Tag Archives: Early Intervention

Come and Celebrate ‘Creative Connections’ at our Event this Thursday

Some weeks are pretty gloomy but this one had some really lovely highlights.

The first was midweek when I gave a keynote speech to Essex County Council Early Years colleagues about the creative practitioner.  It gave me great scope to tell stories, get them to draw the person sitting next to them and read them my favourite book of the week, the feminist tale of Princess Sue who is ‘The Worst Princess.’ (we need to reclaim some of our feminist thinking in some of the modern arguments about women, motherhood and dress codes).

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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

More Great Childcare? Don’t think so…

The delayed response to More Great Childcare (or ‘More Great Childcages’ as coined by Penny Tassoni) filled me with dread. I looked and saw it was 52 pages and I groaned. Should I bother to colour it in with my highlighter? Will Liz Truss be our Minister for much longer? Is it worth the effort given the fact that she may be promoted in October, leaving us to start all over again with a new Minister? (Maybe third time lucky!?)

However, I decided to dive in and plough through, and eventually by page 27 I could really start using that highlighter…

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

A few weeks ago Wave Trust in partnership with the DfE published its report Conception to Age 2 – The Age of Opportunity. I was part of the Special Interest Group that helped shape the report, along with an eclectic group of colleagues representing a variety of areas affecting babies – such as mental health, training, health visiting and psychology. I learned much from this group, chaired by the erudite and softly spoken George Hosking, CEO of Wave Trust. The full report is 135 pages long and a text book in its own right, but the shortened version designed for local busy commissioners is a useful summary with reference to all the relevant links.

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LEYF Magic, coming to a nursery near you soon.

Friday saw another fantastic LEYF Staff Conference, once again successfully managed with great aplomb. Like another Chocolate Orange segment in the continuing relationship with our Scottish colleagues, I was as ever struck at the extraordinary similitudes between Scotland and London. Even in these days of potential Scottish independence, I look forward to further cooperation, as we share, debate and enrich the whole Early Years sector.

Alice Sharp has been involved in our conferences for the past 8 years; and long may it continue, as every year she brings something extra special to the whole experience. This year Alice partnered with Paul Brannigan, lead actor from our favourite film The Angel’s Share. Paul talked movingly about his difficult upbringing in a very forthright Glaswegian way. He summed up the impact on him of his lack of home learning and the emptiness he felt as a child, when he realised there was no one who really loved or would stick up for him. He talked about the need to have an adult – any adult – reach out and put their arm around you, make you feel protected and loved.  That finally happened to him when he was in prison, but it helped turn his life around. His point, so touchingly made, was that he was on a mission to get people to understand that the younger it happened, the better – especially when that warm relationship could be the very thing that helps build a child’s brain.  His performance left the LEYF audience touched and emotional. Little surprise he is now Bafta nominated and shortlisted for best newcomer to British film. No cliché in this presentation though. The message was stark: Early Years practitioners have the power to contribute hugely to the child’s brain development, giving them a power boost that could see their positive synaptic connections increase from 7% to 80%.

It was the central point of our conference and the reason we want to grow. There was something magic in the room on Friday, and it’s something I hear often when people visit our nurseries. Now is the time to bottle this magic, and give more children the LEYF experience – both by filling all our nurseries to their maximum capacity and by having more LEYF nurseries across London.  So look out guys, LEYF is on the march!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Déjà vu, all over again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural capital. The secret ingredient at the heart of effective early intervention.

Two ever-popular and increasingly connected topics of debate, child poverty and social mobility have been high on my own agenda this week. Starting on Monday with a lunchtime debate hosted by Policy Exchange, entitled Towards a Better Child Poverty Target. Here an eminent panel of five, including Frank Field MP argued that the targets set to reduce child poverty were unhelpful.  Kicking off the debate, Frank provoked the audience with real life examples of child poverty, and a heartfelt plea in support of all those children who are subject to the casual cruelty of ignorant adults.  He concluded by asking Mr Cameron to read his report. (Leaving me to wonder how he knew the Prime Minister had not already done so.)

Next up was a representative of the End Child Poverty Campaign, arguing that we should have targets, not only since poverty damages children’s life chances, but since lower income equates with poor educational attainment which in turn leads to poverty. The Director of the Policy Exchange then suggested the measurement of 60% of the median income was somewhat arbitrary and needed to include relative poverty.  He challenged how measurements can be deceiving, and statistically getting someone out of poverty may still leave them poor.  He challenged the audience by saying that we did not really understand what caused poverty.  For example we always assume that unemployment leads to poverty, whilst research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies was unable to link higher employment with a reduction in poverty. Much was made about poverty of the ‘in work’ population (something we often see at LEYF), itself mitigated to some degree by Child Tax Credits; although now a situation clearly challenged by the Chancellor’s budget decision to reduce access to tax credits.

The editor of the SpectatorFraser Nelson told us that poverty was not sexy and it certainly did not sell newspapers. Apparently, the public simply don’t get the notion of poverty.  They don’t see people starving and so are unable to understand the issue; it is in effect a hidden problem. And it seemed no-one had a solution that might change this.

Finally, the debate began to focus on Early Years and the importance of early intervention. Reference was made to the negative impact of maternal deprivation, along with persistent and severe poverty on children’s development and their resulting low attainment, which in turn leads to lower levels of lifetime success.

The same subject was also raised on Tuesday by the APPG on social mobility, whose report looks at the causes of social mobility and what that means for policy makers. Called 7 Key Truths about Social Mobility, this must-read report tells us that in fact we don’t yet fully understand social mobility. It points out that to have true social mobility, some people have to go up and others go down, and goes on to say that social mobility is stuck in the UK; apparently those of us in my age bracket (guess) have seen greater social mobility than our children.  It may be that education is the factor differentiating us from our parents, and so is the most effective lever.  Nowadays it seems less effective, as so many young people already have a more equitable start.  Either way, the seven truths they found were:

  1. The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between the ages of 0 and 3, and primarily in the home
  2. You can break the cycle through education
  3. The most important controllable factor is the quality of your teaching
  4. It’s also about what happens after the school bell rings
  5. University is the top determinant of later opportunities – so pre-18 attainment is key
  6. Later pathways to mobility are possible, given the will and support
  7. Personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain

Unsurprisingly, none of this is new to me (or I’m sure most of the readers of this blog). In fact, it’s this very understanding that drove me into the arms of cultural capital research which now permeates much of what we do at LEYF, from both an economic and social perspective. It’s summed up in this equally relevant interim report on Sure Start delivery in 2011/12, produced by the APPG for SureStart. It states that

All those involved in providing early education and childcare services should encourage a broad social mix of children to attend high quality childcare services. They should address any barriers that may hinder participation by vulnerable children, such as geographical access, the cost of transport or a sense of discrimination and stigma.

It immediately brings to mind a recent example of cultural capital at work in our Holcroft Community Nursery. In this case, two children were on a holiday placement having recently left for school. Chatting away happily – and blissfully ignoring the adults seated nearby who only tuned in ‘mid flow’ – the conversation went something like this…

Child #1:  “Key Managers?? Yes, Sherrine is my Key Manager.”

Child #2:  “What does Key Manager mean?”

Child #1:  “It’s your friend to tell you what to do, make sure you’re OK. Like the leader they are always the oldest.”

Child #2:  “Oh, OK.”

I could draw a number of conclusions from this, but the most powerful for me was the sense of connection and confidence those children had about how things work.  Cultural capital is the means of firstly helping children gain knowledge and then continue to develop and create it by understanding the system, before sharing this knowledge and making new connections. This is what helps children get on, and it’s when children struggle to understand the system that they are truly disadvantaged.

Why quality is criticial to ensure the ‘twoness of twos’

This week the chancellor announced that the government will extend the free entitlement of 15 hours of nursery education to every disadvantaged two-year-old over the next four years. This expansion will be funded by an additional investment of around £300 million per year so that by the end of 2015 about  40 per cent of all two year olds (130,000) will benefit from the new entitlement.

Good job for Mr. Osborne and a possible sop to many disenchanted women who are bearing quite a lot of the brunt of the ongoing economic slump.

The arrival of more two years olds under the free offer may be good news for many settings, especially as the grant for two year olds currently covers the real costs of provision, unlike the grant for the three and four year olds.

The rationale for providing places for those two year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds must be predicated on the research, showing how good quality childcare can improve the child’s life chances and pay dividends to the child, the family and society as a whole. It’s clearly an investment with a serious social return. Sarah Teather MP tells us that

Our priority is to increase social mobility by helping children from the poorest backgrounds in their earliest years. High quality early education is the key to making a difference early on in a child’s life. It’s crucial for their healthy development and means they’re not falling behind before they have even started primary school.

Sarah Teather MP

However, the most powerful words here are good quality. There is also a raft of research that demonstrates what good quality needs to look like, only it’s not always either interpreted or applied consistently. Ofsted still find that the lowest quality childcare remains in the poorest and most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. It’s shockingly unacceptable.

One aspect of quality is the ability to understand the developmental stages of children.  For two year olds this means recognizing and celebrating the twoness of two.  There has been an inclination to overly focus on education to the detriment of care (yes I know the two are integral, but I fear not everyone knows that!), pushing small children into an inappropriate and unsuitable curriculum or environment.  Two year olds are just recent babies, and this needs to be considered as we welcome them into our nurseries and help them become independent and confident little people. It’s a skilled and sensitive role for those adults working with this group of children, and one not to be underestimated.

The experiences children receive in their early years are crucial to overall brain development. When a child has an experience, connections are formed between brain cells; so the cells are dependent on experience to create these connections. After eight months a child exposed to a nurturing and stimulating environment may already have 1,000 trillion connections created; so again these connections physically grow and develop the brain.

As such, it is primarily the early experiences and warm and consistent parents, who cuddle and talk to their children and provide fun learning experiences, that largely determine the basic strength and function of the brain’s wiring system and so promote healthy brain development for their children. By contrast, babies who do not receive consistent and caring responses to their cries, or those whose cries are met with abuse, develop brain connections to prepare them to cope in that environment. As a result their ability to learn and respond to nurturing and kindness may be impaired.

The brain organizes through a ‘use it or lose it’ process: the brain eliminates or strengthens connections in an effort to become more efficient. So, experiences that are repeated frequently lead to brain connections that are retained. It is Repetition That Makes Strong Connections. And consistency is key. The brain feels comfortable when it knows what to expect. When children learn, through repetition, that a parent (or care provider) will be there for them when needed, they can relax and feel safe.

In short, providing loving interaction, adequate amounts of sleep, healthy nutrition, time playing outdoors, physical activity, lots of creative play and exploration contributes to a child with a healthy brain.

To further explore this crucial aspect of development in the early years, we are starting a working group of staff at LEYF who care for and really understand two year olds.  We have already learnt from the Two Year Old pilot that we need to set simple benchmark assessment, help people revisit their understanding of what it means to be two and figure out a way of engaging parents to better understand and support their two year olds at home. But we cannot stop there.

If you have any thoughts or specific experiences in relation to this topic, please do add your comments below.

The next round of applause is on me…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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