Tag Archives: Culture

Welcome to the House of Fun

Last week I met colleagues from the EarlyArts and www.telltalehearts.co.uk. It’s always fun to explore elements of good practice with lively people and we spent the morning considering the importance of creative learning environments.  Amanda from Formation People reflected about the need for creative leadership. She reflected about the leaders she meets who continue to see creativity as a module rather than a way of behaving as Einstein said creativity is contagious, so let’s spread a creativity virus.albert-einstein-quote-on-creativity[1]

Why do we need to build a creative learning environment? The early years world is subject to constant change from external factors from economics and policies to internal changes such as new children’s interests and expectations. Creativity needs to be our backbone, our raison d’etre or modus operandi (…I can’t think of this is any more languages just now!)

Why? First and foremost, creativity leads to happy staff because it gives you space to play; play with ideas, words and activities and have fun. It does not take much research to show that a fun environment where you feel happy and engaged is more likely to bring the best out in people.  Why does Google, Bain and other big companies put games and toys in their buildings? They want happy staff who will give more and succeed more and who become creative thinkers, transferring their skills and knowledge to make interesting and creative connections.


Fostering creativity is fundamentally important because creativity brings with it the ability to question, make connections, innovate, problem solve, communicate, collaborate and to reflect critically. All of which is vital for children to be able to play their part in their rapidly changing world.

The importance of having a creative staff who can embellish and fascinate children by using imagination, creativity and all the arts available as part of children’s daily lives is what matters.

Creativity helps people understand more deeply and build the emotional intelligence needed to create harmonious relationships and happy environments which bring the best out in people.  Anything that will reduce our amygdala hijacks has to be a good thing. Do you often think of a better way of doing something? Do you want to think of a better way? John Howkins askes these questions in his book The Creative Economy. Last Friday I was contacted by Jane Parker, a music teacher from Devon who wants Children Centre Managers across UK to complete a surveymonkey.com/s/PLPTLVN in order to find out if there is a better way of using music teachers.

For creativity to flourish we need the freedom to ask questions, believe or disbelieve, explore possibilities and have fun doing so. Given how much time we spend at work lets develop our creativity and make our workplaces a House of Fun. We know what Jane wants to happen to improve music, what do you want to happen?7164650083_ab07ed1e49_z



If we want to improve the lives of poor two year olds, we need to have an intelligent Ofsted conversation

‘More nursery education should be carried out in schools to prepare children better for later education and help bridge the gap between rich and poor’ the Chief Inspector of schools has said.

Sir Michael Wilshaw warned that ‘too many early years education providers are failing to teach youngsters social, emotional and learning skills and get them ready to start primary school.’9739511441_f1f00e4de8_z

‘Pupils from poorer backgrounds are also too often falling behind their more privileged peers by the time they reach school age, but bringing “structured” early years provision into a school setting would help put them on equal footing.’ His comments came ahead of Ofsted’s first Early Years Annual Report, which will call for a radical shake-up of early years education in England.

And so screamed the headlines…blood pressure raised, heads shook, teeth were kissed by many in the Early Years sector as they listened to this while stirring the porridge.

The trouble was that the speech confused many issues into a simplistic message which was a shame because the central tenet that There is nothing inevitable about the link between poverty and failure is something on which Sir Michael and I totally agree. It’s the principle on which we built LEYF.

However, his conclusion that all this would be solved if we put poor children into school earlier is simplistic, arrogant and dismisses the whole Early Years sector as either meddling middle class earth mothers, or useless Early Years practitioners. No doubt, there is some truth in this but it’s a rather Homer Simpson approach. Doh! homer-simpson-doh

Let’s probe some of the assumptions he makes:

  1. Ofsted figures show continual improvement in the standards of quality offered by PVI nurseries, so why is he blaming us for the fact the children age four are not school ready?
  2. Children aged three have been in school for the last 12 years and there is no research that shows that by being in school they have successfully helped children become school ready.
  3. There is no research that says two year olds from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to better success by attending a school environment. It hasn’t worked for three year olds.
  4. My experience of the two year olds on the two year old programme is that they have disproportionately higher levels of speech and communication problems, disorganised attachment, nutrition  issues and parents who are either unable or unwilling to be warm, authoritative parents which is, as we know, the most successful parenting style. How will schools cope with this?
  5. He says that because teachers are graduates then the quality of teaching will be higher. The research we did  shows quite clearly that the level of qualification could not be proven as key to quality for two year olds but the level of attunement, understanding of child development and the high ratios were the critical factors. Is he and Liz Truss in cahoots to get the ratios reduced?
  6. He wants us to ‘teach’ two year olds and provide more formalised learning. Well, we do teach two year olds using sensory and creative teaching, enabling environments, routine, small groups, outdoor play and continual conversation, language, singing stories and working with their parents. Two year olds are babies at 25 months, toddlers by thirty months and emerging small children by thirty six months.  They come sucking dummies, in nappies and hardly able to separate from their parents and become quite independent by three but the journey means we weave care, order and loving attachment into their learning.  Call that teaching if you want Sir Michael but it needs plenty of adults and home learning activities.
  7. Sir Michael, no one objects to children being able to know ‘how to hold a pen… the ability to count, to recognise words, to communicate well with each other and their teachers’ but we need to agree what your inspectors look for as we help children become skilled at such tasks.  We need to be able to do this in a paced way so we work in alignment with the child and not in some pressured race.  Perhaps you might rethink why we need to be able to do all this at four and five which is not even statutory school age.
  8. We agree we need to develop a shared baseline screening but the evidence so far is not hopeful that they help children progress. Let’s think of a better way to identify children’s starting points and track their progress.
  9. Sir Michael, we have for many, many years tried to engage with schools and it’s never been a coherent success. It very much depends of factors such as a willing Headteacher, locality, time, cover and Local Authority support.  Why do you think you can force a different course of action?
  10. With so many schools failing and in special measures and no Local Authority support how will deregulation ensure quality is assured in schools and guarantee children the best service.

Sir Michael, we are all on the side of children.  However, to succeed so everyone is life ready we need to have a coherent approach if we are to support children to succeed. You cannot do that by telling one element of the sector that it’s to blame for failing poor children in the face of contradictory evidence.  Why not use Ofsted’s role as an improvement catalyst and engage with the sector?  This is where we can all show real leadership. The issues are more complex than you acknowledge and we need a holistic approach.  Start by setting up a National Advisory Committee to tackle each element of the problem. Let’s begin by having a pedagogical conversation…


‘We worry so much about what a child will be tomorrow that we forget she is someone today.
Stacia Tauchser

A Trip to the Farm and an Incident with a Chicken

I have the privilege of being the Chair of Paddington Farm Trust.  This is a 43 acre organic farm in Glastonbury Somerset, set up with legacy funds from the Greater London Council as a resource for children from inner London.  It was initially a group of well-meaning and interested Westminster residents that took it on and began a story which continues today…

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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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Camp beds, James Bond and Pandemonium: the Olympics have arrived.

I was going to blog about babies and business which hit the headlines last week – namely how the newly appointed pregnant CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer will not take maternity leave and bring her baby to work, and the CEO of Addison Lee, Liam Griffin wants his staff to be able to bring their babies to work. I only hope the babies like being tucked under desks and that proximity to Mum or Dad is sufficient to constitute good childcare.

However, as London has launched the 30th Olympiad at a fantastical and slightly bonkers opening night, I felt it was only right and patriotic to comment on the Olympics – not least the fabulous efforts of all 23 LEYF nurseries to complete our own ‘Olympic torch’ relay.

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I felt morally obligated to watch the opening ceremony – the only time in my life I have done this.  Like the Eurovision Song Contest, I tend to avoid these big blockbuster affairs as they tend to be jingoistic and mawkishly sentimental (a combination that leaves me feeling slightly nauseous). However, this year I along with 27 million others made do with the TV version. Frankly, I would have preferred to be there, as no doubt the music, lighting, fireworks and atmosphere would have added to the whole experience.  (As it happened, I had a friend who miraculously had got a ticket and gave up to date commentary.)

I really liked the involvement of children, and the focus on them as our next generation of sports people was joyful.  I also loved the Chaos Choir, although at the beginning I did wonder whether we had all arrived in Pandemonium. Indeed if this is the City of Hell, I am going to try harder to get to the Pearly Gates. At least now we know why the NHS is always in trouble; the doctors and nurses are all taking dance classes. (No wonder you can’t find a nurse on the wards to plump up the patients pillows, they are all out the back practising their jazz swings and selling the beds to Danny Boyle’s production company.)

I loved the parade which included 204 countries, some of which were new to me.  In fact it was a bit of a geography lesson, as we heard of newly named free countries and so many from the Pacific Islands. Most touching was the representation from those countries which have recently or currently experienced war, civil unrest, hunger, piracy and environmental disasters. Their ambition to attend was heartening. I really hope they get medals.

And wasn’t it fantastic that we have women in every team for the first time? No more room for complacency on the issue of women’s equality across the globe – and such a great way for us to teach our own children not to be casual about what has been hard won! It reminds me of a great film called The Source made in Morocco recently, where women went on strike from their wifely bedroom duties until the men would get them piped water. It was a modern story but the issues and attitudes went back centuries.

I thought Sebastian Coe’s speech was heartfelt too, as he reminded us of the reason for the Olympics: linking sport with culture and education; celebrating the joy achieved from effort and helping build a better world through sport practised in a spirit of peace, excellence, friendship and respect.  It’s a shame more of the athletes and their organising colleagues did not pay more respect to him by listening instead of jumping around, chewing gum and playing with their phones. Role models for the next generation, I hope not.  If anything, that was much more evident from our friends in the military and the beautiful and orderly formation of a respectful Chelsea Pensioner troop. The behaviour of the 1000 volunteers was also praised and will no doubt bring a tear to David Cameron’s eye, as a little bit of his Big Society dream comes alive in London over the next few weeks.

In the end, the Olympics is here and I wonder how many camp beds we will need at LEYF?  Will we be Happy and Glorious like James Bond or will John Milton’s vision of Pandemonium be the legacy? Let’s hope that many people are touched by the harmony that sport can play in developing our modern society and that those young people who lit the Olympian flame will salute the democratic spirit of the Olympics and reflect it in the way they shape the future.

Having a customer conversation with Tesco

The influence of the modern supermarket on our daily lives is remarkably powerful. We take the big five for granted, rarely questioning  their hold  on how we shop, eat and behave.  Occasionally, we get very worked up about their part in the ruination of the local High St, or the damage they do as they squeeze the life blood out of local suppliers.  It’s trickier to justify this anger though, when they calmly tell us that what they do is designed to improve the customer experience and keep prices low.

So it’s no wonder they hold sway, when the deal is they rule the roost and we in turn acquiesce, only so we can walk into a clean store 24 hours a day and buy a range of food, healthy or otherwise. Personally, I have to own up to describing the whole food shopping experience as Sainsbores.  (No offence Sainsburys!)

While I am not a regular visitor to Tesco, I have always been interested in how Sir Terry Leahy pushed the posh boys out of the way (Sainbury’s and Marks and Sparks) and headed to the top.  I was therefore interested to read his new book Management in 10 Words. How would he describe the business methodology of growing a retail business to number one in the world?

For starters, I was surprised by his use of warm words – such as loyalty, culture and values. You would think Tesco was set up to save the world, not sell crisps. However, he is clearly a Tesco man, through and through. Passionate and obsessive leaders all have that in common. I met someone who works in Compliance at Barclays last year, and I asked her what was Bob Diamond really like?  She said he really seemed to be a Barclays man. He also talked about culture and values, as you will have read in my last two blogs.  In his own words:

Strong values underpin successful businesses.  They give managers a sheet anchor, something that holds their position and keeps them from being smashed on the rock when caught in a storm. Values govern how a business behaves, what it sees as important, what it does when faced with a problem.” (P 109)

Leahy was clearly a man with a big vision and a habit of doing things quickly. He says that intention is never enough and plans mean nothing if they are not effectively enacted.   He commented on his time at the Co-Op, at being frustrated by the length of time the democratic management processes took to make decisions. I am sure many others recognise the danger and destruction that slow and complex, unclear decision making can wreak on a business – especially one with growth ambitions.

Interestingly, we have introduced a decision-making model at LEYF known as ‘RAPIDs’ (courtesy of the excellent work from our SBT partners Bain & Company) to ensure speedier decisions.  It is something that also affects a culture; we want a culture of speed and intelligent response, not processes that actually work against the success of the business.

For me, the main thrust of Terry Leahy’s book was that it was all about the customer. You need to understand your customers and give them what they want.  It’s the only way to get loyalty, which in turn means a steady stream of income. For him, the Clubcard was key to his success, because it gave Tesco more direct access to customer’s data and better ways to talk to them.  The customer conversation became critical to the culture of the new Tesco, and meant they could provide the right products in the right places at the right price. It’s certainly the key lesson I have learnt from his book.

Whether you have read the book or not, what are your thoughts on the importance of  the customer experience? Is the customer always right? And what’s the best way to learn from them. Let me know below.

The price of leadership: sharing a couch with Robert de Niro

Getting comfy in Noah's Ark

Getting comfy in Noah’s Ark

The other morning, I watched The Record , a programme on BBC Parliament which gives a daily run-through of key events in Westminster.  Obviously, the interview with Bob Diamond by the Treasury Select Committee featured, and if we were to tag the keywords, leadership was certainly the big hitter.

Questioner after questioner asked Mr Diamond about how he viewed his responsibility for running a company that had behaved so dishonestly.  He was asked if he was complicit or incompetent when he said he knew nothing about such mendacious practice. He was challenged about how bad it had to get before it floated to the top of his inbox and he saw the incriminating emails.  ‘Did your staff not feel able to tell you about this?’ was the question from one incredulous MP.

He argued that once he knew of the mal-practice he dealt swiftly, i.e. he sacked the traders. He was asked what he could do now to reassure the public about the value of the Barclays brand.  He was challenged quite a lot about his stand on culture and how he had not spotted that his culture was going bad. His rebuttals about it only being a small amount of staff etc. were rebuffed and so the questions went on for three hours.

He might have garnered some sympathy had he not continued to refer to the MPs by their first names. In a formal situation, with them calling him Mr Diamond, his persistent use of John, George, Andrea rankled and did him no favours. It certainly didn’t help his apparent credibility. Did he learn nothing from the Fred the Shred debacle?  Leaders must be credible. Weasel words and beating of breasts will not cut the mustard. Mr Diamond failed to acknowledge his duty;  a favourite word of mine and one that needs to come back into fashion.  Indeed, I was so pleased to hear it used on the Radio 4 programme The Moral Maze that I stopped ironing and sent a tweet. (What a choice, ironing or tweeting!)

Personally, I am very proud to be leading a growing organisation, albeit the size of a pin head compared to Barclays. I worry a lot about checks and balances, and how you know that what you say on the tin is still happening when you get further away from the front line.  It must be much harder for a larger company, and I often wonder how places like Sainsbury’s manage. On paper, it’s about things such as leadership, systems, operating manuals, key people practices (hiring, induction, performance management and training), communication and engagement with all customers and staff. In reality, it’s about all of that – but mostly it’s about trust and culture. On that matter Mr Diamond is right.

So, what to do?? Give up and run for the hills?  Mr Diamond can do this with the £95m he has paid himself, but it’s not such an option for the rest of us mortals. You could question and worry to such a degree that you might end up on the psychiatrist’s couch. It might be worth it, if only to join the Billy Crystal school of analysis and end up sharing the couch with Robert de Niro.

Diamond in the rough: a tale of banks, culture and high performance

Well the bankers are in trouble again. Is it a case of money corrupts? Poor Bob Diamond (former CEO of Barclays Bank). Last year he proudly announced that culture is the most important thing in an organisation because it is what people do when no one is looking.  He said that bankers must always operate in a way that brings the best service to customers. He looked like he was leading a ‘good bank’.  Aside from the political impact (now evident), it must have galled him to know that some of his staff lost sight of this culture and values when they behaved so dishonestly.

According to Patrick Lencioni in his book The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, culture is set by the leader; it has to come from the top. In another book, How Finding Your Passion Changes EverythingKen Robinson describes culture as a means of creating contagious behaviour by embedding the attitudes and behaviour that are acceptable and unacceptable across the organisation.

Funnily enough, I spent last week reflecting on our own culture at LEYF with my fellow directors. We have always known that culture is critical, especially when growing an organisation: staff need to ‘get the vibe’ and, without even thinking about it, know what behaviour and attitudes are the LEYF way. We summarised our three cultural behaviours  as  Nurture, Excellence and Innovation.  This culture then has to align with the core values of the organisation.

These words sum up a whole set of behaviours that are designed to ensure that we are a high performing organisation.  And culture is the behaviour that underpins high performance. Many of us have previously worked in organisations with a culture of underperformance, accepting shoddy work, high absenteeism and lack of care and concern for the customers.  It’s a most de-motivating and depressing place to be for children, parents, staff, students and visitors.

So ‘Nurture, Excellence and Innovation’ sounds good to me, not least as a set of demanding cultural norms:

Nurture is about training, development and encouragement. It’s about supporting positive connections, bonding and bridging.  It is also about being able and willing to deal with poor behaviour. Children who are nurtured and encouraged learn about what is right and wrong, what they can and cannot do.  The same goes for adults.

Excellence is about how we operate our core business. We need to be smart and develop intelligent strategies, marketing plans and financial models which sustain our service and give us a competitive edge. But we also need to be healthy and have the right leadership, support services, communication and engagement that allows us to be top of the class. Children deserve the best so we must give it to them.

Innovation is how we use our action research to reflect on, consider and review what we do and how we do it.  It’s about examining new ways of making things better.  It’s about intelligence, about thinking creatively and courageously about what works and whether it is right.  Certainly a brave culture, but one that keeps us all on our toes.

The challenge for LEYF and indeed any organisation is how to make sure this culture permeates every nook and cranny. It’s feeling assured that everyone gets it and those who want to break the code are held back by the power of the cultural norms. For us, the best way to do this is to…

  • Build and maintain a cohesive leadership team
  • Create organisation clarity
  • Over-communicate organisational clarity
  • Reinforce organisational clarity through people systems

If we get this right we are less likely to end up vilified like the banks, as Allister Heath journalist at City AM says:

Barclays inability to ensure that some of its staff behaved appropriately was a major failing of its corporate controls. People knowingly broke the rules.  Shame on them… Too many people turned a blind eye to the wrongdoings of others. The City’s reputation as a trustworthy marketplace will take years to recover.

No one can afford to get into this mess. So let’s ensure we have the right culture from the start, and at every level.

Cuba, philosophy and Angelina Jolie’s exposed right leg

In stark contrast to last Sunday when I sat in a warm Havana, sipping cocktails and enjoying live Cuban music, today I could only muse on my recent trip which had all the elements of what I consider a good holiday: history, architecture, warmth, music and variety. Of course, the icing on the cake was the constant images of Che Guevara in his prime, undoubtedly the best looking politician ever in my book. Like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe who died too young, he is forever sanctified in his youth and spared the inevitable decline into middle age and all the jowls and paunches that brings.

For years, I have been fascinated by the ability of Cuba to hold off the Goliath that is global capitalism and manage the dislike of so many successive American governments; an island of socialism in a sea of apparent democracy and free enterprise. Being there has not explained everything, but two things did strike me quite forcibly – especially in the light of recent rhetoric from our politicians about finding newer, more palatable forms of capitalism. Firstly, the power of leadership to sustain the will and support of its people despite challenging circumstances. Secondly, the ability to embed the philosophies identified in 1959 by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro et al into a set of practical and effective policies; policies which have led to a highly educated Cuban population sustained on a very limited economy.

Before the revolution, 73% of the population were illiterate. In 1961, two years after the revolution and with the support of young student and already qualified teachers, one million people had learned to read and write. Later on, courses and other necessary steps were taken in a constant effort to bring literacy to 100% of the population, despite a shortage of school supplies, spending 10% of the GDP on education, which is 4 to 5% higher than that recommended by UNESCO.

Wilson and Pickett in their book The Spirit Level (2009) reminded us in no uncertain terms that the more equal the society, the happier the people. This seems to be a principle very much alive and well in Cuba.  Compared to those Latin American countries operating under a more Western influence, it certainly appeared more equal, safer and politically egalitarian. I personally found many things to appreciate, including a complete lack of billboards, marketing messages and advertisements, and the fact that not every street was dominated by shop fronts and that, right or wrong, people knew their history. I also saw children playing until late at night and families feeling very at ease everywhere they went. Cars were few which meant that the speed and stress of traffic was still absent.  No doubt, this is a frustration for the Cuban population, especially outside Havana, as they wait at the side of the road for cars to pick them up. (Car sharing is a must in Cuba and a system is in place to ensure it happens.)  There was chatting and conversation everywhere we went across Cuba, coupled with a real sense of community.

As for education, it clearly counts and is valued: all the same uniforms, all local schools, a national curriculum and life long education free at the point of entry till you die. According to Fidel Castro, the work of education is perhaps the most important thing the country should do.

When we popped into one rural school, the children had far less resources, but they were engaged, learning and calm. Action research is built in as a means of improving teaching and classroom performance, and 20% of teacher time is allocated to helping parents. (In particular, they appear to have recognised the importance of engaging with parents to embed learning at home.)

As we left, all the children stood up and sang us the National Anthem, verse perfect, which amused me no end and was a change from Guantanamera sung everywhere else. Despite the mutual dislike of America, maybe there is some common ground on education, especially if the thoughts of John F. Kennedy still abide:

Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.

Congress on Education, February 1961.

Of course, Cuba has still got its issues: it’s hard to get in there and even harder to get out; food is not great and infrastructure poor, whilst some of the horses are far too thin and stray dogs far too frequent. But there are certain things to be found there which we would do well to re-consider. According to Wilson and Pickett, Cuba is the only country in the world that manages to combine acceptable living standards with a sustainable economy, and despite a much lower living income, its life expectancy and child mortality are the same as in the US.

So amongst other things, my recent holiday reaffirmed to me that money and celebrity does not bring happiness, real political engagement is something we must strive for and education counts.

Back home, despite news that child poverty is increasing, numeracy rates remain very poor among adults and the challenge of funding early childcare is picked up by Panorama, the story most read by the public was that Angelina Jolie has exposed her leg in a cut through dress. I rest my case…