Sharing Success: Sparklers Pre-School, Swindon
Supervisor Sarah Hodges and assistant Natalie Stiles of Sparklers Pre-School share some of the good practice behind their Ofsted Outstanding rating with NMT’s Charlotte Goddard.
Based in the grounds of Peatmoor Community School, Sparklers Pre-School is surrounded by lakes and woodland. The setting looks after 30 three- and four-year-olds, with up to 20 at any one session. Children’s health and wellbeing is at the heart of its practice, something which was picked up in its most recent Ofsted inspection in February 2023. The inspector noted:” Highly trained and knowledgeable staff have a strong focus on children's mental health and wellbeing.”
Pre-school supervisor Sarah Hodges, a qualified primary school teacher, took over management of the setting in January 2021 with deputy Natalie Stiles, modernising it and bringing in new members of staff and a new way of working.
Children’s wellbeing has been particularly important in the last few years due to the impact of the pandemic. “We are very aware of the effects of Covid on these children - we have had children come in here who've never socialised at all,” says Hodges.
The pre-school funded Stiles to qualify as a children’s yoga teacher, and children now take part in daily yoga sessions. “Natalie is our mental health and wellbeing lead,” says Hodges. “We’ve implemented yoga, mindfulness and meditation into the setting over the last 18 months and the children have responded really well.”
“Yoga is not a ‘sports session’, it is a lifestyle which involves looking after your body and mind, including healthy eating and sleeping,” explains Stiles. “Healthy living is at the core of everything we do, we try to embed it at a young age.”
The setting has a lunchbox policy, encouraging parents to provide sandwiches with a healthy filling, fruit, and milk-based deserts, such as yoghurt or crème fraîche. Outdoor exercise is promoted with Friday football, “welly walks” and forest school sessions. There are no screens in the pre-school, with a focus on free play, especially with loose parts.
Support for mental health starts as soon as children enter the pre-school. “When we greet the children they can choose how they greet us back, whether it is a hug, a high five or a wave,” says Stiles. “Giving children that choice supports their feeling of being valued in the setting.”
Children are asked how they feel when the register is taken. “If anyone feels bad or cross, we work together to make that person feel better, and we will talk an hour later and say are you still feeling this way?” explains Stiles. The team has been trained to start the day by delivering the “mindful minute”, which sees children and staff taking deep breaths to ground themselves. “
Sparklers’ Ofsted report noted the children’s “extremely good behaviour. “We don't have behaviour issues because children know our expectations so clearly,” says Hodges. “We have golden rules that are gone over daily, and every child in here could name them to you and why we have them. When we go outside to play and when we are inside there are two different sets of rules, for example - when we're outside they can be loud and physical and then when we come back in we need to behave differently.”
Staff are trained to deliver a range of transitional activities to help children move from one set of expectations to another. One example is a tapping activity, where children use their hands to touch each part of their body, taking deep breaths to release their energy.
Inspectors also noted the setting’s “exceptional partnership with parents”. Staff visit children at home before they join the pre-school. “That is a great way to kickstart your relationship, and connect with parents and children,” says Hodges. Sparklers uses the Blossom Educational online platform to communicate with parents, sending pictures, home learning ideas and personalised support. “If children have sleep problems at home for example, we will send activities to help with that,” says Hodges. “Obviously we are communicating physically as well. If anyone's got any problems we encourage them to come in, sometimes weekly, and have a chat with us one-to-one.” Families are invited to take part in activities including “welly walks” and fitness sessions.
Ofsted inspections can be nerve-wracking, but Hodges says this particular inspection was a positive experience. “The inspector specifically asked if any staff member was nervous about the process, and whether we would like her to chat to any of them about what was going to happen,” she says.
There were some specific questions about safeguarding and SEND, but in general the inspector stood back and observed the setting’s practice, says Stiles. “She sat with the children, she asked them questions about how they feel,” she explains. “It was clear her main priority was how are these children and are the things we are doing benefiting them.”
The Sparklers team has worked hard for its Outstanding rating, and will promote it to potential parents. “I'm not sure how much parents look at the rating, or how much of it is about the location of the setting near home or work,” admits Stiles. “But we are very proud of what we have created. It is our life, so it is great that it has been recognised.”