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Childcare in Shetland wins inspectors’ praise

by Alastair Hamilton -

Two recent reports from Scotland’s Care Inspectorate have praised the quality of childcare available in the islands; and for anyone contemplating a move to the islands, there are opportunities to work in the field.

Hame Fae Hame, Scalloway

Scalloway is known as Shetland’s ancient capital. Today, it’s an important fishing port – a new fish market has just been completed – and there’s employment, too, in marine engineering, aquaculture and the NAFC Marine Centre, a college that’s part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

As my colleague Mark Burgess explained in a recent blog, the privately-run Hame Fae Hame was established in the village in 2008 and has developed a very strong local reputation over the years. Its accommodation is excellent, occupying a part of the village school that was formerly used by the Shetland Islands Council for nursery and primary 1 children. Two main playrooms are available, along with a sleep room, kitchen and outdoor play area.

The inspection was completed in January 2020 and you can find the full report here. It’s clear that the inspector and parents were impressed by the service on offer.

Parents were reported to be “very happy” with the care provided. One told the inspector:

"Hame fae Hame is a superb facility. Their flexibility and understanding helps me with work but more importantly they take great care of my child, the facilities are first class and they truly accommodate to your child's needs i.e. keeping them in a routine with naps etc. The staff are so friendly and helpful and made me feel so at ease when I first put my child there. They do a fantastic job! I can't speak highly enough of Hame fae Hame".

The inspection report assessed both the quality of care and support and the quality of management and leadership as “very good”. It describes “a welcoming and caring environment where they are nurtured by the friendly, caring staff…we saw happy, smiling faces and ‘busy’ children enjoying their play.” Staff were “very good role models” and “treated all children fairly”, listening to their news and stories and joining in play.

The report also notes that planning of care was child-led, a key worker being responsible for observing the child’s learning and development and deciding how best to support him or her to achieve their potential. Communication was “very good”, making use of an app which parents could log into, linked to a system that holds all the necessary information about each child. There was praise, too, for teamwork; for the positive staff development work that was going on; and for the effective safeguarding procedures.

a welcoming and caring environment

Kaye is active nationally in the drive to improve support for childcare. Appointed as a member of the Parliamentary Review, she has contributed an article on her experience and a more recent report refers to her plea for a national funding framework for childcare to complement upskilling in the sector and the increase in available provision. She’s also a strong advocate for flexibility in provision. There have been visits from “quite a few politicians”, including Deputy First Minister John Swinney (pictured at the top of this article) and Maree Todd, Minister for Childcare and Early Years, pictured below with Kaye.

When they’ve visited, “I’ve always gone on and on about how important it is to have flexibility in childcare. Not everybody has a Council job and works 9 -3 every day, which is what the extended hours are. If you want to encourage the self-employed, and the entrepreneurs, they might get a lot of work for one week, then might have nothing for weeks, and they’re still tied in. With standard childcare, they’re not going to be able to do it.” The same arguments apply to shift workers.

However, she also emphasises the value of the extended family. “I think in Shetland we’re very lucky because folk have extended family, and I like the idea of bairns spending time with their extended family. So, if we can be the wraparound, if we can pick up the bits of care that are unwrapped, I actually really like that idea.”

She’s totally committed to meeting the challenges that flexible care involves. Sometimes, she acknowledges, it can be “an absolute nightmare, staffing-wise, because some days you might be expecting a lot more bairns than you have, and you’re over-staffed; and on other days you might be frantically phoning round to see if you can get in some of your reliefs. But I still feel quite passionate that it’s the way to go.”

Reflecting on the inspection, Kaye recalls that it took place on a particularly stormy day. Indeed, the inspector notes that “we did not observe outdoor play due to the very severe weather conditions”. One consequence of that was that – with no ferry arriving that morning – they’d been unable to provide the fresh salads that are normally offered, and Kaye does feel that the inspector – who was concerned about carbohydrate content - would have had a much more accurate impression of typical meals without that constraint.

Kaye is full of praise for the relationship she has with Shetland Islands Council. “Although I’m private, I’ve always worked really closely with the Council. They’re trying their best to support me through this; they’ve been really good”. However, looking at childcare across Shetland, she feels that there’s a potential opportunity for anyone thinking of moving to the islands.

“We desperately need more childminders, especially in the outlying areas. If there was somebody down south who was thinking to relocate here, that might have been a possible career that they would want to pursue. There’s a definite gap for that.”

Cunningsburgh Nursery Class

The latest report for the Cunningsburgh primary school and its nursery class praises the “significant” progress that’s been made since the previous inspection in 2018, when a number of improvements were suggested.

Cunningsburgh is an attractively-sited, scattered community in the south mainland of Shetland. Much of the land is agricultural but there’s some inshore fishing, too, and many residents commute to Lerwick, less than fifteen minutes’ drive to the north.

The inspector says that, since the last inspection, both the building itself and the approach to children’s learning have been enhanced. The nursery is available for longer each day and there is a “clear focus on improving outcomes for children and realising the shared vision for Cunningsburgh Early Years.”

The support of Shetland Islands Council has been important and very much valued by the staff, who have “benefitted from a range of high-quality professional learning.” That has led to deeper knowledge and confidence, with a “revitalised” approach to early learning and childcare that reflects current thinking and practice. So much so, in fact, that the school’s staff have shared their good practice with other local schools; the inspector goes farther, saying that the school’s “response to the initial inspection, and the development of the learning environment, are worthy of sharing more widely”.

The nursery and school have developed a more reflective approach to practice and self-evaluation and they have a focus on tracking progress in literacy and numeracy. Pupils are involved through a Pupil Council and indeed have developed their own improvement plan.

The expectations and ambition of the school and nursery are said to have increased and staff have been ingenious in the use of resources. The report says:

“As a result, the nursery is now a more stimulating environment, with innovative resources and furniture pieces that are interesting and provide challenge to children. Practitioners have creatively sourced these from across the islands and beyond, many reflecting the history and heritage of the Shetland Islands.

“The ‘outdoor room’ facilitates new, challenging block play and real-life experiences, such as woodwork. The creation of this space allows for ‘outdoor’ play in even the most challenging Shetland weather. The inviting and stimulating art and craft space allows children opportunities to create, experiment, explore and investigate, following their own interests.

“The quiet ‘living’ room provides an attractive and homely space for children to reflect and chat. Here they can explore books, digital technologies and challenge their thinking with games and puzzles. This area is particularly effective in reassuring and settling children newer to the nursery.”

The inspector concludes that the school has made very good progress and “has the capacity to continue to improve”. Some of the practice, she says, should be shared more widely.

Head Teacher, Wilma Sineath, told me that she and her colleagues had been “absolutely delighted” by the inspector’s findings.

Wilma explained that, following the last inspection, the school embarked on a new approach, embracing a “more child-centred, less adult-led approach, so that the children were really leading the learning and the adults were supporting them and facilitating that. It meant that we had to look at every aspect of what we were doing. The first thing you do when you try to improve is you go and look at what’s happening elsewhere.”

So that’s what the Cunningsburgh team did, paying particular attention to settings in Scotland where they had had “glowing” inspection reports, doing lots of professional reading, participating in webinars and so on. “It was a really busy time for us all, but we were really committed”.

“The challenge for us was taking our parents with us, because they loved the nursery as it was. We got the parents in to learn along with the children and to join in the activities and, bit by bit, it became clear to them why the changes were needed. We’ve a fantastically supportive parent group".

When the inspector returned, the school had been extended, so the setting did look different, “but she could see how much the practice had moved on, and she was so complimentary!” The inspector had been especially impressed by the way in which the school had taken on the challenges positively. “She said that what we had achieved here was ‘transformational change’”.

Wilma has high praise for the ‘brilliant’ support from Shetland Islands Council’s staff, who laid on very high-quality training courses, checked progress and provided lots of encouragement. Their Quality Improvement Officer, Samantha Flaws, had been with them “every step of the way”.

The school has given permission for their work to be used as a case study to be used in Education Scotland’s annual report, where they comment on highlights of the year. The school may also be making a presentation at the Scottish Learning Festival, due to be held in September.

Recently, services in Shetland have had to adapt rapidly to the emerging Covis-19 emergency. Almost all schools closed in Shetland a week earlier than those in the rest of the UK and the Council, working with private providers, immediately prioritised the children of frontline staff in the NHS, social care and emergency services. Places were made available to those parents who had exhausted all other childcare options, and there was a promise of additional support for any child requiring it.

The Cunningsburgh school is doing its best to maintain a good service in the face of the current challenges, using a communications app to upload work. Staff are volunteering to take part in the emergency childcare arrangements and children are sharing their pictures and writing on line – but, Wilma says, “we’re really missing the kids!”

It’s clear, though, that once the current emergency is over, the islands’ providers will be well placed to resume the role they’ve previously played in offering an excellent range of provision for our children’s early years.

Posted in: Community

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