicle walls to help the children. The basins are all at different heights and have large mirrors which the children enjoy gazing into while they wash hands and faces. When non-handicapped children are brought in to play they use the same cloakrooms. One of the compartments is designed for wheelchair use. The children are collected and delivered by ambulance service.
Whatever claims and counter claims the authors of the Black Papers and their attackers may have made about the state of British education, there could be no argument on nursery schools - there aren’t any to argue about. Or precious few. At the time of the Plowden report there were only 464 LEA maintained nursery schools catering for just over 24,000 under-fives-less than five per cent of the infant population.
The Plowden report made it quite clear that ‘whether a mother has even a bare chance of securing a nursery place for her child depends on the accident of where she lives’ and equally that ‘nursery provision on a substantial scale is desirable, not only on educational grounds but also for social, health and welfare considerations.’ It ended up fourth on their list of priorities - for severely practical reasons. More nurseries would call for more money, more buildings and more teachers - the three scarce commodities which the Plowden Report by and large reserved for what they saw as the priority-primary education.
‘To date no harrassed mother has taken the Secretary of State to court for failing to provide what under the 1944 Act he has a duty to’
The committee calculated that by 1979 the equivalent of 776,000 full-time places for three-and four-year olds would be needed in any national scheme. Some of these places could be found in existing buildings. But the committee estimated that for over 400,000 places new building would be needed, at a cost of £110 millions, the amount allotted for extending the school leaving age alone. In the EPA’s the order of the Plowden Committee’s priorities changed to favour nursery education more strongly but the overall impression left by the report was that the government should be allowed – like all its predecessors - to break the law. To date no harrassed mother has taken the Secretary of State to court for failing to provide what under the 1944 Act he has a duty to.
Perhaps the National Campaign for Nursery Education should match their 100,000 strong petition of May 1968 with a spot of instant litigation? But in a sense the time is past and erring governments have gone. The present Government has, under its urban programme for deprived areas, allotted £3 million to provide 10,000 new full time nursery places up and down the country. As such it represents the first organized expansion of nursery education in this country since the war. But even this is manifestly not enough. And a realization of the enormity of the problem led such divergent political views within the Plowden committee as Michael Young and Timothy Raison to join together in a note of reservation recommending that nursery education was ripe for the introduction of a Robin Hood system of parental contribution to the costs. But civilized all-party agreement between members of a committee is one thing. Relinquishing dearly-held political policy is generally too big a pill to swallow. So nursery education flounders on. What surprisingly Plowden did not investigate except at the general level was where these nursery schools are - all the more surprising considering its recommendations on EPA’s.
A recent study, by Tessa Blackstone at LSE and published in New Society, has pinpointed the arbitrariness of nursery provision. Her findings also highlight the North/South differences in affluence. Industrial towns in the Midlands and the North tend to have the highest maintained provision, highest proportion of their population in social classes IV and V and a large number of working women. The County Boroughs with the highest independent provision are all in the south with a high proportion in administrative and managerial occupations. When it comes to the counties Cambridgeshire, not surprisingly in view of Henry Morris’ leadership, comes out top. Yorkshire, the North West and Wales had the highest number of maintained places per 1,000 child population. The East, the South West and the South East the fewest with the Midlands. For independent places the position tends to be reversed. But the most important conclusion from this study - as far as Plowden hopes are concerned - was that the more local authorities spend on primary education and facilities for recreation, the more nursery places they provide; the higher the pupil/teacher ratio in primary schools, the lower the provision of nursery education. The case for the DES to concentrate new nursery projects in the EPAs as an alleviator of educational - and for that matter social - deprivation is overwhelming.
The DES Building Department set to work immediately after Plowden reported producing one of its typically excellent workmanlike bulletins on designing for nursery education. The designs are simple and direct and cost-cutting by eliminating kitchens, bed-storage and washing facilities, the sort of ancillary accommodation which often accounts for 60 per cent of the building area. The DES team were able to do this because they took the view that part time attendance is better for the three to fives. Costs would drop accordingly from £300 per place, which is what Plowden reckoned, to between £220 and £280. The bulletin offers specimen designs for both nursery classes up to 40 children linked to existing infant or junior schools and schools on their own sites called centres for 60.
The bulletin, on the other hand, regrettably offers no advice on integrating nursery schools with comprehensives. Nor is there any suggestion of building them integrally in new housing schemes. So one has to look abroad to see the more exciting experiments, however encouraging the remarkable low cost Connor’s Nursery at Portsmouth is for the price or Regent’s Park for its ingenious use of car park roof top space. The Olympic village at Grenoble has a marvelously intimate nursery firmly locked into an entire social and community centre. With its covered ways and free but watchable play spaces, it creates a child’s world where it should be - next to mother with her launderette, or shops or library.
‘Hundreds similarly handicapped all over Britain have no nursery and mothers have no from the ceaseless, exhausting, special care that has to be given to these children’
But probably the most extensive lessons for Britain just embarking on her first batch of state bursary schools are to be learnt from France where there are no less than 7,000 Ecoles Maternelles and over one and a half million children attending them. This has a by-product the fact that 40 per cent of mothers with one child aged between three and six work. During the holidays the Maternelles are run as recreation centres. Everything except lunch is free. This is Britain’s weakest educational spot. And £3m won’t go far to solve it. But it is a beginning.
The handicapped children in Portsmouth are lucky - they have a nursery. Hundreds similarly handicapped all over Britain have no nursery and mothers have no escape day in, day out, from the ceaseless, exhausting, special care that has to be given to these children. And hundreds of thousands of non-handicapped children have little hope of a nursery school before they pass the magic age of 3 when schools are laid on as of right. The plight of tiny children in deprived areas is at last recognized in the Government’s Educational Priority Areas. For the deprived child living in appalling surroundings the nursery-school is often the only refuge. The Regent’s Park day nursery in London, hemmed in by dreary high-rise flats, is a jewel among mediocrity.
The Regent’s Park day nursery in London - on a different scale altogether from Connor’s - was designed by the London Borough of Camden. It sits atop a somewhat unlikely bedfellow - a multi-storey car park - and survives. The nursery is so cheerful and gay - given a spot of sun even more so - that it is hard to realize at times how hopelessly hemmed in it is by high blocks which glower and gloat over every child’s game. But that isn’t what the child sees. For the infant it is a world all of its own with sandpits and pools and daybeds and large windows which are permanently labeled with enormous and often lurid child drawings. The nursery is in the heart of a social problem area and as a result the only children accepted are either single mums’ offspring or lone fathers’. Some additional children are taken from lower income families. The children are of mixed ages and handicapped (mentally or physically).
The nursery luckily slipped through in the halcyon days of no cost limits for nurseries. It is still good value for money and if a social cost-benefit study were carried out the nursery would probably repay Camden hand over fist in the long term by giving some of the children the only stable element in their existence. The nursery opens five days a week all the year from 8 to 5. Meals from breakfast to a cooked tea can be provided. A working mum’s godsend and a child’s paradise.
‘The nursery opens five days a week all the year from 8 to 5. Meals from breakfast to a cooked tea can be provided. A working mum’s godsend and a child’s paradise’
The day nursery has group rooms for 8-10 children in each, and a separate room for the handicapped and for the babies. All look on to and open on to the play area, and behind the group rooms are the cloakrooms, the kitchen, the staff rooms, and the playroom which can be blacked out. Prams and push chairs have separate entrances to stop wet muddy tracks crossing floors. On the same side as the playroom are grassed areas. The nursery slipped through before the Department of Education and Science’s booklet suggesting savings in space and cost appeared. Otherwise the playroom might not have been built. The cost worked out at £5 17s per sq ft. The car park below houses 129 cars and 24 motor cycles.
The Yukari Cultural Kindergarten by Kenzo Tange is but one example of Japanese educational bravura. In the blazing sunlight of the orient it provides a nest of nurseries, but unlike its British counterpart all the ages are separately classed. The Olympic village at Grenoble moves in the other direction altogether - kindergarten, youth centre, library, workshops, welfare centre all wrapped into one cultural centre.
Yukari Kindergarten trips down a slope with all the playrooms at the upper level and the store rooms below. Forty 3-year olds, and one hundred and twenty 4-year olds and a further hundred and twenty of 5-year olds, play in this gently scaled-down concrete womb with separate courtyards, a pool and a playing field. The large main playroom not yet built will have a stage and dressing rooms. Some play areas are carpeted and sandpits sheltered.
The Grenoble day nursery - a square tent on poles-sits in the middle of the site with the tower of an old farmstead behind and surrounded by the other buildings of the youth and social centre. Outside are sandpits and smooth polished boulders. The social centre itself has a creche and all the buildings interlink with simple asbestos sheet covered galleries. Inside the nursery wooden partitions divide the space into easily supervised areas.