On Friday morning I traipsed up to Camden to hear Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills announce his plans for Early Years at a Press Conference. I was determined to hear it from him directly, given the realities of what is happening on the ground at the moment.
However I feel it merits a deeper look, especially as I have had to tolerate articles produced by ill-informed journalists and commentators all weekend pronouncing on this report from a position of ignorance. It’s true the Minister shares laudable ambitions with the sector, not least the view that:
Every parent wants the best for their child. They expect childcare to be safe and of good quality, because high quality childcare promotes children’s development in the early years. The availability of affordable, safe and stimulating care is crucial in supporting families by enabling parents to work. It is equally crucial to the development of babies and young children as the foundation for their future success at school and in life.
(Childcare report, 2013).
However, it is the Minister’s rather clumsy attempt to use same single stone to solve the complex issues of childcare costs and quality that is her undoing. The report is her response to two reviews; the Nutbrown Review which examined the robustness of childcare qualifications and the Childcare Commission which looked at cost of childcare.
By using the same stone, the Minister risks killing both birds (the issues of childcare qualifications and the cost of childcare). The problem is the birds are very different; one a swan and the other a skylark. The swan represents childcare for parents, helping them glide into their return to work and masking all the busy paddling underneath to balance the often competing challenges of the working parent. The skylark on the other hand is high quality childcare, which helps children soar, find their voice and expand their horizons. Re-read Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ beautiful poem The Caged Skylark which captures the consequences of being caged and trapped.
I have tried to simplify the report by highlighting what I consider the eight key points:
1. We need more qualified staff to improve the status and quality of the workforce.
Indeed we do. We have been saying this for an age, and fully support Professor Nutbrown. However, 84% staff have level 3 diploma so let’s not demotivate them.
2. Many staff lack basic skills, so the entry level will include English and Maths A to C.
I agree. Again we have been saying this for a long time and I recall being lambasted for suggesting such. I continue to believe we need to introduce basic teaching for staff, so they spell and clearly articulate in a grammatically correct way. How can children learn a minimum of 5000 words if staff cannot string a sentence together? What are some schools doing I wonder??
3. Introduce Early Years Teachers.
OK, but make sure we don’t abandon the 11,000 EYPs and ensure all graduate staff are able to complete this if they want. Most staff cannot afford post graduate training. Employers cannot fund this either, as about 70% do not expect to make any profit this year according to NDNA Business Survey.
4. Deregulate so we can decrease the number of staff to children, particularly under 3s. This means up to one staff member with 6 toddlers and 1 staff member with 4 babies. There are provisos to applying these ratios, such as needing a qualified staff member. A consultation will be launched to decide what qualifications staff should have and the findings will be implemented in September 2013.
This will lead to big problems, not least in the UK where education is child led and based on quality of engagement and suitable environment. There is a genuine fear that we may see lines of chairs with children strapped in for large portions of the day. In addition there are real risks of accidents and an increase in stress levels for both children and members of staff. Children coming from poor families are at particular risk. We know the right pedagogical approach ensures we can play a huge role in helping them soar like skylarks. I could go on…
5. Reduced ratios will mean we can charge less to parents and free up more places.
We absolutely cannot make the figures work here. Reducing the number of staff will only affect the quality of output and standards (see above point).
6. Ofsted is now the sole barometer of quality.
Risky it offers little more than a snapshot once every 47 months.
7. Set up Childminders’ Agencies like Denmark.
I know little about this except Denmark found its methods were cumbersome and expensive and are changing their model. Ask Birgitte Nyborg from Borgen!
8. Make it easier for schools to take younger children.
Why? Being in school does not in itself guarantee quality. Is this a move towards universal childcare? Better check on the Nursery Education Grant rates then, as schools may prove quite expensive.
So there is much to debate, and I would urge we all respond to the consultation. In the meantime, I would challenge the Minister to continue investigating how the full £5 - £7 billion is spent on childcare (it seems the figure changes depending where you read it). Page 16 of the childcare report is too vague in my opinion.
In the meantime, perhaps those of you caring for under threes should consider recruiting Michael Rosen‘s Mary Anne…
She would leave the room
And you wouldn’t mind
But then you’d discover
She’d left her eyes behind
However even Mary Anne could not keep up the pace (no matter her qualifications)…
It was a terrible shame
That it was all so drastic
But that’s what happens
When you are made of elastic!
Michael Rosen, Book of Nonsense
I went to the Conservative Conference because I was invited to speak at a couple of Fringe events. Having done a day and a half at the conference last year, I felt more able to navigate my way around this time; plotting a pathway through the oodles of fringe meetings, networking and general schmoozing. I laughed out loud when I realised I was wearing my red autumn coat and sporting an equally red sore nose. Amid the greys, blues and muted lilac, I think I may have stood out just a little!
The Fringe meeting I was speaking at was organised by Policy Exchange and centred around four questions. The panel was chaired by Eleanor Mills, the Associate Editor of The Sunday Times. She was very relaxed and, like many successful career women, is a governor at the school of her own young children. The MP representing the Conservatives was Claire Perry who sits in Devizes and had been on the Parent Committee of her local Playgroup when her son was little. Lucy Lee is the new Head of Education at Policy Exchange, also has small children and is governor of a secondary school. Finally, there was Professor Helen Penn from the University of East London… and me!
Q1: Who should pay for childcare?
Well that is the big question, and I continue to argue that no one can answer it until we decide what childcare is for and what we as a society want for our children. Childcare expanded when Tony Blair made the link between working and getting out of poverty, in which case lack of childcare was seen as a barrier. It has since been tacked on to the social mobility agenda. In the meantime, we have become increasingly aware of the long-term benefits of early education for all children and how it can ease their path to a successful economic and emotional life. We all know about the economic benefits this brings to society as a whole, and those who don’t know should read James Heckman as a starter for ten.
Much was made of the differentials between the UK and the other OECD countries; the fact we seem to spend 1.1% of GDP on childcare, yet parents still make the highest proportion of the cost. The question was tackled with a raft of statistics from Professor Penn, who said much needs to be challenged about what we put into current figures, how this skews the actual money spent and would explain why we seem to be getting very poor value for taxpayer’s money. She has just finished a report waiting for approval at the DfE which will no doubt be both enlightening and informative.
As you would expect, Scandinavia came up and the fact that children age one to six can access childcare there as a universal right; that parents manage to pay less towards the cost (as little as 10%) and the quality of service given to all children remains high.
Q2 Are we over-regulated?
The issue of deregulation came up, and as ever we found ourselves having to de-mythise the notion that registration was a major factor in our high costs. (It was something I heard at another fringe, Britannia Unchained; a mishmash of clichés and reflection which, despite the efforts of one, provided a solid historical framework to shape a future debate.)
Of course we have regulation, but the challenge is not the actual regulations (which are light compared to the rest of Europe), but the many and varied interpretations that local authorities make around the guidance in their role as keeper of the public purse:what we need is a reduction in the more general red tape that allows us to speed up business decisions. Making us VAT exempt would also help, alongside sorting out rents and lease arrangements. I suggested they look at Ontario and how they subsidise childcare salaries – especially in nurseries serving poorer neighbourhoods – and how this seemed to have a good impact on retention, quality and morale. Yes, you spotted it – the debate is rather depressingly focused on all the same old chestnuts! We so need to just get on and get an overall strategy sorted; the cost of regulation is really not the issue.
Finally, as we spoke about the importance of quality, we touched on issues such as the fact that children go to school too early in the UK; how if we kept them in a nursery setting (using an appropriate nursery education model), they might end up like Finnish children, top of the literacy and numeracy tree. What is more, we would no longer have to spend £9billion annually on addressing basic literacy issues. We might also solve some of the issues re the shortage of school places too.
I think now more than ever we need to examine the UNESCO Caring and Learning Together report, as recommended by Peter Moss, and use the structure to reconsider what we are doing in line with a discussion with members of the public about what we need for all children (a message that could be easily translated for other sectors such as elderly care).
So let’s think about an integrated model which is supported by Government, not supplanted by it; a model that weaves together all the factors below so we can achieve a vision like our friends in Scotland, and make the UK the best place to be a child:
- Type of provision
Not forgetting how helpful it would be if it were led by an integrated set of Government departments with real power, funds and decison-making responsibility, not always looking over their shoulders for the veto from the Treasury.
The Conference season is upon us, and so the launch of ideas for manifestos rain down upon our ears. Clichés and soundbites abound as the Party Leaders try and outdo each other with their cleverness. The Press is having a field day comparing dull and duller (or as I would suggest Dumb and Dumber). The risk to the credibility of any leader is that he will be hoisted by his own petard of stupid announcements, impossible promises and incoherent policy. This time, it seems the Early Years is first in the firing line.
The Lib Dems started the ball rolling by announcing £100m capital to spend on building more nurseries for two year olds. Do we really need more nurseries, or shall we just start by filling the ones that are empty from other bad policy decisions? Actually, what we really need is revenue to pay for the places. It was therefore somewhat of an irony when two days later the Government, including the Lib Dems, revealed that £158 million is to be taken from the Early Intervention Grant to fund about half the cost of the Two Year Old programme.
Here is another irony, when the last Government was in power, Local Authorities complained that their ability to spend their funds was far too stymied by ring-fencing. The new Government came in and responded to the complaints by removing the ring fence and told them that they were all localists now. Now with this new announcement, a hybrid has emerged with localism and ring-fencing all in the same shrinking pot, with local authorities instructed to spend a % of their Early Intervention Grant to pay for the cost of the Two Year olds. Graham Allen, who wrote two reports on the importance of Early Intervention, has written to the Prime Minister about the impact of reallocating the funds. He is arguing that there has already been a 23 percent reduction in the EIG 2010/2012. Top slicing it further (for example the proposed 17 percent cut in 2013/4) to cover the two year olds will make taking Early Intervention to scale – with evidence based programmes in every locality – much harder if not impossible.
I found all this out on my way to Coventry, where I had been asked to talk about two year olds. I am not sure of the origin of the saying ‘sent to Coventry’, but it certainly felt a little bit of a punishment reading about these announcements on a two hour journey with London Midland. Frankly, I think the Government could do with spending a little time on the train thinking through a coherent plan before doing anything rash.
During my presentation, I avoided the issue of funding. I focused instead on how we get on with making it happen irrespective of Party Politics. When we get bogged down in a spending discussion, we inevitably get stuck and then any creativity and pragmatism gets lost.
The sad thing is that the policy to offer two year old children from poor families free childcare, although laudable, is a missed opportunity. Instead, it is more just another bit of tinkering. Firstly, it reaffirms the split between childcare and education (a disaster in itself as it means we affirm said segregation). The former is seen as a private service to parents who want to work and the latter not only a right for all, but in fact a public good (except it is poorly funded and not universal). This policy was a great opportunity to weave the two into one coherent approach, and do what the much lauded Scandinavians already have: a universal entitlement that complements family life. It could have been the perfect opportunity to stop confusing education with schooling.
So even if we get the £100m to spend in areas of need; if it’s well planned and provides appropriate settings for tiny children, it still won’t be enough. The reality is that some two year olds may end up in schools or hastily cobbled together spaces. What we need to do is take control of this by insisting and ensuring that wherever children are placed, the environment reflects an educational philosophy that provides the best pedagogical experience. The sector needs to avoid being swept up in pre-election manifesto canvassing and show some fortitude and tenacity. We need to take a handle on how we give children really good quality education, no matter where they are. This means understanding the care element and being able to have pedagogical conversations that explain what we do, why we do it and what it looks like. Leaders must understand what two year olds need to develop, enjoy and succeed.
Let’s not forget the key message from the Olympics, and how it inspired children not just to achieve their potential but to surpass their ambitions. The good leaders of this country might do well to remember this when they are planning their Conference speeches. We know times are hard, but they will be a lot harder if they do not show some moral courage right now.
It’s time our politicians remembered the wise council of Confucius – that great leaders have the courage to do what is right. If they could only heed this, perhaps they would do a better job for our beautiful two year-olds.
A LEYF approach to Men in Childcare: not quite as quick as saying Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Not so long ago, David Stevens, Manager of the Angel Nursery, which for a while had 4 male staff out of a team of five, represented us at the Men in Childcare conference in Edinburgh. He had already been to the Men in Childcare Network Ireland International Conference, where he was the only UK representative and had to cope with the high jinks of the Irish and the Danes and the Scots! Enough said. Since then he has become even more interested in why there should be men in childcare and constantly urges me not to take it off the radar.
David and I have long questioned the actual reasons for having men in childcare. We are less than impressed by the standard responses we hear across the sector. The usual reasons trotted out are all about fear and barriers to entry. These include poor pay, lack of promotion opportunities, poor status, fear of accusations of abuse and paedophilia, discomfort working in such a highly female work environment and an expectation that one man can address the shortfall of positive male roles in so many children’s lives. Reading that would you want to come into childcare?
David feels all of this detracts from the main question which is “Do you want to work with children?” When speaking to our male LEYFstaff (of which there are 8% of the workforce) we found that they had all come into childcare because they thought they could be good Early Years Practitioners. For them being a sole man in a nursery was probably the biggest barrier and so we now try and place two men in each nursery, though this is not always possible. Generally, the men working at LEYF were both annoyed and depressed that all the talk of men in childcare became negative and focused on barriers to entry. Many reiterated that they always wanted to work with small children and that what we should be looking for is men who want to work with small children because they are interested in child development and how children learn and they think they have the ability to give them a really fun and exciting experience. The same argument or scenario does not play out in the Primary Schools as men ride up glass elevators to senior management and headteacher positions before you can say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
David has been involved with some very interested organisations drawn together by the Daycare Trust with the support of the DfE. However unlike Europe where Manner in Kitas received 14 million euros for theory based research into the benefit of men in childcare we are doing this on the usual barter and free gratis approach. Europe is also focusing on gender and equality issues which I think would be interesting and avoid us falling into the usual knee-jerk response that until men really take a hold in childcare we will see no improvements in pay or status. How depressing is that for a female led sector? What is needed is for the whole sector to be understood by the public and that policy makers help shape policies which assist the public to understand what we do… yes it’s more than smiling, washing hands and being patient while our male colleagues play really good rough and tumble while acting as surrogate uncle to all the children in female led families!
So here is what we are going to do:
- Set up a London Men in Childcare Network beginning by bringing the LEYF male staff together to discuss the issues and formulate a shape.
- Find out areas to research including David’s big question which asks us to compare the levels of physical and superhero play in nurseries with and without male colleagues? Then examine the impact that has on boys and girls play. Does it make a difference to their development?
- Use Men in Childcare website set up by Kenny Spence to post new information.
- Work more with our local Schools and Academies to promote men into childcare both through our apprenticeship programme but also as part of the schools careers options. (I feel a film coming on…)
- Seek more engagement from parents in the issue. Get a sense of their views about the promotion of the role of men as carers and educators of children. I read recently that parents use blogs as their main source of information. LEYF parents, have a look at this!
Men in Childcare is one aspect of a much bigger question which is what is the role of men in our society today? It’s certainly changing at different social, economic and political levels so let’s weave this into a much more comprehensive debate.
Read your two year-old a bedtime story, and start to slowly peel off the label of disadvantage before it sticks
This week has just disappeared, and that is partly because I had meetings every evening. I was flagging by Thursday and was keen to just go home, put my slippers on and watch The Only Way is Marbs. Instead I went to the launch dinner of Social Business International, and talked about social finance, loans, debt and banks using their balance to leverage more money. It’s a very pertinent issue for anyone wanting to grow their business. Getting capital is not easy.
On the train home, I spotted an article by BookTrust which again points to the important cognitive benefits children gain if their parents read them a bedtime story. Supporting learning in the home is something I am very keen to help make happen. At LEYF we are examining every step to this at the moment, so we can have a set of measurable inputs that will give us a set of equally measurable outcomes, and so show that by doing certain activities we will support the home learning bridge, to and from nursery.
Doing this is particularly important if we are to get value for money from the two year old programme. It is our tax after all, so we want it to be well used: every child who has the cosy experience of having a bedtime story, snuggled up with their Mum or Dad, instead of having a DVD stuck on the TV is a success. (When I babysit my nephew, we have to negotiate anything between 5 and 25 books; there is only so much Thomas the Tank Engine and the Fat Controller a girl can take!)
Finally, I was reminded how easily labels are applied, and so much harder to remove. (Just think about the dreadful term NEET.) So the Daily Mail surpassed itself this week when it asked you to check Is your child a psychopath? The journalist had clearly been freaked out by Tilda Swinton in the film We Need To Talk About Kevin. So take heed and watch how we throw around the terms ’2 year-olds from disadvantaged families’; we are already sticking a label on children who are little more than babies. No amount of soaking in hot water will remove that label if its stuck on at two.
The budget is of interest to me for two main reasons. Firstly, what will it do to help parents better afford childcare, and secondly would it do anything to help a social businesses like ours? Having trawled papers of all political persuasions, I found this budget has done at least something for parents, but nothing much for social businesses or charities.
Raising the tax free personal allowance to £9,205 next year is good for all staff working in Early Years, as this is historically a low paid sector, yet the drop in the higher rate tax from £42,475 to £41,450 will put many parents under even more pressure, with less again available for childcare.
Elsewhere I was pleased to see a fairer approach in the changes to child benefit. I had already tweeted our disgruntlement about the initial unfairness of reducing it for families with one working parent, whilst allowing households with two working parents claim it even when their combined salaries exceeded the same limit. The new model seems fairer, although this first step towards producing a universal credit may be a retrograde one in the long term. Once a small snip makes it through, it will be easier for future Chancellors to trim away along the edge and soon the tablecloth has become a napkin.
I thought the Chancellor missed a trick by not improving working tax credits. It was a good move to exempt families with disabled children from changes here, but he could have done more to improve opportunities for all working parents – for instance letting them qualify for tax credits after 16 hours work. This would have meant fewer families would lose out when choosing to work part time, instead of being worse off than when they were on benefit.
Tax credits offer possibly the single greatest means to helping parents cope with the real cost of working when paying for childcare, and so much more could easily have been done here to make work pay.
The commitment to end child poverty by 2020 looks to be once again in jeopardy, especially if the Chancellor cuts £10bn from the welfare budget by 2016. The promise to show us how our hard earned tax is used may be helpful here, so we can see exactly what the cuts will do to poorer families. Still, it remains grossly unfair that the poorest should bear the brunt of costs from the Government deficit.
Meanwhile, businesses were no doubt very pleased with the reduction in corporation tax, but sadly this makes no difference to social enterprises. The Chancellor offered no tax cuts for those of us in the social or charity worlds; nor did he improve access to social investment, which is key to helping grow and develop business in a way that has the potential to fundamentally change the way services are delivered to our communities. Access to social investment finance is the biggest barrier to business development in the social and charity sectors, but only the sixth barrier to ordinary businesses. Changes to the community investment tax could have made a massive difference here.
Finally, I do hope he keeps a lid on the reductions in UK planning laws. This country needs its green lungs. We spend a lot of time finding ways to give children in our nurseries fresh air and space to be themselves, and it seems to be getting harder every day. Competing with cars and developers is no mean feat. Allowing buildings on every site and squashing us all together will not be good for the aesthetic, physical or emotional well-being of anyone.
So what do we think of this budget? A small glimmer of growth, whilst keeping a tight rein on the budget remains the watchword for households and businesses alike.
Either way, I know one nursery rhyme we might all be learning this week…
A dime and a dollar
Took me by the collar
And whispered this word in my ear:
“We must leave you to-morrow,
But prithee don’t sorrow,
We’ll come back to see you next year.
Leroy F. Jackson
The National Audit Office report Delivering the free entitlement to education for three- and four-year-olds has sent the press into pessimism overdrive, telling us the £1.9bn spending on provision of the free entitlement by local authorities in 2011-12 (providing places for 831,800 in 28,630 settings) was a waste of money, with apparently no measurable benefits to children.
Absolute poppycock! The report actually said that it was probably too soon to tell, adding how there has been improvement in the Foundation Stage but this has not carried on into Primary School. Dare I say it’s maybe the hallowed Primary Schools that need addressing; or perhaps we need a serious conversation about what we as a country want for our children?
Unlike our contemporaries in Europe, we have never fully considered what we want for our small children; instead we simply react to external reports and anecdotal observations. What does measurement actually tell us if we are measuring the wrong or non-compatible things with the same set of measurements? Apparently, we want children to be happy, whilst at the same time ‘school ready’ and successful.
Perhaps, someone should listen to the many commentators suggesting that maybe schools are not the right place for children as young as three, and that if they were in nurseries for longer (like their apparently more successful counterparts in Europe) there would be even more improvement, sustained for much longer.
In addition to improvement, the report looked at the hoary chestnut of funding, unsurprisingly concluding that the Department and its partners do not yet sufficiently understand the relationship between this and local performance – including how far variations in rates paid to providers reflect legitimate local factors – to be confident that funding arrangements are efficient. For example, certain local authorities use funding to provide limited incentives for providers to improve quality, despite finding no links with take-up rates or quality. It’s no surprise to see the report noting how funding formulae are complex, yet despite this, transparency and fairness of funding was improving. (Although funding remained insufficient to cover the costs for some providers, nursery schools received a much higher level of payment than the rest of the sector.)
The report concluded that the Department for Education (DfE) needs to address variations in take-up when it comes to accessing high-quality provision – along with the impact on attainment in later years – if it is to achieve value for money and get the best possible return for children from its annual investment of some £1.9 billion. I vote this should become a central strategy to the current work being done and the reviews being undertaken, so that every DfE activity weaves together to deliver a coherent service, one which parents can both understand and buy into without all the confusion that is raised by so many emotive headlines.
I would caution that if we are to truly measure the longer term benefit, we must remember what we are measuring. Our children (including the two-year-olds) are babies and must be allowed to enjoy their childhood. Value for money is important, of course, but if we are showing improvement already let’s start from that premise; measure the right things in the right way. What we want is for children to have a happy childhood; Early Years is a crucial step towards that, but not a stick to be beaten with if children do less well in Primary Schools.
Mr Gove, I urge you again to take more interest in the Early Years and stop assuming that Primary Schools are perfect. Be as critical of them as you are of Secondary Schools, and let’s have a more in depth look at transition. Remember what this report says: there has been improvement in the Foundation Stage.
There has been so much for me to write about this week, it has been hard to choose! But as all blog guides say stick to one or two points, my views on the launch of the two year funding will have to wait for next week (sorry). In the meantime…
Global Enterprise Week kicked off with a youth-led event at the Westminster hub where we celebrated young entrepreneurs. I felt somewhat embarrassed to be on a panel of oldies, as most of the entrepreneurs were the same age as my children. I did however get an invitation to join a Chamber of Commerce, although could not be sure whether this was a compliment or reminder that I would never again be ‘down with the youth’!
On Tuesday I spoke at Understanding Social Enterprise in the very Christmassy Charing Cross Hotel; quite the Edwardian oasis in the busy forecourt of Charing Cross station. A great event, with so many people keen to change their business model to a social enterprise. It worries me though, just how many conversions and spin outs there are with only one customer. Social enterprises are businesses first and foremost and they need to know how they will survive in the market. Even more importantly, a social enterprise needs to be the best in the business, since any business operating from a social value is more open to criticism.
My constant advice is that you should:
- know your business
- know how it will make you a profit
- be able to explain your social value
- remember people choose you because you offer the highest standard in whatever sector you operate
Personally, I believe in social enterprises because the business is in itself the very means of reducing or dealing with a social problem.
The true purpose of business is to add value and make a difference – not just by providing useful services but also by adding value to the lives of employees, adding value to the life of the community, and adding value for the sake of future generations by treading as lightly as possible on the planet.”
Thursday was of course Social Enterprise Day when each year we give our Margaret Horn Lecture in celebration of a new and socially enterprising idea or issue relevant to Early Years. I introduced this now annual event in 2006 to celebrate our first paid Director who gave 40 years of her life creating something special. As a pupil of Octavia Hill she learned that you could be a charity and still charge people, whilst being enterprising in your responses to local social and economic needs. This year I felt privileged to give the lecture, and better still as it was hosted by the RSA and chaired by Matthew Taylor.
With the title ‘Child Poverty: why social franchising is a giant step in the right direction‘ this year’s lecture told the LEYF story, with a specific focus on the past 18 months. During this time, we examined our model to see how effective it might be in helping many more children achieve their potential and then take on the challenges of a fast changing world. In particular, we took a close look at our actual delivery model to check if we had consistently woven all our good practice into an outstanding curriculum and organizational set of practices, knowledge and attitudes. Working with the Centre for Enterprise and Economic Development Research at Middlesex University (supporting their work with Third Sector Research Centre at Birmingham University), we explored a number of approaches to growing the business; including a great deal of time looking at social franchising. As a key part of this project, we also spent a year measuring our Social Return on Investment.
We concluded that we have an almost moral obligation to scale up, with social franchising of the LEYF community nursery model a possible means of reducing child poverty whilst also adding more value by creating local social entrepreneurs.
Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge of the 21st century is to find out what works and scale it up.”
President Bill Clinton
The event itself appeared to be well-received, and I hope it leads to us doing more research with the RSA. I had been very nervous about being interviewed by Matthew Taylor, who often flexes his formidable intellect on the Moral Maze. In a telephone call prior to the event Matthew reassured me that he is paid to be cantankerous on the radio programme, so far less likely to be the butt of his intellectual sophistication. Just in case, I went to bed reading Bertrand Russell. (Not quite TOWIE!)
On the very morning of the event, I was reminded how life is full of serendipitous moments, as Karen Buck (now Shadow Minister with responsibilities for Apprentices) came to meet our fantastic LEYF apprentices. Explaining that I had to leave to go to the RSA, she told me that she and Matthew Taylor were old friends. I immediately relaxed.
We had invited Karen Buck to celebrate Social Enterprise Day with our apprentices and to hear their views about the LEYF Step into Learning induction programme, which we think is essential to a successful apprenticeship. They were very pleased she was visiting; to such a degree that Wahid had a tie and Pedro a suit – and boy did they look smart!
Like any good politician, Karen asked questions that drew ideas and answers from them till they warmed up enough to gain in confidence. They talked about their experiences of work and learning, and the confidence that grew from both. It was best summed up in the Sun newspaper article last week. Interviewing one of our apprentices, Alex Appleby based in Eastbury Children’s Centre Nursery in Dagenham, it headlined with “It’s a Neet idea”, a much better way of describing the many young people for whom school is a fairly unsuccessful experience.
The reason why we invest so much in our apprentices is quite simple: we consider youth unemployment the second entry point into poverty, and so having an apprenticeship programme is a critical aspect of the LEYF model (even though it is often a loss maker). For a young person, being out of education, employment or training can have major ramifications, including long-term reductions in wages and increased chances of unemployment later in life – not to mention social or psychological problems as a result of sustained unemployment.
The systems in place to support younger apprentices, especially those who have limited educational success, are woefully funded. It would not take too much more money; perhaps a more creative use of the unemployment benefit – currently being wasted keeping people out of work – might be worth considering. The number of young Neets is growing, so we need to do something positive and concrete. In London Neet rates are very high, with levels greater than 20% persisting in Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Westminster.
I believe we have a duty both as adults and employers. It’s great to see a growth in the number of apprentices, but to gain even more success we need to tweak the system. According to our own apprentices, we need better advertising using media that engages young people, together with face to face support and advice. Elsewhere, Mine Conkbayir who runs our programme wants greater incentives and reassurance for employers to ‘take a chance’ with an apprentice. This in effect means funding for pre apprenticeship modules (we call ours Step into Learning) with Key Skills woven directly into a well organized and logical programme. Mine is also keen on much greater links with schools, so 16 year olds can step into an apprenticeship as soon as they graduate. We are nearly there: just a few more steps and we could have the best apprenticeships in Europe – and finally move away from the folly of believing everyone needs a degree to do their job – a folly which sees London with the highest level of unemployed graduates in the country (unemployed and laden with debt; those poor wretches).
To close Global Entrepreneurship Week in style, we took a stall on Saturday morning at the London Councils Summit 2011 in the Guildhall; a beautiful setting in the quiet of the City of London. (Bit tricky though, with the usual levels of engineering work going on across the tube network. I can only hope this will be improved before the Olympics.)
The reason we took a table at this event was to meet as many local councillors as possible and persuade them to have a conversation with us about the benefit of having LEYF work with them. I was also keen to say hello to local councillors from the five boroughs where we already have a presence. Sadly these were in short supply – except for one councilor from Barking and Dagenham who appeared most bemused by me for some reason!
The main speech given by Ed Davey MP Minister for Employment was a bit lack lustre. Still, at least it did provoke a fair amount of energy from the floor about apprentices, when I was both heartened and disappointed to hear over and over about youth unemployment in London and the issues of giving apprentices some support at the early stages of their programme. Ed Davey suggested alarm clocks and train tickets, all of which we do at LEYF – and pay for! Soft skills were also a common theme and their importance born out by Vic Grimes of the National Apprenticeship Service. Frankly, I could have put Mine on the stage and she would have given them plenty of practical ideas to support apprentices!
Elsewhere, councillors raised the issue of graduates unable to get jobs. Given that many of them lack experience, maybe the re-introduction of a programme like Future Jobs Fund would be a good way of paying employers to give graduates six months in a work environment. This in turn may lead to a job, but if not would give them real experience to boost their confidence and skills base and so make them more employable. That said, there will still need to be jobs out there; at least this could be a bridge while they fix the Eurozone and squeeze a bit of extra cash out of the bankers.
I have just come back from presenting to the judges of the National Business Awards on the 27th floor of the Gherkin. It was quite daunting, so afterwards I indulged in two happy hour cocktails with our Head of Finance, Neil Fenton; and calming our nerves among the bankers of the city of London, we mused on the concept of the social enterprise business model.
Presenting to skilled, experienced business people and investors means taking a long hard look at the model. In our case, the LEYF model combines childcare, training, apprenticeships and community engagement in a way that allows as many parents as possible from all backgrounds to access our nurseries. Profits are pursued, but directly built into improving the impact and sustainability of the business, so innovating to create more and better ways to do what we do. The judges for the National Business Awards asked us a lot about this and we explained about the importance of social capital, justice and trust.
We were particularly pleased to be finalists in the ‘Transformational Change’ category; and even though we may not win, we certainly gave it our best shot. Describing our performance as lively and one which kept them engaged, Neil and I were referred to as ‘rigour and imagination’ (maybe more Dangermouse and Penfold). I suspect they were surprised to discover social enterprises were so business focused and interested in making a profit. In any case, we will discover if we are to emerge triumphant at a fancy dinner on November 8th. I am not sure I will need to prepare a Kate Winslet speech (perhaps better adopt the Gwyneth Paltrow model). In the meantime, we continue to seek the investment funds needed to scale up the business in our move towards 40 nurseries. With more than 4 in 10 children still living in poverty across the capital, the kind of service we provide is needed now more than ever.
Afterwards, while sipping a Mai Tai (nicely fruity), I pondered on a remark in yesterday’s Evening Standard (September 19). Sam Leith was commenting on gesture politics and referred to Will Hutton’s recent book Them and Us which…
…argues persuasively, fairness – and, crucially, the perception of fairness – makes the weather in a society. Capital is important, but what theorists call “social capital” – the glue that binds us – matters too.”
He is right: social capital does matter; especially unfairness such as London boroughs being able to wipe off debts of up to £135 million pounds from dodged council bills, overpaid benefits and unpaid parking fines. Westminster City Council lost £19million from unpaid parking fees and other traffic violations from foreign cars with diplomatic plates. Would your average Joe Bloggs get away with this? I don’t think so! What about our peers of the realm such as Lord Taylor and Lord Hanningfield – convicted of large scale frauds and fiddling expenses, but still able to retain their peerages on the grounds that life peerages are not technically an ‘honour under the Crown’, and therefore cannot be withdrawn once granted. As Eleanor Roosevelt says:
Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both.”
So, while I am not suggesting that social enterprises can alone solve levels of injustice and re-establish trust, I feel that we should at least try and show that enterprise, ethics and an expectation of fairness is possible; and some business models build these into their very fabric. All the more important then that we feature in the National Business Awards and other major business events. We need to be centre stage, and able to explain how and why we add value and contribute to social capital.
Incidentally, if anyone needs a CEO and Head of Finance to deliver ‘Rigour and Imagination’ at a conference, our rates are very reasonable.
PS if the above were not exciting enough, it was also announced earlier today that we are one of only 25 Award Winners in the Big Venture Challenge, which is great news! Read more about our pitch and watch this space for how we plan to use the initial £25K investment and other non-financial support.