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Making a difference in the early years: What does it take to be a good leader?

Article By: Melissa McAlees

Leadership in early years is a complex concept and its role in quality provision can often be misunderstood.

Credit: oliveromg/

Given the challenge of current multi-disciplinary service provision, early years practitioners need to be well prepared to function as skilled administrators, managers and leaders to fulfil their roles and responsibilities effectively.

June O' Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), hosted the seminar 'Leading for Excellence' at Childcare Expo London recently and asked the question, 'What can we do in the sector to build leadership?'

Viewed as both an art and a science, the qualified psychiatric nurse and social worker, believes success is best achieved when leadership is framed within emotional intelligence.

A successful leader

"We can have all the systems, processes and policies we like but unless they are developed, applied and embedded in an emotionally sensitive way there is very little chance of a successful result," she said.

"Successful leaders seem to be able to do three things: behave in a particular way, have an ability to understand the needs of people and circumstances, and apply certain leadership styles at the right time."

She added: "Good leaders appear to have acute self- awareness and understand the ideals that many people associate with the role of leader. They can pre-empt how they will react, so understanding oneself and being tuned in is a great start."

Why do we need good leaders now?

Research conducted in July last year, by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), revealed that the sector is in 'great difficulty', with a 72 per cent drop in students applying to early years courses, a 96 per cent drop in early years apprentices and staff retention at just 24 per cent.

According to Ms O' Sullivan, "good leaders will be making recruitment and retention their watchword and step up their efforts to find as many ways as possible to support, nurture and encourage staff.

"They find clever ways to extend people and increase their knowledge. Whether it's writing and delivering a course, introducing a coaching plan, putting a small bursary in place, reviewing flexibility of staff hours or simply giving them £20 to shop at Poundland to upgrade the treasure baskets."

Leadership at every level

Early years settings are encouraged to build leadership at every level. This includes a core set of values which drives behaviour and communication, room for innovation and creativity, ways of enabling staff to have a voice in the setting and creating opportunities for them to develop and extend their capabilities.

In acknowledgement of the range and scope of the leadership role in the early years, Iram Siraj-Blatchford and Laura Manni previously identified ten categories of 'effective leadership practice'. These are:

1. Identifying and articulating a collective vision

2. Ensuring shared understanding, meanings and goals

3. Effective communication

4. Encouraging reflection

5. Monitoring and assessing practice

6. Commitment to ongoing, professional development

7. Distributed leadership

8. Building a learning community and team culture

9. Encouraging and facilitating parent and community partnerships

10. Leading and managing: striking the balance

Good leaders keep their integrity

Yet, Ms O' Sullivan points out that being a leader can be lonely, particularly if you are the leader of the whole enterprise and 'chief problem- solver'.

"With more attention comes increased expectation and accountability, and with more opportunity, comes increased complexity and demands on time. So, leaders need to be brave and be prepared to stand up for what they believe," she said.

"This is critical in a sector where we have to advocate for the most vulnerable in society; children. We have a sector where many are prepared to do this whether it’s through a campaign such as the Ofsted Big Conversation or an initiative like Men in Childcare or a debate raising the importance of childcare being an infrastructure issue.

"But being brave is also about facing a difficult conversation with a colleague, or talking to a parent about a problem or changing the pedagogical approach in your setting."

'Leaders don’t jump'

It is easy to be lauded when times are good, but many early years leaders are currently facing grave difficulties including uncertainty about funding, a recruitment crisis, local authority cuts, contract reductions and increased competition.

The consequences are varied including reduced income, low staff morale, quality concerns, redundancies and possible closure or bankruptcy.

"So how do we lead our way through this? What do our staff expect of us? What will help us keep the service alive, effective and in demand?" says Ms O' Sullivan.

"It helps to have a clear vision with a plan that can be explained to staff and parents in a way that they understand what it means for them. Then we need a plan and a communication strategy that tells the story in a way that makes sense. People need to know what is happening and why.

"When we have a challenge, good leaders remain credible and don’t jump. They gain the respect of their staff by being available, facing the challenges and conflict head on and being brave and courageous. They are also pragmatic so they can overcome unnecessary barriers to change and making improvements.

"Leading is hard at the best of times. It’s a complex process and if it was easy we would have a surfeit of good leaders. It requires someone with a clear vision, good communication, energy, enthusiasm and the integrity to bring their staff and parents with them on a difficult journey."


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