Harpenden Children's Centres | Children's centre group inspection | March 2014
One reason why Harpenden Children's Centres landed an outstanding from Ofsted stands out: it almost eradicates the educational gap between children by the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage.
Manager Pat Everett says the way the group uses its on-site nursery and day care services is key: "We identify all the eligible two-year-olds and try to encourage the most vulnerable to come to our group here at the centre."
Those who do go to the centre get to attend dedicated sessions for two-year-olds that are run by the group and its on-site day care service Skylarks. "The sessions are one of the jewels in our crown," says Everett. "Because we have real specialists there and it's on site, we can work with parents and monitor children's progress so that they get a stellar start. Those children then progress through the on-site day care and nursery, which are also outstanding."
The result is the centre works with these children from pregnancy right through to school. "It's that continuity of high-quality provision - those children receive a five-star education for those first years."
The group's close links with local early years providers is also crucial. "We have an exceptionally strong network with our early years providers," says Everett.
"We have 19 early years providers and we offer them free training and network with them regularly. One of my providers was recently saying that the biggest thing that has changed, since there has been a children's centre, is that where all the providers used to see each other as competitors, they share good practice now."
The free training complements that offered by Hertfordshire County Council, she adds. "If they do training with the county, they go somewhere remote and with people from lots of other places. But here they train as a cohort that knows each other and that brings its own advantages."
The centres' About Boys course is also helping to close the gap. The accredited course helps parents understand how to motivate boys and exemplifies the philosophy behind all the group's programmes.
"A lot of the well-known outcomes-based programmes are traditionally about 10 or 12 weeks long and the parents you want to get on them are the parents who are least likely to engage," says Everett.
Harpenden keeps its courses short. About Boys lasts four weeks. "If it's a short course, you are far more likely to get those parents on it and to complete it. The courses are a stepping-stone to more input for families that need it, but the shorter courses get that first engagement."
Harpenden also has a pay-if-you-want approach to its courses that reduces costs without excluding those who cannot pay and securing attendance. "People used to book and then not turn up, so we decided to ask for a deposit, usually a cheque that we don't bank," says Everett.
At the end of the course, the deposit is returned in an envelope, which contains a slip asking them to confirm whether or not they took back the money. The parents then return the signed slip with or without the cheque in the envelope, so nobody knows who has paid and who hasn't.
Everett says most parents who can pay do. "When we explain how we work, our parents are only too willing to pitch in financially because they know the money then supports our work with the other families."
Name: Harpenden Children's Centres
Location: Harpenden, Hertfordshire
Description: Harpenden Children's Centres consists of two centres that are run as a single entity. The first centre opened in 2008 and is the main hub for the group. Its facilities are shared with Batford Nursery and Skylarks Day Care. The second, opened in 2010, is in a building used predominately by health visitors to the south of the town. Harpenden is an affluent town with below average unemployment and reliance on benefits.
Number of children: Around 2,300 under five years old
Ofsted inspection reference number: 80289
Concentrate on what works locally. "I've always resisted the urge to look at what other children's centres are doing and think 'Gosh, I ought to be doing that' because one size does not fit all," says Pat Everett, manager of Harpenden Children's Centres.
Volunteers help. Harpenden Children's Centres has a relatively small staff team and that is down to the support of its volunteers. "We have strong volunteers, some of whom work for us two days a week, so that stretches the budget a bit further," she says. "A good number are younger people who want to enter professions such as midwifery and come to us for a year to get experience and have something to put on their CV."
Show you care ... with lunch. When the centre runs lunchtime training sessions for early years providers, it also lays on food. "It does cost us, but it shows that you value early years workers," says Everett.
Tell Ofsted what you do and why. "Justify what you do and why you do it, and justify why you don't do what you don't do," says Everett. "Take the lead. You know your area and you need to show you are making a positive difference."