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.
(Alice Sharp, Mrs Patterson and Mr Patterson – but not Mrs Patterson Mr Patterson – also along for the ride!)
It seems like a long way to go to talk about Leadership and Home Learning, but nothing can underestimate the quality thinking time offered when attending conferences (even as the speaker); and Scotland is always a place to watch when it comes to the Early Years, not least in terms of Government strategy. The National Parent Strategy (designed to ‘Help Make Scotland the Best Place in the World to Grow Up’) is a laudable ambition. I would love a similar one for England, not least so we at LEYF could add our own vision of ‘Building a better future for London’s children’ into the mix.
Anyone who knows me understands that I am a dreadful passenger, and so driving on dark, wet roads from Glasgow out to Inveraray had me crossing all fingers, with eyes wide shut the whole way. Alice is an inspirational speaker, a proud advocate for Early Years and a stunning developer of resources… but not my first choice for chauffeur! The tighter the bends, the faster she went, as we hurled towards Loch Fyne with Paul in the front reacting like many of the characters from the Angels’ Share (as those of you that have been reading this blog for any time must already know, one of my favourite films, and one for which he has recently won the Scottish Bafta).
The conference focused on leadership and home learning, and how we try to create an environment where we better engage with children through their families, and perhaps understand the issues many families face which affects their ability to succeed. Paul gave a very personal story which illustrated such points, and I can always regale an audience with a few stories, not to mention examples of our mistakes and new ideas we are testing. It led to one of the audience suggesting that I might be a suitable candidate for Fascinating Aida. (Yes please, but only for one night!)
Home Learning is a key strategic objective at LEYF, and it forces us to think and respond quite differently. It is not as many people think purely a matter of setting up some learning bags or arranging for some cameras to go home; it really demands that staff set the family at the very heart of the community, weaving a multi-generational approach into their work and (like Bruner’s spiral curriculum) blending all of these factors into a mutual learning culture.
LEYF’s Home Learning strategy also relies on us getting really good at casual pedagogical conversation: those random but regular opportunities to chat with parents, whilst explaining what and how the child is learning in a way that makes sense and encourages shared interest. It is then that such foundations are built on and further supported by nursery activities, community activities and home learning resources. It is a new journey and one recently celebrated by parents at our Eastbury Children’s Centre nursery, who positively delighted when staff recently sent a little piece of the nursery home. It’s the only way, even if you have to first take the road to Inveraray with Alice at the wheel!
So, Home Learning is definitely the way forward: it adds value to the core service, whilst at the dsame time building in additional social impact.
Hurrah, the press finally have something new to focus on now the Duchess is having a Royal Baby. Poor old Kate, suffering not just morning sickness but – hyperemesis gravidarum, a particularly nasty form suffered by just one per cent of pregnant women and more often experienced by women carrying twins. What a royal pain, and a royal thrill. My heart and joy goes out to the first time mother to be. Imagine though if Kate produces two heirs to the British throne, one male and the other female. With recent changes agreed by the Commonwealth Realms, a woman can finally rule in her own right! The monarchy has stepped further into the 21st century, paving the way for women to be taken even more seriously as leaders.
I am hoping that the expected baby of such a high profile couple may lead to a bigger and better national conversation about children. Earlier today I listened to Elizabeth Truss MP, the Under Secretary for Children and Families, at the Daycare Trust Policy Conference. She told us that investing in Early Years and giving children the best experiences possible was the right thing to do. I couldn’t agree more (we have been advocating this for years!) She did not say however what she thought the ‘right thing’ is, so the audience was left to fill in the gap. I assure you an audience filled with Early Years professionals is not short of an opinion or six, so that bit was easy – although if left unchecked, can quickly disintegrate into a whinge, gloom and an all too familiar desperate cry for more funding in any form.
The Minister’s other message was the importance of raising the profile of the Early Years as a credible and important job. She asked for ideas as to how she could help make society sit up and take notice of us. I wonder if the arrival of the royal baby will be a good starting point to finally attract the attention we deserve
The Evening Standard started the debate with the headline ‘Kate will fight to give her baby a loving and normal childhood‘. The journalist must have had a tête à tête with Wills and Kate because he seemed very assured about the Cambridges’ absolute determination to raise their child their way – as a young, loving married couple. Apparently, the young princes were brought up to behave like normal boys and enjoyed fun, frolics and play fights. If they stepped out of line, their late mother, Diana Princess of Wales, allowed adults in their social sphere to chastise them, including a rather large nanny having to pin Harry to the wall with her stomach until he calmed down. Yep! As confirmed in the same Evening Standard article (post Leveson!)
It is clear to this writer that the first message to the nation about a Royal childhood is that family matters. Parents need to retain their authority but can when necessary delegate to relevant adults, in order to ensure children have the security of consistent discipline and established boundaries. Playing is important, as is sports and the outdoors, for every child’s sustainable personal development. Most of all, children need a stable and loving home environment and where possible, strong family ties. I should think none of us would argue with this age old logic. Elizabeth Truss must now ensure that, like the Royal baby, all new babies should be welcomed into a society which places the same expectations on all parents and which supports this intention with policies that help make it happen.
It was a brave move when Isabel Dunn, recently retired chair of the Scottish Preschool Playgroup Association (SPPA) asked me if I would give this year’s keynote speech to their annual SPPA Conference at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow. I always enjoy coming to Scotland, not least because I get to spend time with the lovely Alice Sharp from Experiential Play, who fizzes with ideas and is a mainstay of the LEYF Annual Conference (this year to be held again at Pimlico Academy, on Friday 2 November).
Counter to the stereotype, I always receive a warm and generous reception in Scotland, having shared the LEYF way across this mountainous country from Stornaway to Inverary Jail. And this trip was equally pleasant, despite having traveled on EasyJet which needs to replace its strapline with ‘EasyJet – great travel for those willing to wait patiently in queues and who don’t mind a scrum’. Apparently having listened to their customers they are going to reintroduce booked and allocated seats. Alleluia and not before time. How many more companies would have saved themselves a lot of reputational risk if they had listened to their customers?
I stayed at a Citizen M hotel – which is really a trick hotel! Firstly, there is no foyer or reception until you go upstairs. Then you have to check in on a screen. (Great I suppose if you are looking for a private room to conduct a torrid affair.) Most notably, and especially if you are a Luddite, everything is controlled by remote control – and I mean everything, from blinds to lights to TV. Not the best hotel to bring the husband then if the statistics are right, and they tend to hang on to the remote (or the ‘mote’ as one apprentice described it, having never heard it given its full descriptor in her house).
Another thing I love about Scotland is dinner; always a more generous affair with lots of chat well into the wee hours. And this time I was particularly pleased when my pudding request was understood, as the clue came through my recalling my favourite Scottish detective’s name – not Taggart but John Carnochan. (As I’m sure you rightly guessed, my pudding was a Cranachan.)
As a smaller, more cohesive country, the Scottish have always been willing to think more creatively about the service they offer to small children. They have also been extraordinarily strategic and focused, and their ambition to make Scotland the best place for children to grow up is laudable. The conference was opened by the youthful Children’s Minister Aileen Campbell, who gave an overview of the raft of initiatives she has announced that left everyone so speechless they had to be coaxed to ask a question. She talked about the Scottish strategy for Early Years including a specific strategy for parenting backed by a national campaign.
She reiterated the need for collaboration across the private, voluntary and statutory sectors in order to succeed – especially true if they are going to provide 600 hours free childcare for two-year-olds from poor and disadvantaged families. In the course of my own speech later on, when I gave them a more realistic version of the struggle we are having in the South to meet the 510 hour requirement, it struck me how we are planning to spend more than a billion pounds of tax payers’ money on supporting these children, yet there is no special advisor on Early Years. (There is one for women and Scotland!) Aside from this, I had been asked about leadership, a subject I often talk about because it’s really hard to do. If it were easy, we would not be so short of truly capable leaders across all sectors. In the end, the audience was lovely and responsive, and I enjoyed them as much as they seemed to enjoy me.
The Minister touched on three areas which have an equally high focus at LEYF at the moment: the parent journey, home learning and our multi-generational approach. I was delighted that Scottish colleagues have discovered the validity and importance of these ways of working. I have already started to use Alice Sharp’s Tickle Giggle Experience and her home learning fun cards. At LEYF we have been leveraging the EPPE research for our approach to home learning, and especially the five activities that the EPPE team tested. The Scottish have 30 ideas which I shall certainly share with my colleagues, including tickling your child and looking up in the sky to spot an aeroplane!
I also told the conference about how at our impending Staff Conference in November – A journey to a better future for more of London’s children - we have invited Alice and five colleagues from the Scottish Islands to help extend our multi-generational approach into all our nurseries, and learn more ways to create little villages through each nursery.
Another Scotsman – our Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove MP - gave a very uplifting speech at last year’s LEYF staff conference. This year I asked a Londoner, our Mayor Boris Johnson, to open the event, but his people said ‘No’. I have to admit that I was disappointed, as I think he would have added a real lift to the proceedings; not only for a London childcare organisation, but one that has been taking apprentices for many years without the encouragement of the Evening Standard. Well hey ho… or maybe Ho Hum, I smell the blood of an Englishman!
In any case, I’m delighted to say the LEYF Scotland partnership seems set to continue, so if anyone from a Scottish university or organisation would like to extend it – by helping us measure our Home Learning impact or the multi-generational impact – they would receive a very warm welcome, lots of tea, wine and curly wurlys – and we may even manage a Cranachan.
Parents finally get what they deserve: free text alerts and relationship advice (well, it’s a start)
Clearly everyone thinks parents have lost the ability to parent, but don’t worry – the Government which so despises the nanny state is rushing to save parents everywhere:
Parents are nation-builders. It’s through love and sheer hard work that we raise the next generation with the right values. That’s why this Government is doing everything possible to support parents.
We’re doing the big, long-term things to make this country stronger for our children – dealing with our debts; having a massive push for better schools; working to create more good, skilled jobs in our economy.
But we’re also focussed on making life easier for parents day-to-day, from extending childcare to increasing the number of health visitors. The parenting classes and films we’re launching this week are an important part of that, providing clear, professionally-led advice on everything from teething to tantrums.”
Prime Minister David Cameron
According to the Government’s Parental Opinion Survey (2010), 85 per cent of parents want more practical help caring for their baby, to provide the best possible start for their children. So, like any good Government, we now have a brand new digital service for parents-to-be and new parents, providing regular emails and texts with timely information as their pregnancy develops and their child grows; free parenting classes to all parents of children aged five years and under in three trial areas, as well as expert organisations to deliver relationship support for first time parents in four trial areas of the country from this summer.
I agree with this in principle, since being a parent is one of the most difficult jobs – unless of course you have been blessed with quiet, acquiescent and compliant children. (I have worked with children for 30 years and haven’t met too many of those.)
Either way, parents are nearly always on the back foot; you just crack a particular habit your child has acquired or a particular obsession, and by the time your techniques have begun to take hold and you are beginning to find a solution that works, they have moved onto the next stage and challenge. My eldest son would only eat if I put him in the pushchair, and then would eat only about ten different foods. I was at my wits end, trying every ploy, and just as I thought I had got his mealtimes down to a fine art, he changed and was off on something else. I thought that I would be better second and third time around, but not a bit of it; all the habits I had cracked with son number one never materialized with son number two. He brought a new set of challenges – especially about where he would sleep and how he coped with parting. My daughter then arrived with yet another set of challenges which required a completely different psychology, and although the most amenable and delightful young child, she turned adolescence into a story that could be the basis of a Palme D’Or winning foreign movie.
I like the idea of the parenting vouchers, only I wish what these paid for weren’t called parenting classes. I think it will put people off, since whilst there’s no denying how hard it is to get parenting right, most people still somehow manage to struggle through and successfully produce the next generation. Putting your hand up to ask for help is very brave, and there may not be enough hands in the air to make the shift from parenting classes as a support to parenting classes as the norm.
The government naturally wants to support strong and stable families, and research clearly shows that the birth of a new child can be a major stress point for couples. Few would disagree, and I suspect more new parents feel able to ask for help at this point than at any other in the long and often bumpy road that is parenthood. And there is of course a collective sympathy from all parents who remember the panic, fear and terror of coping with a tiny mite, compounded only more so by a diet of exhaustion from sleepless nights.
I can therefore only hope that the vouchers, available from Boots, will help the Government begin a wider conversation which publicly affirms the contribution of all parents to a successful society. Let this approach be as normal as collecting free vitamin drops. But what will it take to get the backing of our wider society to help frame the UK view about what we think needs to be done, and how we must behave as models for our children?
There’s surely been no better time to start thinking about codes of behaviour and expectations; about the rights and needs children have to grow, learn and succeed in a world with clear parameters of good manners, mutual respect, civic duty and humility; a sort of UK take on the Ubuntu philosophy (often referred in simple terms as the ‘essence of being human’). The Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee explained Ubuntu as “I am what I am because of who we all are”, whilst the people of Botswana define it as a process for earning respect by first giving it, or gaining empowerment by empowering others. Either way, it encourages people to applaud rather than resent those who succeed, whilst disapproving of anti-social, disgraceful, inhuman and criminal behaviour, and so encourages social justice for all.
So let’s hope this new Government initiative provokes the start of a philosophical conversation about how we create the right environment to rear our children, and what we all need to do to make this collective parenting approach one that works for generations to come.
On 6 January, Irish women – especially those in Cork – celebrate Little Women’s Christmas (Nollaig na mBan). It is the last day of Christmas and the men are expected to take over the running of the house while the women, especially mothers, party. Instead of partying, I started to think about the current role of mothers in our post feminist society.
Back in the 1970’s I joined the feminist movement with all the zeal of youth. I had left an economically bankrupt Ireland and an oppressive place for young women. I was eager to experience a city where women were keen to overcome the gender inferiority expressed so beautifully in the seminal book The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1949).
So I came to London and became a feminist, buying my monthly Spare Rib, reading Betty Friedan, Marilyn French, Nancy Friday, Anne Oakley and anything published by Virago Press as well as frequenting the Irish Women’s Group in Stoke Newington and the South London Women’s Centre. I was excited by the prospect of gender and economic equality. I absorbed the principle that the personal was political, and I marched on the night rally to Reclaim the Night. It took a while for me to become uneasy with some aspects of feminism – including motherhood, divorce, boys and men, childcare and poor women. I realised, somewhat slowly, that the price we would paid for our so called equality could be very large and self-destructive.
So now that we have the vote, divorce, jobs, training and contraception why do I still have the same powerful sense of uneasiness, especially about our role as mothers? Maybe it’s because I know that pay is not guaranteed to be equal, because women suffer from such sexist pension laws, childcare remains the predominant responsibility of women, domestic violence is increasing and because many young women have confused sexual independence with laddishness.
As a female leader in a female dominated sector, where the majority of our customers are women, I feel we should lead a debate on the role we expect mothers to play in today’s society. Even more so, since women are suffering more severely in this economic disaster – with a higher proportion losing their jobs and pensions, whilst at the same time facing the challenge of keeping their families out of poverty. Their jobs are not for extras; the majority of all homes now depend on two incomes. In a report Families Experiencing Multiple Disadvantage: Their Use of and Views on Childcare Provision (Speight, Smith, Lloyd; 2010), the authors found that 62% of poor parents would like reliable childcare to go to work. And if women are to work once they become mothers, they logically need to find good childcare. But this course of action is complicated and tainted by the societal confusion about what we want for our children.
It is noticeable that countries which have had a meaningful philosophical debate about what they want for their children have a much healthier attitude to motherhood. Christine Lagarde, the first female CEO of the IMF was interviewed by the Financial Times recently. In the article, she claims to have never worried about leaving her children while she worked, thanks to the very good nursery at the IMF, adding how she liked to hear the sound of children in the building. Instead, she says that she was most honoured when her child told her how proud he was of what she was doing. It is a very positive interview and one I wish we could have more of here in the UK.
By contrast, here in the UK we remain twisted up in guilt and confusion about how to do the right thing by our children. The national attitude ricochets from describing motherhood as a saintly vocation to blaming all mothers – especially single mothers – as the cause of all our social and economic woes (too many women working, no jobs for men or we don’t know what our children are doing because we are always out).
So, in celebration of Little Women’s Christmas 2012, let’s start this week by thinking through our post modern, socially constructed feminist approach to being the mother of a child under 5 in 2012. And before anyone says Dads matter too, I know they do; but right we need to spend some quality thinking time examining our attitudes to motherhood as a first step in a renewed analysis of what we want for our children, the family and the future. It will lead to us to consider a myriad of aligned issues – including what is good quality childcare, what does early childhood education mean for us, and should our children be in school at 4.
Visiting our Eastbury nursery the other day, I met Grace who is a LEYF parent currently completing her Early Years Professional Qualification while on placement in the nursery. As someone with a view from both sides, I was interested to hear that what she wanted was to be able to develop a meaningful career, knowing her child is getting the best care in her nursery. Not so different to her feminist sisters in the 1960s – or is it?
Let me know what you think in the comment box below. In the meantime, I look forward to engaging with you on this and many other ideas throughout 2012.