Researchers from the University spoke to parents and carers of children at the Meadows Nursery, a community not-for profit setting which opened in Shirecliffe, an area of socio-econimic challenge in Sheffield, in April 2021.
The Meadows Nursery was established though a unique partnership between Sheffield Hallam University, Save the Children UK, Watercliffe Meadow School and Sheffield City Council to offer places to pre-school children entitled to 15 hours of free early learning.
Save the Children provided additional funding for those places to become available from a child’s second birthday, a term earlier than government funding, to provide additional time in nursery for children and families most in need.
The Nursery also established a free breakfast club for parents to come together to have a nutritious breakfast, build friendships with other parents and access support services.
Through in-depth interviews with families, researchers found that having a community-based nursery not only supported children’s physical and social development, which has been severely impacted by the pandemic, but also helped to reduce anxiety.
It also improved wider family mental health and wellbeing, helped parents get back into work or training, and helped them to establish peer friendships.
*Brittany, whose three-year-old daughter Alayiah attends the nursery, has been able to volunteer for a homeless charity and take on paid work as a research assistant.
She said: “I was nervous about leaving Alayiah because she’s not left my side through Covid. She was quite a clingy baby but when I came for the induction day at the nursery, she just started playing.
“I think it’s good Alayiah’s been in nursery from age two. I also feel it’s been the making of me, this start, getting my job and volunteering, I feel like it’s really pushed me to want a better future and to want to work and want to get my life in order.”
*Lina came to Sheffield from Yemen five years ago. She has two boys, both at the nursery which has enabled her to go to college to train as a teaching assistant.
She said: "I come from a different country so I had no friends, no relatives around me at the start. Adam is a shy boy and when he started nursery he couldn't speak one word even though he was two-years-old. Then there was a 180 degree change. He's started to express himself, have his own opinion. English is not my first language but now Adam can speak two languages fully in sentences. I am over the moon to see the changes in him.
“Everyone supports me at the nursery. It makes me feel like I am with my family, when you achieve something, they cheer you on. You don’t feel lonely. It was a massive change in my life to come here, language and culture, and I was like a new baby in this country, you have to learn everything from A to Z. So when you’re around such kind people and at the nursery, it’s a good chance to make your life better. It’s been a bright light for me.”
Researchers are now calling on Government to increase funding for the early years sector to enable nurseries to recruit and retain well-qualified staff and provide support for families and carers as well as children.
The study recommends increasing access to high-quality, adequately funded early learning programs starting from a child’s second birthday. It also advises adopting trauma-informed practices that build supportive relationships between practitioners and families.
Professor Sally Pearse, Strategic Lead for Early Years at Sheffield Hallam University and co-author of the study, said: "The current focus on ‘childcare’ to enable parents to work does not recognise the transformative role that nurseries can have to support parents and carers to gain confidence, support their children’s education and become economically active. The proposed reforms from next year benefit working families on higher incomes but do not support the most socially and economically disadvantaged to realise their potential.
“This project demonstrates how additional funding in areas of disadvantage can enable settings to help families transform their lives. These changes will improve outcomes for adults and children and remove the need for some families to access higher tier and more expensive services in the long run.”
Rachel Parkin, Head of North of England at Save the Children, said: “This project shows the impact that nurseries can have on whole families, supporting children’s development, and enabling parents and carers to transform their own and their families’ lives. This is done through relationships and trust between parents and professionals, as well as the high-quality of early years provision for the children benefitting directly from the nursery provision. Children and families growing up in areas of disadvantage have so much potential, and key ways of unlocking this are through greater access to quality early years provision, and community nurseries being enabled to address holistic needs of families.”
The Meadows Nursery is part of the Early Years Community Research Centre (EYCRC) – an ambitious multi-agency project to improve local early years education alongside multi-disciplinary research into early years practice.
The findings from the research were presented at the European Early Childhood Education Research Association Conference in Lisbon and will be disseminated across the sector to help share best practice.
Read the full research paper.