A few weeks ago Wave Trust in partnership with the DfE published its report Conception to Age 2 – The Age of Opportunity. I was part of the Special Interest Group that helped shape the report, along with an eclectic group of colleagues representing a variety of areas affecting babies – such as mental health, training, health visiting and psychology. I learned much from this group, chaired by the erudite and softly spoken George Hosking, CEO of Wave Trust. The full report is 135 pages long and a text book in its own right, but the shortened version designed for local busy commissioners is a useful summary with reference to all the relevant links.
Friday saw another fantastic LEYF Staff Conference, once again successfully managed with great aplomb. Like another Chocolate Orange segment in the continuing relationship with our Scottish colleagues, I was as ever struck at the extraordinary similitudes between Scotland and London. Even in these days of potential Scottish independence, I look forward to further cooperation, as we share, debate and enrich the whole Early Years sector.
Alice Sharp has been involved in our conferences for the past 8 years; and long may it continue, as every year she brings something extra special to the whole experience. This year Alice partnered with Paul Brannigan, lead actor from our favourite film The Angel’s Share. Paul talked movingly about his difficult upbringing in a very forthright Glaswegian way. He summed up the impact on him of his lack of home learning and the emptiness he felt as a child, when he realised there was no one who really loved or would stick up for him. He talked about the need to have an adult – any adult – reach out and put their arm around you, make you feel protected and loved. That finally happened to him when he was in prison, but it helped turn his life around. His point, so touchingly made, was that he was on a mission to get people to understand that the younger it happened, the better – especially when that warm relationship could be the very thing that helps build a child’s brain. His performance left the LEYF audience touched and emotional. Little surprise he is now Bafta nominated and shortlisted for best newcomer to British film. No cliché in this presentation though. The message was stark: Early Years practitioners have the power to contribute hugely to the child’s brain development, giving them a power boost that could see their positive synaptic connections increase from 7% to 80%.
It was the central point of our conference and the reason we want to grow. There was something magic in the room on Friday, and it’s something I hear often when people visit our nurseries. Now is the time to bottle this magic, and give more children the LEYF experience – both by filling all our nurseries to their maximum capacity and by having more LEYF nurseries across London. So look out guys, LEYF is on the march!
When the weather is raining and grey, I often like to go to see a film in the afternoon. It beats drinking tea in front of the box, watching the insipid couples on property programmes or the madness of Come Dine with Me. So last Saturday I checked the internet to see what was local and I found The Angels’ Share.
It was film recommended to me by Detective Inspector John Carnochan who heads up the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit. He spoke at our Staff Conference last year on the recommendation of Alice Sharp who heard him speak in Glasgow and was blown away by his stories. Staff still talk about his story of David which shows how the system fails a young boy from a very troubled background and how the intergenerational cycle is reaffirmed by the system rather than dismantled. It was probably the same conversation that got our Prime Minister thinking about those 120,000 troubled families. (His mistake may have been letting celebrity culture influence his choice of Family Czar… that’s another story though!)
Directed by Ken Loach (always a good sign), the film focused on Robbie who came from a rough family and was roaming the streets of Glasgow causing drug-fuelled violence and havoc. The film showed graphically why so many young people turn bad and how there are so few routes out. Robbie is intelligent and has three pieces of good luck which he uses sensibly. First he falls in love with a good girl and she has his baby. Having produced this baby she introduces him to Robbie with the words…
The midwife says only half his brain is formed and the other half depends on what we do over the next few years… Robbie we have to do good for him and if you won’t help I will have to do this on my own.
What a fantastic insight into the stuff we in Early Years call brain development and making good synaptic connections!
The second piece of good luck was that the judge did not imprison him for a violent crime because of his relationship with the girl, and sent him to Community Payback where he met Harry (no nothing to do with Sally). Harry was one of those salt of the earth, warm, caring community workers who are sadly quite rare, but when around have the potential to make a huge difference. He introduced him to human warmth and the kind of adult relationships Camilla Batmanghelidjh from Kids Company advocates, because she is convinced the right relationship with an adult can repair and strengthen synaptic connections in young people, and help them form the sort of trusting relationships they need to sustain them throughout life.
Finally, Robbie found he had a talent: he had a brilliant nose for whiskey, and here lies the Angel Share. But I’ve already said too much, as this is the heart of the film and you really need to see it. Suffice to say, he ended up with a job and somewhere to live out of his neighbourhood. The group then said goodbye, and the parting shot was that all you need is someone to love, a job and somewhere to live. I can’t help but wonder why in 2012 that is so hard to achieve for so many?
In this film, Ken Loach pours politics, comedy and drama into a whiskey glass and flavours it with the possibilities that come from generosity of spirit. As such, I strongly recommend it as a teaching tool for anyone learning to work with children, and will make sure that all LEYF apprentices have this on their syllabus. I also hope they too leave us singing the chorus of the classic Proclaimers anthem I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). To start you off…
But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walked 1000 miles
To fall down at your door
I am a nervous passenger generally, but my anxiety rises to a whole new level when we go on the motorway.
My coping mechanism is to work on my computer to avoid spending the whole journey gripped in a panic that we are about to crash into the lorry ahead. The upside is that I get time to trawl through my documents and keep calm. Meanwhile, the driver (usually my husband) is able to concentrate on the road, rather than having to continually threaten to throw me out. The downside is that I come across speeches, articles and blog entries which all smack of Déjà Vu.
This week was a case in point, as I found myself preparing a speech on leadership in the sector and a presentation for some funds to help us grow the business. As I began the process by finding similar speeches for inspiration, I was shocked to discover so many of the issues facing us today were exactly the same as far back as 2007. I know they say that change takes time, but this seems excessively slow.
So I thought it might serve as a fun game, as we head into the Jubilee-free weekend, to remind ourselves of the state of play and key issues back then, to see how much if anything has changed:
Universal child care was inadequately funded
It was felt that children should not go to school aged four (a sentiment supported by the Children and Young People Select Committee and National Primary Headteachers Association)
Ofsted was looking at its approach to inspection
- I was arguing that Children’s Centres should be a hub for intergenerational work, with young and old learning together and developing relationships that could help achieve community cohesion
- We were awaiting a Government re-shuffle
- A Two Year Old Pilot was in discussion
- Unhappy economic times were beginning, and talk of solutions and sustainability were beginning to quietly emerge
- We had just taken our first group of apprentices called NEETs
- Action for Children and New Economics Foundation produced a fascinating report called Backing the Future, setting out a plan to save the UK taxpayer £486 billion over 20 years and dramatically improve social wellbeing
- According to economic analyst Rob Grunewald, (video here), if Government invested substantially in parenting and enriched daycare, they could expect a rate of return (in monetary terms) of between 3:1-7:1, and 17:1 by the time the child reaches 21years. He explained that social benefits were also significant, with a reduction in crime and prison, better educational attainment, healthier adults and reduced levels of obesity and a reduction in welfare dependency
- The Cambridge Primary Review was challenging the notion of school readiness in their final report, reminding us of what Froebel said 250 years before – namely that Early Years was not a time to merely prepare for school, but a distinct phase to be celebrated and enjoyed in its own right
- Remaining stubbornly high, child poverty was on the rise despite all attempts to reduce it – including provision of flexible work opportunities, training, childcare, improved incentives and investment in child benefit
- Limited funds were available to provide a quality workforce, including employing many more graduates
- Transitions to school were an issue
Peter Drucker said that management has no choice but to anticipate the future. Well then, we better start looking at the past, because the blueprint is already there. And as a leader, it’s probably wise to get organisations fit to manage the continual challenges that are not easily solved and are more entrenched than we could possibly imagine. Learning from experience is not enough.
Therefore, I’d suggest that one solution may be to create a learning organisation that can flex and re-shape, according to both the fast and slow pace of change. Consider the following ten steps, and maybe in this instance a bit of repeat, recall and déjà vu will be a good thing:
- Learning is incorporated into everything people do
- Learning for learning’s sake is encouraged and celebrated
- Teamwork, creativity, empowerment and quality are fully supported
- Staff are trusted and encouraged to choose and take decisions
- People with different job titles learn together
- Coaching relationships are promoted to enhance learning
- Learning is an integral part of meetings, work groups and work processes
- Everyone in the organisation has equal access to learning
- Mistakes are embraced as learning opportunities
- Cross-training is encouraged and staff that learn a broad range of skills rewarded
- Continuous learning is considered a shared core value of the organisation
Do you agree with the above? Let me know what you think in the space below.
Two ever-popular and increasingly connected topics of debate, child poverty and social mobility have been high on my own agenda this week. Starting on Monday with a lunchtime debate hosted by Policy Exchange, entitled Towards a Better Child Poverty Target. Here an eminent panel of five, including Frank Field MP argued that the targets set to reduce child poverty were unhelpful. Kicking off the debate, Frank provoked the audience with real life examples of child poverty, and a heartfelt plea in support of all those children who are subject to the casual cruelty of ignorant adults. He concluded by asking Mr Cameron to read his report. (Leaving me to wonder how he knew the Prime Minister had not already done so.)
Next up was a representative of the End Child Poverty Campaign, arguing that we should have targets, not only since poverty damages children’s life chances, but since lower income equates with poor educational attainment which in turn leads to poverty. The Director of the Policy Exchange then suggested the measurement of 60% of the median income was somewhat arbitrary and needed to include relative poverty. He challenged how measurements can be deceiving, and statistically getting someone out of poverty may still leave them poor. He challenged the audience by saying that we did not really understand what caused poverty. For example we always assume that unemployment leads to poverty, whilst research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies was unable to link higher employment with a reduction in poverty. Much was made about poverty of the ‘in work’ population (something we often see at LEYF), itself mitigated to some degree by Child Tax Credits; although now a situation clearly challenged by the Chancellor’s budget decision to reduce access to tax credits.
The editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson told us that poverty was not sexy and it certainly did not sell newspapers. Apparently, the public simply don’t get the notion of poverty. They don’t see people starving and so are unable to understand the issue; it is in effect a hidden problem. And it seemed no-one had a solution that might change this.
Finally, the debate began to focus on Early Years and the importance of early intervention. Reference was made to the negative impact of maternal deprivation, along with persistent and severe poverty on children’s development and their resulting low attainment, which in turn leads to lower levels of lifetime success.
The same subject was also raised on Tuesday by the APPG on social mobility, whose report looks at the causes of social mobility and what that means for policy makers. Called 7 Key Truths about Social Mobility, this must-read report tells us that in fact we don’t yet fully understand social mobility. It points out that to have true social mobility, some people have to go up and others go down, and goes on to say that social mobility is stuck in the UK; apparently those of us in my age bracket (guess) have seen greater social mobility than our children. It may be that education is the factor differentiating us from our parents, and so is the most effective lever. Nowadays it seems less effective, as so many young people already have a more equitable start. Either way, the seven truths they found were:
- The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between the ages of 0 and 3, and primarily in the home
- You can break the cycle through education
- The most important controllable factor is the quality of your teaching
- It’s also about what happens after the school bell rings
- University is the top determinant of later opportunities – so pre-18 attainment is key
- Later pathways to mobility are possible, given the will and support
- Personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain
Unsurprisingly, none of this is new to me (or I’m sure most of the readers of this blog). In fact, it’s this very understanding that drove me into the arms of cultural capital research which now permeates much of what we do at LEYF, from both an economic and social perspective. It’s summed up in this equally relevant interim report on Sure Start delivery in 2011/12, produced by the APPG for SureStart. It states that
All those involved in providing early education and childcare services should encourage a broad social mix of children to attend high quality childcare services. They should address any barriers that may hinder participation by vulnerable children, such as geographical access, the cost of transport or a sense of discrimination and stigma.
It immediately brings to mind a recent example of cultural capital at work in our Holcroft Community Nursery. In this case, two children were on a holiday placement having recently left for school. Chatting away happily – and blissfully ignoring the adults seated nearby who only tuned in ‘mid flow’ – the conversation went something like this…
Child #1: “Key Managers?? Yes, Sherrine is my Key Manager.”
Child #2: “What does Key Manager mean?”
Child #1: “It’s your friend to tell you what to do, make sure you’re OK. Like the leader they are always the oldest.”
Child #2: “Oh, OK.”
I could draw a number of conclusions from this, but the most powerful for me was the sense of connection and confidence those children had about how things work. Cultural capital is the means of firstly helping children gain knowledge and then continue to develop and create it by understanding the system, before sharing this knowledge and making new connections. This is what helps children get on, and it’s when children struggle to understand the system that they are truly disadvantaged.
This week the chancellor announced that the government will extend the free entitlement of 15 hours of nursery education to every disadvantaged two-year-old over the next four years. This expansion will be funded by an additional investment of around £300 million per year so that by the end of 2015 about 40 per cent of all two year olds (130,000) will benefit from the new entitlement.
Good job for Mr. Osborne and a possible sop to many disenchanted women who are bearing quite a lot of the brunt of the ongoing economic slump.
The arrival of more two years olds under the free offer may be good news for many settings, especially as the grant for two year olds currently covers the real costs of provision, unlike the grant for the three and four year olds.
The rationale for providing places for those two year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds must be predicated on the research, showing how good quality childcare can improve the child’s life chances and pay dividends to the child, the family and society as a whole. It’s clearly an investment with a serious social return. Sarah Teather MP tells us that
Our priority is to increase social mobility by helping children from the poorest backgrounds in their earliest years. High quality early education is the key to making a difference early on in a child’s life. It’s crucial for their healthy development and means they’re not falling behind before they have even started primary school.
Sarah Teather MP
However, the most powerful words here are good quality. There is also a raft of research that demonstrates what good quality needs to look like, only it’s not always either interpreted or applied consistently. Ofsted still find that the lowest quality childcare remains in the poorest and most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. It’s shockingly unacceptable.
One aspect of quality is the ability to understand the developmental stages of children. For two year olds this means recognizing and celebrating the twoness of two. There has been an inclination to overly focus on education to the detriment of care (yes I know the two are integral, but I fear not everyone knows that!), pushing small children into an inappropriate and unsuitable curriculum or environment. Two year olds are just recent babies, and this needs to be considered as we welcome them into our nurseries and help them become independent and confident little people. It’s a skilled and sensitive role for those adults working with this group of children, and one not to be underestimated.
The experiences children receive in their early years are crucial to overall brain development. When a child has an experience, connections are formed between brain cells; so the cells are dependent on experience to create these connections. After eight months a child exposed to a nurturing and stimulating environment may already have 1,000 trillion connections created; so again these connections physically grow and develop the brain.
As such, it is primarily the early experiences and warm and consistent parents, who cuddle and talk to their children and provide fun learning experiences, that largely determine the basic strength and function of the brain’s wiring system and so promote healthy brain development for their children. By contrast, babies who do not receive consistent and caring responses to their cries, or those whose cries are met with abuse, develop brain connections to prepare them to cope in that environment. As a result their ability to learn and respond to nurturing and kindness may be impaired.
The brain organizes through a ‘use it or lose it’ process: the brain eliminates or strengthens connections in an effort to become more efficient. So, experiences that are repeated frequently lead to brain connections that are retained. It is Repetition That Makes Strong Connections. And consistency is key. The brain feels comfortable when it knows what to expect. When children learn, through repetition, that a parent (or care provider) will be there for them when needed, they can relax and feel safe.
In short, providing loving interaction, adequate amounts of sleep, healthy nutrition, time playing outdoors, physical activity, lots of creative play and exploration contributes to a child with a healthy brain.
To further explore this crucial aspect of development in the early years, we are starting a working group of staff at LEYF who care for and really understand two year olds. We have already learnt from the Two Year Old pilot that we need to set simple benchmark assessment, help people revisit their understanding of what it means to be two and figure out a way of engaging parents to better understand and support their two year olds at home. But we cannot stop there.
If you have any thoughts or specific experiences in relation to this topic, please do add your comments below.
I have not written a blog for a week because some of you said you could not keep up with my output. Others have since asked ‘where is the blog?’ So I hope to now see a huge surge in readership. Either way…
It has been a week of conferences and events; not least one where I spent the morning talking about retaining good staff at the Nursery World Business Summit, and the afternoon joining Neil King our Head of HR as he presented on the concept of wellbeing at work. Neil is an engaging presenter, so I was very proud to witness such a good performance.
At this particular event, the question posed by the employers and HR people was this: how do you recruit and retain good staff in a sector that is by its very nature not well rewarded? Interestingly, pay was not a feature of retention, especially for those moving up the scale. More crucial factors are job satisfaction, good conditions, fun activities, induction, training, working for an organisation that shows its staff in the best light; and most of all a manager who makes you feel important. I often say to staff that we have a long way to go to praise our staff with the same vigour and enthusiasm and warmth that we use when praising the children. There is, of course, a whole set of reasons for this and one is culture.
Earlier this week, Neil Fenton and I attended a Leadership Bootcamp organised for all 25 winners of the Big Venture Challenge. I had no idea what to expect, but I wore boots just in case. The trainer began the day by asking if anyone was from North America. There was silence, and then she said
Well, I am going to ask you to do something very North American and give yourselves a round of applause.” (or bualadh bos as we say inIreland).
The group responded obediently with a timid clap, and I cringed. To me all this is a bit over the top; praise has to be earned and valued by those receiving it. At that point, I hadn’t done anything that I thought merited a bualadh bos except to find the venue and arrive on time. (Actually, the whole of LEYF is probably applauding now, as my time-keeping can be somewhat erratic!)
Praise giving and receiving in the UK is much more of a timorous affair. We tend to be diffident about drawing attention to ourselves, and in some ways that shows sensitivity and courtesy. But we do have to get a better balance; we need to be more able to praise more often and in a way that is valued by those giving and receiving. Thank you for turning up is never going to do it – unless of course it’s snowing and you have walked across two boroughs to get to work.
On Friday this week, we will be having our Annual Staff Conference in Pimlico Academy, a state of the art local community academy run by an Irish head teacher. When we first met we both commented on the difference between our own school buildings and the academy. The only similarity to mine was that we had two staircases, except one was for the nuns and dignitaries.
The conference and the attention to detail we try to apply is one way we celebrate and give public acclamation to each and every staff member. It’s a great occasion that sees the whole of LEYF come together. It might sound cheesy but it’s not; it’s good old fashioned meeting up, eating, playing, laughing, learning, catching up and sharing ideas via the roving Vox Pop. We will also be catered for by LEYF chefs, which guarantees us really good food.
We have had great conferences since we started them five years ago, and this one will be no exception – with speakers including Chief Superintendent John Carnochan from the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, talking about the power of early intervention (something he knows a lot about, as he sees the results in action every day). In fact, Scotland is already a key feature of LEYF events in the form of Alice Sharp, a gifted and entertaining presenter who really connects big concepts such as early intervention into real behaviour with children and parents.
Finally this year, we are promised a visit from Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, and I sincerely hope he comes. I heard him speak with passion about teachers – not that they appeared to value this! – and I want to hear the same power and passion shared with and about Early Years at our conference. A public affirmation for each and every LEYF staff member from the top. So again, I hope he comes.
After the day’s opening speeches, the day is littered with great learning workshops which aim to stretch, extend, collect and collate all the things we do and can do to make the whole of LEYF communication rich. From, flip charts to post-its, blackberries to iPhones, we will do our best to ensure plenty of shout-outs and tweeting. So, if you want to hear about what’s going on or want to interact with one of the best sector, staff-lead learning events, send us a message with the hashtag #leyfconf11!
This week has been rather a fest of networking, the most noteworthy of which was one evening and one day attending the Conservative Party Conference. A Conference virgin, I was unprepared for the sheer intensity of the networking, posturing and positioning among the very male audience. It put me in mind of a quote by Armstrong Williams that ‘Networking is an essential part of building wealth’.
The conference audience was seduced by the charisma of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, lapping up their passionate espousals of their pet topics, London and Education. I was surprised their boyish charm won over such a male audience, but no one would argue (in that hall) against the call to arms to save children and the nation from poverty. Michael Gove spoke eloquently for 40 minutes without notes, praising and celebrating the importance of good schools, successful academies and the development of free schools. I dropped a note to him afterwards asking that he now replicate the same power and passion in support of Early Years, making sure we mitigate the risk of disadvantage by celebrating great nurseries and committed staff whilst stopping the drain of very small children into schools.
The conference format included panels of real people introduced by ministers or members of their teams which were designed to marry pragmatism with policy. They were well received, especially young people explaining how they overcame the consequences of previous government policies. The only thing missing from the panel was social enterprise; maybe next year! Although I do have to wonder how many of us will still be left clinging to the cliff edge of this recession this time next year. According to Allison Ogden Newton of Social Enterprise London, social enterprises are currently trying to scale the north face of business, which makes them heroic. Christopher Reeve, the original Superman, said a hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. The Tory Conference seemed to applaud this principle, so let’s hope that a few of us in the world of social enterprise will win out for another year and be there ready to present to all conferences.
On Thursday, we enjoyed an visit from the deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg and the Secretary of Sate for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith where they officially launched changes to the rules . One of our trustees texted me to say we were beginning to collect ministers like Top Trumps. What I had learned at the conference is that meeting them was of no use unless you could get their ear and interest.
I was therefore pleased to be able to knobble Mr Clegg and suggest that his Social Mobility policy might need a push to get it more visible. When it was launched Mr Clegg talked about fairness and the means everyone having the chance to do well, irrespective of their beginnings. He said that
Fairness means that no one is held back by the circumstances of their birth. Fairness demands that what counts is not the school you went to or the jobs your parents did, but your ability and your ambition.”
I also used my fast developing networking skills to persuade Iain Duncan Smith to consider our Step into Learning programme, which helps us prepare NEETS for the world of work as part of our growing LEYF apprenticeship offer. He eagerly promised to come back and talk some more.
I finished a long and arduous week judging the Nursery of the Year for the NMT awards. It was quite a positive experience since the five finalists I met – chosen randomly from across England – were passionate, engaged and genuinely keen to give children and parents the best childcare experience possible. This was contrasted by a rather depressing article in the Evening Standard (7th Oct, Girl is forced to stay at nursery as all primary schools are full).
Ironically, staying in nursery until you are rising six is how we should be operating, not pushing children into school at four and thinking it’s OK; oh how the battle to save children from too early schooling is no nearer to winning. In the meantime, children in Finland happily play at nursery until they are six – and then leave school as the most successful young people in Europe, ready and more capable to take on the world. It seems to me that it’s a wise society indeed that truly values and invests in its nurseries.
This week I went to visit Dara Hogan at Fledglings Nurseries, part of An Cosán, a community organisation and charity in Tallaght, Co Dublin. I was accompanied by Heather Fernandez, our lead Research Associate on social franchising, scaling and replication, with Middlesex University.
The term franchising freaks many people out because they associate it with aggressive, profit-focused commercial growth like McDonalds. Instead, I like the opportunity it presents as a business model with the potential to help replicate good, socially enterprising nurseries across the UK. In doing so, many more children would benefit, more quickly and effectively, and greater strides could be taken toward eradicating child poverty; hence our research.
It is also the shared view of Dara Hogan who I met on a Scaling Up programme run by the School of Social Entrepreneurs in January this year. He has set up five nurseries in this deprived part of Dublin, on the basis that good quality Early Years can help mitigate some of the worst aspects of social deprivation and potential educational failure. Like me, he thinks franchising may be a good model to speed up the dissemination of good nurseries and touch the lives of many more children, and so he is in the process of growing the nursery group.
The Irish are renowned for their friendliness and hospitality and this was very evident during our visit. We were taxied around Dublin by Denis, who gave us a guide to each locality and pointed out a range of areas of interest from a political and social perspective. He could compete with London’s best Black Cab drivers with his knowledge of heritage sites in central Dublin.
Our programme of visits was wide and varied, but each person gave generously of their time and engaged in a way that made us feel we had something to offer them – although at times I could see their puzzlement, as we tried to understand the different ways we design and support similar services.
The social problems of Dublin and London are not dissimilar; drugs and alcohol abuse, unemployment, poverty and emotional deprivation are the issues of the day, and the people we visited are looking for solutions that work just as we are, solutions that can be scaled up and measured to show a benefit, both now and in the future.
Our two day visit began in Tallaght with a visit was to Breda at Barnardos. She runs a Government funded childcare and family support programme in a building down a littered windswept alley. Her passion and enthusiasm was palpable, and she could link to the work being done in the UK through her daughter – an educational psychologist in Southwark who had been challenging her to dump the notion of school readiness in favour of ready schools. It initiated an interesting philosophical debate. She was keen on giving a voice to the practitioner, whilst also finding a way to support free childcare for more two year olds. I was pleased to be able to say that we were going to develop this in the UK as a result of a successful pilot. She introduced me to Maria Aarts and Marte Meo and was as shocked that I had not heard of her as I was when she told me that Irish Barnardos were not in anyway connected to the UK charity.
Our second visit was to a very modern, architect designed building which housed the Childhood Development Initiative. We were welcomed with a pot of tea by Grainne Smith and her colleagues Marguerite and Tara. They are part of a commissioning and evaluation team developing childcare initiatives, funded by government and matched charity funds. We had a lively conversation about evaluations and randomised control trials of organisations and services with a heavy emphasis on evaluating process. I was particularly intrigued to hear this, as it’s something I am keen to develop as part of our multi-generational project.
After a lunch which included homemade scones, we spoke to Jean Courtney who confirmed the importance of business skills among childcare providers in all sectors, but especially in areas where the continued success of nurseries and family support services is particularly needed by children.
Our last visit took us into the centre of Dublin, where we had a tremendously animated conversation with Beth Fagan who runs the Parent Child Home Programme at the National College of Ireland. She was passionate about helping parents apply learning in their homes, so we know it changes their beliefs, behaviour and attitude, and pointed us in the direction of much new reading. It also led to a proposal for her colleague Aoife, who heads up the CPD programme, that we try and apply the same thinking when it comes to making sure we better embed and measure action learning in childcare settings – so we know the training and support we offer practitioners is actually embedded and applied consistently to ultimately change behaviour (a philosophy already very much embedded in the LEYF approach to learning and development).
Dara rounded off the long and fascinating visit with a dinner prepared by his good wife Mary. It made me realise why hospitality needs to be a core value of any organisation looking to reach out and make a difference to those who feel alienated and isolated.
Our second day was spent at An Cosán, the umbrella charity which incubated the Fledglings idea. Its main service is to provide training at all levels for local people, with a real emphasis on opportunities and learning for local women – so they were very hot on community leadership and ways of empowering women to develop their confidence and abilities. Once again, the day was punctuated by hospitality and kindness – and more scones! We learned a lot more about the importance of talking and extending ideas, as I had some passionate exchanges with their lively CEO Liz Waters. It was a another great lesson in the importance of taking time out of the ordinary day to engage with other people; to stretch your thinking and learn something new.
The last few weeks have been a bit of an intellectual whirlwind, which always gets me really excited. So for those people who think working with children is all about being nice and patient (and washing your hands a lot), it actually provides a platform for a great deal of intellectual challenge.
On Thursday 19th May, I got to hear Professor James J Heckman expounding his theories on the importance of investing in the Early Years at the Daycare Trust Lecture organised to celebrate their 25th anniversary. It was a fascinating romp through 40 years worth of research, which continues to show how investing in the Early Years makes sense for the child, the family, the community and society. Two facts in particular resonated powerfully with me; firstly that children’s social and emotional skills are most potent when it comes to extending children’s cognitive development; and secondly adversity gets under the skin and determines the child’s biology.
Heckman also drew a gasp from the audience with his findings that by year three, children from ‘welfare’ families had 500 words, those from working class families had 700 and children from professional families had 1100. What more can you say here, other than parents really need to be made aware of this, so they can do something to address the issue. He then concluded by reminding us that ‘top-up’ programmes for literacy and numeracy in schools had no measureable benefit, nor did reducing the numbers of children in school classes. Instead, what really counted was giving children the best experience before they turned three.
Earlier that same day, I had the pleasure of a cup of tea with the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. In these straitened times, I suspected we might have a cup of tea in the hand. My mother first experienced this when I came to live in London, and she never could understand that you could drink tea without a plate of something to go with it. I have inherited this habit, so asked our children to help out – which under the tutelage of Feyi from our Marsham Street community nursery team, led to fresh batch of tasty banana biscuits! Suitably nourished, our conversation focused a lot on the importance of Early Years – in particular the youngest children and the significance of what we at LEYF call cultural capital. Professor Heckman reinforced the same, with the articulacy that so many Americans possess, and I hope Mr Gove’s team share.
Later in the week, I was able to push again for investment in the Early Years at a Dragon’s Den type experience where six social enterprises pitched to about 50 investors; an event organised by Clearly So and hosted by Coutts. We were trying to persuade investors to support our growth plans with investment that balanced straight financial returns with a social premium return. It was very scary, not only since I was on first and the only woman, but also as I had to do this in 5 minutes. Somehow I managed to do both, whilst at the same time mingling with bankers and investors in Coutts’ august headquarters. Interestingly, the venue itself was the Coutts library, bequeathed by Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), granddaughter of Thomas Coutts, founder of the bank. More importantly, Angela was a great Victorian philanthropist, setting up Ragged Schools for poor children; she was also instrumental in founding the NSPCC. Personally, I love being somewhere which has the hand of a great woman on it! They also have piped poetry in the bathrooms, which I thought was quite wonderful, so I will be checking out if we could do this at LEYF - with a few nursery rhymes thrown into the mix!
The entire experience and subsequent conversations make it clear that a fresh and full debate is needed, exploring the complex world of social investment with a view to developing some sort of fund, underpinned with a clear and philosophical set of principles, specifically geared to drive more investors into this area. We have to move from an ideology of charitable donation to social investment, with a longer-term look rather than an immediate feel good. My previous bedside reading (the enjoyable Larkrise to Candleford by Flora Thompson) has now been replaced with books about investment and may soon, I fear, also have to include those about tax options for social investors. Who says you never stop learning? Or as Francis Bacon said, a wise man will make more opportunities than he finds. I for one hope this is an opportunity.
I finally concluded a busy week by spending a lively day with the team in our Centre for Research, Learning and Development. It was a bit of a roller coaster of a day, as we shaped a clear business plan for the year ahead, with the team learning the stark financial realities of running a training business in an economic downturn. Former Head of Children’s Services at LEYF and now Lead for Quality, Learning & Development, Gary Simpson gave us the gem of a quote from Dolly Parton with which we all headed into the sunset:
The way I see it is, if you want a rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”