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How can we overcome the challenges facing early years practitioners and change the future of childcare?

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June O'Sullivan, CEO at LEYF

June O’Sullivan: The Future of Early Years Education

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I have worked in this sector for over 20 years and its always interesting when I get asked what I would like the sector to look like in 5 years times. However, to answer this question we need to look back because as Winston Churchill says: 

“The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see.” 

The history

The Early Years sector started to develop its modern shape in the late 1990s when Tony Blair came to power, he said we could solve poverty by employment and therefore a childcare infrastructure was necessary. This led to the first National Childcare Strategy in 1998, when money was set aside to build nurseries and children’s centres and respond to the real paucity of available childcare. Twenty years on and the landscape has changed. Subsequent governments have added to childcare provision through occasional financial and policy incentives, but it has been haphazard and driven by short term initiatives and projects. However, while having a strategy was superb it did not start with a clear enough vision. Therefore, many of the initiatives that came from the strategy allowed the market model to develop. This had strengths and weaknesses. It allowed people to respond quickly and efficiently to business opportunities and open nurseries where there were needed, hence the growth of the big chains funded by investment and operating successfully through economies of scale. However, such a model does not guarantee nurseries to operate in poor neighbourhoods despite their vital importance in these very places. Parents continue to complain of insufficiency of nursery places in disadvantaged areas particularly for flexible childcare, childcare for atypical hours, or places for children with SEND. At the same time, private providers tell us that operating in such neighbourhoods is not financially viable. State services have been squeezed out and the historical Maintained Nurseries have reduced from 3,000 to 398.

But it has however, given me the opportunity to build the hybrid social enterprise model, using the benefits of the business model to drive sustainable nurseries but with an asset lock that means all our surplus /profits are reinvested so we can base our operation more successfully in poorer neighbourhoods as well as subsiding higher proportions of children from more disadvantaged families. So, in five years, I would like to see a recognisable Network of Social Enterprise Nurseries accepted by Government as a credible business and educational option.

The importance of our workforce

This original strategy was supportive of staff. There was an acceptance that staff needed training, qualifications and a sense of purpose and status. Many programmes were developed and funded to train staff to lead and deliver a high-quality pedagogy. The EYFS was designed as a statutory framework to shape this plan. It was a great step forward and made a significant difference in establishing quality expectations in every setting. Research from EPPE and OECD and many others supported our learning about quality and how we could make a big difference to the children. But the strategy failed to agree on shared professional language and our roles got confused with our qualifications. I remember being on the Nutbrown Review in 2012 and Cathy Nutbrown saying she had never been in a situation where staff introduced themselves by their name and qualification. It drove me to distraction because a set of agreed language would build a level of homogeneity which is essential if we are to merit our own professional body which is essential to increase our status. In 2017, I announced that all LEYF staff would be known as teachers once they passed their probation. Their qualifications would not define them, but their roles and expectations would. Parents completely signed up to this as did the staff whose morale and clarity of role were boosted overnight. So, in five years’ time I hope we will all be using the term teacher to describe our work and yes that means we recognise that care is an essential and integral element of teaching! 

However, we are at risk of seeing all this progress dissipate by the failure to invest and recognise the importance of staff status and the access and quality of training and continual professional development. So, in five years, I also hope we are no longer worrying about staff qualifications and training because we have a Royal College of Early Years, a professional membership body dedicated to improving the practice of Early Years chiefly through the accreditation of Early Years Teachers by examination.

For many years we have understood that leadership is crucial to the success of the sector. For this we need our own leadership approach where we learn to lead with a purpose and shape a service that encourages a balanced focus on economic profits, employee well-being, social pedagogy and social and ecological impact. Leadership is an ever-evolving concept and what we think a leader does depends on our context and the ability to address the many and changing challenges of the sector. In a book I wrote with Mona Sakr, we interviewed global leaders of Early Childhood Education and Care and asked them how to keep social purpose at the centre of our leadership. Five strong messages emerged: 

  1. Build the vision and share the story 
  2. Agitate, innovate, and embrace change 
  3. Build an empathetic values-driven culture  
  4. Create a pragmatic social purpose operating environment 
  5. Become a learning social leader  

So, in five years I would like that the concept of Social Leadership is well understood and in practice across the sector.  

To conclude  

Finally, the importance of the children is implicit in everything I say because all the above is essential to their access to high-quality education. However, we need to be looking outwards for the children and start to see them as global citizens of a changing world.  This takes me back to the social enterprise model which is built on the three legs of the sustainability stool, economic, social and environmental. We need to understand how these elements are interconnected, essential for broad and inclusive quality education so we can make decisions that strengthen rather than weaken the sustainable world. So, in five years I hope all Early Years staff are champions of sustainability, understand the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and teaching children how to tread lightly on the planet.  

Headshot of June O'Sullivan

Article written by June O'Sullivan

CEO and creator of the UK’s leading childcare social enterprise, LEYF (London Early Years Foundation). June remains a tireless campaigner for children, families, and the early years community.

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