Under fives have been finding their feet at the newly refurbished Dartmouth Pre-School. The facility’s just reopened after a major transformation. Our reporter Steph Woolvin went to meet manager Pam Reeves.
I can’t have been in the building more than two minutes and a happy little band of three and four year olds come running up to inspect the new addition to their class. Pam and I thought we had found a quiet spot to have our chat, but nothing gets past these curious toddlers. “They have taken to their new surroundings like a duck to water,” says Pam who’s been in charge here for the past four years. But she tells me her involvement with the pre-school started long before that; “I used to come with my little boy when he was just a few months old, now he is 19! A friend said to me ‘you must get out of the house’ so I came here and loved it.” It wasn’t long after that Pam started to run the pre-school’s toddler group and moved up through the ranks to the top job.
We soon drift outside, partly so I can be shown the beautiful new play space, partly because the toddlers were asking me more questions than I was asking Pam! The children have a veranda where they can play with paint and water. Lower down there’s a pirate play frame and new garden where they hope to plant sunflowers, runner beans, strawberries and mint. The pre-school has been in this building, which is owned by the Church of England, since 1961, but it used to be upstairs meaning the children had to come down to the garden each day. Now they are downstairs and the garden has become an extension of the classroom.
The refurbishment was part of a £600,000 project to create a new pre-school and two apartments; one for an assistant priest, the other to be rented out as an affordable home. Pam says she and her team were consulted throughout the process; “Father Will had monthly meetings with us. He really listened to our needs whether it was for a separate office space or low sinks for the little ones.” As well as the church, lots of other groups have supported the project with manpower or money; “People wanted to help because the building has such a rich history connected to it.” Over the past hundred years it’s served as a Sunday school, sorting office, a school for evacuees and a costume storeroom/rehearsal area for the Dartmouth Players.
As she perches on the edge of a large recycled tractor tyre, Pam says the pre-school itself has a special place in many hearts; “People who used to come here when they were toddlers themselves are now bringing their children. We’ve kept some of the old cupboards to make them feel at home.” By the front door there’s an old rocking horse which Pam’s son used to ride back in the nineties; “We’ve had him for as long as anyone can remember. He suffered a bit during the work so someone’s coming to take him away and give him a spruce up.”
19 children are looked after by six members of staff, all local ladies – one originally from Russia, another a former primary school teacher from the Midlands. They can now work with the youngsters in a new paint and craft area. There’s also a pretend garden centre alongside some petrol pumps in case the children need to re-fill their imaginary lawn mowers. Window seats provide those taking a break from the dolls house with lovely views out over the town; “It’s so much lighter and brighter than before,” says Pam clearly pleased with it all. “The children just love it, I think it’s because it’s fresh and clean and colourful. They haven’t been fazed at all by moving out for nine months.” During the work the children set up a temporary home at Ivy Lane Youth Centre.
The pre-school is the only facility for under fives right in the town centre. Pam says that means a lot to some parents; “If we weren’t here they would have to go up to the top, which is not easy if you don’t have a car.” She also sees the fact they’re not connected to a school as a selling point; “Mums and dads can decide to send the children to whichever primary suits them.”
Pam works four days a week. Outside of school hours she sings with the Britannia Choral Society and is a self confessed movie buff. But it’s clear her biggest passion is this place and the people in it; “I sometimes forget what a privileged position this is, people entrust you with their most precious gift, and we are allowed to get to know them for a few special years before they move on”.