In 1963, life in Dulwich was very different for mothers of pre-school children. Nowadays, starting with an NCT group for pregnant mothers, and moving on to a Parent and Toddler group for every morning of the week, their time is fully structured. Not so then.

Then, except for the rich or desperately poor, the mother was the primary carer for her young child, all day, every day, until the Reception class received the five-year-old and she got a few blessed hours of freedom. As young married couples, we had mostly moved into Dulwich to be near the husbands’ work, far from our own families and friends. And from eight till six, how desperately lonely we were. With a good education, and previously in professional jobs, we felt our potential was being frittered away, but what could we do?

When we did meet each other, in the baby clinic or at the swings, we began to talk about how we could let our children meet and play together regularly. We read about the work of Susan Isaacs and Margaret Macmillan, and realised that our children could gain enormously from being in small regular groups with caring adults, where they had freedom to develop social skills and explore a wide range of educational materials. They would make friends, and just as important, so would we. We read about something called Playgroups in New Zealand, where the parents initiated and managed groups that met for a couple of hours, several times a week. We became very excited about the possibilities, and put a home- made poster in Rumsey the chemist’s shop in the village, asking if others would like to join us in this venture.

They certainly would. Paddy McCloy’s phone never stopped ringing. With greater confidence we persuaded the Dulwich Hamlet Old Scholars’ Association to let us use their club house, the Old Grammar School, every week day morning. We produced a budget (nowadays they call it a business plan) which showed that if we paid a very modest fee to an experienced leader, we could still make ends meet. But it was not to be a business. Following our mentors in New Zealand, it was to be a parent co-operative. Parents would form a committee to manage the business side of the group, and all would be obliged to help out at the group regularly.

In May, 1963, we had assembled a minimal stock of play equipment, formed a parents’ committee, and taken on a very part-time “supervisor”. We were amazed and delighted to have the services of Lady Hutton, of Howletts Mead. Together we were able to open our doors to forty three-and-four-year-olds from the area. Twenty attended on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the other twenty on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It was not very long before we were forced, by pressure of numbers, to also run afternoon session for a further twenty children.

Many of the mothers who volunteered to help, realised that there was a lot to learn about early childhood development, and how it could be fostered and guided. By the end of the nineteen sixties, adult education courses for parents had been set up all over London. In fact, one of our own playgroup mothers, Pat Kidd, was instrumental in setting up and guiding the courses under the sponsorship of the Inner London Education Authority. Many of the people who attended the courses became playgroup leaders themselves.

Meanwhile, massive changes were taking place in society around us. Women’s Lib came, and women claimed a right to work. First they took very part time work, to be done while the children were at playgroup, and qualifying them for what was called “pin money”. But the rising cost of mortgages and the fulfilment of doing “a proper job” forced them into working longer hours. The demand came to extend the hours of care. Regular parent helpers were no longer available, and costs increased, but the government recognised the need, and began to subsidise the places, first for four-year-olds, and now also for three-year-olds, up to fifteen hours per week.

Through all these changes, Dulwich Village Playgroup continued to flourish, holding on to its guiding principles of being a parent managed group, and encouraging the children to grow and develop through free expression and free play. In keeping with the times it changed its name to Dulwich Village Pre-school. Twice it has had to move to different premises, After the Old Grammar School became part of the Estate offices, they moved to the Lloyds Register Cricket Club in Gallery Road. When those premises were taken over by Dulwich Prep, they were able to move to the Old Alleynian Club on Dulwich Common, where they have been happily settled for the last 13 years.

Perhaps more disturbing have been the changing expectations of society. Mothers now expect to be able to have their children cared for throughout the day, and for that care to extend to two-year-olds. There is pressure to have a much larger group, but the children are still treated as individuals, and sub-divided into age groups a lot of the time. They are subject to inspections by Ofsted, and all the rigorous form-filling and monitoring that goes with this, and there are now six paid members of staff.

With stable staffing, good premises, and strong government support, there is less for the parent committee to do these days, but the group is still a parent-co-operative charity. In May this year, the parents inspired and managed a Jubilee Barbecue to mark their fiftieth anniversary. They invited along about fifteen parents and play leaders they were able to contact from the earliest years. We were delighted to find that in spite of the flashier premises, paid and qualified staff and first class equipment, the group still encourages parents to take part whenever and however possible. And it is, in spite of all the changes, a group that exudes happy vibes. Long live Dulwich Village Pre-school.

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