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June O’Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation, which runs 24 nurseries in London, is urging the Government to give the early years sector more recognition and praise.
Ms O’Sullivan, who was awarded an MBE earlier this year, for services to children in London, says she is frustrated at the lack of support the sector gets.
Ministerial support for the early years reached an all-time low earlier this year when Elizabeth Truss, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, accused British nurseries of being “chaotic”, “where children are running around” and “there’s no sense of purpose”.
Ms O’Sullivan found it “very frustrating” and says “people in the early years work very hard and then we get the minister for childcare slagging us off and saying we are not as good as the French. Instead of saying thank you and helping us, she says we are rubbish and nurseries in Britain are not good enough. Yet Liz Truss has only visited seven nurseries, all of which were ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ and she commented how well run they were.”
She believes there needs to be more of a focus from the Government on what play should look like.
“Too many people who are in authority know little about the complexity of play. They are quick to criticise what they see as running around.”
If the Government ever decides to create a tsar for the early years, Ms O’Sullivan is full of ideas for the role. “If I was the tsar for the early years I would start by celebrating the fact that people working in the early years are doing a really good job. I would look at what the curriculum needs to look like for young children and I would have a big conversation with people about what play should look like.
“I would also examine the overall spend and see how it is really been spent. The figure changes all the time and all sorts of things like child benefit, etc seems to be thrown into the mix. I would want to spend as much on early years as is spent on sixth form. There are huge cuts to all sorts of services yet the budget for education increased by 55 per cent last year and the budget for the early years has increased by five per cent. I would love to have a crack at that job. When I saw poor practice, you would also get it in the neck from me but hopefully in a way that supports improvement rather than just rubbishing people.”
Ms O’Sullivan found out at an early age the challenges that face working women with children.
“I became a single parent at a very young age and in those days there wasn’t much in the way of parent support so I had first-hand experience of the challenges facing working women and realised early on that children mattered a great deal.”
She began her career as a social worker in Battersea, south London, working with parents from deprived areas. “Realising the importance of childcare to them, I built up the childminding workforce in that area from six to 90.”
From there, she moved to the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) as its operations manager in 1996, when it ran nine small nurseries. In 2005, she became its chief executive and since then has turned LEYF, which was reliant on local Government funding into a self-sustaining social enterprise, which gives a third of its children some level of financial support.
Ms O’Sullivan now heads up a team of over 350 people.
“I love working for the LEYF. I have a fantastic team, they like children and they want to do a good job for people and even better they are willing to listen to my mad ideas.”
Despite her criticism of a lack of Government support, she is in favour of some of its reforms.
“I like what Michael Gove is trying to do in terms of giving all children the best educational experiences. We are doing that at the LEYF with social enterprise nurseries. I also like the idea of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. I am very passionate about how we create social capital. Nurseries are great catalysts for this and it’s wrapped up in our multi-generational approach from knitting to Timebank.”
But what she does disagree with “is when the Government starts tinkering around with policy. I find it very frustrating when they try and introduce policies such as decreasing the ratios of staff to children in nurseries which will be detrimental to the welfare of children. At LEYF we completely rejected the ratios proposal and I was dismayed when Government tried to downplay the coherent and consistent views of the sector and tried to imply we were uninformed or unintelligent.”
She also has concerns over the new early years qualifications. “I liked the idea Liz Truss had of improving people’s qualifications in the early years. But it is the way she has gone about it that is all wrong.” She calls the Early Years Educator role, “quite concerning as it has failed to take into account key issues such as how children develop and how they learn”.
The Government’s aim is for most of the staff working in the early years to be Early Years Educators. They will be specialists with a level 3 qualification approved by the Teaching Agency. Level 3 is equivalent to A-level standard. People wishing to become Early Years Educators will be expected to have at least a C grade in GCSE English and Mathematics.
“In terms of all nursery staff needing an A - C GCSE in Maths and English, I think it is a laudable aim as I did a lot of work for Cathy Nutbrown around this. But my concern is that we take on around 20 apprentices a year at LEYF and some of them are brilliant with the children but they really struggle with Maths. It is something that needs to be phased in and the initiative needs to be given a lot of support and the Government needs to ensure that it doesn’t end up excluding some fantastic childcare workers.”
The Government is also introducing a new Early Years Teacher role. They will be ‘specialists in early childhood development, trained to work with babies and young children from birth to five’ and will meet ‘the same entry requirements and pass the same skills test as trainee primary school teachers’. However despite needing to meet the same entry requirements, Early Years Teachers will not have the all-important Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).
This new role has left Ms O’Sullivan baffled. She says: “I have invested a lot in my staff so they could become Early Years Professionals and it seems as if the Early Years Teachers are more or less the same as Early Years Professionals just with a different name as they will not have Qualified Teacher Status so they will not be on a par with primary and secondary teachers. I think it is demotivating as they will be able to call themselves teachers but they won’t be on the same salary or status. This is exactly what Cathy Nutbrown wanted to avoid.”
In terms of raising the status of the childcare profession, she believes it won’t be achieved merely by raising the salaries of people working in the profession although this will of course help.
“Raising the status of the childcare profession will not be achieved by treating it as a commodity and looking at it in terms of the cost all the time. Head teachers of schools are treated like gods even if half of them are useless. We need to have more conversations about valuing our young children. In Europe having good childcare is seen as being for the good of society.”
Her big concern currently is Ofsted’s inspection regime as she has found from speaking to many in the sector that nurseries are being downgraded by Quality Assurance without even visiting the nursery. She says: “The whole mess with the inspections and nurseries being downgraded by Quality Assurance is undermining the credibility of Ofsted. Parents are even losing faith in Ofsted and are saying they are not going to take any notice of Ofsted ratings anymore. Nurseries are saying they have been visited by inspectors who have said they are excellent and then the report gets passed to Quality Assurance who downgrades it without even visiting the setting.
“Why are they even bothering to send the inspectors out, why not just send out Quality Assurance. Quality Assurance is acting like Big Brother and just doing what it wants. This way of working means Ofsted is losing inspectors like there is no tomorrow and out of all the appeals only a tiny proportion have been upheld.”
In response Ms O'Sullivan has joined with others in the sector and is holding the ‘Ofsted Big Conversation’ weekend on 13 and 14 September for those working in childcare to put forward their views. “We are hoping that as a result of the weekend, Ofsted will agree to talk to us and listen to our views. We hope that they will realise that ignoring us is not helping anyone.”
The ‘Ofsted Big Conversation’ is being held at different locations across England and everyone working in childcare is urged to get involved. More information about it can be found at http://www.thebigofstedconversation.co.uk/
In terms of the future for the LEYF, the organisation is currently on a growth spurt and Ms O’Sullivan says “we will continue to expand over the next few years. We are hoping to double in size in terms of our nurseries as we think there is a real need for community based nurseries in areas of deprivation.”
What was your first job: Working on the checkout in a shop in Cork
What is your favourite book: Persuasion by Jane Austen
What is your favourite film: Diva
What is your favourite piece of music: Mozart’s Laudate Dominum Vespers sung by Barbara Bonney
What has been the best present you have received: Jewellery
What was your last holiday: Italy