76. Happy Feet Pre-School
76.1. Short description
The Happy Feet Pre-school is a registered charity located in one of Dover town’s more underprivileged neighbourhoods. The pre-school is in a very deprived area and the surrounding area suffers from social and economic problems. There is a lot of unemployment, drug addiction, alcoholism and so on. Anti-social behaviour and vandalism are problem in the area.
The Happy Feet Pre-school is based at The Ark, a Christian church-run centre that hosts a number of different activities under one roof. For example, there are groups for mums and toddlers, health visitors, and appointments can be made with the local MP. They are on the same site as Tower Hamlets Children’s Centre. The pre-school supports children with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. The majority of staff have child care qualifications. The Ark generates some income by hiring out its facilities and by employing business practices. It is led by a committee and the core beliefs and values that underlie the approach of the service and its staff are Christian ones. It offers an approach to improving child development outcomes in a deprived neighbourhood by supporting whole families, delivered by a third sector faith organisation. As well as early years education, support is offered in: adult literacy, child protection, and help with any crisis.
In their own words: “We always go the extra mile, don’t get extra money, but to be working here you need to have a real passion for the children here and to support the families.” Happy Feet Pre-School has been formally inspection by government body OFSTED, although the wider family support it provides has not been formally evaluated (and would in any case be hard to measure)17.
76.2. The innovation
The innovative aspect of the pre-school is that the staff work to support the whole family and to form very strong professional working relationships with other agencies that may be involved in supporting the family. The pre-school is trusted by families who are wary of government-run or contracted services. The work of the pre-school is based on evidence about child development. It is now established that if by the time a child starts go to school they have not been adequately stimulated and had full learning opportunities there are parts of the brain that “shut off”.
76.3. Conceptions and ways of addressing users
A large part of the success of Happy Feet can be attributed to the way that the staff can work with the wider needs of the whole family in their social context. The involvement of the staff goes beyond child care and is at a personal level. For example, they actively help with the process of getting the children into the better surrounding primary schools, and other types of form-filling if the parents are not able to do this. The help given has even extended to activities such as helping a household to tidy junk from their garden. They do not want to just “tick a box” because they would see it as shallow.
The Happy Feet staff are often the professionals most aware of when families have support needs because the child is in their care for several hours a week. Staff may initiate interventions. Staff of other agencies, on the other hand, may only visit the family for relatively brief periods. Pre-school staff, on the other hand, know how the children behave, what they are like when they are dropped off, when they are picked up, what their lunch box looks like, and how they are presented.
The pre-school is trusted by families who are wary of government-run or contracted services. Happy Feet often find that social services’ support is not entirely helpful because they are not doing what they should be doing, or they are not seeing the bigger picture, and can advocate on behalf of a family.
76.4. Internal organisation and modes of working
Description of the setting
There are about 55 children aged from 2 years on the roll. Happy Feet is in receipt of funding for 2, 3 and 4 year olds. It is also registered on the compulsory and voluntary parts of the Child-care Register to look after children aged over 5 years. Children attend a variety of sessions each week. The pre-school opens 5 days a week term time (38-39 weeks of the year). Sessions are from 8.45 am to 12.00 pm on Mondays and Fridays, and from 8.45 am to 3.30 pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. There are 16 staff, including the manager, supervisor, an administrator, cover staff and parent helpers. The majority of staff have child care qualifications to at least level 2, and several have qualifications to levels 3 and 4 and above (i.e. degree level).
Happy Feet is different from neighbouring business-run nurseries. Others provide full day care and are part of a chain of businesses. Working class parents from a deprived area cannot afford to pay for that type of full day care. Whilst other nearby nurseries do provide spaces for 3 and 4 year olds on the government voucher scheme, they are tighter in what they offer. In consequence, a lot of parents prefer to come to Happy Feet. At Happy Feet some parents do pay for a few extra sessions, but the majority of the families stick to the funded sessions.
Motivations and purpose of the staff
The working culture at Happy Feet is influenced by Christian faith. Happy Feet is part of a church, although it is government funded and is inspected by OFSTED as other pre-schools are. In understanding the help that Happy Feet gives to the community it is important to appreciate that it is in essence a church. The managers are Christians. Whilst they exercise equal opportunities in employing people, it is at heart a faith community. One of the Ministers said:
part of our belief in God and the world is that we want God to be explained to people. We in this group of believers we believe that if you do it forcefully, people don’t listen and it’s not our style. So our style is to be amongst the community, whether it’s the pre-school, whether it’s the coffee morning, whether it’s business hire. So … the whole way we run is about meshing with the community, we would use a bible phrase like trying to be salt and light. So the pre-school is a department of the church, just as we have a youth department and another department. So in our thinking the whole time is just about working in that way.
The Ark has different groups where people come, and a lot of its root energy is about making stepping stones that lead towards God. It is not about “bible bashing”, but there is a motivation about touching a community. Many times people enjoy the pre-school and they have no idea it is connected to a church.
Skills of the staff
The personal qualities of the staff are critical. The extra services are not just an overflow of the pre-school but depend on who the Operations Manager is. She has invested her life into the pre-school: it is like a vocation for her,
And so part of our motivation and our belief in life is actually about linking and sharing with others, and so when Sharon talks about like helping parents it’s because she’s lovely and kind and skilful … it’s hard enough for Sharon running the pre-school, but when people ask questions about their primary school I’m really proud that parents have bothered to ask Sharon about that.
The organisational structure has been quite flexible according to the skills and ambitions that the Operations Manager has, and the skills and ambitions that the Business Manager has, because the organisation is able to be a bit malleable. The leadership structure is committee-led, and in that committee are five or six people. That committee is then answerable to the leadership team of the church but because of the number of people, and a shared interest, they are able to make sometimes quite big changes in a relatively short period of time. The pre-school is owned by the church and so all of the people on the committee are stakeholders in the church, for example Minsters, Vicars and attenders of the congregation. Their thinking is the pre-school is a very significant part of the church and needs to be managed by people who have an awareness of the church and the pre-school. Their business health is because they are able to make changes quickly. Part of their success is being able to respond to growth, e.g. new equipment has been bought.
76.5. Impact on the governance of local welfare system
Child care providers (including Happy Feet) are funded by the local authority to provide free places. In England, the government funds free part-time early education for children aged 3 or 4, and in some cases if they are aged 2. It is intended to prepare children for school. The places are available for 15 hours per week, for 38 weeks per year. The government has gradually been introducing free early education to some 2-year-olds based on the child’s circumstances or on the family income.
Last year Happy Feet decided that the pre-school was so successful that they wanted to expand it. It was doubled and used another room, which was a major decision because it meant it could not use that room for business hires. So, the pre-school has recently moved into two separate rooms for children at different stages of development because they felt the need. They were taking more and more very young 2 year olds who were more like 18 month olds in their development in the same room as children who go to school. The staff working with such a broad range of children found it hard to ensure that every child was catered for because the little ones are very needy, and the older ones do not have enough patience.
However, whilst the government made funding available for 2-year-old children, the support in making changes to provision to cater for such young children has not been in place. Consequently, Happy Feet had to set up the new room “off their own back” with its own money, and had to make its own adaptations. Whereas previously under the Labour government grants were available, such as one that was provided in 2010 for a sum of 25,000 pounds sterling to completely recreate the outside play area, there is no such money available at the moment. Instead, Sure Start paid for Happy Feet to join an organisation called Treasure Chest for a year and this enabled them to borrow a lot of equipment and furniture for the new room. Happy Feet will have to apply for a grant for furniture at the end of the year.
Further, funding for staff to professionally develop themselves has been cut too, so staff will have to fund more themselves.
Because of the current economic environment for public services, the Council does not have resources for new, non-statutory, services. There is little local government involvement other than funding available to all child care settings. Happy Feet is an initiative by a local faith community, and such initiatives are generally being encouraged by the national government. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has urged faith groups to make use of new powers in the government’s Localism Bill to strengthen their arm in playing an active and visible role in society18. He is committed to giving faith groups new freedoms to act in their communities, including the running of public services. Happy Feet is a good example of the expertise and enthusiasm that can be found in this sector, which has inspired his approach.
Working with other agencies
Happy Feet also benefits from being in a building next to a Sure Start Children’s Centre. Happy Feet work closely with council services, such as the Sure Start Children’s Centre, and VCS organisations such as Home Start. They feel this is necessary because they have moved away from just providing child education. They are working on the principle that in order to support the child you actually have to do things to support the families:
it’s very helpful having Sure Start and Home Start here, which I find more beneficial than maybe other pre-schools that don’t have them right on their doorstep. Often I can walk straight out of my office straight into another office, make a referral straight away and by the end of that day it’s gone off and within a week that person has contacted the parent and they’ve managed to get help with the rent arrears on their housing and something sorted out for them.
The Happy Feet staff attend a lot of social services meetings involving statutory agencies because there are several children known to social services, three children in local authority care, several children with additional speech and language support needs, and children with disabilities including a blind child and a deaf child. However, social workers are overloaded, which can make it hard to have a productive relationship with the statutory social services.