Tag Archives: Community

Cleaning my teeth with Laura Henry & other surprises from a Trip to Froebel’s Birthplace

Recently, I wrote about the importance of visiting other nurseries so I was delighted when I was given a “golden ticket” by Community Playthings to visit Keilhau where Froebel set up his first school. My introduction to Froebel came in 1998 when I studied for an MA at Froebel College now better known as the University of Roehampton. I was touched by his approach to teaching small children using the power of play.getfsslideimage c

Play is the highest level of child development….it gives…joy, freedom, contentment, inner and outer rest, peace with the world… The plays of childhood are the germinal leaves of all later life.

I loved his ideas of a community of work, play and learning which shaped my work at LEYF.

Thinking and doing, recognising and responding, knowledge and ability should be united at the inmost level.’

Finally, how could you not like a pioneer who in 1849 started the first college to train women to become Kindergarten teachers and said,

‘The destiny of nations lies far more in the hands of women, the mothers, than in the possessors of power, or those of innovators who for the most part do not understand themselves. We must cultivate women, who are the educators of the human race, else the new generation cannot accomplish its task.’

The general rule is “what happens on the trip stays on the trip” but somethings have to be shared (so I won’t mention Froebel groupies, Irish Dancing, Drunken Sailors, German cakes, Scottish hilarity or midnight singsongs.) However, we agreed to reacquaint the sector with one of the first pioneers and so you will have already read the thoughts of Julian Grenier , Penny Webb , Laura Henry and Nursery World.getfsslideimage xx

From our arrival at Heathrow, to the five hour coach journey from Frankfurt into the heart of Thuringia and for the entire three days, I basked in an extended pedagogical conversation.   Everywhere we went, whether on the coach, hiking across the hills, in the museums, sitting for breakfast, having a glass of wine in a hut or in chilling in pyjamas, words like pedagogy, engagement, mudology, research, play, blocks, outdoors, wallow, reflection, blocks peppered the discussions.

The experience was particularly uplifting at a time when early year’s policy is so depressing. It’s important to realise that you are not alone which deals with feelings of isolation and paranoia or thinking you have a guest role in an episode of Stepford Wives.

I won’t spoil your revisiting of Froebel by telling you what happens at the end but a good summary would be in a book written by a LEYF colleague called Theories. But as you are all busy people here are are my top 10 Froebel nuggets:

  1. Froebel himself had a very hard time and was seen as a threat to society because of his radical thinking about how best to educate children.
  2. Froebel was a social entrepreneur setting up his school with just 5 children and building up a movement.
  3. It’s true that you cannot be a prophet in your own land. Despite his coining the term Kindergarten (we visited the site where he did this and we could see what he meant when he described the area as a very beautiful valley for education). Nurseries in Germany are not called kindergartens.getfsslideimage
  4. Froebel didn’t have a defined philosophy and pedagogy which he the scientifically applied to his school. Instead, he used his life experience and the continual learning and responses from the children and adults to mould and remould his approach.
  5. Froebel realised that architecture was key to pedagogy and the shape and design of the building was crucial. He insisted on panelling to make classrooms homely, windows low enough for children to be able to see outside, and nooks and crannies and steps and corners to make the building interesting and quirky and non-institutionalised.
  6. Froebel said that every adult had to have love for each child and a passion to help them succeed.
  7. Froebel reminded us that to teach children you need the right resources. The systematic tools of the kindergarten were intentionally simple, intended for maximum variability, infinite potential. Self-activity, self-direction and play were the engines of the kindergarten.
  8. Froebel designed his gifts as tools to teach small children to observe, reason, express and create blank slates for infinite imagination, story-telling, preliminary mathematics, and systematic design. The gifts provided a comprehensive system and extended to sticks for picture making, drawing on grids, paper weaving, origami, sticks and peas for picture making structures (think toothpicks and mini marshmallows), simple blocks and clay. tools –With music, dancing, nature walks, and gardening, the first kindergarten children learned lessons in eco-consciousness, how nature designs, and a sense of their individual perfection in unity with all creation.
  9.  Froebel reminds us of the importance of parents

    It is not only conducive but necessary to the development and strengthening of the child’s power and skill that parents should, without being too pedantic or too exacting, connect the child’s actions with suitable language and behaviour.’

  10. We have to see Early Years Care and Education within the social and historical context of the day. We are at the heart of the political and economic maelstrom. We can only change things if we articulate what has happened that shapes what is happening.


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



Will the Chancellor become the Fairy Godmother to Cinderella Childcare on Thursday?


What is important about Thursday? Well, it’s the Chancellor’s autumn statement. I wonder whether he will still need to rely on the bursts of fast food energy which got him through the Budget. Or has he eaten enough brain food to come up with a few big ideas? If he needs a big idea then he could sort out the incoherent and confused mess we call childcare. That Cinderella Childcare, which despite its rags needs to provide affordable best quality childcare for those families where both parents work, those single parents who need to earn enough to secure their independence away from benefits and those children which the Coalition has deemed will increase their social mobility by attending the best quality nurseries.  Yes, Mr Osborne you would do well to sprinkle some fairy dust on poor Cinderella Childcare and make her feel important and valued. You could start by recognising the importance of children to society and ask the question ‘what do we want for our children?’   Continue reading

Stonehenge, Farms and Icebergs: Developing Successful Growth Strategies

I am rarely found up at 6am on a Saturday unless I am on my way back from some lively event but this Saturday I headed off to Paddington Farm for a strategy awayday. It was a glorious clear morning with a romantic frost over the Salisbury plains. Passing Stonehenge made me wonder whether our prehistoric strategists realised 3500 years ago that they were building the most important prehistoric monument in the whole of Britain.moonrise stars Stonehenge Wiltshire England UK

The point of a strategy is to plan the action needed to ensure we meet our mission statement in a way that secures us economically.  It is a day to remind us all about the core business ( in this case educational farm holidays for people who are in need ) and what we can do to sustain and develop it.  It is quite broad in that we try to avoid drilling into how we will achieve the strategy.  We have to stick to asking ourselves over and over is this the right direction of travel.  Will this help us achieve our aim? Are we fit for purpose?

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Will Technology Based Networks Lead to a New Age of Enlightenment and an Early Years Wiki?

Last week was a week of networks and networking.  On Wednesday I was at an event organised by the Social Business Trust (SBT.)  It was called ‘Social Enterprise Potential in UK Education’ and a central theme was how we connect and form communities of like-minded people where we can converse and debate and learn from each other. I ended up having a very lively conversation with the Development Head of Ark Academies and Brett Wigdortz of Teach First or as I said to him Teach Early Years First! I think we will continue the discourse as we had much to say.

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Welcome to the Institute of Early Years: A Global Portal Connecting EY Colleagues – Help us shape it to meet your interests

For the past year, a small group of us have been mulling over how to create an international open-source space which connects people involved in all aspects of Early Years in a way so that they could chat, share ideas, make friends, organise visits and link to other organisations and resources.

We wanted it to be open source, low cost and accessible to all. We want anyone working with children across the childcare, social care, health, education, police and preventative sectors to connect. Continue reading

First Thoughts on June’s #EYManifesto : Let’s start the Next Big Conversation

We have just had the party conferences and watched as each party started to position itself in readiness for the next election.  They are all hard at work shaping their manifestos. This is the time sensible politicians should seek the views of the public to initiate an open, balanced and fully informed national debate about what the public want, need and are prepared to pay for. We want to lead that debate in Early Years so we can puts the best interests of the child first and with that ensure the policies are in place to make it happen. Continue reading

In Support of Childminders: You are not a Lone Voice Calling from the Wilderness.

On last week’s blog a LINK childminder made an impassioned appeal to the sector to support childminders.  She was feeling that we were less engaged with the argument against childminding agencies.

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A fond farewell to 2012… or should that be ‘Au Revoir’?

As we rush to the end of a very speedy 2012, I thought I would review the year through the lenses of my 42 blogs. From RiRi to the Spice Girls and Bedouin Tents to Scottish Islands, it’s clear that LEYF has had an eventful year.

Back in January 2012, we started the year with interest rate rises, higher unemployment, problems in the Eurozone, freakish weather and the promise of deflation. Quite frankly, we needed neither Nostradamus nor the I Ching for predictions on how to navigate the year, as such things seem to be regular occurrences nowadays – and all evidence indicates that 2013 will begin along very similar lines. These realities have meant a year of keeping our noses at LEYF just above the waterline, with a great deal of pressure on the front line in our nurseries to keep occupancy up and debt down. Not the easiest task, even with the stalwart support of our Central Office team. Consequently, the debate about child poverty remained live throughout the year and featured in my blog at least six times. Just to remind you, my I Ching reading for LEYF for 2012 said:

Work on what has been spoiled;

Has supreme success;

It furthers one to cross the great water,

Afterwards there is order

Not so far from the truth then as we consider progressions and challenges over the past 12 months!

Earlier in the year we began preparing for the Olympics and, like any good organisation, we had a plan. Luckily, we never had to use it. Instead, like James Bond we whisked across London on foot, bus and ‘Boris Bike’  – and in the case of our Facilities Manager April running, as we brought our own special light (in the shape of our very own Olympic-style torch) to every LEYF nursery, and in so doing created a piece of art that exceeds anything the Turner Prize has ever honoured.

Marsham Street welcome LEYF 'Olympic torch'

The issue of feminism was raised early this year with the celebration of Little Women’s Christmas in January. While we focused on parents continually throughout the year, we also examined the role of mothers who got bashed for wanting to work. Our annual Margaret Horn Lecture was given over entirely to examining how we can help women excel in the workplace. The criticism against mothers felt like a re-run of the 1970s, prompting this working mother to resurrect my old Spare Rib and Virago books. Ah, such nostalgic memories for the days of ‘Reclaiming the Night’ marches in London.

Humanising capitalism was also a key theme of the year. Occupy London made its rather biblical mark on the steps of St Paul’s cathedral in direct response to the moral failing of banks, as they thrived to the benefit of overpaid staff and the detriment of the poor. Social Enterprise featured in the media as a palatable version for transforming the way we operate. We were proud therefore to be the first social and childcare business to win the ‘Transformational Change’ category of the National Business Awards; a sign of things to come perhaps? Much will depend on the growing availability of social finance and the jury is still out on that.

Leadership was a subject of debate as Boris retained the crown of London’s Mayor and Bob Diamond lost his sparkle. For a while we were able to think more publicly about the importance of good, wise and steady leadership. Sadly, with the phone hacking scandal, the Leveson Report and poor leadership at the BBC unmasked, we saw and heard a lot about unsustainable leadership and not enough about how to lead with integrity, honesty and as a true custodian of the nation’s interests. Radio 4’s Women’s Hour seems to be trying to re-balance this with a bid to name the 100 most influential women leaders. I just hope they think outside the box and not rely on the same old… (Question Time comes to mind!)

Meanwhile, there were changes in Early Years – such as the new Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), a fresh Ofsted regime and the change of Government Minister. Other things remained unchanged however, particularly the issue of how to make childcare affordable. This unfortunately remains unanswered and unanswerable, unless we strip down the effective management of funds and its reallocation against societal objectives of what we want for our children.

My blog will always feature things we do and try-to-do at LEYF. Some areas of note have included developing the notion of cultural capital, particularly with regards to language, art, music and food. Just last week, the Ofsted report said that children from deprived homes were still not achieving a level playing field with their more advantaged peers. It also indicated the gap could be as wide as 19 months by the time they get to school. It’s a shocking statistic and one that everyone at LEYF feels we can positively affect. Hence our growth strategy, with the aim of replicating what has been dubbed ‘the LEYF sum'; where a child spends a minimum of 15 hours a week for 36 months in a high quality LEYF nursery, with additional support for parents to help develop a good home learning environment. It was the theme of our heart-warming Staff Conference where we were joined by six Scottish colleagues and Paul Brannigan, lead actor of the Angel’s Share – a film that summed up the plight of so many young people who had a poor start in life. It’s certainly one for the Christmas present list.

So as this year draws to a close, our nursery children, parents and staff are all enjoying festive concerts, parties and family events to mark the Christmas season. As part of this, our nurseries are visiting local care homes to allow the children in our care to bring songs of good cheer to their older neighbours. It truly gladdens my heart, as loneliness, isolation and the separation of the generations are the biggest failing of our modern society.

Furze children's choir perform for local residents

Next year maybe the importance of childcare will be on everyone’s lips. Amidst scenes of the Christmas nativity and the expectation of the birth of a Royal baby in the New Year, our future as a nation may yet take on a golden glow. I wonder, will the three wise men include Mr Gove, our Secretary of State for Education, bringing with him gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh – or better still, funds and positive policy? Will our star rise in the sky and shine a light on what we do? We will have to wait and see. In the meantime, I best be quick if I’m to write that letter to Santa…

Merry Christmas to you all and a Happy New Year!

…till 2013.

Olympic legacy should begin with the Early Years and leave politics on the side-lines

I must admit that I was slightly worried about the Olympics. Not quite a naysayer but wary all the same. Like all ex Girl Guides, I had us planning from April and was willing to buy campbeds so staff could stay the night. Fortunately, we needed none of this.  Instead of the increase in traffic we saw a 30% reduction. It was blissful. Public transport was brilliant and everything ran like clockwork. So well done to everyone. Only now, as the first step in the Olympic legacy, please can we keep the same traffic systems so travel and traffic life will never go back to normal?

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Contrast this time last year; a far cry from the public support and camaraderie of this past two weeks. The same visitors, delighted by this year’s Londoners friendliness, were watching in horror last summer as many young people tried to burn their own neighbourhoods. This year there are no flaming buildings or police in riot gear, but instead London is being congratulated by Olympic visitors for the tolerance and patience of both local citizens and volunteers, not to mention sensitive and effective policing. I’ve just been listening to Luis Fernandez, Deputy Minister of Sport in Brazil on Radio 4, confirm this view of the London Olympics; referring to G4S security management as the only disaster. (Note to UK Government – consider more social businesses for such contracts. Look how well GLL managed their contract at the Aquatic Centre; that would be another great legacy.)

So, better systems to reduce traffic would be one legacy, more social enterprises contracted to run national events would be another legacy. The third would be getting sport and sporting behaviour more effectively embedded in school life. (Ironically, less traffic might mean more children playing out, and so running about getting fit.)

And now physical is a prime subject in the revised EYFS, we better start with the earliest years and the youngest children; it would be good for our staff too.   Either way, given that apparently the whole nation is plagued with obesity, poor attitude, poor spatial awareness and fear of risk and competition, it seems almost a miracle that we ended up third in the medal league with a record 65 medals – our best record yet!

Tessa Jowell, the shadow Olympics minister, has very sensibly called for cross-party consensus on a 10-year plan to build on the public enthusiasm for sport after London 2012:

One of the reasons the Olympics have been so successful in their planning and execution is that all the parties have worked together in the national interest, built a national consensus about how to deliver the Olympics. I think that sense of unity of purpose should be applied to delivering this legacy.

What a good idea; anything that avoids the unhelpful and sometimes juvenile bickering that gets in the way of great ideas. That said, there is already a lot of bickering among the parties about selling off sports fields. I do hope that their idea of a legacy will ensure that every child has the opportunity to play a range of sport and not just fixate on two hours a week chasing a ball around a field. I might have got more into sport if I could have learned tennis or handball instead of the obligatory Camogie, a ball game with the associated elements of kamikaze.

In her comments, Jowell highlighted the wider benefits of sport for children – from improved behaviour, attendance and punctuality to evidence of better academic results. Others link sport and the Olympics with national identity. These may all be true and relevant, but when they are touched by the politics wand, the fairy dust quickly becomes sawdust, as politics always manages to kill dead any spontaneous enthusiasm and groundswell action. My heart sinks when I hear fun activities linked to bigger moral and social forces. It’s probably how many small children feel when showing a painting to the teacher.  She responds earnestly with “Tallulah, how lovely – do tell me all about your painting.” “Oh God,” thinks Tallulah, “just say you like it and let me be.”

So let the legacy be that we held a great event. London was exemplary and preparation counted for a lot. We pulled together and supported the athletes with great warmth and enthusiasm. We watched many young people show us how to be good at something. We recognised the coaches and those quiet supporters that help people achieve. We liked what we saw, and we want more of it; we want our children to be able to do this more easily. Let’s open our hearts and our pockets and make it happen, but leave the grandstanding and the politics on the side-lines.