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).
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.
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.
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.