There is no doubt that the God of Weather likes children. On Saturday the 1st June, International Children’s Day, the sun shone and a light breeze made it a comfortable day. The children and parents came to enjoy. Some of the nurseries were so busy they were unable to accommodate the sheer number of parents, grandparents and friends and so relocated to the local parks.
It has been described as a work of fiction by the Pre-School Learning Alliance (PSLA) but is this the best description of the Department for Education report published last week? The Implications of Adult-Child Ratios for Childcare Providers is the suggested model which will be used to examine the implications of reducing adult-child ratios.
Our Minister has done us a favour, although she may not have realised it. She has thrown down the gauntlet by challenging the sector, so now we need to take control of our own destiny. Her ill-informed and contradictory facts beg us to tell our story, so every individual – especially parents – is left with a clear understanding of what we as a sector want for the children in our care.
UPDATE: for more recent developments on this topic, please join our new group ‘Reclaim Early Years‘ on LinkedIn.
I write this blog with a sense of anger and despair. Even playing Verdi very loudly and a glass of wine could not quell my alarm. Why such gloom? Our Minister Elizabeth Truss has decided to continue with her ill-considered plan to reduce ratios (click here to read the Minister’s speech today at the Policy Exchange in full). I am not alone in my gloom if the responses from the sector on Linkedin and Twitter are anything to go by. The comments made by the Minister in the Sunday Times and the Telegraph, where she says she has a mandate to change the ratios, makes my blood boil. What mandate? No one I know has anything but derision for this idea.
She has hardly visited nurseries, ignored all our advice, clearly has never read any research and did a flying visit to France to check two nurseries there and, on this basis it would seem, has decided to reduce the ratios from one adult with four two year olds to one adult with six two year olds. I also understand she will make a similar recommendation for ratios in baby rooms increasing to one adult with four babies.
Her premise is that we can use the reduced cost by cramming an extra two children to every staff member to either pay for a more qualified staff member or reduce the cost to parents. This fails on a number of counts:
- The qualification of a staff member has no relevance when you are alone with six two year olds. Qualified or not, little toddlers need hips and laps and lots of love and adult attention.
- The reduced staff costs will be increased by agency staff as the permanent staff drop like flies from stress and exhaustion.
- Parents will not be happy to find that they have to sign up to higher ratios with more risk to their children for a chance of a very limited fee reduction.
- Two tiers of provision may result where better organised nurseries achieving economies of scale may be able to keep ratios higher with poorer nurseries being forced to reduce ratios and decrease the quality of care. I fear poorer children will lose out.
- Risk of accidents will increase. What will we do, ban all interesting creative activities and tie them into chairs?
And then a number of further questions come to mind:
- How will we change nappies and spend time on this intimate activity, talking to the child or enjoying a little singing game when we are trying to keep our eyes in the back of our heads to make sure 5 other toddlers are safe?
- How will we balance the learning needs of all six toddlers and plan for each of them? We are being forced to operate a mass approach to childcare causing us as practitioners to fail children and parents in our mandate to provide inspiring, creative and high quality early years education.
- Has the Minister any idea as to the number of two year olds coming through the Two Year Old Programme that have language and behavioural issues and need additional care and attention?
- How will we spend any time at all with parents? How will we meet the EYFS requirements? Ofsted will surely see a decrease in standards.
I could go on and on (luckily I won’t!). Toddlers aged two years are very different from those aged two and a half or those nearly three. They need different activities and experiences. They cannot be put in a classroom and taught. They need a personal touch, lots of negotiation, high levels of communication and engagement, fun activities indoors and outside. We have a raft of research going back as far as Froebel which identifies the importance of childhood and what works best for our small children. Our longitudinal studies are examples of best practice valued the world over.
Ironically Mr Gove, Mrs Truss’ boss, is trying to reverse some of the political policies which have damaged a previous generation of young adults. I suggest he now make a forensic examination of what his junior Minister is advocating against all advice. Otherwise he will have presided over a similar legacy as the one he is currently addressing. Except this time it will be of his making.
Remember the words of Graham Green in The Power and the Glory:
There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.
Admit it, you’re either going on a diet, thinking about a diet or have just given up a diet and busy trying to accept your muffin top or your beer belly. If you’re from TOWIE, you’re saving up for liposuction or a gastric band!
This was the opening conversation I had with three LEYF nursery managers from our Dagenham nurseries while we were offered free refills of Coke or Lemonade on tap and our meals came piled high with chips.
Every time you turn on the TV someone is telling you how to eat, exercise or overcome your food issues. From Fat Camp to BBC 2 we’re bombarded with how to stay thin. Did it ever occur to people that we stay thin by eating less and accepting the fate of most women over 35 which is to be constantly hungry and feel guilty when you do eat? I liked the programme Horizon: Eat Fast and Live Longer on BBC 2 which told us to eat what you like 5 days a week but restrict yourself to 500 calories twice a week and not only will you maintain the body of Elle McPherson you’ll also reduce the chances of high blood pressure, diabetes 2 and a myriad of other illnesses. I was really up for that till I discovered 500 calories is three apples and a bowl of cabbage soup. Peter Kay, in his tour to end all tours, made me cry for laughing as he expounded on his terrace (his fat tummy) and why we shouldn’t shop when hungry because of the high chance we’ll have eaten 4 of the 5 Kit Kats before even reaching the check out. I ignore Kit Kats and head straight to the Curly Wurlys.
So here’s the irony, we who have so many issues with food, are probably overweight and delight in calorific foods, such as chips and wine (although red wine has anti-oxidant resveratrol which makes you more nimble), are responsible for the dietary wellbeing of so many children. Their parents listen to us when we talk of a healthy diet; a balance of carbohydrates, protein and vegetables. We know that small children lack zinc and carbohydrates and need a good tea, we also know that organic milk increases intake of omega three which has huge benefits for children. We know much more than that, for example:
- 28% of children aged 2 to 10 in England are obese. In London, the highest proportion are in Westminster, 4th are in Tower Hamlets and Kensington and Chelsea, and Lambeth are joint 8th (all places where we have nurseries)
- 34% of children aged 11 to 15 in England are obese
- Diabetes 2 (poor diet induced) is a growing problem in the UK
- Children bombarded as they are by ads for fizzy drinks and fast foods are unable to distinguish between ads and TV content
- A poll done by growingupmilkinfo.com found that 80% of children had eaten pizza and chips by the time they were two and 1 in 1000 parents had never cooked for their children
- The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is calling on the Government to reduce obesity and ensure that children in nurseries and Children’s Centres are served nutritionally balanced food as well as being able to offer correct and helpful information about food and eating
At LEYF we have been campaigning and even wrote the Standards for a National Qualification for Early Years Chefs. We recognise that the person in charge of the food should have a lead role in understanding what to cook, how to serve it and how best to support colleagues and parents understand about good food.
Despite an overwhelming array of information about food, staff and parents remain confused and obsess about body weight which to some degree misses the point. We need to grow a body of capable and well informed staff who can give sensible advice, provide us with highly nutritional food, challenge the unhealthy obsessions with losing weight and focus instead on staying healthy by eating sensibly. As my Grandma always said “a little of what you fancy never did you any harm”…it’s when you are eating 5 Curly Wurlys at a go you should start to worry!
At the recent summer NDNA conference, Professor Kathy Sylva revealed the findings of a research on parental engagement which she led with NDNA members (including some of our LEYF nurseries, as I am always keen to find ways to improve our parental engagement). The last piece of substantial research conducted in this area was done by Desforges and Aboucher in 2003. They had focused much more on needy parents and those parents who felt disempowered, lacked confidence and were failing to stimulate their children’s cognition and communication. These were generally parents with low aspirations for children’s future.
Since the expansion of the universal offer (which has a take–up of over 90%) and the increase of women in the work place, the range of parents coming to nursery has changed substantially. Nowadays, we have parents attending from all walks of life, and that brings with it changes in attitude and expectation. This was the very premise of this recent research, and I was keen to hear about the experiences of NDNA members across England with regards to a more modern understanding of parental engagement.
The first finding was that unlike Desforges, the largest and most powerful group of parents in this research were the well-educated, professional time poor parents. Unsurprisingly, however, the signs of satisfied and engaged parents – no matter what class, creed or social background – were feeling happy and content and able to have trust and confidence in the staff. According to the research, engaged parents have positive and reciprocal relationships, which allow open and grown-up communication, meaning parents can make suggestions for improvements but also listen to advice from staff; parents are equally willing to share information and work in partnership with the setting, are open to suggestions and remain keen to contribute.
The barriers to achieving this level of harmony focused a lot on the calibre of staff: parents were not pushing for more qualifications, but they did want staff who were mature, and with a level of emotional intelligence. They valued experience and an ability to communicate in ways that avoided jargon and unfriendly language. (Note to us all revising policies and procedures in light of the new EYFS!)
Interestingly, I think that was the point made in the Nutbrown Report; that higher level training and qualifications are more reliable ways of helping staff reach this level of competence (although, of course, only if they are taught by up to date, knowledgeable and interesting tutors).
What bothered staff was dealing with irritated or tired parents, and especially those who could not see the whole picture in the nursery and wanted action that was only self-serving. There was an acknowledgement that we needed training to improve some of the staff’s poor social skills which proves a barrier to communication. Interestingly, some of our LEYF staff recently completed the PEAL training as a baseline for understanding this critical relationship with parents; an experience that proved most worthwhile and so will now be built into the induction of all staff.
In summary, the research pointed to a number of solutions, and recommended that staff and settings:
- Are flexible. In other words, humane. Rules can be broken and chicken licken survived. Let’s not become another version of the computer says no.
- Communicate in many ways. There is a theory that to ensure we embed the message we need to use seven means of communication (diaries, posters, letters, texts, e-mails, etc…) It might remove the constant whine “I put a notice on the door but they never read anything…”
- Do not under-estimate the power of good staff management, beginning with a robust induction process and then having supervision, appraisals and training as a continual activity.
- Develop some assertiveness training to teach staff how to behave in a way that increases their confidence. Let’s avoid either the shrinking violet or the cocky madam.
- Be creative when it comes to emotional intelligence, finding as many ways as possible (such as coaching and mentoring) to help staff form, secure and manage relationships with parents. This will also benefit relationship with staff and improve the workplace.
- Check policies and procedures are robust and clear, but perhaps most importantly help strengthen the relationship with parents. (Don’t just use them as a rule book.)
- Use your website as an information tool so in the quiet of the night parents can log in and read about key childhood issues, from toilet training to language acquisition. (Things that matter and can really benefit the child’s happiness and development.)
- Think carefully about ways parents can engage, whether through management committees or parents forums. (Although a small note of caution here, as poorly managed forums can be a nightmare.)
Ultimately, if we are to get the important role of local nurseries out into the wide world, then parents are our best advocates. And so we need parents who are confident and empowered, along with staff who are secure about why and how they help parents balance high aspirations for their children with the importance of celebrating childhood.
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.
On Wednesday this week we hosted the sector’s first ever Pan London Olympic strategy meeting. It was our way of helping London’s childcare industry consider how it could respond proactively and in a grown up way to the inevitable disruption the Olympics will cause during the summer. The Olympics may officially begin in 100 days, but the torch bearers begin in 30 days and really the situation starts to kick off from then. What is more, people think the Olympics runs for two weeks, when in reality it’s six weeks at best, and more realistically in fact the entire summer – beginning with the Queens Jubilee in June and concluding at the end of August.
Representatives came the summit from 42 nurseries in 22 boroughs across London and heard presentations from TfL and the City of London police, along with sensible advice from the contingency business planner for Westminster City Council.
The audience was a lively one, and it took very little time for us to realise the implications of the Olympics would be greater than we imagined and so needed careful thought if were to remain calm, positive and constructive advocates for UKPLC! A point emphasised by Tessa Jowell MP, Shadow Minister with responsibility for the Olympics, who popped in to congratulate us on having the foresight to organise such a meeting in the first place; and then marvelled at the numbers of children and parents we would be serving during that period. (A guestimate of 50,000 was bandied about.)
Despite conflicting media information about tourist numbers, both the police and TfL agree we will have at least 2 million visitors to London, with many of them staying in the centre; and as we already find ourselves regularly squashed between rucksacks and map readers, this will only increase. So the advice was clear: don’t take unnecessary journeys says TfL, plot out the road hotspots, examine the tube hotspots; spend time on their website.
The police had more advice, with the inspector asking what will people do when the event is over – go home for a rest? Of course not; they will go down to the local hostelry, restaurant, park or go sightseeing, typically adding to the summer’s usual crowd and travel problems. Pubs and other places will take advantage of this passing trade, and may have big screen events adding yet further to these numbers, spreading the possible chaos. Each country also has something called the National Olympic Committee (NOC), essentially party organisers that will be arranging cultural events well into the evening. Many of these are sponsored by drinks companies, so they won’t be serving tea and cucumber sandwiches! (Sadly, the inspector was unable to tell me if there was an Irish NOC or where it might be, as I quite fancy a bit of Christy Moore, chocolate Kimberley biscuits and a pot of Barry’s tea – and maybe Gabriel Byrne might pop in and make my year!)
In any case, the police officer certainly had a sense of humour, and balanced his gloomy take on security with an introduction to those rather eccentric characters who want to make a point for peace or the greater good by disrupting events. He reminded us that Fathers4Justice have promised an outing, whilst Jimmy Jump and Cornelius Horan both get their kicks out of disrupting sporting events by running into them or stripping naked and running off with the ball. (The sort of behaviour we expect with two year olds; only in this case, they get publicity, we get more disruption.)
However, what was soon apparent was how as Early Years providers we are a practical lot – and were soon taking the first steps in contingency planning. Later the Evening Standard asked me if we will cope. “Of course we will,” I said. “We are the childcare industry!” (For more reporting on the expected challenges during the Olympics and our event’s aim to come up with solutions, I’m told we should pick up a copy of said paper this coming Monday!)
In summary, the issues we need to cope with and options to consider include:
- Staff travelling to and from work – implications for ratios, overtime, emergency contact arrangement
- Deliveries of food – to stockpile or not to stockpile!
- Arrival and collection times of children – implications for ratios, fees and flexibility
- Camp beds – should we buy one or two for unexpected over-night stays?
- Outings – where do we go, and what about holiday clubs which organise lots of outings?
- Know thy neighbour – making contacts with local nurseries so we can support one another
- Hospitals – identifying which is the designated emergency hospital
- Communication – updating everyone’s contact details, since mobile phone networks often get overloaded, making it impossible to get through to anyone (so think of alternatives)
What we all agreed on at the meeting was that no one really quite understands the broader implications for this period, so this was just a start.
In terms of next steps, Kate Hawkins (from Nursery Management Today magazine, which worked with us on the event) left us with an action plan template. Meanwhile, Julian Gibbs (Regional Manager for the NDNA) has promised to put together a fact sheet and upload it on their website, so I encourage all providers to keep an eye out for that. In fact, Julian concluded that the meeting had been an eye opener and flagged up many more issues than he had first imagined.
From our side, LEYF nurseries have already sent parents a postcard asking if they are on leave, changing their hours or could give us information about their plans during the period to help us ‘Get Ahead of the Games‘.
So like the Boy Scouts always say: ‘Be Prepared’.
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
Sensible organisations try and ensure that staff are involved in developing policies and practices at every level. Indeed, much is written about the inefficiency of top down approaches to making change happen. However, in my opinion, the challenge is less in the initial engagement and more in maintaining interest and ensuring behaviour is embedded unconsciously, so that it becomes fundamental to everything. This becomes even more important if, like LEYF, you want to grow and need to ensure that policies and practices are securely embedded and repeated consistently in every setting.
Many years ago a manager came to me in despair, having discovered that a can of Coke and a Curly Wurly amounted to breakfast for some staff . While she worried about their health, she became even more anxious when she realised these were the very staff who would be role models for children and their parents when it came to healthy eating. Her conversation sparked a large piece of work across LEYF, involving staff at every level – as managers, practitioners, chefs, apprentices and parents all became part of the process to create a consistent and recognisable ‘LEYF approach’ to food. We researched, examined and created new ways of procuring food, training staff, supporting parents, changing the curriculum and most importantly defining the role for our chefs. Our resulting LEYF Food Policy captured the outcome and was laid down as the basis of practice right across our organisation.
Initial enthusiasm was positive and effective, but falling back into old habits happened as if by osmosis. Nothing big, just little things that showed the unravelling of an agreement. Little clues emerged such as a random plastic vegetable in the role play area when it’s meant to be fresh, not serving fish twice a week or forgetting to make sure that cooking was a weekly activity.
So what must we do to ensure that ‘buy in’ and engagement is robust and consistent, whilst still allowing us to review, shape and change things as the world itself changes? For example, having spent two or three years developing our approach to food, we have now had to make changes to our kitchen management to fit better with the evolving needs of the organisation. Effective scaling and repeatability must equally allow action research to inform continuous improvements, and that can lead to change too.
How can we balance the non-negotiables, such as insisting on organic milk or fresh vegetables in the role play corner, with negotiated changes – such as a new management system – to better meet the needs of the children? What can we do to allow change into the mix in a way that does not start unravelling the whole approach? Can we as the proverbial leopards change our spots or are we asking the impossible?
There is a raft of management tomes telling us to think about communication, apply change management theory, get champions in critical places, give regular feedback and have solid processes that show up when things are not happening. The most telling approach though is simpler:
- Co- create guiding principles
- Define what is absolute and non-negotiable
- Put the necessary systems in place (and make them clear)
- Repeat the practice till you are blue in the face (and become as Freire would say unconsciously conscious)
- Use an action research model to continually improve but manage the change
- Get out there and see for yourself!
Finally, perhaps, buy lots of Curly Wurlys and distribute them generously to those embedding and sharing in our case ‘the LEYF way’. (But can I be first in line, since after fig rolls and walnut whips they are my next favourite treat!)