15 December 1995


A day nursery and Montessori school is bringing extra income to two farming families and filling a gap for much needed day care and pre-school classes in Oxfordshire. Tessa Gates visited

The Bear Necessities to find out more

THE day nursery and Montessori school at Weston Park Farm, Weston on the Green, Oxon, is something of a family affair.

The school is run by Mrs Holly Howard of College Farm, Wendlebury, in a converted barn belonging to her brother-in-law Mark Howard, and her son Dougal and daughter Jemima are both pupils.

It was the need for a good nursery school for Dougal that led to the creation of the school, which opened last September.

"When my son was three he went to the nursery department of a local prep-school. He started in the January and then it was announced that the school was closing down at Easter. We were very upset, as he would have been at the school until he was 13 and it was where my husband had been educated," explains Holly, who was a week away from the birth of her third child when Farmlife met her.

After some careful thought, Holly approached two of the schools staff and asked if they would come and work for her on a job share basis. Five of the original eight children from the nursery department plus two new ones joined the teachers for classes in a vacant farm cottage while more permanent premises were found.

After a last minute let down and some frantic searching, Holly found potentially the right place close to home on her brother-in-laws farm. "It was luck and coincidence that Holly was looking for somewhere as I was trying to add value," says Mark Howard, who has a 182ha (450-acre) dairy and arable enterprise.

"Originally the building was an old cattle shed that had fallen into disrepair. I spent a lot of money renovating it to a machinery and storage shed which was useful for a few years, but because we are using contractors more and as our farming operations have changed, it has become redundant."

When planning permission was granted for the school the barn was converted to comply with both planning and Social Services requirements, and the single-storey building now provides three light, airy classrooms, reception area, office, kitchen and cloakroom.

"Although we are family we have kept everything on a strictly business basis," explains Mr Howard. "We developed it up to specifications and I took a large loan out to do that. It was a substantial investment for me as landlord, but the repayments will be serviced by the rent."

The decision to open a day nursery alongside the nursery school was taken for economic reasons. "The Montessori school is run along private school lines with the same term times, and there is no way you can pay rent on the building when you are shut during the holidays," explains Holly.

The day nursery (fees £2 -£2.80/hour depending on age) is open from 8am to 6pm 50 weeks of the year and takes children from birth. It is full until September with a register of 18 children – 10 attending a day – and has a staffing ratio of one teacher to three tots. At three years the children can go on to the Montessori school (£485/term mornings, £750/term full-time) which is attended by 13 pupils at present and is staffed 1:6, better than the legal requirement of 1:8.

"Hopefully we will feed ourselves from the day nursery to the school," explains Holly, who has just opened a second Montessori class. The teacher who came from Dougals original school was Montessori trained.

"Mrs Backhouse is fantastic. She was highly regarded by the parents at her old school, and that was part of the reason why they moved their children here. She is worth twice her weight in gold," enthuses Holly. "The Montessori method treats children with respect and is geared to encourage independence and confidence in children. I am a total convert."

Jan Backhouses title is directress (Montessori trained people dont teach, they guide and direct), and her enthusiasm for the method and her regard for the children is obvious to anyone who meets her.

"Everyone thinks Montessori means freedom, but it is not the freedom for children to do what they like, it is the freedom to be in an environment to learn. It is in fact a strict discipline that teaches the children self-discipline," says Mrs Backhouse. "All children are born with the will to learn and need nurturing to have a voice and an opinion. We try to look at things on the childs level.

"Social skills are very important at this age and you will hear the children saying please, thank you, excuse me. When they have learnt control in the classroom they go on to using the sensorial material and then progress to the three Rs at their own rate. There are no prizes for being first."

The Montessori equipment has been a big investment for Holly. Much of it is beautifully made in wood and is self-correcting so children can use it over and over again at their own pace until they master it.

"Much of the equipment is geared for strengthening little fingers so that by the time they are ready for writing they can manipulate a pencil," explains Holly, adding that each week they concentrate on one letter of the alphabet and a colour. It was N and green when Farmlife called.

"N for noisy," explained one little boy, covering his ears as the food-mixer was turned on. This was combining the ingredients the children had prepared and weighed for the individual Christmas cakes they were cooking. Marzipaning, icing and decorating were treats to come.

"It is very hands-on here," explains Holly. "People think that Montessori pupils dont play, but here they enjoy doing things for real. They gain confidence through it."

Children take home a school report each term, and that is just a fraction of the paperwork Holly has to do. "In the day nursery we record individually what children eat, when they sleep, when they dirty their nappies, and each one is signed in and out by their parents. Attendance charts are maintained and day nursery parents are billed monthly, Montessori are billed each term. Then there is Social Security paperwork to comply with, the bills have to be paid, fire drills arranged twice a term… and lots of letter writing," says Holly, who cheerfully takes it all in her stride.

Parents, Holly finds, are delighted that the school is on a farm. "I envision us being here for at least 15 to 20 years," she says.

Inquiries: 01869-351118