In September 2011, Woodlands Children’s Centre in South Croydon received an outstanding grading from Ofsted. In this article, the Centre Manager, Liz Hodgman, explores some of the reasons why she feels they were able to achieve this.

Introduction

Woodlands Children’s Centre was designated in March 2008 and officially opened in its building (part refurbishment/part new build) in September 2008. We offer a wide range of services and a free crèche to enable parents to access courses and services. We use the Early Years Foundation Stage, following the Welfare requirements and using the six areas of learning and development to guide our work in the crèche.

Nearly everyone who visits Woodlands Children’s Centre talks of the very special atmosphere there, feeling safe, relaxed, welcome, valued and cared for. The Inspector wrote that “all users comment on the warm and welcoming environment which helps to create a calm, harmonious atmosphere that benefits all users“.

This atmosphere is created by having a very committed, professional and passionate staff team who have a “can-do” attitude and continually strive to improve on the quality of service they provide, reflecting on their practice and a desire to make a real difference.

Sharing the vision

From the beginning we have been very clear what our aims are for the Centre and have shared our vision for the future, for the Centre and our families. We developed them as a staff team, involving parents and other professionals and then published them, both on displays around the Centre and in our publications. We also include them at the beginning of our annual Self- evaluation Form for Ofsted. We regularly review them and we are always clear about what our priority goals are. The Inspector commented in the opening of her report that “this outstanding children’s centre fully realises its aim to support local families to achieve better outcomes and to provide a positive and fun environment where children and their families can learn and develop together”.

Valuing staff

In order for the staff to be outstanding in their work they need to know that they are valued. We were a whole new staff when we opened and we worked hard to develop as a team. We had teambuilding sessions and staff meetings to help establish relationships within the core staff team and the extended team of professionals from other organisations who worked with us.

I spent time learning about my staff team, what were their strengths and areas that needed to be improved on. We discussed what areas staff particularly enjoyed working in and how we could further develop their expertise. I provided opportunities for staff to attend training courses to support their development across a wide range of knowledge and skills, for example ICT and Baby Massage. I also offered staff opportunities to undertake qualifications such as a Foundation Degree or NVQs. We sourced funding for qualifications and study leave so that staff were not under pressure to cover for each other. We purchased books and resources and developed a mini- reference library which was available to parents and other professionals.

We have created a real life-long learning culture within the Centre, for children, parents and staff. We ensure that all achievements are celebrated and hold an annual graduation event, where the children starting in reception in the September are graduated, wearing small gowns and caps, through to the parents and staff who have obtained accredited qualifications. This event has provided some real inspiration for parents and children.

Staff are encouraged to be reflective and reflexive in their practice. The Family Support Workers now keep a daily diary. This has enabled them to evaluate their practice and make on going improvements and adaptations. The Inspector wrote that “the inspirational and dynamic leadership is pivotal in driving improvement and promoting ambition so that staff are extremely reflective practitioners who are clearly focused on providing high-quality services”.

Staff feel confident to make suggestions on ideas for new services and provision, knowing their ideas will be valued and implemented if possible. For example, a junior member of the team had identified an increasing number of families were attending with children who were twins, triplets or quads. She was keen to establish a support group for our multiple birth families. We talked through her ideas and I suggested that she lead the project. I funded her to undertake a Cache Level four qualification in Managing People as this was her first time in a leadership role. I gave her time to research setting up the group and to develop resources, for example, joining TAMBA.

We have an open-door policy within the Centre and this applies to families and staff. This has helped to break down barriers and ensure that our more vulnerable families are able to access immediate support when needed, without having to make an appointment. For staff I offer supervision whenever required. Practitioners working in health and social services have had access to supervision for years, however it is still a relatively new concept within the Early Years sector. Staff are able to discuss concerns they may have around a child or family, look at how they have handled the situation and what other options are available to them moving forward. Supervision ensures that staff are working safely and offering a quality service to the families.

Positive attitudes

We have created a really positive attitude within the Centre. Staff and leaders are always willing to go beyond what is required to provide a high-quality service. The “can-do” attitude is followed by all staff. When challenges are faced we look at what can we do as a team to enable us to achieve our desired outcomes. We are aware of the change process and how this can impact on moral and a team. Staff embrace changes, looking at them as opportunities to develop and improve on practice rather than negatively.

Volunteers

There is a strong volunteer ethos within the Centre and we have developed a large team of volunteers who work with us in a variety of roles. This has enabled us to extend the services that we have been able to offer, for example Book Buddies, which is part of the Literacy Trusts project with the London Mayor to support the development of literacy in young children. Having volunteers has also enabled more junior staff to take on supervision roles and to develop their own leadership skills.

Communication

Communication is key in all organisations. We work hard to ensure that we communicate together as a staff team and that we communicate with our partner organisations and families. We use a variety of different media as we are aware that everyone has preferred methods. We use face-to-face, in person at the Centre and at home visits, telephone, texting (very effective when needing to send out reminders for events, etc) letters, e-mails and our website. We also use Facebook which has proved to be very effective. We can quickly communicate with everyone who is our “friend” in seconds at no cost. More and more people now have the Internet on their mobile phones and social networking is very popular with our target age groups.

We have done a lot of work in training the staff team in the skills required in active listening. Two of the Family Support Workers have completed the “Family Partnership Model” and all the staff, including the Centre’s receptionist, have recently completed the One Plus One training on Supporting Families, “Brief Encounters”. This means that all staff are highly skilled in communication and are able to manage what can sometimes be difficult conversations.

Our listening also involves the children. We use the resources from the National Children’s Bureau “Let’s Listen” available to download for free and have purchased the books based on the “Mosaic approach” to support our work. All staff are skilled in listening to children and we regularly discuss how their ideas can be implemented. For example, the receptionist noted that the pre-school aged children wanted to “sign in” like their parents did, when they arrived at the Centre. We discussed how we could develop this and set up a low-level table in the reception area. We used some out-of-date, large (A3) desk calendar pads that had been donated and added a pen on a chain, just like at the reception desk. We put up some posters explaining to parents that we were encouraging the children to “sign in” and some information on the importance of early mark-making. We took photographs (with parents’ permission) of children using the pen and pad and displayed these alongside the poster. We listened to the children and acted on their voice.

Beyond outstanding

We had worked tirelessly as a team to achieve the “Outstanding” grading from Ofsted. I was concerned that, once we achieved this, would we be able to sustain our motivation, knowing we would be unlikely to be re-inspected for several years? I worried unnecessarily; within days we had developed a new action plan for the Centre with a strap line of “beyond outstanding”. We wanted to improve on the areas that Ofsted had highlighted within our report (data gathering) and we also wanted to further develop projects, especially around our work with dads.

We had also not realised that by gaining an “Outstanding” grading it would generate greater interest in the Centre. We have received an increasing number of people offering to volunteer to work with us and the National College of School Leaders (NCSL) have used us as part of a research project on Centre Leadership to further develop the National Professional Qualification in Integrated Centre Leadership (NPQICL) and to inform the Government on proposals for the new Core Purpose for Centres.

Last reviewed 13 January 2012