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June O'Sullivan, LEYF CEO

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The Power of Good Old Fashioned Care: Love, Chat and Adele

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.

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Parent engagement: research tells us to avoid being a shrinking violet.

Child from Marsham Street nursery shows mum how it's done!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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…”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.)
  8. 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.

Don’t read this if you have a hangover

Apparently recent research called Lessons for leaders from the people who Matter undertaken by Harris Interactive found that employees from across the globe think that one third of their bosses are ineffective, lack empathy and have poor leadership skills. What’s more, it states that employees would rather suffer a bad hangover, do housework or look at their credit card bill than sit through a performance discussion with their boss. Why?  Because such a meeting will leave them with a big dent in their personal self-esteem.

The research also reported how employees would double their performance if they were working for their ‘best ever’ boss; scary statistics were quoted such as how an increase in motivation can go from 11% to 98% and high performance from 5% to 94% if employees had a really good boss.

Naturally enough, some employees (45%) said they could do a better job than their boss but they did not want to be a manager. (Too much stress, responsibility and pressure.) At the same time, 2 out every 5 employees left because of their manager. What really grieved these employees was managers failing to ask for ideas and input, limited work-related conversations and insufficient feedback on their performance leading to poor employee engagement.

In another quite separate report, the attributes of those leaders who consider themselves ‘truly gifted’ (despite being at the helm of failing companies) were identified as:

  • They see themselves and their companies as dominating their environments, not simply responding to developments in those environments;
  • They identify so completely with the company that there is no clear boundary between their personal interests and corporate interests;
  • They seem to have all the answers, often dazzling people with the speed and decisiveness with which they can deal with challenging issues;
  • They make sure that everyone is 100% behind them, ruthlessly eliminating anyone who might undermine their efforts;
  • They are consummate company spokespersons, often devoting the largest portion of their efforts to managing and developing the company image;
  • They treat intimidatingly difficult obstacles as temporary impediments to be removed or overcome;
  • They never hesitate to return to the strategies and tactics that made them and their companies successful in the first.

Right! So how do we act on all of this to make sure everyone is happy at work, successful and performing to the best of their abilities?

As someone who wrote a book on leadership in 2009, as an attempt to understand its complexities, I have a great deal of sympathy for those brave souls who decided to go for management jobs. This in part is why we are always looking for ways to improve leadership at LEYF, from the perspectives of both managers and staff.  And the issue is even more crucial when you consider the children at the mercy of our abilities everyday. (Well led Early Years settings lead to better outcomes for all children, hence our ambition to build a better future for London’s children.)

Either way, such research is always a good wake-up call (like when the mystery shopper comes calling). And so finding it makes the fact we are putting real effort into getting leadership right at LEYF even more reassuring – with a plan to roll out improved performance management systems to help managers lead and motivate their staff, whilst also trying hard to improve communication.

Of course, as a boss, I have sympathy with leaders and managers: it is a tough job, and quite a different one to being a nursery officer or teacher. So I am keen to move away from the traditional vertical approach to promotion, which often means staying on long enough to end up managing the setting by default.  This is simply the wrong approach, since being a manager is a completely different job. Luckily for me, our managers respond well to the challenge of how to lead the fabulous LEYF curriculum, while running their nursery as a social enterprise. It’s a tough call.

I think our plan for LEYF leadership teams is the only way to go. Being a leader at the top of a pyramid is a lonely place, listening to the groaning of the Pharaoh ghosts trapped in their sarcophagus and with no one to talk to (not even Harrison Ford). As a CEO, I know this and I am grateful to have a supportive team who can be kind and helpful, but who also love to bring me back to reality. (Well, they try anyway!)

In my optimistic way, I would take a punt that leadership and management is much more successful at LEYF than this report would suggest. But at the same time, we can only keep it good if we keep our eye on the ball – keep engaging with staff and remember how easy it is for them to begin to feel disengaged.

For those who know me, it won’t surprise you to know that I obsess about LEYF all the time, as I want to ensure we give the highest and best quality to our children, staff and parents. For me, thinking, talking, listening, researching and praising are the watchwords of LEYF leadership. No one wants staff to leave because they dislike their managers. Instead, I want to make sure any LEYF staff that do leave retain warm and positive memories of their time with us, and so continue to promote what we do as they become the next leaders in their field.

(For those of you looking for further reading on the subject of happiness, you may find this report from the Young Foundation worth a look.)

The next round of applause is on me…

I have not written a blog for a week because some of you said you could not keep up with my output.  Others have since asked ‘where is the blog?’ So I hope to now see a huge surge in readership.  Either way…

It has been a week of conferences and events; not least one where I spent the morning talking about retaining good staff at the Nursery World Business Summit, and the afternoon joining Neil King our Head of HR as he presented on the concept of wellbeing at work. Neil is an engaging presenter, so I was very proud to witness such a good performance.

At this particular event, the question posed by the employers and HR people was this: how do you recruit and retain good staff in a sector that is by its very nature not well rewarded?  Interestingly, pay was not a feature of retention, especially for those moving up the scale.  More crucial factors are job satisfaction, good conditions, fun activities, induction, training, working for an organisation that shows its staff in the best light; and most of all a manager who makes you feel important.  I often say to staff that we have a long way to go to praise our staff with the same vigour and enthusiasm and warmth that we use when praising the children.  There is, of course, a whole set of reasons for this and one is culture.

Earlier this week, Neil Fenton and I attended a Leadership Bootcamp organised for all 25 winners of the Big Venture Challenge.  I had no idea what to expect, but I wore boots just in case. The trainer began the day by asking if anyone was from North America.  There was silence, and then she said

Well, I am going to ask you to do something very North American and give yourselves a round of applause.” (or bualadh bos as we say inIreland).

The group responded obediently with a timid clap, and I cringed.  To me all this is a bit over the top; praise has to be earned and valued by those receiving it.  At that point, I hadn’t done anything that I thought merited a bualadh bos except to find the venue and arrive on time.  (Actually, the whole of LEYF is probably applauding now, as my time-keeping can be somewhat erratic!)

Praise giving and receiving in the UK is much more of a timorous  affair. We tend to be diffident about drawing attention to ourselves, and in some ways that shows sensitivity and courtesy.  But we do have to get a better balance; we need to be more able to praise more often and in a way that is valued by those giving and receiving.  Thank you for turning up is never going to do it – unless of course it’s snowing and you have walked across two boroughs to get to work.

On Friday this week, we will be having our Annual Staff Conference in Pimlico Academy, a state of the art local community academy run by an Irish head teacher.  When we first met we both commented on the difference between our own school buildings and the academy. The only similarity to mine was that we had two staircases, except one was for the nuns and dignitaries.

The conference and the attention to detail we try to apply is one way we celebrate and give public acclamation to each and every staff member. It’s a great occasion that sees the whole of LEYF come together.  It might sound cheesy but it’s not; it’s good old fashioned meeting up, eating, playing, laughing, learning, catching up and sharing ideas via the roving Vox Pop.  We will also be catered for by LEYF chefs, which guarantees us really good food.

We have had great conferences since we started them five years ago, and this one will be no exception – with speakers including Chief Superintendent John Carnochan from the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, talking about the power of early intervention (something he knows a lot about, as he sees the results in action every day).  In fact, Scotland is already a key feature of LEYF events in the form of Alice Sharp, a gifted and entertaining presenter who really connects big concepts such as early intervention into real behaviour with children and parents.

Finally this year, we are promised a visit from Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, and I sincerely hope he comes.  I heard him speak with passion about teachers – not that they appeared to value this! – and I want to hear the same power and passion shared with and about Early Years at our conference.  A public affirmation for each and every LEYF staff member from the top.  So again, I hope he comes.

After the day’s opening speeches, the day is littered with great learning workshops which aim to stretch, extend, collect and collate all the things we do and can do to make the whole of LEYF communication rich. From, flip charts to post-its, blackberries to iPhones, we will do our best to ensure plenty of shout-outs and tweeting.  So, if you want to hear about what’s going on or want to interact with one of the best sector, staff-lead learning events, send us a message with the hashtag #leyfconf11!

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