A fine Scottish trinity: Islands, Carnochan and Mr Gove

October 7th 2012

It was a brave move when Isabel Dunn, recently retired chair of the Scottish Preschool Playgroup Association (SPPA) asked me if I would give this year’s keynote speech to their annual SPPA Conference at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow.  I always enjoy coming to Scotland, not least because I get to spend time with the lovely Alice Sharp from Experiential Play, who fizzes with ideas and is a mainstay of the LEYF Annual Conference (this year to be held again at Pimlico Academy, on Friday 2 November).

Counter to the stereotype, I always receive a warm and generous reception in Scotland, having shared the LEYF way across this mountainous country from Stornaway to Inverary Jail. And this trip was equally pleasant, despite having traveled on EasyJet which needs to replace its strapline with ‘EasyJet – great travel for those willing to wait patiently in queues and who don’t mind a scrum’.  Apparently having listened to their customers they are going to reintroduce booked and allocated seats.  Alleluia and not before time.  How many more companies would have saved themselves a lot of reputational risk if they had listened to their customers?

I stayed at a Citizen M hotel – which is really a trick hotel! Firstly, there is no foyer or reception until you go upstairs.  Then you have to check in on a screen.  (Great I suppose if you are looking for a private room to conduct a torrid affair.)  Most notably, and especially if you are a Luddite, everything is controlled by remote control – and I mean everything, from blinds to lights to TV.  Not the best hotel to bring the husband then if the statistics are right, and they tend to hang on to the remote (or the ‘mote’ as one apprentice described it, having never heard it given its full descriptor in her house).

Another thing I love about Scotland is dinner; always a more generous affair with lots of chat well into the wee hours. And this time I was particularly pleased when my pudding request was understood, as the clue came through my recalling my favourite Scottish detective’s name – not Taggart but John Carnochan. (As I’m sure you rightly guessed, my pudding was a Cranachan.)

As a smaller, more cohesive country, the Scottish have always been willing to think more creatively about the service they offer to small children. They have also been extraordinarily strategic and focused, and their ambition to make Scotland the best place for children to grow up is laudable.  The conference was opened by the youthful Children’s Minister Aileen Campbell, who gave an overview of the raft of initiatives she has announced that left everyone so speechless they had to be coaxed to ask a question.  She talked about the Scottish strategy for Early Years including a specific strategy for parenting backed by a national campaign.

She reiterated the need for collaboration across the private, voluntary and statutory sectors in order to succeed – especially true if they are going to provide 600 hours free childcare for two-year-olds from poor and disadvantaged families. In the course of my own speech later on, when I gave them a more realistic version of the struggle we are having in the South to meet the 510 hour requirement, it struck me how we are planning to spend more than a billion pounds of tax payers’ money on supporting these children, yet there is no special advisor on Early Years.  (There is one for women and Scotland!) Aside from this, I had been asked about leadership, a subject I often talk about because it’s really hard to do.  If it were easy, we would not be so short of truly capable leaders across all sectors. In the end, the audience was lovely and responsive, and I enjoyed them as much as they seemed to enjoy me.

The Minister touched on three areas which have an equally high focus at LEYF at the moment: the parent journey, home learning and our multi-generational approach. I was delighted that Scottish colleagues have discovered the validity and importance of these ways of working.  I have already started to use Alice Sharp’s Tickle Giggle Experience and her home learning fun cards. At LEYF we have been leveraging the EPPE research for our approach to home learning, and especially the five activities that the EPPE team tested.  The Scottish have 30 ideas which I shall certainly share with my colleagues, including tickling your child and looking up in the sky to spot an aeroplane!

I also told the conference about how at our impending Staff Conference in November – A journey to a better future for more of London’s children – we have invited Alice and five colleagues from the Scottish Islands to help extend our multi-generational approach into all our nurseries, and learn more ways to create little villages through each nursery.

Another Scotsman – our Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove MP – gave a very uplifting speech at last year’s LEYF staff conference.  This year I asked a Londoner, our Mayor Boris Johnson, to open the event, but his people said ‘No’.  I have to admit that I was disappointed, as I think he would have added a real lift to the proceedings; not only for a London childcare organisation, but one that has been taking apprentices for many years without the encouragement of the Evening Standard. Well hey ho… or maybe Ho Hum, I smell the blood of an Englishman!

In any case, I’m delighted to say the LEYF Scotland partnership seems set to continue, so if anyone from a Scottish university or organisation would like to extend it – by helping us measure our Home Learning impact or the multi-generational impact – they would receive a very warm welcome, lots of tea, wine and curly wurlys – and we may even manage a Cranachan.