LOCAL NURSERY SCHOOL HEAD ON WHAT COUNTS IN LIFE
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
When did you move here?
All the shops and cafes on Askew Road. Several have sent their children here.
The police arrived and said there was an unexploded WW2 bomb
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I've wanted to teach since I was a little girl. My parents were teachers, my father PE and my mother French. We lived in a boarding school in Norfolk. I used to line up my teddies in a classroom and practice writing on the blackboard. My parents are very kind people. They'd have pupils over for afternoon tea. I had an idyllic childhood. I have an older sister and in the holidays, we had the run of the campus, its swimming pool, tennis courts...
Were you an academic child?
I was okay at most subjects, but not brilliant at anything. I loved drama and dance. And I knew my own mind. I wasn't a troublemaker, but I was a curious little one. I had lots of energy. I was always the first to a party and the last to leave.
What did you do before setting up Stepping Stones?
I did a degree in education and worked in a number of state schools across London, including Brixton and Hackney. I was 22 and it was the best experience I could have had. In my first class, a third of the children were homeless. They were utterly delightful. There were lots of issues, such as neglect, personal hygiene, and many parents not speaking English. But if you can handle that as a teacher, you can handle anything. Then I went to Fox Primary in Notting Hill, one of the top state schools in London. The parents, quite rightly, had extremely high expectations so I went from one extreme to another.
When and why did you set up your nursery?
2001. Kensington and Chelsea invited me to train as a head teacher, which I did, but by the time I had my second child, my work-life balance wasn't right. I wanted to be the best head teacher I could be and the best mum, but I was leaving my kids with a nanny at 7 in the morning and not getting home until at least 7pm and I just wasn't happy. Something had to change. At the time, I was looking for a nursery for my first son, but I couldn't find what I really wanted. So I set up Stepping Stones. I have 4 children now and they all came here.
Since you started teaching, are parents more pushy?
I wouldn't say pushy, but they're very onboard and interested, which is a good thing. It's our responsibility to be the professionals and sometimes we need to make the final decision, but ultimately they are the parents.
Are they more anxious, "helicopter parents"?
There are so many more things to be anxious about. Not just the familiar threats, stranger danger and drugs, but social media, the internet and terror threats. We had to carry out a full evacuation recently. The police arrived and said there was a potentially unexploded World War Two bomb. We got all the children out in 2 minutes and sheltered in Askew Road Library. It was quite scary but our evacuation plan worked brilliantly and the children were completely fine.
Do you live in fear of the Ofsted inspector's surprise visit?
We want them to visit. The last inspection was 2013, but we're ready at all times. They give you 24 hours' warning, but I think it's better if they just drop in unannounced.
Do you accept vouchers (currently 15 hours free schooling a week for 3-4 year olds)?
Yes, we accept the early years grant for 15 hours and childcare vouchers can also be used to reduce fees. We still have to charge to cover peripatetic teachers, higher staffing ratios, theatre companies that we invite in, et cetera. These cannot be covered by what the government pay. It's too tight. That's why so many nurseries are going under. We won’t reduce our standards.
Do many children have a second language?
Right now, of 89 children, 20 are bi-lingual or even tri-lingual. A wide range of languages are spoken at the nursery, including French, Russian and Chinese. We ask the parents for common words in their first language, which we put up in the classrooms so everyone can say hello and welcome in every language.
Your website lists yoga for the children. Are you spiritual?
I've just started doing yoga as I turned 53 and decided it was time to make an effort to look after my health. We close at lunch on Fridays and my one treat is to spend an hour a week with a fitness trainer. We focus on diet and relaxation techniques.
How much daily screen time do you advise?
At home, we have strict guidelines. My children are teens so we say no screens until homework's done. We have family TV after supper. If necessary, I have no qualms about turning the internet off. At school, we teach IT in a number of ways. You won't find our children with heads down, looking at tablets. It's all very interactive and based around collaborative learning. Recently, some amazing new IT equipment was purchased from money the parents raised.
And how long for bedtime reading?
Books and reading are at the heart of what we teach at the nursery. Making time for this every night is invaluable. The preschool children take home a book every day and we encourage the parents to read with them. We even invite parents in to read to the children at the nursery, bringing a favourite book from home.
Are you under pressure to be gender neutral?
Generally, we leave it to the parents. We're mindful to avoid children getting stereotypical ideas, but they can dress up how they like. Who they are is who they are.
Has being a teacher changed the way you parent your children?
Teaching teaches you about teamwork and problem solving. I'm probably more sensitive to their emotional well-being and more aware of their perspective. I communicate with them and try to remain the adult at all times. It's important to keep calm and be organised. Consistency is important and being a role model.
If you weren't doing this, what would be your dream job?
I love anthropology. I'm fascinated by museums and going to historical sites when on holiday, but I'm doing my dream job.
How do you relax?
It's important to focus on what matters. I love being with my family and friends. And reading. And I love walking Benji, our dog. He's become the nursery dog. Some parents told me their children were nervous around dogs, but everyone loves Benji.
Thank you, Bryony. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed Nov 2018