Why we are called a ‘nursery school’
Most early years establishments local to us refer to themselves as either a nursery or a preschool. Why have we used the designation nursery school which term is normally applied to the state maintained providers led by qualified teachers?
We must start with a very important negative point. The term preschool is quite unacceptable because it implies that what do is before the all-important work of the school. This plays into the hands of the school-readiness agenda of the present government, and also encourages the disparaging and belittling attitude of very many who see the activity of young children as mere play.
Early childhood education is not ‘pre’ school; it is school. It does not just come before something, but is something - it is what matters today for young children. It is school appropriate to them. There is secondary school, primary school and nursery school. Mr Noah’s is school for children up to five years. In deed we would argue that it is actually school appropriate for children as old as six.
To speak of ourselves as a school makes it quite clear that our task is not merely to provide care while parents work or do other things. We are committed to supporting the learning and development of little people. We do that by the provision an appropriate environment and by carefully nuanced interactions. Much attention is given to the next steps for a child and what will facilitate progress. Careful records are kept identifying learning dispositions as well as tracking achievements. This is not mere supervision of children in care but the support of children in education - age-appropriate education.
Friedrich Froebel, the pioneer of early education, called his schools kindergartens. The name was very deliberate and suggestive, meaning children’s garden. Those schools for little people were the places where children were nurtured and tended like seedlings. That designation was once popular; perhaps less so now in Britain. The nursery school also has a history, and our heritage is to be traced to the work of the McMillan sisters, Margaret and Rachel. Froebel trained, the McMillans gave opportunity to children to be outside in the fresh air, enjoying the woodland and the garden. They also paid great attention to the total wellbeing of the child, caring for the physical and spiritual health as well as other aspects of raising the young.
Times have changed. When Mr Noah's started twenty years ago many of our parents regarded our church connection as a great attraction; today it probably makes little difference to the majority, but for a few prospective parents the associations are suspicious. In consequence I am asked about it more and more.
People ask “How much religion is there?” “Can parents opt out of the Christian elements?” “Do you have to go to church to secure a place at Mr Noah’s?” Perhaps the answers will be apparent if we address the question “What is Christian about Mr Noah’s Nursery School?”
Christianity is nothing if it is not a way of life and that is therefore what predominantly constitutes a Christian school. We have whole school values by which we live in the nursery school family. Those values we explicitly identify in what we call the three Ls. They are (1) Loving one another, (2) gentle Living, and (3) Learning together. Of course, Christians do not have a monopoly on such things, but these values can be shown to arise from a Christian worldview.
All Western culture carries with it a heritage of Christian thinking and therefore it is no surprise that the great names in the history of early childhood education were Christians. For example, Friedrich Froebel is very explicit in his writings with references to the Holy Trinity and the life and teachings of Christ. Maria Montessori was a Roman Catholic. Christianity is the soil in which we have been grown. At Mr Noah's we continue to sing a grace which was used in the McMillan sisters’ original nursery schools in England:
Thank you for the world so sweet,
thank you for the food we eat;
thank you for the birds that sing,
thank you God for everything.
We also share the great stories of the Bible and the parables of Jesus. These are recounted using simple artefacts after the style of Godly Play, a model pioneered by a Montessori educator, Rev Jerome Berryman. The stories are recounted in the context of a liturgy that is understood by young children. A candle is lit and these words are said: “We have lit the candle and now we are going to be very quiet and we are going to think and feel about the One who is the light of the world.” The story telling is non-directive and children are encouraged to explore the stories for themselves (and, sometimes, the artefacts also). Usually instead of an announcement of the meaning or application of the story, there is an invitation to respond to it such as: “What do you think of the story? How do you feel about the story?”
Then we have four church services a year that are specifically intended for our little people and they celebrate harvest, Christmas, Mothering Sunday and the graduation of our children to primary and prep schools, respectively. These events are an opportunity for children to share the life of the nursery school with a wider and bigger audience. We encourage Noah’s families to support these lovely occasions but it is not required.
Lastly, in the spirit of Christian generosity the church hugely subsidises the work of the school by providing without charge the premises, and professional teaching services, as well as volunteer practical support.
‘Loving one another’ means concern and compassion, and it means respect for others who ever they may be. The love of Christ is not exclusive but inclusive. At the cross His arms are outstretched to welcome any who will come. Therefore we say that the nursery school is open to families of any colour, culture or conviction. Whoever wills may come. This openness is not contrary to Christianity but rather arises directly from the Christian message. One officer of the local authority who visited us commented, “The love is tangible.” That is as it should be.
In all this Mr Noah’s is unashamedly Christian. The Christianity it represents is founded on the Bible and the teachings of Jesus; its essence is a way of life that cannot be divided so as to opt out of parts, and it benefits from Christian generosity and love which few would care to refuse.