Tag Archives: Economy

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

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.

LEYF report: NDNA Conference makes trip to ‘Brum’ worthwhile

This was a busy week for Early Years with the announcement of the Government’s Childcare Commission, the publication of the final report from the Nutbrown Review and the annual two-day NDNA conference which I always attend (partly because I am a Trustee of the NDNA and the London regional representative, but mostly because I also like to take some LEYF staff along with me as my guests).
June O'Sullivan and LEYF staff attend NDNA Conference in Birmingham

This year’s conference was in Birmingham, a city which has some gems but is yet to benefit from a visionary urban architect. Julie from Colville, Connor from Katharine Bruce and Nicky from Micky Star (above, starting second from the left) joined me to catch the train from Euston and we spent the first evening walking and bussing around Brum. Finding somewhere to eat proved quite a challenge.  Nicky, our delegated map reader, used her iPhone to great effect, as we traipsed through the labyrinthine streets of Birmingham. (I only wish little Brum had appeared to drive us around in his little yellow car.)

The weather was generally wet, which was good as we were indoors the whole time cogitating, debating and considering all the issues facing the sector. I decided to tweet throughout, although I have to admit to being unsure if any of the hash-tags I used got as far as New St Station, let alone out into the wider world.

Minister of State for Children and Families, Sarah Teather MP, opened the conference and was generally welcomed. The NDNA audience is quite discerning, but I guess as practical business people there remains some sympathy for a Government with good intentions but no money. The main Government initiative at present is the Two Year Old programme, only the challenges remain the same: inadequate funds for the free offer, cost of training, demise of local authority support, challenging occupancy and cost of childcare to parents.

The Minister announced that Mott MacDonald had won the contract to provide strategic support for this programme  to the sector, stating that we would need to work with them to ensure they had our input in how they approach the work.

I asked the Minsiter about the Childcare Commission, as yet no more than a title. I suggested it might be the perfect place to have a proper discussion as to what we want as a nation for everyone’s children. Later in the day, John Carnochan, Director of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit,  remembered with fondness speaking at the LEYF Staff Conference last October as he opened his speech at this event with a bold statement:

We want Scotland to be the best place to bring up children.

John Carnochan

If anything, we should be saying this across the whole of the UK, as we then link and weave all our policies and practices to the same vision, rather than our current approach which is to fire fight and apply sticking plasters; some of which are so random they have little more effect than those plasters with cartoons, designed to stop children crying but not necessarily healing the cut.

The Minister said that an official response to Nutbrown will not appear until September, much to the relief of the civil servants in the audience, who must all be on overload with the number of reports and reviews they have been drafting of late. There will be training costs associated with the Nutbrown recommendations, especially getting the whole sector to Level Three. There will also be at least a few challenges, as we work out the perfect diploma and develop pedagogical leadership programmes. On the plus side, we are not without experience, knowledge and ability. I loved Nutbrown’s theme all the way through, that the sector is a maturing industry and as such must lead some of this development. Let’s take some control for our destiny and shape our own future, before someone else shapes it for us.

For me, one of the most interesting presentations of the day was from Kathy Sylva, following some research done with NDNA nurseries (including LEYF!) on parent engagement. So much so, it deserves a blog all of its own, which I promise to do next week.

So, if day one of a conference is this good (and it was), the real challenge is then to maintain that level of engagement and enthusiasm for day two, especially when  the subjects include a business forecast and an update on the new Ofsted. Either way, it starts slightly later, if only perhaps to help those who attended cope from the effects of the Awards dinner the night before. (The band that played at the Edgbaston Stadium was so loud that it was a wonder any of us could talk the next day. Still, for an oldie like me, it’s great to be able to dance to songs which have rhythm and to which I can sing along.)

Courtney Donaldson from Christie and Co did her best to balance the economic situation with some good news. She warned us to keep our eye on the ball and use the right data to give real and timely management information (something I hope we will get better at doing across LEYF with our soon-to-be modernised systems). She pointed to an increase in distressed businesses (especially those in deprived areas), occupancy drop, increase in part time places (81%) and a reliance on NEG places which are causing fault lines to run through the sector.  Like the rest of the conference, she could see no easy solution to the shortfall in NEG payments. Doing her best to finish on an up-beat note, she said there were opportunities (31% expect to expand, especially in the South East) and those who had survived so far were more likely to do so in the continuing economic climate.  A quote shared by John Carnochan sums up how I feel about this:

The challenges we face converge, intertwine, and often remain largely beyond our understanding. Most of us suspect that the “experts” don’t really know what’s going on and that as a species we’ve released forces that are neither managed nor manageable.

Thomas Homer-Dixon

Finally, we learned that Ofsted is changing again in September. The audience was warned to go easy on the speaker as she was but the messenger. And of course, Ofsted is a quango which has lots of power and so always draws criticism from the sector. The biggest complaint in any case remains the differences in the way inspectors inspect, which was also mentioned, especially as Ofsted is busily recruiting new inspectors.  However, to get a real grasp of the changes, which is highly recommended, I urge everyone to examine the website in detail. Meanwhile, the changes essentially boil down to inspections every 47 months, unless triggered by a complaint, child protection issue or change of manager. The inspection will  now have a more powerful emphasis on leadership and management – along with learning and development – with a formal meeting with the manager and joint observations with the manager and the EYP. The issue raised questions for me about how we prepare the deputy and the rest of the leadership team to be able to manage this new inspection, which will continue to be a no notice event, so managers can go on holiday and not be constantly on tenterhooks once an inspection is due.
Conferences are great opportunities for learning, and I have come back with fresh ideas and suggestions for better communication and more effective practice. As a leader having quality time with staff is a very good idea, even if it means traipsing up to Birmingham.


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.

Mr Mayor, please take an interest in the childcare sector and build a London fit for the next generation

When I started working with children many many years ago, I never envisaged talking about children and the economy in the same breath. These days, I never give it a second thought.

As part of their broader London childcare project, the Daycare Trust provides an annual review of the capital’s providers; and while no one review can ever be perfect, it does capture a fair snapshot of the sector’s current state of play.

Of course, there’s no doubting London is an expensive place to live, work and do business – with its own peculiar issues that are not always easy to generalize.  Our great capital is made up of a series of villages woven together by the larger global village, and the challenge is making these two dynamics work in a way that allows for successful local economies and an overall successful city.

The survey represents 803 provider settings in London, providing a minimum of 15,275 full-time equivalent places across the private, voluntary and independent sectors (with the private sector providing the most places). So what did the sector say? Well unsurprisingly, the biggest worry is staying in business.

  • 52% said they were fearful that parents cannot afford the fees
  • 47% said they were hit by local authority cuts
  • 33% are still worried about the level of free entitlement funding for 3 & 4 year-olds
  • 31% are concerned about staff recruitment, pay and retention
  • 29% are worried about falling occupancy rates

In all, the sector is worried. But really, it’s the politicians that should be more worried. The economy first of all needs people to work, so they can earn a living and then spend it, helping to flow money through the economy and create new wealth. Having good, affordable childcare is a critical element in helping to make this happen.  Women have been hit particularly hard in this recession, so we need to do all we can to ensure they can work (especially as so many families depend on their vital contribution; the days of pin money are long gone and in many cases women are now the main breadwinners).

And why should we prevent women – who have studied and trained, and then built up a career – from working and making such a valuable contribution? We know the negative effects poverty has on children, families and society. Back in March, we complained that the Budget had done nothing to help parents with the spiralling cost of childcare, that George Osborne had missed a real opportunity to return the childcare element to its previous level and so help parents remain in sustainable employment.

So the sector has now asked the Mayor to step in, and step up to this economic challenge.  We want to see his true colours; and if he can show his central Government colleagues a thing or two about how to lead.  We know he can stick his neck out when things matter to him: he is keen on an estuary airport; he got very excited by Anish Kapoor’s embattled Orbit, the 120 metre public art sculpture at the Olympic Village; and he went head to head with Mr. Cameron on the Euro.

So Mr. Boris Mayor, please shake those famous tousled locks of yours and start with the following:

  • Lobby the Government to bring maximum childcare tax credits for low income families back to 80% [HMRC Child and Working Tax Credit Statistics April 2011]
  • Promote family friendly practice and childcare vouchers amongst all London employers
  • Include the Early Years in your current education inquiry

In his own words:

The strength of a city lies in its people – from the famous, the infamous to the heroically obscure. From an earlier Mayor of London, Dick Whittington to the tireless volunteers working to turn around London’s next generation. All whose endeavours have built the place we call home, I salute.

Boris Johnson.

Now do something that will help build a London fit for the next generation. Take an interest in childcare.

The Queen, the Prime Minister, the Mayor and three Romans

London has a new Mayor – or a recycled one, depending on your point of view. Boris cycled back into office with a much reduced majority, so he needs to seriously consider the voice of Londoners if he is to maintain a sense of engagement and keep us on side.  The downfall of Mark Antony was that he stopped listening to the voices of the Romans and got a bit carried away with Cleopatra; let’s hope Boris continues to listen to the voices of Londoners, especially those of all women – and even more so those with children.  I hope the  plan for a ‘Bright Start for every child’ will take his interest and we see him standing more  publicly on matters that affect small children.

London Councils has also published a plan, Governing London Towards 2016 setting out how the Mayor and local councils can be a strong united voice, speaking up for London to secure fair funding for the capital and champion the city’s needs. London Councils’ plan highlights where the Mayor can work more closely with councils on issues such as crime, education, housing, health and the environment. For example:

  • Support London Councils’ campaign to increase school places in many parts of the capital where demand is growing;
  • Work with councils on effective interventions to reduce reoffending;
  • Support the campaign to remove unnecessary limits on council borrowing to build more affordable homes for Londoners.

Here is a thought then Boris: maybe you could leave four year olds in nursery until they are five, giving you a little much-needed breathing room while you and the London Councils plan how to manage the increasing shortage of school places.

Another Roman who came into my head this week was Caesar, as I wondered if David Cameron was fiddling while the Eurozone burned and we  tipped back into recession. I know LEYF is a small business in the grand economic scheme of things but the state of the economy does affect us. Our customers are predominately mothers, and when one in five women are losing their jobs in London, this naturally has a big impact on us; less nurseries means less income, which in turn means we have less potential for social impact .

On a more positive note, we continue to look forward to the Olympics across our 23 LEYF community nurseries. Still, plans for fun and games with staff and children run alongside those for contingency measures, as we do all we can to ensure London’s great event in no way threatens delivery of our high quality service for parents across the capital. And whilst I know some people think I am being unduly pessimistic about the traffic gridlock the Olympics will bring, I felt completed mitigated in my anxiety on Wednesday, when the State Opening of Parliament brought roads around our Central Office to a complete standstill. As I began my journey back to Marsham Street for a midday meeting, not one taxi moved on Piccadilly.  I spent £10 in one cab, before climbing out after barely half a mile.  Had I not been wearing high heels, I might have hot-footed it across Green Park.  However, the prospect of blisters kept me there, and the meeting was cancelled.  Luckily, colleagues from the south were stranded on their side of the river and so abandoned their journey too. So I rest my case about transport gridlock, and continue to urge all nurseries to get their Olympic contingency plans firmed up ASAP!

On a final note this week, the Children and Families Bill was outlined in the Queen’s Speech, covering a broad range of policy areas. Much of this builds on previous announcements made by Nick Clegg on parental leave, and in the Family Justice Review and the SEN Green Paper. Overall, the bill will look to:

The exact detail of the bill is yet to be agreed, yet already I am finding it hard to see any attention paid to small children in the SEN changes.  This will be critical as we roll out the Two Year Old Offer, not least as we try to get speedy assessment and family support for the youngest children with SEN. I am also worried about how the sector will manage parental leave. Will it provide us with more staff cost at a time we can least afford it? Am I right to worry – or should I look to the words of another Roman…

I often regret that I have spoken; never that I have been silent.

Publilius Syrus (Roman author, 1st century B.C.)

As always, please add your thoughts or experiences in relation to all or any of the above in the box below – and let’s keep the conversation going!

Leadership elections or popularity contest, you decide.

On Friday, I was delighted to be able to give the keynote speech to the staff of Rainbow Trust, a children’s charity led by their energetic and committed CEO Heather Wood, and one that provides emotional and practical support to families who have a child with a life threatening or terminal illness.

I am always energised by a good audience and they were great fun, so all in all it was a win-win situation, as I expounded on how good leadership is key if you want to make a difference. It’s a subject I also presented the following day at the Manchester TES Resources conference, and once again it was interesting to get feedback from so many truly committed people, desperate for tips on how to remain good at leading, and at the same time alive and alert to new ways of doing it. I started by suggesting they deserved a star for giving up the only dry Saturday we’ve had of late, or in fact are likely to have in the near future!

On the train back I mused on the more pressing leadership contest in London; yep, the Mayoral and London Assembly elections. Thursday, 3 May gets us a new Mayor (or at least a recycled one), along with 25 London Assembly members. Up to now, I have hardly noticed there even was an election campaign, that was until we had a visit from Harriet Harman and a gaggle of London Assembly candidates to one of our nurseries last week. Clearly some of them need to learn from her polished and experienced performance, and at least try to seem interested. The visit was to raise the importance of childcare to the economy; a subject we have heard very little of so far. Naturally, I have written to both candidates and asked for the re-introduction of the CAP, which Ken introduced during his time in office. Although cumbersome and bureaucratic, it helped women into work by supporting childcare costs, and also offered childcare support to parents whose children are disabled.

So far, what we have seen of this campaign is a few adolescent spats between Boris and Ken, Brian playing the good policeman and Jenny Jones trying to get a voice by being green, not forgetting a few independents – most notably Siobhan Benita, hoping to be elected because she is independent and so above party politics. If only that were enough! She clearly needs to watch more of The Thick of It.

Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”

Peter Drucker

Either way, you just have to read their blurb; all grand statements about the usual (transport, fares, housing and crime). And of course, everyone loves an apprentice. To give him his dues, the only one who even mentions childcare is Ken. He suggests grants and interest free loans as well as a campaign against government cuts to child tax credits. But will that be enough to get him our vote, or will Boris’ charm win out once again? Either way it feels like a two horse race. Wrong says my son, apparently Lawrence Webb from UKIP is the bookies favourite! …Lawrence Who??

Budget 2012: baby steps for parents, but much more is needed

You know you have grown up when you know the date of the budget, the Chancellor’s name and that of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Nowadays, I know all three!

The budget is of interest to me for two main reasons. Firstly, what will it do to help parents better afford childcare, and secondly would it do anything to help a social businesses like ours? Having trawled papers of all political persuasions, I found this budget has done at least something for parents, but nothing much for social businesses or charities.

Raising the tax free personal allowance to £9,205 next year is good for all staff working in Early Years, as this is historically a low paid sector, yet the drop in the higher rate tax from £42,475 to £41,450 will put many parents under even more pressure, with less again available for childcare.

Elsewhere I was pleased to see a fairer approach in the changes to child benefit.  I had already tweeted our disgruntlement about the initial unfairness of reducing it for families with one working parent, whilst allowing households with two working parents claim it even when their combined salaries exceeded the same limit. The new model seems fairer, although this first step towards producing a universal credit may be a retrograde one in the long term. Once a small snip makes it through, it will be easier for future Chancellors to trim away along the edge and soon the tablecloth has become a napkin.

I thought the Chancellor missed a trick by not improving working tax credits. It was a good move to exempt families with disabled children from changes here, but he could have done more to improve opportunities for all working parents – for instance letting them qualify for tax credits after 16 hours work. This would have meant fewer families would lose out when choosing to work part time, instead of being worse off than when they were on benefit.

Tax credits offer possibly the single greatest means to helping parents cope with the real cost of working when paying for childcare, and so much more could easily have been done here to make work pay.

The commitment to end child poverty by 2020 looks to be once again in jeopardy, especially if the Chancellor cuts £10bn from the welfare budget by 2016.  The promise to show us how our hard earned tax is used may be helpful here, so we can see exactly what the cuts will do to poorer families. Still, it remains grossly unfair that the poorest should bear the brunt of costs from the Government deficit.

Meanwhile, businesses were no doubt very pleased with the reduction in corporation tax, but sadly this makes no difference to social enterprises.  The Chancellor offered  no tax cuts for those of us in the social or charity worlds; nor did he improve access to social investment, which is key to helping grow and develop business in a way that has the potential to fundamentally change the way services are delivered to our communities. Access to social investment finance is the biggest barrier to business development in the social and charity sectors, but only the sixth barrier to ordinary businesses. Changes to the community investment tax could have made a massive difference here.

Finally, I do hope he keeps a lid on the reductions in UK planning laws. This country needs its green lungs.  We spend a lot of time finding ways to give children in our nurseries fresh air and space to be themselves, and it seems to be getting harder every day. Competing with cars and developers is no mean feat.  Allowing buildings on every site and squashing us all together will not be good for the aesthetic, physical or emotional well-being of anyone.

So what do we think of this budget?  A small glimmer of growth, whilst keeping a tight rein on the budget remains the watchword for households and businesses alike.

Either way, I know one nursery rhyme we might all be learning this week…

A dime and a dollar
Took me by the collar
And whispered this word in my ear:
“We must leave you to-morrow,
But prithee don’t sorrow,
We’ll come back to see you next year.

Leroy F. Jackson

Growth in a downturn: a big ask, but the right question.

Where has the month gone? I am scared by the speed by which our lives pass; it seems we have so little time to make any real, lasting difference. As a result, I have spent most of January talking to people and confirming our plans to really grow the organisation. The Government suggests that we have two alcohol free days a week free.  No chance this month. Neither did I get a chance to attend any of the Samba classes that have been happening across LEYF in preparation for our annual New Year Party this evening, when over 200 of our staff are due to party on late into the night (although I will be gone by 10 ish!).

Outside of LEYF, the world remains a rather unsettled place. The economy is not recovering, the Eurozone is a disaster, child poverty continues to grow as does unemployment among the young. There is an edgy feel about.  The politicians talk about creative capitalism or moral capitalism.  Young people apparently consider the whole thing ‘Peak’. So we have a choice: we sit tight and ride the storm, keep calm and do nothing, whinge, run for the hills or see things like the Chinese do, that every crisis is just as much an opportunity. Interestingly, we have just entered the year of the Dragon: a time for wisdom, strength, benevolence and good fortune.

Back at LEYF, we have decided we can expand our pioneering approach across London. It’s a simple enough model: community nurseries with a range of fees, alongside apprenticeships all wrapped within a multi-generational approach. This ambition is only possible because I trust that LEYF staff will come with me.  We may lose a few people along the way, but that may be right for both them and us; working for a small organisation is not quite the same as a big group or a network of internal franchisees.

Why do it? Why risk upsetting the apple cart? Because we have a duty to share what we do well for small children. Child poverty continues to rise to the detriment of the child, the family and society as a whole. Many people are lost and lonely, so why should we not roll out our way of doing things to benefit many more people?  The bankers and many other private businesses are growing despite often appalling records; they appear to show neither remorse nor a duty of care to their customers. So if we can do something that brings a social good, it is only right that we make the effort to do more of what we already do well.

The risks are immense. Can we keep the quality? Will staff remain motivated? Can we create the right support structure? Will parents abandon us? The signs are that none of this will happen anymore than it would happen in a smaller organisation. The success is having sharp, intelligent, knowledgeable, skilled and entrepreneurial leaders across the organisation, individuals who also come with a natural and clear sense of social duty, coupled with the ability to connect with the community.

It’s probably a big ask, but when 650,000 children across London live in poverty, it’s probably the right question.

As Goethe says:

Seize this very minute; what you can do, or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Using ‘Little Women’s Christmas’ to begin a post modern feminist debate on motherhood

On 6 January,  Irish women – especially those in Cork – celebrate Little Women’s Christmas (Nollaig na mBan).  It is the last day of Christmas and the men are expected to take over the running of the house while the women, especially mothers, party. Instead of partying, I started to think about the current role of mothers in our post feminist society.

Back in the 1970’s I joined the feminist movement with all the zeal of youth. I had left an economically bankrupt Ireland and an oppressive place for young women. I was eager to experience a city where women were keen to overcome the gender inferiority expressed so beautifully in the seminal book The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1949).

So I came to London and became a feminist,  buying my monthly Spare Rib, reading Betty Friedan, Marilyn French, Nancy Friday, Anne Oakley and  anything published by Virago Press as well as frequenting the Irish Women’s Group in Stoke Newington and the South London Women’s Centre.  I was excited by the prospect of gender and economic equality.  I absorbed the principle that the personal was political, and I marched on the night rally to Reclaim the Night. It took a while for me to become uneasy with some aspects of feminism – including motherhood, divorce, boys and men, childcare and poor women. I realised, somewhat slowly, that the price we would paid for our so called equality could be very large and self-destructive.

So now that we have the vote, divorce, jobs, training and contraception why do I still have the same powerful sense of uneasiness, especially about our role as mothers? Maybe it’s because I know that pay is not guaranteed to be equal, because women suffer from such sexist pension laws, childcare remains the predominant responsibility of women, domestic violence is increasing and because many young women have confused sexual independence with laddishness.

As a female leader in a female dominated sector, where the majority of our customers are women, I feel we should lead a debate on the role we expect mothers to play in today’s society. Even more so, since women are suffering more severely in this economic disaster – with a higher proportion losing their jobs and pensions, whilst at the same time facing the challenge of keeping their families out of poverty. Their jobs are not for extras; the majority of all homes now depend on two incomes. In a report Families Experiencing Multiple Disadvantage: Their Use of and Views on Childcare Provision (Speight, Smith, Lloyd; 2010), the authors found that 62% of poor parents would like reliable childcare to go to work. And if women are to work once they become mothers, they logically need to find good childcare. But this course of action is complicated and tainted by the societal confusion about what we want for our children.

It is noticeable that countries which have had a meaningful philosophical debate about what they want for their children have a much healthier attitude to motherhood. Christine Lagarde, the first female CEO of the IMF was interviewed by the Financial Times recently. In the article, she claims to have never worried about leaving her children while she worked, thanks to the very good nursery at the IMF, adding how she liked to hear the sound of children in the building.  Instead, she says that she was most honoured when her child told her how proud he was of what she was doing. It is a very positive interview and one I wish we could have more of here in the UK.

By contrast, here in the UK we remain twisted up in guilt and confusion about how to do the right thing by our children.  The national attitude ricochets from describing motherhood as a saintly vocation to blaming all mothers – especially single mothers – as the cause of all our social and economic woes (too many women working, no jobs for men or we don’t know what our children are doing because we are always out).

So, in celebration of Little Women’s Christmas 2012, let’s start this week by thinking through our post modern, socially constructed feminist approach to being the mother of a child under 5 in 2012. And before anyone says Dads matter too, I know they do; but right we need to spend some quality thinking time examining our attitudes to motherhood as a first step in a renewed analysis of what we want for our children, the family and the future. It will lead to us to consider a myriad of aligned issues – including what is good quality childcare, what does early childhood education mean for us, and should our children be in school at 4.

Visiting our Eastbury nursery the other day, I met Grace who is a LEYF parent currently completing her Early Years Professional Qualification while on placement in the nursery. As someone with a view from both sides, I was interested to hear that what she wanted was to be able to develop a meaningful career, knowing her child is getting the best care in her nursery. Not so different to her feminist sisters in the 1960s – or is it?

Let me know what you think in the comment box below. In the meantime, I look forward to engaging with you on this and many other ideas throughout 2012.