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Have I Got The Power to Make a Difference ?

As CEO of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), I regularly get asked to host visits from people from all over the world. Inevitably, I ask a LEYF manager to manage the visit, show our guests around their nursery, meet the staff and generally talk about what we do as a social enterprise and how we use the LEYF pedagogy to ensure the best education for children. Usually, our visitors are impressed and stimulated by their visits and show their appreciation by asking questions, sharing their lovely comments, writing us thank you cards and sometimes even surprising us with a gift. Why is this important? Because it gives external affirmation and boosts the confidence of staff who most of the time don’t really rate themselves highly. I am not suggesting that Early Years staff should become conceited or arrogant but I really think we need to have a greater sense of self belief and improve our status so we can be better advocates for children.

I frequently describe the LEYF staff as pioneers as we develop and extend our social enterprise approach to childcare 'creating a business model where we can create the best quality community nurseries to educate children from every background and community but the fee structure allows us to use our profit to subsidise nearly half of our children from poor and disadvantaged homes'.  That pioneering spirit permeates much of the Early Years sector as we work out what kind of education and care children born into the 21st century need. Great staff are insightful observers and story tellers.  They watch how the children respond and react, they notice little things that can make a big difference, they spot themes and patterns.  Smart early years staff see some elements of the future through the eyes of the children. For example, we noticed that children who were spending a lot of time playing with their parent’s phones or swiping the iPad seemed to have less rotation in their wrists; a situation which may be problematic for our future surgeons, dentists and IT technicians. This led to a question which started a pedagogical conversation that resulted in finding some research which appeared to support the observation. The result is that we have integrated more weaving and using tongs and small fine motor actions to improve the wrist action.  Another example would be the power of influence Early Years staff have with families. For example, many parents ask for our help to encourage their children to eat.  With a child obesity crisis looming and parents bombarded by too much confusing information, we have the power to provide a clear message and good food that educates parents and children about healthy food from an early age. Given that researchers have suggested that by 2030 46% of the population will have a long term illness such as diabetes or asthma the contribution of the Early Years staff to understanding and educating parents about food is pretty important.

To be great advocates of children we need to be better communicators.  We live in a time of communication overload and the consequences are that people are so overwhelmed many can only cope with soundbites.  Our job is to try and think about ways to communicate useful information about small children and how they learn and develop using a cross between twitter and soundbites. This is particularly challenging as education has become a political football and early years has found its way onto the pitch. Many of us watch in despair as we see policy actions that appear to be more about money and political ideology than the needs of children.  We are shunned by a Government that rejects our views and experience for example the catastrophic recruitment problem that has arisen as a result of a stubborn Minister insisting on making A to C GCSE the only entry for the Level 3 Early Years Diploma. While she has gone off to lead the Justice Department, the Early Years sector has ground to a halt and money that could be used to support children and staff has been spent on agency staff. Of course, the battle to rescind it continues but what a waste of energy and resources. 

But, when we pull together we can change things. The challenges may seem overwhelming but the power of collaboration, the judicious use of social media and a shared value that we want to give children a good experience tends to be the powerful core that coheres us.

Big political issues need bigger national cooperation and alliance which was how we overcame the intention to reduce the staff to child ratios and got Ofsted to listen and engage seriously as a consequence of us setting up the Ofsted Big Conversation.  You might wonder how you do this if you are a small local preschool, but  you have the power to touch the lives of every child in a small or big way.  A smile from you, a song as you change a nappy, an encouraging hand on a shoulder, a ruffle of the hair, a positive comment to parents, a note home, a display of a child’s work all can make a difference. Every conversation with an apprentice, a colleague or a parent where an idea is shared, a nugget of information about play or learning is imparted is a step towards changing attitudes.  It’s the first step to building a culture of action research where quality and reflection is driven by creating, testing and evaluating demonstrable evidence from research supported by our lived experience. 

 LEYF is a values driven organisation and one of the values is being brave and that gives staff the permission to do things differently or try new things. Three years ago we started the Men in Childcare Network because we believed that having more men in the sector was good for children. We started inside the organisation and the staff asked that we extend it outwards as they believed we needed to be brave and give men a greater voice with the support of women. It led to our report which then led to a London launch where 80 men arrived to join the network, regular meetings,  an award from Nursery World for inclusion and a great partnership with colleagues from outside London who have taken the idea and now developing a National Men in Childcare Network.

Our current challenge is to make sure we are giving babies the best experience as we meet the increasing demand from parents to take more babies for longer hours and at a younger age. One of our staff is currently doing her MA and has decided to lead this action research as part of her dissertation. She is engaging with baby staff to examine what we currently do and whether we are up to date on baby research and how and if we apply that research reliably. For example this includes re-examining how we use the findings from neuro science that helps us better understand how we create environments and practice that helps babies thrive in nurseries.  A previous LEYF staff member has written a book on this because she is passionate about linking theory to practice in a meaningful and practical way. http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/early-childhood-and-neuroscience-9781474231930/

Some of our deputy managers used cohort tracking to ask whether we were doing enough to support boys and we found that we could improve the way we teach Maths.  We made a number of enhancements to our environment and teaching plans and we have seen a measurable improvement in the boy’s progress. These are the stories that the public needs to hear, the message that we are a thoughtful sector, interested to do the best for the children and able to use many different tools to ask questions, observe behaviour and reflect and consider progress and advancement.

To create a world where improvement is at the heart and where we continually reflect the world through the eyes of the children requires inspirational leaders. We are not short of them but they remain quiet, humble and focused on their own nurseries. I meet and have written about wonderful women and men (but mostly women in this sector) who demonstrate much that is great about leaders; vision, direction, focus, influence, warmth, credibility, integrity, a phenomenal grasp of the subject, change-makers and courage.  https://www.leyf.org.uk/successful-leadership-in-the-early-years-by-leyf-ceo-june-osullivan/

We are living through strange and difficult times and we need brave leaders. We need leaders who inspire especially in the face of insufficient funding, recruitment crisis, local authority cuts, contract reductions and a Government that is keen on making policies that fly in the face of reason and common sense.  We need our leaders to enable us all to be brave, to articulate what brave looks like in every role, activity and nursery philosophy. We must never forget the power we have to help children. So, raise your head above the parapet, articulate why you are important to children and society, stand proud and firm. Our task is to raise our status and being brave is the first step to doing that. 

June O'Sullivan MBE
An inspiring speaker and regular commentator on Early Years, Social Enterprise and Child Poverty/Social Mobility, June O’Sullivan has been instrumental in achieving a major strategic and cultural shift for the award winning London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), resulting in increased profile and profitability over the past eight years. June works closely with the Government in order to better implement their vision for Early Years, improve quality and promote better understanding of the incredible long-term benefits of play-based Early Years education for everyone.

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