What advice on early years quality would you offer?

The final blog post in the Earlyarts UnConference quality series is an engaging discussion with Head of Children's House Montessori Nursery, Nathan Archer.

Q. Is quality important when it comes to young children's creativity?

Obviously quality is absolutely paramount in terms of early years childhood services in general, and therefore quality is crucial to everything we do. We have always aimed for that high quality in learning which has meant working alongside professional artists and creative professionals. We are passionate about creative development but we are not necessarily all that equipped to bring some of the quality our artist friends can bring. Often arts projects are parachuted in for the short term, and we need to work more towards partnership and a shared language of quality. We now have an artist working with us for one day a week now, and we are growing in our learning and observing children's learning in different ways.


Q. How do we know what excellent quality practice looks like?

We don't, is the short answer. The qualitative / quantitative debate in itself brings a lot of challenges and more so in creative development. Building in time and space for reflection is very important more broadly, and is more important in a collaborative relationship with an artist in order to bring out the best in the early years practitioners and the artist. So reflection is paramount.

Levels of qualification are often used as in indicator of quality, but this isn't hugely relevant. The early years sector is fairly divided by settings in terms of public and private and therefore qualifications in settings are very different so it is very difficult to judge them all by the same measures. To apply only one model to the sector would be irrelevant as teacher training and nursery training doesn't necessarily prioritise creative practice with children or creative development with staff. Particularly in this climate where the emphasis is on literature and maths, it's important to make sure creativity is not sidelined.

Q. What ideas about quality practice did you take from the UnConference?

Networking was a very strong component and promoted in accordance with the UnConference concept. The idea of making connections and working collaboratively is absolutely paramount as a way forward and hopefully will feature highly in the upcoming Earlyarts Kitemark. With the early years field being so heavily regulated, the opportunities to network in that field are extremely limited due to resources and the limited time available in jobs that are based in contact time with children. Networking your learning together and making connections beyond your normal sphere is very important. For example at the UnConference I met a sculptor, a dancer in residence, an artist at the London Children's Museum and these are people I would not come into contact normally, if Earlyarts had not facilitated that.

Q. How will this change your practice?

On a really micro level the workshop 'Cabinets of Curiosity' was fantastic, I brought the whole exercise back in to my setting, so on a really practical level that was something great. The UnConference has also given me a bit more impetus to seek funding, go back to the Arts Council for grants for arts, increase relationships with artists, organise festivals for children's theatre. In essence, I have been re-energized. I'm in the private sector where there are lots of barriers to funding, but an advantage of being an Earlyarts member is being able to meet cross-sector professionals.


Q. What advice would you offer to other early years, arts and cultural professionals in developing quality in their work with young children?

In the words of EM Forster's epigraph to Howards End "only connect". The networking events offered by organisations such as Earlyarts provide excellent opportunities and are a key element of a drive to improving quality in work with young children. Creating the time and space for dialogue between artists and early years practitioners, and also the time to reflect and find a shared dialogue, is crucial to achieving quality. I would certainly advise making such connections both within your locale and beyond, deepening an understanding of the range of early childhood settings (including their pedagogy and working practices) and the various approaches of artists / cultural practitioners.

Nathan Archer was a delegate at the UnConference 2012 and Head of Children's House Montessori Nursery.