Tag Archives: Children’s Centres

A Promise of 30 Hours Free Childcare heralds the Big Childcare Conversation

The Government made childcare a central component of its election manifesto. Mr Cameron insists that his Government will extend the childcare ‘free offer’ to 30 hours a week, 38 weeks of the year, to any parent working eight hours plus; the same threshold as the tax free childcare scheme.  It’s interesting that the policy talks of childcare not early education, is this a shift or has the Government finally understood that childcare and education are totally integrated?

This promise has deep implication for the sector including making childcare a key part of the British infrastructure.  It’s a shift that may have happened as a last minute election promise to outbid Labour’s offer of 25 free hours. Either way we are now facing the challenge of how we make this policy work and we need our own conversation to help us to do this.


Frustratingly, this promise fails to reflect the repeated warnings from the sector about the perennial problems such as:

  • Funding the costs of a place correctly. ( If you have been asleep for the past ten years then read the Ceeda Report and the Affordable Childcare report)Sleeping-Beauty-Wallpaper-sleeping-beauty-6259616-1024-768[1]
  • Reconciling two different policy targets with one approach therefore creating a high quality service for all children but guaranteeing that those children from disadvantaged backgrounds are benefitting in a way that narrows their attainment gap. More information from  OECD Starting Strong Reports
  • Insufficiency of places in the right areas and with the flexibility that makes work viable Family and Childcare Trust report
  • Unfair rules about registering and inspecting nurseries in schools which means that schools can open nurseries more easily now and have less inspection and external quality control.
  • The challenge of how to address the situation that 1 in 4 children in Primary Schools are obese.  The Early Years must be supported to take a strategic approach to helping the children eat well and exercise well so we prevent even more health disasters.
  • Training and recruiting enough Level 3 staff for such an expansion including sorting out the qualifications fiasco. Do you know that all the young graduates completing their degrees may not be counted in the nursery ratio because they haven’t got A to C GCSEs but have been selected using an equivalency test not approved by the DfE?
  • Replacing and funding Local Authorities CPD and quality support services. If quality depends on well trained staff then what is the solution to this?
  • Maintaining the year on year improvement in quality with 83% of providers rated good or outstanding. So why bully a sector that shows such promise and capability for improvement?
  • Meeting the two year old programme targets if all the attention is focusing on extending the 30 hours. Half all local authorities have insufficient places for two year olds and the growth of school nurseries is hampered by increase in school rolls. So if disadvantaged children benefit more than other children why have a system that limits access for the very children that need us most?
  • Getting the Childcare Bill through the House of Lords within the timeline for pilots operating from September 2016
  • Agreeing what the Regulations will look like given the devil is in the detail for example defining ‘working parents.’  Will it include people in training? Zero hours contracts? Parents with disabled children? Grandparents?
  • Establishing whether the existing policy of 15 hours has achieved its intended outcomes.

However, we have been thrown a concession in the form of the Childcare Commission LINK to appease our worries about fair funding.  I hope that they will listen to us with the same candidness and perspicacity of Lord Sutherland and his Select Committee.

The 30 hour policy is the Government’s attempt to reward hard-working families by reducing their childcare bill.  Done well it will be popular and helpful and may achieve its intention to boost employment rates among women with children under 5 years. Long term employment rate for this group has risen over the last two decades from 49% in 1996 to 61% in 2014.  In doing that the Government has confirmed absolutely that childcare is a significant part of a modern British infrastructure.

Surprisingly, we may have an unexpected ally in Mr Osborne.  In the Budget he promises the Living Wage, a calculation based on what it costs to live developed ten years ago by Citizens UK. This must surely be a very good benchmark for the Childcare Commission as they work to define a funding strategy that pays the full cost of childcare.

7164409713_9254a12dc7_zIn the meantime, we are strong only when we have one voice – we proved that with the #OBC.
So respond to the Childcare Commission and come to the *Big Childcare Conversation conference on the 19th September at Middlesex University where we will be debating the issues and ensure we remain motivated, upbeat and able to “Occupy Childcare”!

Please follow the LINK for further details and book your places ASAP! https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/big-childcare-conversation-tickets-17807118571



Get off the diet kicks and learn to eat, serve and advise on nutritionally sound food.

9189594369_89f9aa6ca8[1]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!

Childhood futures in Dublin’s fair city

This week I went to visit Dara Hogan at Fledglings Nurseries, part of An Cosán, a community organisation and charity in Tallaght, Co Dublin.  I was accompanied by Heather Fernandez, our lead Research Associate on social franchising, scaling and replication, with Middlesex University.

The term franchising freaks many people out because they associate it with aggressive, profit-focused commercial growth like McDonalds. Instead, I like the opportunity it presents as a business model with the potential to help replicate good, socially enterprising nurseries across the UK.  In doing so, many more children would benefit, more quickly and effectively, and greater strides could be taken toward eradicating child poverty; hence our research.

It is also the shared view of Dara Hogan who I met on a Scaling Up programme run by the School of Social Entrepreneurs in January this year.  He has set up five nurseries in this deprived part of Dublin, on the basis that good quality Early Years can help mitigate some of the worst aspects of social deprivation and potential educational failure.   Like me, he thinks franchising may be a good model to speed up the dissemination of good nurseries and touch the lives of many more children, and so he is in the process of growing the nursery group.

The Irish are renowned for their friendliness and hospitality and this was very evident during our visit.  We were taxied around Dublin by Denis, who gave us a guide to each locality and pointed out a range of areas of interest from a political and social perspective.  He could compete with London’s best Black Cab drivers with his knowledge of heritage sites in central Dublin.

Our programme of visits was wide and varied, but each person gave generously of their time and engaged in a way that made us feel we had something to offer them – although at times I could see their puzzlement, as we tried to understand the different ways we design and support similar services.

The social problems of Dublin and London are not dissimilar; drugs and alcohol abuse, unemployment, poverty and emotional deprivation are the issues of the day, and the people we visited are looking for solutions that work just as we are, solutions that can be scaled up and measured to show a benefit, both now and in the future.

Our two day visit began in Tallaght with a visit was to Breda at Barnardos. She runs a Government funded childcare and family support programme in a building down a littered windswept alley.  Her passion and enthusiasm was palpable, and she could link to the work being done in the UK through her daughter – an educational psychologist in Southwark who had been challenging her to dump the notion of school readiness in favour of ready schools.  It initiated an interesting philosophical debate. She was keen on giving a voice to the practitioner, whilst also finding a way to support free childcare for more two year olds.  I was pleased to be able to say that we were going to develop this in the UK as a result of a successful pilot.  She introduced me to Maria Aarts and Marte Meo and was as shocked that I had not heard of her as I was when she told me that Irish Barnardos were not in anyway connected to the UK charity.

Our second visit was to a very modern, architect designed building which housed the Childhood Development Initiative.  We were welcomed with a pot of tea by Grainne Smith and her colleagues Marguerite and Tara.  They are part of a commissioning and evaluation team developing childcare initiatives, funded by government and matched charity funds. We had a lively conversation about evaluations and randomised control trials of organisations and services with a heavy emphasis on evaluating process.  I was particularly intrigued to hear this, as it’s something I am keen to develop as part of our multi-generational project.

After a lunch which included homemade scones, we spoke to Jean Courtney who confirmed the importance of business skills among childcare providers in all sectors, but especially in areas where the continued success of nurseries and family support services is particularly needed by children.

Our last visit took us into the centre of Dublin, where we had a tremendously animated conversation with Beth Fagan who runs the Parent Child Home Programme  at the National College of Ireland.  She was passionate about helping parents apply learning in their homes, so we know it changes their beliefs, behaviour and attitude, and pointed us in the direction of much new reading.  It also led to a proposal for her colleague Aoife, who heads up the CPD programme, that we try and apply the same thinking when it comes to making sure we better embed and measure action learning in childcare settings – so we know the training and support we offer practitioners is actually embedded and applied consistently to ultimately change behaviour (a philosophy already very much embedded in the LEYF approach to learning and development).

Dara rounded off the long and fascinating visit with a dinner prepared by his good wife Mary.  It made me realise why hospitality needs to be a core value of any organisation looking to reach out and make a difference to those who feel alienated and isolated.

Our second day was spent at An Cosán, the umbrella charity which incubated the Fledglings idea.  Its main service is to provide training at all levels for local people, with a real emphasis on opportunities and learning for local women – so they were very hot on community leadership and ways of empowering women to develop their confidence and abilities.  Once again, the day was punctuated by hospitality and kindness – and more scones!  We learned a lot more about the importance of talking and extending ideas, as I had some passionate exchanges with their lively CEO Liz Waters.  It was a another great lesson in the importance of taking time out of the ordinary day to engage with other people; to stretch your thinking and learn something new.

No half measures when it comes to social impact

There is much talk at the moment about the importance of measurement, including a reference to it in many of the speeches I listened to during the TUC march through London against public spending cuts on Saturday (itself a very uplifting and peaceful process which took me back to the marches of the 80s).  The fact is there has always been talk of how we measure the difference we can make, only over the years it was sunk in a pond full of targets.

So, I am pleased to now hear ‘why we need to know if we make a difference’; the only trouble this time around is that much of what is being said is poppycock, and expressed by people who have been on a course – or worse still, now think they are the experts!  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially since in the wrong hands measurement will be misused and become either a financial measurement of success or a target in a commission. In fact measurement used wisely is neither of those things.

We have already seen how confusion over the concept of measuring impact has led many children centres to collect data that has often been neither appropriate, relevant nor actually helped tell the story of the real difference their centre was genuinely making.  In such cases, those concerned simply failed to understand the distinction between input, outputs, outcomes and impact.

Nowadays, we also hear a lot about payment by results which essentially means that a proportion of the payment, from central or local government to providers, is dependent on achieving specified results – for example, a reduction in reconvictions among young offenders.  Elsewhere, Graham Allen and his team have introduced us to the concept of creating funds to develop services using Social Impact Bonds (SIB).  SIBs are designed to secure upfront investment from non-government sources, such as charitable foundations and private individuals, and could offer a real chance to invest in early intervention services.  Investors will then receive their returns from the government once the specified, measured outcomes have been achieved; what’s more, such defined improvements to the service ultimately lead to savings from the public purse.

At LEYF we have spent the last year finding a way of measuring our social return on investment. Social return on investment (SROI) is an approach that aims to capture the social and environmental benefits of a service. The process involves talking with stakeholders to identify what social value means to them; finding appropriate indicators of change taking place and comparing the financial value of the social change created to the financial cost of producing these changes. An SROI ratio is a comparison between the value being generated by the impact of an intervention, and the investment required to achieve that impact.

In our case, we essentially wanted to know what everyone was getting from choosing to use, work or train in a LEYF nursery; it was a laborious but interesting process. The data gathered was used to track the progress of the children, staff members and our apprentices, measuring the outcomes, whether we made a difference and by what amount, before finally benchmarking this against meaningful proxies such as a national average for similar services.  It has involved talking to many, many people – including seeking their opinion on the very measures to adopt.  What we learned from this was that achieving meaningful measurement is far from simple if you want to produce helpful and relevant results.

Over the past few months, I have been talking with and presenting to local authority commissioners about how they might most effectively invest their limited funds in supporting childcare. They struck me as people who genuinely want to get a good service for their clients but are stymied by lack of funds, European rules, lack of direction from their ‘betters’ and uncertainties as to which service will provide the best option. Measurement seems to be the final straw for them, as they try and find solutions to many of the most intractable social ills.

However, there is a wealth of information available and lots of ideas of different ways to commission for better outcomes. We know about the best length of a contract (minimum 5 years), the importance of forming relationships with commissioners, keeping monitoring sharp, focused and helpful, sorting TUPE, dealing with the legal team and the many other issues commissioners and providers have to iron out.  Surely then, this must be the perfect time to pull all these ideas into a coherent whole and move forward?

What’s needed now is a consortia or network based on the principle of Early Intervention; it would bring together providers, commissioners and investors to explore how we might firstly devise a financial vehicle to invest and fund new initiatives and secondly develop a set of plans, ideas and tools to help us measure the results.  Without such a three-way conversation, such a co-ordinated and collaborative approach, we will continue to talk about this complicated, abstract concept in our own little silos with little progress, much confusion and some awful policy decisions the only outcomes.  In the meantime, we will be inundated with toolkits, which will be neatly placed on a shelf and forgotten about.

Right now, what we really need is to be as connected to others as possible.  If nothing else, for starters this would bring the conversation about measurement, outcomes, social investment, payment by results and social return out of the darkness and into the light. Perhaps it is something our new strategic partners at the DfE can develop?

As always, please send me your comments below and continue this conversation with friends and colleagues via email and your favourite social networks.  Where the future of this debate is concerned, I look forward to your personal inputs..!

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Ready to grasp the nettle of our ‘hands-free’ future?

What would Lord Shaftsbury, Mary Carpenter or Dr Barnardo make of the ongoing political battle of what to cut and what to save?  What would they make of the government’s sudden hands-off approach, as the local authority squeals how their hands are tied and the rest of the sector stands by frustrated, trying to work out their own place or possible options in this brave/scary (delete as appropriate) new world?

Many charity and voluntary sector organisations are being criticised for keeping far too quiet whilst they try to save themselves.  Forget that approach, have some spirit and pluck; we might as well go down fighting under government opprobrium and local authority cuts.

At LEYF, we are nothing if not hands on.  And like most social entrepreneurs (fundamentally optimistic), we are disturbed to see how rapidly the original intention and real potential to develop and extend this big society seems to be evaporating before our very eyes.  Whilst the designated carer or white knight (aka third sector) of this new world paradoxically faces cuts in the region of 40%, we find ourselves no less immune – needing to magic one million pounds worth of ‘efficiencies’ out of the mutual-inspired hat. And with a good chunk of this due to a drastic reduction in places for children in need, I can only say ‘poor souls’… whilst echoes of the Victorian hymn ‘Suffer Little Children‘ reverberate around the back streets of Westminster and other similarly challenged London boroughs.

However, our philanthropic forefathers (and mothers, naturally) were not ones to roll over in a fiscal crisis, and neither must we. Our task now is to lead and balance criticism of the cuts with a practical and pragmatic set of solutions that can be woven into a clear and coherent philosophy.

But what does this mean; what can and in fact must we actually do..?  First of all, we need to decide what we want.  If early intervention is the mantra, what should it look like?  If Graham Allen wants bankers to invest by developing social impact bonds, what does this impact need to look like to convince them?  If we are to become truly persuasive and achieve our goals, we need to rethink the short-sighted nature of our current response – which at best is all about Children’s Centres (as if they were in every case the embodiment of perfection) and at worst saving individual settings without a sense of responsibility for the bigger picture.

And let us remember the crucial role of professional childcare at the heart of the debate, especially for those children from poor and disadvantaged families.  Let us certainly not forget all we have learned from the huge range of research carried out over the past 10 years – such as the fact that attending high quality preschool has a positive impact on the development of every child, and is even more essential when making a difference to the outcomes of the most dispossessed amongst them.

Our social business model at LEYF gives a great many parents access to such quality daycare for their children, providing both with the range of opportunities they need to step up and make a difference to their own life chances.  Let’s see more of this: we need to help parents believe in self-efficacy, with more consistent and effective dialogue between parents and professionals to help give them greater confidence in supporting their own children; we need to create a more family centred approach to safe guarding; instead of closing libraries and stopping funds for reading recovery (another gross irony in 2011, the National Year of Communication), we need to fund services that will encourage parents to read to their children, since this is undeniably another critical factor in the educational success of young children.

Elsewhere, let’s examine improvements to commissioning; apply the Total Place model and use carrot and stick to induce cross borough collaboration.  And if you’re lost in translation, start by reading pages 8 and 69 of the Graham Allen Report ‘Early Intervention: The Next Steps‘; it will help us mull over the many options.  Remember the wise words of Winston Churchill, and let’s make sure that ‘out of intense complexities intense simplicities emerge’.

Whatever your individual circumstance or priorities right now, we must find a way of weaving a simple but effective message, stating how together we can mitigate any further risks to the futures of those children we care for.  As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, ‘It is today we must create the world of the future.’  So whatever we do, let’s do it with a real purpose and enthusiasm; and as always, with the child at the heart.

Children’s Centres: A Way Forward

This has been an interesting week or so for the sector…

Firstly, Graham Allen MP (who spoke with such conviction about Early Intervention at our annual Margaret Horn Lecture in November) finally launched his much anticipated report at the Gherkin.

It was a room full of bankers and Early Year’s people – and I was most amused to realise that I knew quite a few of the bankers. We have been working with bankers for some time, in the hope of developing a social investment plan to extend our training programmes for young apprentices. However, the event did remind me of a wedding – the groom’s family in one corner and the bride’s in the other, with no one sure how to bridge the gap and mumblings as to whether this partnership would last (a comment also made by Graham Allen himself who recognised the challenge of developing social impact bonds).

The deputy Prime Minister, looking quite boyish, confirmed the commitment of the coalition Government to Early Years and social mobility, whilst assuring us of the need for investment in a fairer society. My only real concern here is the use of the phrase ‘school readiness’. While I know that every child has to be ready and able to succeed at school, I do hope that we also want to give children a happy childhood, because that is what so many of them are really missing.

Elsewhere this week, ACEVO invited Sarah Teather, Minister for Children and Families, to breakfast.  Here she presided over the launch of a very special taskforce – including yours truly, amongst several other experts from across the sector.  Our task it transpired is to support the Minister in converting the government’s objectives into a coherent vision for Early Years.  Sarah Tether appears keen on the principle of co-production, a concept very familiar to us in social enterprise.  However, like most modern jargon, it’s a clumsy expression that obscures good intentions, namely to work alongside people and get their views as part of a process of contribution and mutuality.  It’s a great approach for people like me who enjoy talking and networking with colleagues.

On my return to my own lovely team, I was able to reassure them that charities such as the Children’s Society, Action for Children and Spurgeons all struggle as we do – with complex contracts and barriers to commissioning.  In the spirit of the Big Society, it seems that sharing, connecting and linking together is the future, one of which I particularly approve.

On this very subject, last week we put our own head above the parapet and urged everyone else to do the same – with the hope of ensuring that if Children’s Centres were to close, the right ones would be chosen for the right reasons, and those that were needed would remain. The response has been heartening, particularly from parents and those professionals who really believe in finding the means of supporting children from poor and vulnerable families. Sadly, there are still too many people working in the world of children and families who have remained ominously silent.

Nonetheless, it would appear that our long-held belief that Children’s Centres should be intergenerational is finally gaining support. We are now working with Gulbekian and the lovely Beth Johnson Foundation to start testing our model.  We hope that once we begin to articulate a specific and successful approach, more people will believe as we do, that this is the way forward for us all.  This certainly fits with the notion of Big Society, and so has the backing of many senior Government ministers and Lords of the Realm.

We must remember that an intergenerational approach is more about attitude than the simple idea of having a building where older and younger people have services; to be truly intergenerational means to engage and form relationships across the generations, which in itself is not just about the very old and the very young but every generation in-between.

With this in mind, I invite you all to devour, discuss and share our ‘Ten Steps to a Sustainable, Intergenerational Children Centre’, part of our broader review of recent research relating to the current situation, ‘Children’s Centres: A Way Forward’.  As always, I welcome comments, challenges – and more ideas!

Instead of shimmering with the particular energy of disaffection (Alexander Pope), let’s take last week’s call to arms and convert this critical debate into positive action.

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A Call to Arms: Save Our Children’s Centres

We are already halfway through January, having returned from a long break to the order and pattern that work gives us. We have cheerily greeted everyone with a Happy New Year, but will it be?

As an optimistic person, I try to see challenges as opportunities, although at times this takes a huge leap of imagination and positive energy.  This is especially true now, with the doom and gloom harbingers out in force.  Of course, the press itself is less than helpful, setting the seeds for dissatisfaction and disorder; but in doing so, the more important issues all too easily risk being crowded out by a sense of general dismay.

But where to begin?  Without a doubt, saving Children’s Centres… Already this month, I have received impassioned telephone calls and frustrated emails from people about their local authorities not only halving Children’s Centres, but with limited consultation and no apparent plan.

I visited a small Centre in West London myself this week, only to then hear they were to be closed.  This particular school-based site had the complete support of both parents and head-teacher, and the team itself was coherent and robust about the benefits to local families.  They were equally realistic about the need to shift some ways of working and extend their services out.  Cuts aside, I simply cannot believe that local authorities are unable to afford an investment of £100k per annum in their multi-million pound budget (surely little more than the salary for one over-inflated management post).

Elsewhere, I attended the inaugural Home Start Lecture, where Professor Michael Marmot spoke about health inequalities and the investment needed to secure a more Fair Society, Healthy Lives for children. I asked the panel’s designated Cabinet Minister, Francis Maude, why in the light of all the evidence for preventative and community based services, Children Centres were closing. He simply fudged the issue by reasserting the Government position, namely how they were champions of Children Centres, but it was down to local authorities to make the decisions.

I thought of a recent book I read called Nudge and wondered how we might get the Government to give a nudge.  It’s true, we don’t want another micro-managing government (our last experience of this was unhelpful enough), but now baby and bathwater come to mind. In the meantime, Children Centres are closing and the consequences will come back to haunt us.  Will we ever learn?

Our colleauges over at 4Children made a great start last year with their Shout Out campaign, but I personally believe the time has come for us to finally wake up and actually do something about this emerging catastrophe for children and families, especially across the capital. We need to mobilise ourselves and take action as a determined network of passionate and committed Children Centre professionals.

It’s true that some Children’s Centres are better than others and some will have to go.  But that doesn’t mean reduced budgets cannot be resolved in a way that is planned, purposeful and sensitive to local communities.  Slash and burn is too random (and lazy) an approach.  As the picture of cuts continues to take shape, it seems incumbent on us to hatch a much-needed plan for survival, sustainability and reshaping; and one finally based around an intergenerational model.  We need to snatch the Children’s Centre baton and lead the process ourselves.

The time for talk may well be over, but please do comment and tweet us!  This is more than a nudge; this is a call to arms.

The Social Enterprise Tea Party

This week I overheard a member of staff commenting on my blog.  She had just begun to read it and was surprised at just how much it told her about what I do; about my efforts to ensure what we do at LEYF influences the world of childcare and so helps to build a better future for children everywhere.

Later in the week we had a staff forum where they made a similar observation, so I thought I would use this week’s blog to sum up our plans for franchising our model; to give some idea of what it might be like if we could successfully scale up and replicate what we do here at LEYF elsewhere. It fits into a particularly busy week of submitting tenders for nurseries, training services and strategic alliances – another means of getting a place at the table. Not surprisingly, I feel like Alice trying to get an invite to the Mad Hatters Tea Party, so we can have a turn to say our piece.

Tea Party at LEYF's Ford Road Children Centre Nursery

On the subject of teaan occasion which should, in my humble opinion, be a compulsory 4 o’clock occurrence – it featured quite a few times this week, including a spontaneous invite to share tea at the House of Lords following my outburst at the APPG on Sure Start.

On this occasion, I was provoked by the number of people whinging and complaining about government changes rather than trying to find a solution. It’s all very well saying how everything was wonderful in the past – a fact both inaccurate and irritating, which then just limits any kind of solution-focused approach and so raises my blood pressure!  For my part, I presented the option of a social enterprise Children’s Centre in my usual, outspoken way.  This naturally resulted in a range of responses – including eyes rolling, amusement, attention, clapping and the aforementioned invitation. I avoided any caustic comments by using the time to network with the great and good.

So, given that many of our own staff are beginning to read the blog, below is what I believe a LEYF franchise may mean in ten years time:

  • Social enterprise nurseries are now considered the first and natural choice for all parents; they are recognised as having a critical role to play not only in providing the best childcare but also in supporting and connecting families in the local community;
  • The design of a specifically social enterprise curriculum ensures social capital for all children;
  • Social enterprise nurseries are founded on a principle of supporting and taking care of a child’s wider abilities, leading to a growing sense of social responsibility and a readiness to act; in so doing establishing a greater degree solidarity and tolerance;
  • A quality mark exists to help parents clearly identify a social enterprise nursery in a crowded market; the mark is also a form of quality assurance, making sure the values of social enterprise are embedded and implemented to the full;
  • Social enterprise childcare has become the leading example of best practice across the sector and so a symbol of quality for all children; no longer locked within such a limiting concept as so often bestowed on PVIs of being simply ‘good enough for the poor and disadvantaged’;
  • Social enterprise childcare is now a recognised sector in itself, a real influence on corporate direction, part of corporate management programmes and considered critical to corporate social responsibility;
  • The social enterprise childcare sector has become a leading driver for change in public services;
  • Clear means of measuring and assessing the associated benefits of a social enterprise approach to childcare have been established and are now widely recognised within ‘value-added’ qualities or transitions, such as improved well-being, employability and active citizenship;
  • A strong social enterprise childcare network now exists with the weight and purpose to shape and change both Early Years policy and community regeneration, along with development and contractual procurement on a local, regional, national and international scale;
  • Links between social enterprise childcare services and the reduction of child poverty are clear, with a direct and measurable contribution to reducing the 3.9 million children living in poverty, with all the attendant health costs as they become adults;
  • An intergenerational approach to everything is explicitly embedded in the social enterprise childcare model, recognising that sometimes the younger generation is best placed to deal with issues challenging their community such as drugs, disadvantage, poverty and race.

Does the above sound like a dream to you – or a nightmare?  Let me know what you think or how you see the future of social enterprise or childcare.  Simply rate or comment on this post below and share with colleagues via Twitter, Facebook or email using the usual, handy links!

Ideas to make your head spin in Bethnal Green

I have had the most interesting week. Despite the weather and incompetent overground trains trying to keep me at home, the 209 bus and Piccadilly line ensured the commute from west London, although longer, was possible.  So hear hear for them.

Two activities spurred me on: a useful visit from a local politician with whom I could talk local community action, then two days at the School for Social Entrepreneurs exploring the intricacies of social franchise.

At LEYF we have been developing a means of franchising our social enterprise childcare model for the past year. Working with an academic partnership we have begun to codify the model and the processes. It’s no small challenge, since codifying a philosophy in a way that tells a clear story and has the right processes in place is much more complex than it first seems. The opportunities provided by the SSE to hear from commercial franchisors as well as the benefit of Geoff Mulgan from the Young Foundation proved sufficiently challenging to make my head spin.

In this climate, organisations can take two paths: one to keep small and lean, the other to grow, scale up or replicate the model.  Franchising is a good way to do the latter; and despite the doom and gloom, a well organised, canny social enterprise operator should be honing all their entrepreneurial skills to make the most of any opportunity. Indeed, we may never get these chances again.

For those of us in the world of childcare, now more than ever before, we have a real duty to do something.  Children from poorer backgrounds will be the losers in the current re-shifting of priorities, one of many clear points made in the recent Frank Field Report.

To this end, the franchise option seems to play out in three ways: the product, in our case community and Children Centre nurseries; the service we provide, and the way we do things.

At LEYF I hope to use this opportunity to hammer home what we have been saying for a long while, namely that intergenerational children’s centres are the way forward, nurseries need to be community based and socially enterprising approaches have a part to play in the nursery market place.

My week finished on an uplifting note: a cup of tea with a friend who is trying to stay positive in Tower Hamlets, followed by a fundraising carol concert for the wonderful charity Rainbow Trust, which supports children who have life threatening illnesses. The voices of the young choristers in Urban Voices rang out and uplifted us with their enthusiasm and optimism.  On a cold Friday night it was simply the icing on the cake.

Let’s stave off a tsunami of social disaster

Our 4th Annual Margaret Horn Lecture last Thursday evening went off with a bang. We were oversubscribed which raised the thorny question of health and safety and how many people can be fitted in a room.  Fortunately, the LEYF staff were all willing to stand in the aisles – capacity for which was also limited!

Our choice of speaker in Graham Allen MP was prompted by our belief that we have to do something active to get it right for children. In the words of Marge Piercy, we really believe that children are everyone’s business; they are our heirs and our future. And I would like to think this fairly reflects the beliefs of Margaret Horn herself. So Graham certainly drew the crowds; and as a satisfied parent of our own Bessborough community nursery, he was a great advert for parent loyalty!

Whilst Graham’s understated style belied some of his message, he did warn that a tsunami of social disaster was waiting to befall us if we didn’t act now – in the face of a growing underclass, both excluded from society and with no reason to engage in this new big society. He then pleased me endlessly by reaffirming the importance of intergenerational approaches to everything we do – something I have advocated for a very long time and which should be the central philosophy of all Children’s Centres.

The audience, among which a good number of local authorities, were remarkably sanguine as the lecture unravelled the possible implication of the cuts – many of which seem unnecessarily savage and don’t align either with government suggested financial targets, nor the idea of a Big Society.  It’s something that surprised many of us – not least a certain Polly Toynbee, who was aghast at the apparent mood of submission so ripe in the air. In all fairness, mind you, local authority officers are effectively gagged while they await their own fate.

Graham Allen thinks that one way we can address the costs of early intervention is by getting banks ,venture capitalists and philanthropists – yes, all in the same sentence – to create social impact bonds.  He tells us bonds could be anything we want them to be (although he rejected my call that they be James). In fact, only last year Dame Clare Tickell gave us our lecture, during which she reflected on the Action for Children and New Economics Foundation report Backing the Future which costed out social bonds. Let’s see if Graham Allen can get that money out of the banks; maybe we could give them some positive PR in return and charge accordingly.

For some time now, we have been told that measuring impact is critical in all this; to clearly show everyone what social return they will get on their investment, whether its from the fees they pay or donations. For our part, earlier this year we employed a company called PVC to help us measure what we do.  Karim Javeri gave a summary of progress so far, noting that what has been most interesting was the value to parents of simply attending nursery.

One final thread to com out of the debate was that of the new jargon in certain circles: scaling up and replication. At LEYF we have been investigating if our own approach might be socially franchised across the country, giving local authorities a model they can put to good use when it comes to early intervention, especially in poor neighbourhoods. Maybe now Chris White MP has managed to get the Social Enterprise Bill through the House of Commons, we will have more chance.

As I stated from day one, this blog exists fundamentally to provoke a response. So let’s prove the critics wrong. Let’s show that actually we do still have sufficient passion to challenge stupid ideas; we do have enough energy to keep rejecting limited policies and ineffective decisions. Let’s make sure this new Coalition understands what is really needed if we are to carry on putting the child at the centre. After all the future is in their hands.

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