Tag Archives: Apprenticeships

A Shout Out for the Childcare Apprentices during National Apprenticeship Week

This National Apprenticeship Week it is time to celebrate the joy and enthusiasm good apprentices bring into an organisation. I have been a supporter of trainees and apprentices for nearly ten years because in my view some of our best staff have been those who learned the job on the job. That said, a good apprentice is as good as the organisation which employs them. A programme that does not build in regular, relevant and robust training and mentoring is failing the apprentice. This is not a cheap option. Good apprentices need a great learning experience if they are to succeed.image Continue reading

Mr Osborne, go to Ireland and talk Early Years over a cup of tea and a Kimberley

(While I am desperate to blog about our work with Europe and the recent Wave Trust report Conception to age 2 – the age of opportunity, which I will do next week, I feel first of all obligated to comment on last week’s budget.)

I am no economist, but as an ordinary citizen I remain worried by the time it is taking to turn around this great juggernaut of a recession. More and more, slowly but surely, parents are falling into debt as many women continue to lose their jobs. The story is told every day in the shape of occupancy here at LEYF. For those who do not run nurseries, hotels or airlines, occupancy is the main measurement of our business survival, so something we watch with hawk like intensity. And it’s noticeable how its fluctuations have played a significant part in us having to ask managers to turn all their warmth and enthusiasm for the job into a saleable offer to parents. (The importance of sales is a live conversation at LEYF, in particular how we pursue such an overtly commercial goal whilst staying true to our core social values; to understand how these have helped us deliver 110 years of great childcare, click on the image below.)

LEYF Core Values-2013

With a Dan Pink lecture at the RSA on this very topic fresh in my mind, the budget’s big childcare announcement was the introduction from 2015 of a childcare tax subsidy (in the form of vouchers) giving working parents up to £1,200 a year to help with childcare costs. We knew about those on Tuesday as we had ITV and Channel 4 visit our Bessborough and Marsham Street nurseries to talk with parents on the matter. As you can imagine, the majority of our parents are in the lower income bracket, so are unlikely to see much immediate benefit from such breaks. The Budget also announced an additional £200 million for the childcare element of Universal Credit. This will be equivalent to 85 per cent of childcare costs for those parents who qualify. However, this new source of funding will only go to families where all adults are taxpayers. This will be phased in from 2016 to coincide with the implementation of the childcare element through Universal Credit.

The childcare vouchers will replace the current Employer Supported Childcare system. There has been lobbying for a more simplified funding system that would pay providers directly. As ever the devil is in the detail and consultation with nursery operators, voucher providers and employers will commence shortly. The key success criterion will be making sure the payment system does not negatively affect cash flow; it’s a problem now, so if we’re to avoid debt accruing further, ensuring successful implementation is critical. The new scheme will be overseen by HMRC.

Elsewhere it was confirmed that the Dedicated Schools Grant will be exempt from changes made in the spending round announcement scheduled for June 2013. This will mean free entitlement funding for Early Years will be protected from any cuts, although the funding is not ringfenced, so remains at the mercy of individual local authorities.

Certain broader announcements designed to stimulate the labour market may benefit small struggling nurseries, such as growth vouchers for small businesses to fund business advice; and Employment Allowance of £2,000 relief against their employer NICs bill from April 2014. It is thought this will benefit up to 1.5 million employers and will see businesses able to hire up to four workers on the adult National Minimum Wage without paying any employer NICs on their wages. (Despite this, I truly hope all employers based in the capital will aim to provide the London Living Wage to staff.) In addition, the personal tax allowance threshold was raised to £10k from 2014 – one year early.

More general pointers include the fact that State sector pay rises are capped at 1% in 2015-16. There will £3 billion additional departmental efficiencies (excluding health and schools)  to be spent on capital projects, so we may yet get more Two Year old capital funding.  Apparently there will be £1.6 billion industrial strategy funding, including apprentices in line with recommendations from the Richard Review. Apparently, the National Apprenticeship Service figures show that childcare is one of the most oversubscribed apprenticeships, with more than 13 applications per vacancy. We have yet to see this: maybe it’s how they calculate this figure, including initial forms from those so unsuitable the chances of them been appointed on a course are nil. We will need apprentices with an A to C in Maths and English – and I wonder how many of the 13 have those qualifications?!

It is good the Government is looking at supporting childcare, but as I pointed out to Gary Gibbon – the debonair political editor of Channel 4 News – to make a real difference, funding needs to go to services rather than pumping more money into the market via parents, which only leads to greater cost inflation with little change in affordability.

There is much to be learned from Australia which operates a mixed market model like us. When they put more money in the hands of parents, it did not lead to greater purchasing power, nor did it keep prices low and stable; instead it increased childcare costs to parents, with prices rising in 2012 by almost 10 per cent. It’s pretty impossible to make a profit from childcare, especially if you want to pay staff a reasonable wage and maintain a high level of qualified staff as the baseline of quality.

In Ireland they are arguing for a National Early Years Strategy to deliver a childcare and after school service that is best for children.  They want the Irish Government to invest 2.0% of the GDP, which currently looks like a £2 billion investment; they see it as an investment with a reliable return. (Heckman, Starting Strong and the raft of other economic arguments.) They are rejecting the market-led approach as they believe controlling the cost to parents directly, and offering a longer-term and more predictable source of funding to providers, is the best and most effective model.

Our three Kit Kat loving leaders share a view about the importance of childcare: they all agree there is a role for the tax payer to help make it affordable. What they need to do now is be brave and lead a revolution that takes us out of the current market-led failure and into a more innovative but efficient long-term investment mode.

A visit from our Minister

Elizabeth Truss at LEYF

This week LEYF hosted a visit for our Minister Elizabeth Truss MP.  We were pleased to welcome her and ensured she spent time in the Baby Room with 14 under 2s and 5 members of staff!  As expected, the children were all complete angels, behaving like well-briefed civil servants; chuckling, smiling and engaging the Minister and her small team with aplomb.  Of course, what I actually wanted was them all crying, pooing and falling over to help us bring the critical issue of staff to child ratios to the fore; allowing our Minister to see first-hand how it would feel to play the role of a French auxiliary staff member trained to step in when there was a shortage of staff.

The Minister and I called truce on the ratios issue during the visit. We didn’t talk about it much, as we will never agree that even a flexible change is a good thing.  As far as I’m concerned, any such flexibility runs the risk of a slow shift from the norm to the present proposals, which will in turn then become custom and practice. Not only will this see all the issues raised, such as a decline in quality and the creation of a two-tier system, but for those most hard-hearted about the issue, we will see our funding based on staff costs. Less staff means less funding, and soon we will have gone from £6 to £5.09 and the trend of a downward spiral will continue. I support Penny Webb’s efforts and hope you read and sign the e-petition.

Ratios aside, the Minister is keen to raise the profile of the sector and understands that we need help to get the public to understand the importance of what we do and therefore raise the calibre of those wanting to work in the sector. We agreed that we need to change hearts and minds about the enormity of the role of Early Years in the future of society. I suggested that she focus her energy on that and create a dramatic and wide-ranging marketing campaign to push the notion further.  The underlying issue of funding never quite goes away though, because it really is at the heart of the matter.

To my delight Elizabeth Truss was interested in Men in Childcare (MiC) and so I invited her to meet the men who are part of the London Men in Childcare Network. I also asked her to read the LEYF report.

Men in Childcare (MiC)

The inaugural MiC meeting itself was on Thursday 28 February, and a very happy and uplifting experience it was too (although rather odd to be one of four women in a room full of male practitioners).  It highlighted a number of issues; not least the role we have as women to ensure that all female practitioners are open and willing to fully welcome male colleagues, not just as token males but as serious contributors to the sector. I hope the Minister comes and speaks at a national conference LEYF is keen to support later in the year.

My final concern as regards the Minister was that we consider how we manage her demand that all future staff come with A to C in Maths and English.  This is not a fool-proof means of ensuring we get staff with a basic grounding in literacy and numeracy, so we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  We have some way to go before we can recruit staff with the right attitude and experience, and to get staff with the proposed A to C qualifications as well may be a huge hurdle.  I am also worried about losing otherwise great apprentices that have the ability but not the suggested entry qualifications.  In this respect, the Minister was very impressed with our apprenticeship programme and its positive contribution to creating an engaged and high quality workforce in the Early Years sector; many LEYF apprentices have moved up the ranks and so help to maintain our fantastically low staff turnover.

The Minister’s suggestion on qualifications is very much a double edged sword and we in the sector need to help her find a solution that suits us all. Remember what happened in the past when Tony Blair announced the need for 100,000 new staff? In order to achieve that we watered down the NVQ to the point that in the end we had a qualification that was more trouble than it was worth.  With Nutbrown having considered all these issues and announced the need for a new full and relevant qualification, we need to see that happens.  Consultation on this very matter was launched this week by the Department of Education; Consultation on the criteria for Early Years Education qualifications (Level 3). I hope you all find time to respond.

My message to the Minister (apart from relinquishing the proposed changes to ratios) is to launch a national conversation about the importance of Early Years to the future of our society – in fact the very time she should copy the French. It would also help her ambition to raise both our and her profile. A possible win win all round, I would say.

The Angels’ Share: a film that turns whiskey into a political metaphor. Drink Up!

When the weather is raining and grey, I often like to go to see a film in the afternoon.  It beats drinking tea in front of the box, watching the insipid couples on property programmes or the madness of Come Dine with Me. So last Saturday I checked the internet to see what was local and I found The Angels’ Share.

It was film recommended to me by Detective Inspector John Carnochan who heads up the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit.  He spoke at our Staff Conference last year on the recommendation of Alice Sharp who heard him speak in Glasgow and was blown away by his stories.  Staff still talk about his story of David which shows how the system fails a young boy from a very troubled background and how the intergenerational cycle is reaffirmed by the system rather than dismantled.  It was probably the same conversation that got our Prime Minister thinking about those 120,000 troubled families. (His mistake may have been letting celebrity culture influence his choice of Family Czar… that’s another story though!)

Directed by Ken Loach (always a good sign), the film focused on Robbie who came from a rough family and was roaming the streets of Glasgow causing drug-fuelled violence and havoc.  The film showed graphically why so many young people turn bad and how there are so few routes out.  Robbie is intelligent and has three pieces of good luck which he uses sensibly.  First he falls in love with a good girl and she has his baby.  Having produced this baby she introduces him to Robbie with the words…

The midwife says only half his brain is formed and the other half depends on what we do over the next few years… Robbie we have to do good for him and if you won’t help I will have to do this on my own.

What a fantastic insight into the stuff we in Early Years call brain development and making good synaptic connections!

The second piece of good luck was that the judge did not imprison him for a violent crime because of his relationship with the girl, and sent him to Community Payback where he met Harry (no nothing to do with Sally).  Harry was one of those salt of the earth, warm, caring community workers who are sadly quite rare, but when around have the potential to make a huge difference. He introduced him to human warmth and the kind of adult relationships Camilla Batmanghelidjh from Kids Company advocates, because she is convinced the right relationship with an adult can repair and  strengthen synaptic connections in young people, and help them form the sort of trusting relationships they need to sustain them throughout life.

Finally, Robbie found he had a talent: he had a brilliant nose for whiskey, and here lies the Angel Share.  But I’ve already said too much, as this is the heart of the film and you really need to see it. Suffice to say, he ended up with a job and somewhere to live out of his neighbourhood. The group then said goodbye, and the parting shot was that all you need is someone to love, a job and somewhere to live. I can’t help but wonder why in 2012 that is so hard to achieve for so many?

In this film, Ken Loach pours politics, comedy and drama into a whiskey glass and flavours it with the possibilities that come from generosity of spirit. As such, I strongly recommend it as a teaching tool for anyone learning to work with children, and will make sure that all LEYF apprentices have this on their syllabus. I also hope they too leave us singing the chorus of the classic Proclaimers anthem I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). To start you off…

But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walked 1000 miles
To fall down at your door

Déjà vu, all over again.

I am a nervous passenger generally, but my anxiety rises to a whole new level when we go on the motorway.

My coping mechanism is to work on my computer to avoid spending the whole journey gripped in a panic that we are about to crash into the lorry ahead. The upside is that I get time to trawl through my documents and keep calm. Meanwhile, the driver (usually my husband) is able to concentrate on the road, rather than having to continually threaten to throw me out. The downside is that I come across speeches, articles and blog entries which all smack of Déjà Vu.

This week was a case in point, as I found myself preparing a speech on leadership in the sector and a presentation for some funds to help us grow the business. As I began the process by finding similar speeches for inspiration, I was shocked to discover so many of the issues facing us today were exactly the same as far back as 2007. I know they say that change takes time, but this seems excessively slow.

So I thought it might serve as a fun game, as we head into the Jubilee-free weekend, to remind ourselves of the state of play and key issues back then, to see how much if anything has changed:

  • Universal child care was inadequately funded
  • It was felt that children should not go to school aged four (a sentiment supported by the Children and Young People Select Committee and National Primary Headteachers Association)
  • Ofsted was looking at its approach to inspection
  • I was arguing that Children’s Centres should be a hub for intergenerational work, with young and old learning together and developing relationships that could help achieve community cohesion
  • We were awaiting a Government re-shuffle
  • A Two Year Old Pilot was in discussion
  • Unhappy economic times were beginning, and talk of solutions and sustainability were beginning to quietly emerge
  • We had just taken our first group of apprentices called NEETs
  • Action for Children and New Economics Foundation produced a fascinating report called Backing the Future, setting out a plan to save the UK taxpayer £486 billion over 20 years and dramatically improve social wellbeing
  • According to economic analyst Rob Grunewald, (video here), if Government invested substantially in parenting and enriched daycare, they could expect a rate of return (in monetary terms) of between 3:1-7:1, and 17:1 by the time the child reaches 21years. He explained that social benefits were also significant, with a reduction in crime and prison, better educational attainment, healthier adults and reduced levels of obesity and a reduction in welfare dependency
  • The Cambridge Primary Review was challenging the notion of school readiness in their final report, reminding us of what Froebel said 250 years before – namely that Early Years was not a time to merely prepare for school, but a distinct phase to be celebrated and enjoyed in its own right
  • Remaining stubbornly high, child poverty was on the rise despite all attempts to reduce it – including provision of flexible work opportunities, training, childcare, improved incentives and investment in child benefit
  • Limited funds were available to provide a quality workforce, including employing many more graduates
  • Transitions to school were an issue

Peter Drucker said that management has no choice but to anticipate the future. Well then, we better start looking at the past, because the blueprint is already there. And as a leader, it’s probably wise to get organisations fit to manage the continual challenges that are not easily solved and are more entrenched than we could possibly imagine. Learning from experience is not enough.

Therefore, I’d suggest that one solution may be to create a learning organisation that can flex and re-shape, according to both the fast and slow pace of change. Consider the following ten steps, and maybe in this instance a bit of repeat, recall and déjà vu will be a good thing:

  • Learning is incorporated into everything people do
  • Learning for learning’s sake is encouraged and celebrated
  • Teamwork, creativity, empowerment and quality are fully supported
  • Staff are trusted and encouraged to choose and take decisions
  • People with different job titles learn together
  • Coaching relationships are promoted to enhance learning
  • Learning is an integral part of meetings, work groups and work processes
  • Everyone in the organisation has equal access to learning
  • Mistakes are embraced as learning opportunities
  • Cross-training is encouraged and staff that learn a broad range of skills rewarded
  • Continuous learning is considered a shared core value of the organisation

Do you agree with the above?  Let me know what you think in the space below.

Loneliness is the scariest thing we have to face.

According to Downing St, isolation and loneliness are more dangerous to our health than smoking.  Well as the saying goes, tell me about it! But why do we need Downing St to tell us this?  We have been saying this forever. It’s one of the main reasons why at LEYF we have a multi-generational approach to how we work.

One of my many habits (the number increases with age) is listening to Desert Island Discs.  It’s a great place to hear what people think about their lives.  I was very touched by a woman who talked about her loneliness since being widowed.  She said:

I have plenty of things to do with people but I have no one to do nothing with.”

It’s an expression used this week by Esther Rantzen who is setting up a helpline called the Silver Line for older people to share worries, get advice and maybe get linked into local services. I am not sure about the name though, sounds more like a bus network to me.

Still, it was the horror of loneliness that made me so passionate about doing things from a multi-generational perspective. Just take a moment to look out the window and it does not take long to pick up the loneliness vibe.  We are not helping either by introducing those awful self-service check out machines at supermarkets. Apart from the fact that they don’t seem to work most of the time, some people have no interaction with another human being for days on end – so imagine when they finally get to the supermarket, only to find they have to talk to the woman from the Sat Nav school of communication. No thank you.  It’s another nail in the loneliness coffin: no bus conductors, few officials to chat to, limited local police officers on the street and so eventually barely a soul it seems to even pass the time of day. Humans are social.  We need to be social to survive.

Luton Street children help the elderly

Staff at LEYF have responded remarkably well to our multi-generational way of doing things.  For instance, last week saw Julie Weiss and her nursery team at Luton Street begin a series of six weekly activity sessions with older people (above), spending time together to make things with the children. Some people may think this all a tad trivial, but I remember how Jo Lax (our manager at Holcroft) found herself shocked and rather distressed at the end of one Pancake Day she had hosted for older people in her nursery’s community, as an elderly lady came and said

Thank you. This keeps me wanting to stay alive, otherwise I wouldn’t bother.”

But we know that isolation is not just about being old; again why we have a multi-generational approach.  We are always meeting people who have moved to London, only to find themselves isolated and not knowing what to do.  That’s why we are starting a TimeBank.  We have lonely Dads, especially those who are no longer working, at home with their children and not sure how to engage with other parents.  Dad’s sessions like those run by Marion at Carlton Hill are as much about this as giving Dads a safe space to play with their children.

Some of our apprentices, barely 17 years old, come to LEYF feeling isolated and very alone in a crowd. It takes the skill of the tutor to engage with them and help them become part of a friendship network.

Our Children Centres have to be multi-generational, as we have to find ways to help people make friends and get to know one another; so many mothers are lonely, especially those who have come from abroad, either with their high flying husbands or as economic migrants.

Loneliness is the scariest thing out there. We can’t build a better future for London’s children if we don’t at least try to create ways of reducing loneliness.  And we can’t afford to fail, lest it also become our own inevitable fate.

Footnotes:

I must remind every reader of this blog that children, staff and the occasional parent from our Carlton Hill Community Nursery will soon have their 15 minutes of fame on Channel 4, as part of the three part series ‘Daddy Daycare‘. So make sure you set your Sky+ or Freeview recorders for 8pm. Starting this Wednesday, February 15, Carlton Hill will feature on episode #2 (Feb 22), so please do tune in – and let us know what you think in the usual channels!

Final mention this week must go to one of currently two male nursery managers at LEYF, David Stevens at the Angel, who is using findings from our own action research to present for a second time at BECERA. In fact, he’s not the only member of LEYF staff (male or female) presenting this year. So thanks and congratulations to you all – simply fantastic stuff!

When Santa got stuck up the chimney… what did he actually say?

Half way up and unable to move, Santa shouted out that from now on he was prepared to eat his five a day, give up chocolate teacakes and large glasses of red wine, whilst joining the local bootcamp on Clapham Common.

“Ha,” said Rudolf chortling, “we have heard that before – it will take more than the fears of obesity to get him to stick to his diet. Anyway, we all know that one glass of red wine reduces the risk of strokes and dementia. No, the only answer is to get the Health and Safety brigade to ban chimneys.”

“Not on your life,” says Chris Grayling MP, “chimneys, decorations, conkers and common sense are all coming back in 2012.”

Back up the chimney, Santa has decided to trust his team led by super leader Rudolf to come up with a plan to release him.  (Leadership is apparently the modern answer for success; nowadays branded as system leadership, we just have to get it right. And with plenty of precedence for getting it wrong, those committees trying to define leadership will need lots of luck.)

Either way, Santa was always sure of a positive outcome, simply as the key holder to the stationery cupboard – a sure fire guarantee that he would be rescued, as Rudolf and the team knew what else was stored in there (and we’re not just talking treasure baskets here).

Scratching his beard, and now covered in soot, Santa contemplated what his look-alike Karl Marx would make of the current economic situation and Eurozone debacle. What would he say to those camping out at St Paul’s or to all the young people who ricochet from anger to despair?  What hope would he give that we can find a new way of doing things?  Would he mock David Cameron’s call that traditional values will save us? In an optimistic moment Marx said that

Experience praises the most happy the one who made the most people happy.”

So to be happier we need to be more equal, less acquisitive and more community minded? “Result!” thinks Santa. “My sack will be a lot lighter and I won’t have to carry so many toys.  I can dump all the PlayStations and join Pink Stinks and rail against all the pink packaged toys for girls.  Social capital here I come! I better join a Time Bank, start volunteering and get a load of apprentices into my workshop: I could become the biggest social enterprise in Lapland!”

Getting colder up the chimney, Santa decided to sing to keep himself calm and rapped out his situation, only to bring more soot on his head. “I will submit this song to Simon Cowell,” he contemplated, “and see if I can be the next winner of the X Factor. On the other hand there is always YouTube.”

So let’s all sing out with Santa:

When Santa got stuck up the chimney,
He began to shout.
You girls and boys, won’t get any toys,
If you don’t pull me out.
My beard is black, There’s soot in my sack.
My nose is tickly too.
When Santa got stuck up the chimney,
Aaachooo, achoo, achoo.

When Santa got stuck up the chimney
He began to yell
Oh hurry please it’s such a squeeze
My sack is stuck as well
Oh dear oh dear it’s cold up here
And Rudolph’s nose is blue
When Santa got stuck up the chimney
Atchoo! Atchoo! Atchoo!

Celebrating Social Enterprise and scaling up

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.”

Sinclair (2006)

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.

June speaking at this year's Margaret Horn Lecture at the RSA

June speaking at this year's Margaret Horn Lecture at the RSA

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.

Collecting Ministers like ‘Top Trumps’

This week has been rather a fest of networking, the most noteworthy of which was one evening and one day attending the Conservative Party Conference.   A Conference virgin, I was unprepared for the sheer intensity of the networking, posturing and positioning among the very male audience. It put me in mind of a quote by Armstrong Williams that ‘Networking is an essential part of building wealth’.

The conference audience was seduced by the charisma of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove,  lapping up their passionate espousals of their pet topics, London and Education.  I was surprised their boyish charm won over such a male audience, but no one would argue (in that hall) against the call to arms to save children and the nation from poverty. Michael Gove spoke eloquently for 40 minutes without notes, praising and celebrating the importance of good schools, successful academies and the development of free schools.  I dropped a note to him afterwards asking that he now replicate the same power and passion in support of Early Years, making sure we mitigate the risk of disadvantage by celebrating great nurseries and committed staff whilst stopping the drain of very small children into schools.

The conference format included panels of real people introduced by ministers or members of their teams which were designed to marry pragmatism with policy.  They were well received, especially young people explaining how they overcame the consequences of previous government policies.  The only thing missing from the panel was social enterprise; maybe next year! Although I do have to wonder how many of us will still be left clinging to the cliff edge of this recession this time next year.  According to Allison Ogden Newton of Social Enterprise London, social enterprises are currently trying to scale the north face of business, which makes them heroic. Christopher Reeve, the original Superman, said a hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. The Tory Conference seemed to applaud this principle, so let’s hope that a few of us in the world of social enterprise will win out for another year and be there ready to present to all conferences.

On Thursday, we enjoyed an visit from the deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg and the Secretary of Sate for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith where they officially launched changes to the rules . One of our trustees texted me to say we were beginning to collect ministers like Top Trumps.  What I had learned at the conference is that meeting them was of no use unless you could get their ear and interest.

Nick Clegg visits Marsham Street Community Nursery, part of the London Early Years Foundation

Nick Clegg visits Marsham Street Community Nursery

I was therefore pleased to be able to knobble Mr Clegg and suggest that his Social Mobility policy might need a push to get it more visible.  When it was launched Mr Clegg talked about fairness and the means everyone having the chance to do well, irrespective of their beginnings. He said that

Fairness means that no one is held back by the circumstances of their birth. Fairness demands that what counts is not the school you went to or the jobs your parents did, but your ability and your ambition.”

I suggested that he consider how childcare and Children Centres can be strongly woven into this ambition for fairness and extend the principle of early intervention.

I also used my fast developing networking skills to persuade Iain Duncan Smith to consider our Step into Learning programme, which helps us prepare NEETS for the world of work as part of our growing LEYF apprenticeship offer. He eagerly promised to come back and talk some more.

I finished a long and arduous week judging the Nursery of the Year for the NMT awards. It was quite a positive experience since the five finalists I met – chosen randomly from across England – were passionate, engaged and genuinely keen to give children and parents the best childcare experience possible. This was contrasted by a rather depressing article in the Evening Standard (7th Oct, Girl is forced to stay at nursery as all primary schools are full).

Ironically, staying in nursery until you are rising six is how we should be operating, not pushing children into school at four and thinking it’s OK; oh how the battle to save children from too early schooling is no nearer to winning. In the meantime, children in Finland happily play at nursery until they are six – and then leave school as the most successful young people in Europe, ready and more capable to take on the world. It seems to me that it’s a wise society indeed that truly values and invests in its nurseries.

The new vision for Early Years

The Department for Education and the Department of Health have published the Government’s vision for the foundation years.  In their own words…

It is designed to describe the Government’s vision to everyone who commissions, leads and delivers services for mothers and fathers during pregnancy and for very young children, to the age of five.

Specifically, this vision includes:

Again, in their own words…

Taken together these documents constitute the Government’s response to the Graham Allen MP, Frank Field MP and Dame Clare Tickell recommendations where they relate to the foundation years.

These publications emphasise the vital role that skilled and knowledgeable professionals and strong leadership play across the foundation years.

This requires a framework of high-standard qualifications that meet the needs of employers, and equip early education professionals to support young children’s development.

I have to own up to playing my part in creating this new vision, as I sat on the Steering Group which produced the final document – an interesting experience, and I have to say also generally a very positive one.

As individual members of this group, we were invited because of our expertise in different areas, and so all had a view to share.  As a group, I was quite impressed with how we managed to suspend our personal passion and paranoia and got on with the job in hand.  The method of steering used was referred to as co-production (not an elegant phrase), but simply meant we would work alongside each other and as many others as possible to create the final document.  Perhaps more crucially, it promises an ongoing process that needs to be continued to make the document come to life.

In the report there are boxes which focus on areas that need more attention.  There are certainly areas that I feel need further attention and, in the spirit of co-production, I hope many people will offer their views, advice and research.

For example, I think we need to strengthen the importance of the under 2s, bearing in mind 2 year olds are little more than babies and so balance what we think they need.  I would also like to see much more explanation about the concept of school readiness, as this could be much mis-interpreted and fail to recognise the Froebellian principle, that childhood is a time in its own right (and so not pre anything), and that schools need to be just as ready as the children.  My view that children are better off in nurseries until they are at least five years does not always gain the support of colleagues, but I hold fast to the idea.

Elsewhere, I am delighted to see that qualifications are to be examined as part of a review led by Professor Cathy Nutbrown, ensuring practitioners access the right qualifications suitable for the task in hand – but realise this is no mean feat.  We have been tinkering with qualifications since 1992, with the introduction of the National Vocational Qualifications, and have never managed to satisfy everyone and keep costs low, and this tension will remain.  So good luck to Professor Nutbrown, and let’s hope there is enough co-production – involving everyone from apprentice to employer – to balance the response.

Finally, leadership needs some input.  At LEYF the graduate leadership initiative has worked well for us, with 40 staff recently completing their Foundation Degrees.  Like anything, much of what you learn is only as good as the teacher who teaches you, and so we need to keep our eye on quality and not all rush to offer the newest product because it brings gold and glitter.  In principle, I am keen to support the continuation of the graduate leader; I have yet to measure its impact with our staff, but anecdotally feel it has boosted their confidence and got them reflecting more.  One thing we must build into leading and managing programmes is some teaching about how to run a successful setting from a business perspective, as this very important strand rarely features.  Unpopular as this may be, without it we will soon be without nurseries to provide children with their Early Years care and education.

In summary, I hope people will make the time to read and properly digest the document, and then take up the offer to help co-produce the next set of policies which will shape the services we all provide.  In my view, the broader the contribution we all make, the more likely policy will need to reflect the views and needs of practitioners who will make it happen on the ground.

Our own apprentices are being introduced to policy reviews and ways of engaging from day one, and their understanding of the role of Government and policy makers is greater and more confident as a result.  This can surely only be a good thing, as the best policies are those designed from two perspectives; research and practice, interwoven into a coherent and effective, jargon-free set of activities and behaviour.