An exclusive interview with Laura McCole, headmistress of Toddlers Inn Nursery School
Mums In The Wood met with Laura McCole, the headteacher of Toddlers Inn Nursery on 29 November 2016. She was warm and kind and keen to share her vision and enthusiasm for the nursery and watching her pupils grow and develop. The nursery was started by her mother and she has kept it a family concern. She and her son are running it together and has kept it small. The staff are warm and kind and the children all seemed happy and content.
Toddler’s Inn will soon be celebrating 50 years. What do you feel the nursery offers parents that sets it apart from the growing number of nurseries, nursery schools and Montessori’s that have opened in the locality around St John’s Wood?
Toddlers Inn has been around for a very long time and I have always felt it to be very much a family business which has created a sense of a family environment for our parents and children. I have tried to ensure that we are not seen as just a nursery business, but rather a part of the local community.
Given the extraordinary competition even very young children are now faced with when applying to enter the independent sector, what aspects of a child do you focus on most when a child first arrives at the nursery and how do you prepare children to face the 3+ and 4+ assessments when the time comes?
Yes, the competition for school places has become onerous and it is something that I have always found difficult to advocate. When Toddlers Inn first started, applying for places at the local private sector schools was not something that appeared to be an issue and as a nursery our aim is to ensure that children were being educated in an all-round manner, hence the birth of our Holistic Development Program. Our Holistic Development Programme is about building life skills for children to grow into confident individual leaders. It became quite important for me to see the children as individuals in our early days and not as a product that needed to be moulded into a model student, having been tutored in Reading, Writing and Mathematics.
I have always made it known to interested parents that Toddlers Inn does not prepare Children in the traditional sense for the 3+ 4+ assessments, but rather observe their child to ensure that all life skills are in place, whether it is being able to understand fractions or being able to co-ordinate their actions whilst playing with a ball. The proof of our theory came not in the guise of how many children had got into their chosen school, but later when Parents would return to tell me how well rounded their Children had turned out, they believed it to be the input they had received at Toddlers Inn. Needless to say many Children that have attended Toddlers Inn have indeed gone on to be very successful in their academic lives.
I now believe that our local schools do not just look for Children tutored in a traditional sense, but children that have enthusiasm and interest in the world and are willing learners, children that have a willingness to learn for themselves and look to their Teachers for guidance in that learning.
Toddler’s Inn is clearly a highly-regarded nursery. What is the ethos of your school and how do you structure the curriculum to ensure you best achieve your goals?
As above our ethos is all about observing individual Children to ensure they become well rounded people who can go out into the big world with confidence and self-esteem who can consider themselves as one of the team but at the same time having the skills as a leader. Having confidence in understanding what is expected of them in our society, knowing how to engage with their environment and its contents.
Our curriculum supports our ethos as we offer a range of classes to expose our children to different experiences. We include subjects such as; drama, languages and sports.
Our curriculum is led by qualified Practitioners, who we call our Teachers. We call them Teachers to emulate the level of respect and responsibility they hold.
The classes are set with age ranges of 6 months:
2 – 2.6 years
2.6 – 3 years
3 – 3.6 years
3.6 – 4+ years
Only our top class is set out in a year group as this is to help and support Children to make the transition onto school. This helps prepare them for the new environment they will be moving into. Having such a short age span in each class supports the Children with interacting at the same level as their peers in their group.
How long is the settling in process and how do you handle the initial separation if a child is anxious?
Our settling in process is over a two-week period. Within the two weeks we ask parents to bring their Child in every day. The first, second and third day we ask parents to stay with their child for one hour for them to get to know the setting. By the fourth day children should have familiarised themselves with the nursery and it is now that we are able to observe if a child is comfortable enough to be left for approximately 10 to 15 minutes, at the end of the hour session. Thereafter the hour session is extended and children left appropriately until they are happy to do a whole session on their own.
Our settling in process is a process that has been developed over many years and does appear to work very well, with the majority of Children starting with us, settling well within the time scale of two weeks. However, we can extend this to ensure that the child and parents are happy. We always encourage new parents to be patient throughout this process.
What is the staff to children ratio?
Our Staff ratios to Children are set at the government regulations.
· One Teacher to four Children under the age of 3 years
· One Teacher to eight Children over the age of 3 years
From what I understand, most of the staff have been at the nursery for years. Do you take on temporary teachers and if so, what is the turnover like?
Our Teachers are paramount to our Toddlers Inn family and I’m proud to say they have been with us for a very long time. I personally like to have Teachers that are looking for long term teaching placements and I make every effort to support and offer training opportunities. I also believe that the way we have structured our nursery with classes and teachers rather than rooms and room leaders/practitioners offers a culture of respect amongst staff members and parents, as parents understand the value and impact our Teachers have on their child’s early learning and development.
We refrain from hiring temporary staff as we want to maintain consistency for our children, however, in extreme cases we may use Bank Staff.
Do you accept children with special needs and/or disabilities?
Yes, we do take on Children with disabilities and special needs, however we assess the children very carefully to ensure that our nursery is able to offer the best we can to ensure equality amongst all the Children. It would be unfair to say that a Child with a disability/special need could not join in an activity, what would this do to self esteem and confidence?
At a time when it seems that every nursery is heavily oversubscribed, how far in advance should a parent register a child in order to gain a coveted morning space? What criteria do you consider when offering places to parents?
The reputation of Toddlers Inn has grown immensely over the years and is shown in our waiting list. If parents are interested in a place with us, they should register with us as soon as they can. We try to be fair in our criteria and ask parents to complete a form to express an interest in a place at the nursery. These forms are then processed on a first come first basis, however places are offered by age group e.g. if we do not have a space in our 3-year-old class we would not be able to offer a 3-year-old a place in our 3.6 – 4+. Parents are asked to make an agreement for their child to attend for a minimum of one year.
Do you advise and help parents through the application process? If so what characteristics would you consider, when advising parents on which schools would best suit such young children?
The whole process for parents when applying to schools is a hard one and I believe they are told to put their Child’s name down for lots of schools, which makes the process even harder: they have to bear in mind the costs of registering and the number of assessments their child has to attend. Each school is different; different ethos, values and beliefs. Some are very strict on academia with lots of homework, others pastoral care is above and beyond other schools, but in saying all this every school wants to do the best for each and every one of their students.
My view is that each Child and every parent is different; therefore it is important for parents to ensure that they fully understand the culture their school choices will be offering their child and to them. It is therefore important to have the ability to observe a child and see what type of school would be best suited.
When choosing a school for your child parents should consider the following;
1. Does your Child thrive on being given choices?
2. Does your Child need outdoor time, sports etc to engage them in learning?
3. Is your Child encouraged by being with small groups of people to be heard?
The answer to these will help assess the type of environment your child will thrive in.
I am extremely proud that children from Toddlers Inn have been offered places at schools that are a good fit for them. It is testimony that our Holistic approach really supports their individual needs.
What are the future plans in store for the nursery? Would you consider expanding to accommodate more children or extend year groups?
We are really excited about the future for the nursery and have already had the opportunity to increase our capacity to offer more nursery places. Toddlers Inn and its sister nurseries Abacus Ark Nursery Schools are looking at various opportunities to continually enhance children’s experiences, whilst supporting parents too.
We have also extended our opening hours to 8.45am – 4pm to offer more convenience for our families.
The school is housed off Cochrane Street, behind secure gates. Although the school is small, it makes up for it in the love and care given by the staff. The nursery has an onsite kitchen and children are taken care of very well. The staff are very hands on and the children are very attached to their key workers. It was wonderful to see the interaction between the staff and the children. Laura is a very experienced head teacher and has been involved in the nursery her whole life. She firmly believes that improving and developing children’s cognitive and social skills takes precedence over the current trend of pushing towards academic excellence and achieves this very successfully with her children. All in all, a lovely, warm nursery with long standing caring staff and a place where children grow and develop at their own pace.