Early Years, Dragons and Dolly Parton… or how bankers became our new best friends

May 28th 2011

The last few weeks have been a bit of an intellectual whirlwind, which always gets me really excited.  So for those people who think working with children is all about being nice and patient (and washing your hands a lot), it actually provides a platform for a great deal of intellectual challenge.

On Thursday 19th May, I got to hear Professor James J Heckman expounding his theories on the importance of investing in the Early Years at the Daycare Trust Lecture organised to celebrate their 25th anniversary. It was a fascinating romp through 40 years worth of research, which continues to show how investing in the Early Years makes sense for the child, the family, the community and society. Two facts in particular resonated powerfully with me; firstly that children’s social and emotional skills are most potent when it comes to extending children’s cognitive development; and secondly adversity gets under the skin and determines the child’s biology.

Heckman also drew a gasp from the audience with his findings that by year three, children from ‘welfare’ families had 500 words, those from working class families had 700 and children from professional families had 1100. What more can you say here, other than parents really need to be made aware of this, so they can do something to address the issue. He then concluded by reminding us that ‘top-up’ programmes for literacy and numeracy in schools had no measureable benefit, nor did reducing the numbers of children in school classes. Instead, what really counted was giving children the best experience before they turned three.

Earlier that same day, I had the pleasure of a cup of tea with the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. In these straitened times, I suspected we might have a cup of tea in the hand. My mother first experienced this when I came to live in London, and she never could understand that you could drink tea without a plate of something to go with it. I have inherited this habit, so asked our children to help out – which under the tutelage of Feyi from our Marsham Street community nursery team, led to fresh batch of tasty banana biscuits! Suitably nourished, our conversation focused a lot on the importance of Early Years – in particular the youngest children and the significance of what we at LEYF call cultural capital. Professor Heckman reinforced the same, with the articulacy that so many Americans possess, and I hope Mr Gove’s team share.

Later in the week, I was able to push again for investment in the Early Years at a Dragon’s Den type experience where six social enterprises pitched to about 50 investors; an event organised by Clearly So and hosted by Coutts. We were trying to persuade investors to support our growth plans with investment that balanced straight financial returns with a social premium return.  It was very scary, not only since I was on first and the only woman, but also as I had to do this in 5 minutes. Somehow I managed to do both, whilst at the same time mingling with bankers and investors in Coutts’ august headquarters. Interestingly, the venue itself was the Coutts library, bequeathed by Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), granddaughter of Thomas Coutts, founder of the bank.  More importantly, Angela was a great Victorian philanthropist, setting up Ragged Schools for poor children; she was also instrumental in founding the NSPCC. Personally, I love being somewhere which has the hand of a great woman on it!  They also have piped poetry in the bathrooms, which I thought was quite wonderful, so I will be checking out if we could do this at LEYF – with a few nursery rhymes thrown into the mix!

The entire experience and subsequent conversations make it clear that a fresh and full debate is needed, exploring the complex world of social investment with a view to developing some sort of fund, underpinned with a clear and philosophical set of principles, specifically geared to drive more investors into this area. We have to move from an ideology of charitable donation to social investment, with a longer-term look rather than an immediate feel good. My previous bedside reading (the enjoyable Larkrise to Candleford by Flora Thompson) has now been replaced with books about investment and may soon, I fear, also have to include those about tax options for social investors. Who says you never stop learning? Or as Francis Bacon said, a wise man will make more opportunities than he finds. I for one hope this is an opportunity.

I finally concluded a busy week by spending a lively day with the team in our Centre for Research, Learning and Development.  It was a bit of a roller coaster of a day, as we shaped a clear business plan for the year ahead, with the team learning the stark financial realities of running a training business in an economic downturn. Former Head of Children’s Services at LEYF and now Lead for Quality, Learning & Development, Gary Simpson gave us the gem of a quote from Dolly Parton with which we all headed into the sunset:

The way I see it is, if you want a rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”