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Outdoor learning and forest schools are a huge part of Acorn Early Years Foundation nurseries run by Zoe Raven, who has taken children to the woods, unused to walking on uneven ground as they have only ever walked on pavements.
Ms Raven set up her first nursery in 1989, after being unable to find a suitable nursery for her daughter.
“I had had my first daughter and I was a teacher in a secondary school teaching English Literature. I wanted to teach part-time and so I started looking for a nursery for my daughter. But I didn’t like any of them. It was in the eighties when it was a lot easier to borrow money. We bought a Wesleyan Chapel and converted the downstairs into a nursery and lived upstairs.”
Her plan was to go back into teaching after 10 years but she quickly found the childcare sector fascinating and was particularly drawn to the staff development side of things.
Now over 20 years later, she has nine nurseries in Milton Keynes and the Northampton area.
“We never intended to have another nursery but then someone said to me that if I was thinking of opening another nursery, they knew of an ideal site – a primary school that had closed down.
“Some people invested in us as well so it started from there. It wasn’t a deliberate strategy to grow. Our first three nurseries were in old Victorian buildings. Then we were asked to tender for a nursery in a disadvantaged area and I found it extremely rewarding . We now have three nurseries in disadvantaged areas which is why we decided to go down the not-for-profit route.
“We found we had profitable nurseries funding the not so profitable ones and from the business point of view that was not sustainable but I thought why shouldn’t children in disadvantaged areas have the same quality of provision as children in more well off areas. It can work if the nursery is a small site and the school it is attached to is keen for you to be there and doesn’t charge extortionate rent. Any money we make is invested back into the nurseries.”
Ms Raven is a huge advocate of forest schools. “Some of our nurseries are in very urban areas and the children just get taken in the car to shopping centres and home again. We have found we take children to the woods and they are not used to walking on rough, uneven ground as they have only ever walked on pavements. We want all children to have that opportunity to walk in the woods and experience nature.”
She is determined to get children out playing in the natural environment as she says “children today often see the world through TV and computer screens and car windows. It is so easy to put them in front of computer screens”.
She also runs Tall Oaks Training, their brand name for training and forest schools, and now part of Acorn.
She says: “I went to visit one of our forest schools the other day and it was just brilliant. I believe children learn better in the natural environment.
“I was watching the children at this forest school slide down a muddy slope. It is very physical when they are doing outdoor learning and they are out in the fresh air. They learn about science and the effects of the weather. They build dens and they are allowed to get dirty. I often find they help each other when they are in the woods and they build strong friendships.
“I am blown away by the impact forest schools have, particularly for boys and boys who have challenging behaviour. Out in the woods, there are no arbitrary rules. They can see they shouldn’t touch the fire because if they do they will burn themselves. People say children will wander off but the children don’t want to. They want to feel secure and safe.
“We have fantastic forest school leaders and all of our staff have done an introduction to forest schools. We also have things like mud kitchens outside our nurseries where the children can get dirty.
“It is also great when I see the children out in the woods and they are so engaged and I really feel we are making a difference. We take the children to the woods all year round. In the winter if it is really cold we do limit the time they are outside. I feel it is important for the children to see the woods in all the different seasons as the woods look so different in the winter with no leaves and bare branches compared to the other seasons.”
All activities at the nurseries such as forest school and mini Zumba are included in the overall price. “We decided not to charge extra for anything as we don’t want to exclude any children. At their age, they should not have to miss out on something just because their parents can’t afford it. We are all about putting children before profit. So any decision we make is made with the children’s best interests at heart.”
Ms Raven’s biggest passion is staff development. “Training and development of staff is crucial and we try and recruit an Early Years Professional in each setting.
As part of the Government’s childcare reforms and in a bid to improve the status of the childcare profession, the Government has created two new roles – Early Years Educators and Early Years Teachers.
Ms Raven is not happy with the term Early Years Educators. “I don’t like the term Early Years Educators. Nursery nurse was an archaic term and we tend to call our staff early years practitioners but Early Years Educators implies that care is not included and it is all about education but we are very much about care.
“If you don’t get the care right and children don’t feel comfortable and secure then they are not going to learn. Education is not the be all and end all. I don’t think Early Years Educator is a broad enough term to describe what staff do.”
However she does like the term Early Years Teacher “as with Early Years Professionals not everyone understands what they are. But this makes clear they are graduates. But I do think it is a shame that they are not going to get Qualified Teacher Status. The requirements for Early Years Teachers and primary and secondary teachers are pretty much the same.
“I do wish that instead of all these new titles, they had focussed their energies more on sorting out Ofsted and funding. We need a properly funded sector so we can pay our staff better salaries. I am convinced the pay is one of the reasons we don’t have more men working in the sector.
“I am seething with the mess that Ofsted is making with things. I have been to two conferences this year and the topic everyone is talking about is Ofsted. It is the nurseries in the disadvantaged areas that do not have the resources and are more likely to be graded by the new grading ‘Requires improvement’. If these start to lose their funding because of their Ofsted grade, it will be a disaster. Nurseries that lose their free entitlement will be forced to close.”
Ms Raven also thinks the plan to get rid of early year advisors from the local authorities could be very damaging. “It is alright for the larger nursery chains but the smaller ones will struggle as these early years advisors give a lot of valuable support.”
Her plans for the future “will be to continue developing Acorn so we have the best nurseries in the area”.
What was your first job? I worked for my parents in their toy shop
What is your favourite book? Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy or Middlemarch by George Eliot
What is your favourite film? Our favourite family film is Addams Family Values
What is your favourite piece of music? 'Romeo and Juliet' by Sergei Prokofiev
What has been the best present you have received? A painting my daughter did of my four children
What was your last holiday? China to visit my daughter