December 2, 2009

Never Judge a Book By Its Cover

A Chinese proverb states that a child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark. It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? If you are a regular reader of the British Press, you will almost certainly come across lurid headlines describing the physical and emotional abuse inflicted on children by poorly qualified childminders or nursery assistants. Perhaps you tut and shake your head, before fastening your child into their car seat and heading of to pre-school, confident in the knowledge that your child will spend their day happily modelling animals out of play dough and learning how to spell their name, their unique personalities recognised and nurtured by qualified, caring staff.

Does this idyllic picture reflect the reality of life for the average pre-schooler? Or is our confidence misplaced? My recent experience, working in a typical private English nursery school on the island, would suggest it just might be!

In a past life, as an investigative journalist, working on programmes such as World in Action, I worked on heart rending stories of some of the most vulnerable groups in Britain at that time. Since the birth of my son 12 years ago, however, I’d worked in the ‘safer’ world of child education, leaving my hidden camera gathering dust in the depths of Granada Television’s basement. Six months ago, I started working as a reception class teacher in a outwardly respectable private English nursery school providing childcare for the offspring of lawyers, teachers and doctors. What I discovered there was very distressing.

Don’t get me wrong, some pre-schools in Cyprus work hard to provide a safe, positive, enriching environment for our children. Many understand the importance of small class sizes, qualified and enthusiastic staff and safe, hygienic premises. However, we also need to be aware that private nursery schools are run for a profit. They are not state controlled, do not necessarily keep up to date with the latest legal requirements, and don’t always have the trained staff or a full range of facilities you would expect.

So, what was my experience? What you are about to read may shock some of you. The school had a good reputation locally. There were lots of brightly coloured toys visible in garden and the children looked pristine in their tailored (compulsory) school uniform. The many activities appeared to be well planned and structured, and included academic, artistic and physical education. Daily healthy meals were provided, and charts publicly displayed showing each child’s daily nutritional intake. Some members of staff seemed genuinely interested in meeting the needs of the children. At a superficial level then, there were lots of positive signs. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and things were far less rosy.

Over the 6 months I worked in this preschool nursery, I witnessed a series of incidents which challenged every child care principle I held dear. I saw young, vulnerable children endangered physically and emotionally in the name of discipline. A little two year old girl was crying in the hall. She had just started at the nursery and was clearly finding her new environment frightening and strange. She was pushed to the floor by ???. (Was she comforted?). From this point on she regularly expressed her distress by urinating by the gate when her mother left her. A three year old boy was crying at the gate (what gate?). Over and over he begged to go to the toilet. A member of staff screamed at him, ‘why do you need the toilet all the time?’ and hauled him violently over the gat, before dragging him to the toilet, muttering furiously at him. A three year old girl didn’t put her legs under the lunch table properly, and was clearly hurt and shocked when, without warning, the teacher pushed them under by brute force. For the next four days she refused to go back into the dining room. Children who were too noisy at lunch were regularly slapped across the cheeks, arms or legs. One crying child was placed on the dining table and slapped as an example to the others. Children were routinely told that if they behaved badly then the teacher would phone their future school and tell them not to accept the child. When teachers were unwell, children were told it was their fault as they had been so naughty they had ‘made their teacher sick’. Clipboards were slammed down on children’s heads or on tables, close to their fingers, to shock them into silence. Children were transported to gymnastic or swimming lessons in a mini bus without seat belts and with a driver who drove erratically, steering with one hand while holding her mobile phone to her ear in the other.

Having worked in both Montessori environments and mainstream classrooms in state and prep schools both here in Cyprus and in the UK, I had never come across such blatant displays of mismanaged disciplinary action. The fact that there were more than 50 children in the school and only four members of staff perhaps contributed, but certainly doesn’t excuse the aggressive behaviour inflicted on such young, vulnerable children who have very few ways to defend themselves emotionally or physically.

Recent EU research acknowledges the fact that quality is the key issue in early years child care in Europe, and highlights the strong relationship between quality childcare and positive outcomes for children. Many child care experts have called on the EU to set minimum quality standards for child care in member states, something they are currently reviewing. In the UK, the Childcare Act (2006) states clearly that an early years provider cannot use corporal punishment on any child, and the Every Child Matters initiative highlights the fact that in establishments that demonstrate good practice, children are at the heart of all that happens and adults have a robust approach to keeping children safe.

The consequences of failing to keep children safe are well researched. Susan Iacovou, a Larnaca based Counsellor and Psychotherapist with experience of working with children and teenagers, highlighted the devastating impact poor early years care can have on children: ‘The research is very clear. Consistent negative interactions, punitive disciplinary practices and a pervasive atmosphere of fear can result in delayed educational, social and physical development, have a lasting effect on self-esteem and confidence, and can increase the risk of the child developing mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.’
Live every other parent, I recognise the appeal of giving your child an edge over his/her peers, especially with the mounting social pressures associated with getting your child into the ‘right’ school. What my experience shows, is that there are nurseries out there who are successfully pulling the wool over parents’ eyes with a focus on the ‘3 Rs’ and a little concerned chit chat at collection time that belies the horrors endured by the resident children during the day. So what can you do to minimise the risks for your child?

Do

  • Look for child care options early – take your time to find out about all the available options and take your time to narrow down your choices;
  • Be prepared to do the legwork – give yourself time to make in informed decision;
  • Consider your future needs – plan for stability and continuity for your child;
  • Get your priorities right – a good reputation, nice facilities and a focus on reading and writing are important but so are your instinctual, gut feelings about your child’s carer;
  • Shop around – be prepared to visit at least three places to meet the carers and compare what is on offer;
  • Ask to see teachers’ certificates of education – these should really be on display in the nursery office – and at least give some indication that staff have an interest in child care;
  • Ask questions about staff turnover. It can be a good indication of staff commitment and happiness at work;
  • Visit the school at peak times. Turn up unannounced at meal times or going home time, to see for yourself how teachers handle the classes during these busy times;
  • Enquire directly about discipline policy – don’t be afraid to make it clear that corporal punishment is unacceptable;
  • Check the child/teacher ratio to ensure that there are enough staff to care for the children.

Don’t

  • Feel guilty about double checks – good preschools should be happy about you visiting two or three times to confirm your impressions;
  • Be panicked into making a decision. If you are unsure about an establishment or a carer, be honest with them and yourself and keep looking.
  • Discount your child’s views. If they have reservations, take them seriously and investigate further;
  • Assume that all child carers have the child’s best interest at heart;
    Be afraid to ask difficult questions.

We all want the best start for our children, but entrusting them to a stranger is a big step. My experiences, and the many failed attempts I made to change things within the preschool I was working, led to my resignation. The children at the preschool don’t have that option. As their parent, it’s up to you to make sure you don’t make the mistake of judging a book by its cover.