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Aliette Fenton Sharp and Carmen Rampersad opened The Spanish Nursery and Children’s Centre for Culture and Language in North London in January 2013.
The nursery is very warm and nurturing and it is a strong advocate for cuddling and appropriate touch.
“We do not have a no touch policy here. Cuddling is so important. I have been in settings where they have a no touch policy.
“I used to teach on an Early Years degree course and my students told me they were not even allowed to touch children’s hair,” reveals director Carmen Rampersad.
She is horrified by the no touch policy that some nurseries are adopting in the UK, which seems to be driven by fear that staff may be accused of sexual abuse.
Very young children deprived of emotional support
“Children need to know they can trust adults. We are harming our children by doing this as we are depriving very young children of emotional support,” she says.
“Small children need to learn that it is okay to be dependent on adults. What mechanisms will they have to deal with things when they are teenagers? I find it really sad. We do need to teach children skills so they can be independent but we don’t need to teach them to be emotionally independent at the age of three. Emotional wellbeing is so important.
“One of my students told me she was not allowed to touch the children’s hair at the nursery she was at, as stroking someone’s hair is seen as sexualised behaviour.
“I found while I was teaching, my students talked to me about a range of policies which deprive children of emotional warmth and appropriate responses to their wellbeing. Some (not all) nurseries practice a 'no touch' policy, some are not allowing children to sit on staff’s lap, some do not allow staff to touch children's hair because it is perceived as sexualised behaviour.”
She believes these practices provide a false sense of safety and are not conducive to children's emotional wellbeing. “There should be other systems in place to protect children - thorough safer recruitment processes, tight inductions and probation, reflective supervision and clear whistle blowing policies, where staff feel safe to raise concerns about practice within the setting.”
All the staff are qualified teachers
It has been a rollercoaster both financially and emotionally since they opened the nursery, partly because they are determined to put their principles at the heart of their business.
The nursery, which is very near Highgate, prides itself on all its staff being qualified teachers making them more expensive to employ, than having less well qualified staff.
“What makes our nursery unique is the level of experience. When we interview, we ask them to do a written exercise as the level of literacy is important,” says Ms Fenton Sharp.
A chef is employed by the nursery, who cooks freshly made meals for the children and after lunch, all the children are expected to brush their teeth and then have a sleep or a quiet rest period.
“We feel it is really important to give the children freshly cooked food. Good nutrition and sitting around a table eating together is a very important part of a child’s development.
Each child has a toothbrush at the nursery
“We are also very proactive about dental hygiene. Every child has a toothbrush at the nursery and we make sure they all brush their teeth after lunchtime, ” says Ms Rampersad.
After the children have brushed their teeth, they have rest time. Those who want to, have a sleep as they each have their own cot beds in the nursery. The older ones listen to classical music and can lie down and cuddle a toy or look at a book. “Children need to rest and have quiet time. It is important to rest their minds and bodies and to appreciate being calm and relaxed.”
The enterprising pair decided to open the nursery, which offers bilingual education, back in 2011, as the former nursery on that site was closing. The Spanish Sisters of Charity, who had been running the nursery for over 45 years, told parents of children at the nursery that it was going to close. All the sisters were being called back to Spain because of the economic crisis.
Co-director Aliette Fenton Sharp reveals: “They told us they were going to close it in a year’s time as the situation in Spain had got so bad, all the nuns were being recalled to help in Spain.
“Carmen and I ran a campaign to try and get them to stay but it was no use. The sisters left so Carmen and I decided to run it ourselves. We had young children at the nursery at the time and we wanted to do it for our children so they could have continuity.”
Ms Rampersad is a qualified teacher and her background is in child protection and Ms Fenton Sharp has 20 years’ experience of opening companies. “But neither of us had been in this kind of situation before. We had never worked in childcare with all its regulations.”
She admits there have been “some very daunting moments” and says: “It has been very scary financially. We didn’t get our Ofsted registration until October 2012 and we opened in January 2013. We started off with four children. We closed in August for the summer holidays and we opened again in September with 19 children so we are really pleased.”
All of a sudden they start speaking Spanish
“We have seen how the children have grown and developed since coming to the nursery which is really good. I love running the nursery. Children are like sponges and they take in everything. They come in at the age of two and all of a sudden they are speaking to you in Spanish.”
Most of the children who come to the nursery speak another language. They currently have children from 22 countries at the nursery. Some have got a background in Spanish but some haven’t.
The past couple of years have seen big changes in the early years sector by the Government and Ofsted. “Some of these have been good, says Ms Rampersad. “We welcome high frequency of inspections for settings that have been found poor and inadequate. But I would like to see more support being made available for these settings.
External scrutiny is the best way to improve practice
“Educational settings should welcome external scrutiny. We don't always naturally welcome it because it takes us out of our comfort zone and it exposes us but it's the best way to improve our practice. The question is: what support is available (it's not Ofsted's role to support) and the other issue is that inspections should not be an exercise of power. It should not leave people de-motivated because such people cannot provide the best for our kids.
“Staff should not feel intimidated and demoralised after Ofsted has inspected. I think it is a two way process.”
Childcare has become a flagship policy for the main political parties, with education minister Liz Truss keen on getting school nurseries to offer affordable, flexible childcare.
However Ms Rampersad is concerned that the valuable and important role of families is being superseded by the quest to provide affordable, flexible childcare.
Government needs to place more importance on role of family
“We would like to see the Government placing more importance on the role of the family. The Government is pushing for nurseries to offer more wraparound care from 6am till 6pm but I believe this is damaging for the child.
“Parents and children need to be with each other and share experiences. If children are in nursery till 6pm, the parents will pick them up, feed them and then put them to bed. They hardly see them. The Government needs to do more to promote the relationship between children and parents. The Government looks at this relationship as a partnership, when it is a bond, a crucial relationship which needs nurturing, supported and protected.
“Flexibility for parents is good but we need to think how we balance this with family life.”
As for the future of the Spanish Nursery, “we have just signed a partnership with Erasmus in Spain so they will be sending us two students a year. Over the next couple of years, we want to build on the nursery and help it grow. We want to continue offering the family feel we have created. We are very proud of our nursery,” says Ms Fenton Sharp.
More on nurseries adopting no touch policies and banning kissing and cuddling in nurseries can be found at www.daynurseries.co.uk/news/article.cfm/id/1560390/nurseries-adopt-no-kissing-policy-to-protect-staff-from-being-accused-of-abuse