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Playgroups – a dying breed?

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By Harriet MackeviciusGuest Editor, playgroup deputy manager and early years teacher.

Guest Editor Harriet Mackevicius shares her concerns about the struggles that local playgroups face in today’s society

Guest Editor Harriet with child

After four years as a primary school teacher, I made a move to join the local community playgroup, Barbican Playgroup, based in the City of London. I was amazed by the huge differences between the different types of early years settings.

The Barbican Playgroup has a much smaller number of children and staff than that of the average nursery school or children’s centre. Nearly all aspects of its running and maintenance fall to the two full-time members of staff. This not only includes the planning and resource orders that are expected in these roles, but also the admissions and cleaning, which surprised me, having had experience in places where people are employed to carry out these tasks.

Despite being hard work for the staff, the playgroup provides huge benefits for the children, including its home-from-home atmosphere and commitment to delivering the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). But with the only other playgroup in the borough having closed in the last 12 months, I began to wonder if smaller settings, which are inevitably open shorter hours than most day nurseries and children’s centres, were star ting to be pushed out of the early years sector.

Playgroup struggles

I believe the following are some of the issues that small playgroups are facing in our modern climate:

Infrastructure

Playgroups are charitable organisations and are managed by a committee of parents. The work that is done by these parents is purely voluntary. However, most parents, even in the affluent area of the city, do not have time to be fully committed to the primary positions of Chairman, Treasurer and Secretary, due to work and family commitments. This creates additional pressures, on top of the already vast workload, for those staff employed by the playgroup.

Finance

Although the playgroup is only open 24 hours per week, during school term time, it still counts as full daycare. Current legislation states that all three- and four-year-olds are entitled to free daycare for 12½ hours per week, over 38 weeks of the year. Despite local authority funding, this scheme still has huge financial implications for smaller settings.

Time

As in most early years settings, time always seems to be working against us, and there never seems to be enough hours in the day. However, time in the playgroup is even more of a precious commodity. The mornings are occupied preparing for the day, the afternoons are spent cleaning up, and the rest is dedicated to caring for and educating the children in our care. It is a struggle to fit in the weekly planning, let alone make official records of the children’s progress within our normal working hours. The staff often end up doing ‘overtime’ which creates additional expenditure for the playgroup. This inevitably leads to the question, ‘Which is the greater priority – conserving money, efficient planning, or making official records?’.

Implementing the EYFS

The implementation of the Early Years Foundation Stage will cause a problem at the playgroup, especially with the volume of paperwork involved for each child. This is incredibly frustrating for the staff who know all the Principles are being covered, but have little time to create the evidence to show this.

Working families

Working parents are demanding increased hours and flexibility for the daycare of their children under five. This is perfectly understandable. In today’s society, many children under the age of five are placed in daycare over long periods on any given day. However, this is not in keeping with the playgroup, which I believe, strives for children to enjoy a happy balance of life at home and in the setting.

Save the playgroups!

Due to their small size, playgroups (and I imagine other types of small settings) are unique in the way that all the children and their parents develop relationships with all the staff – everybody knows everybody. Furthermore, their infrastructure demands that they work within their local community, and gives parents a sense of ownership over their child’s care and education. This has made our playgroup an essential part of the local community, not only for the children who currently attend the setting, but also those of the past. Many old students and parents still drop in, or write letters.

In light of this, I hope in this new period of the EYFS, that playgroups are further promoted and sustained as excellent settings for under fives, and that those dedicated playgroup workers are given the support and recognition they require.

Let’s not let playgroups become a thing of the past!

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