A perfect storm for families and childcare?

The cost-of-living crisis combines significant challenges for household budgets and for businesses finances alike.  Everyone is taking a new close look at all income and expenditure and making informed choices about essential and desirable actions to bring in revenues and to control the scope, scale, and timing of expenditure.  If they aren’t, then they should be. 

Ballooning inflation, escalating energy costs, growing labour costs, and their effects on the cost of goods and services all add up to changing costs for almost everything.

In the childcare sector we have been concerned with the squeeze on our income and outgoings for years.  We have been juggling the various changes in government funding programmes and their associated rates, whilst reconciling the rules and regulations for charges for non-funded commercial services.  This has all been alongside the ebbs and flows of parental demand and need, affected by their employment and economic circumstances.  And all of this has occurred during a period of significant national minimum wage inflation, pension requirements, Brexit, and of course a pandemic.  No wonder we are exhausted.

So what storm is brewing now you ask?  Recently, there have been no- or low-cost suggestions made to reduce the financial burden on families by relaxing health and safety rules.  Which for cars may mean removing annual MOT requirements, and for childcare providers allowing them to care for more children per adult worker.

It is true that costs charged to parents for childcare are rising.  That, for childcare providers, is not necessarily a bad thing (as long as they are within the rules), if these charges are required to cover costs, provide quality, and support business sustainability.  Which they are.  It doesn’t fit well with any family taking that careful look at what money is coming in and what is going out and staring at the often-stark realities of balancing work and family life. But I wonder if these higher charges, may motivate more and more providers and families to take another look at the maze that is other support for childcare costs, things like Tax-Free Childcare (TFC) and Universal Credit (UC).  Because they are there and available to claim for up to £2-4000k a child on TFC and 85% of costs through UC.  And not enough providers are promoting it, and much lower than expected families are taking up TFC as reported in the House.  That might be one opportunity for us all to reconsider. 

Changes to adult to child ratios will not in my view have any effect upon family childcare bills but they could help the financial challenges of childcare providers.  But at what other costs?  How will quality be affected, and how will that manifest in Ofsted inspection judgements, and children’s learning outcomes?  What would an already stretched workforce, coping with the after-effects of the pandemic, and helping children and families to recover and dare I say it ‘catch up’ make of it?  How many will throw in the towel if given extra pressures?  Relaxing qualification requirements (either temporarily or in the longer-term) could also help bring more people in.  It isn’t that simple though.  Anyone running a business, or indeed visiting a café or a shop can see that everyone seems to be chasing a depleted workforce.  Competition in the job-market is fierce.  Let us all learn from experience, one well-intentioned but clumsy move was requiring GCSE level maths in the sector a few years ago.  Our warnings were correct, it reduced the number of people entering this wonderful sector.  So that would be a welcome U-turn. 

I have a warning.  The factors affecting demand and that tricky balancing act for families changing their requirements in response to the pandemic, and scrutinising their new arrangements, will fuel a groundswell of complaints from families.  They may become increasingly unhappy with the sufficiency of their local childcare market, the ways in which funded places are delivered and accessible, the tangle of process and rules surrounding various offers, and the charges levied by providers in addition.  Such dialogue will be economically driven, and increasingly politically motivated as we approach the next general election.  We are in for a period of intense debate, discussion and engagement in the childcare sector set against a backdrop of everyone wanting to do the right thing.  Local councils and providers will indeed want to do whatever they can, sometimes to their own detriment.  It would be better if we could some additional help where it is needed. 

Photo by Andre Furtado on Pexels.com

What’s your pandemic CV looking like?

There has been lots thought about and said over the past two extraordinary years.  I won’t repeat any of that here and now.  We have all had to take urgent and unexpected actions as well.  But I wonder have you taken the time to reflect upon all of that in measured terms? 

And by that I mean, have you sat down with your CV and looked at it again, to make sure you have included all the experiences and learning points that have emerged from leading and managing through a global pandemic?  What should you be celebrating and acknowledging, and what should you be telling yourself, your employer, or potential employers, about what you now bring to the table?

There will be many things we share in common, and some stark differences.  Here’s my reflection on the things I would like to squeeze into my CV.

First comes the live implementation of contingency planning.  We have had plans for years, but fortunately we have never had to use them.  The past two years has given hugely useful practical experience, not only involving pressing the ‘go’ button, but including regular reviews, changes and improvements. 

A major part of this contingency was of course having to design and deliver all sorts of communications to the team to lead them through uncertain times, and to identify what people needed and wanted.  Leading change through a lens of worst-case scenario is not great, but there was some satisfaction in being found to be right on occasion – when the unthinkable did indeed occur. 

The more stressful element was implementing a necessary but open and inclusive business review process.  This inevitably resulted in managing a redundancy programme.  My third as it happens.  It was probably the one that went best.  We all had a unifying common enemy in COVID-19 – which went along way to smoothing out some of the more traumatic effects. 

Keeping a weather eye on the external environment is a core leadership skill.  And in this case, it was the daily task of appraising, interpreting, and second-guessing the ever-changing government guidance and funding offers.  Sharing it in summary and reassuring form to support colleagues and clients alike through verbal and written briefings. 

It can be tempting to plough all one’s energy into helping and supporting others to the expense of self-care, especially when you are in the care sector.  But adopting and settling into new routines, environments and ways of working is an obvious process many have navigated. Being deliberate and conscious and determined with self-care has helped enormously, and helping others to do the same.

That has included adapting to and embracing new technologies in the form of Zoom, Teams, Eventbrite and the like and developing and honing onscreen delivery of everything.  One thing we are particularly proud of has been the way in which we have regularly brought all our clients and contacts together using such technology for their and our benefit.  It has meant the world to us (and them) in personal, business, and professional terms. 

We also designed many new products and services to be delivered in new ways.  I have noticed a marked improvement in tender (or bid or proposal) design and writing skills over the period and evidence by a remarkable success rate.  Some of that happened at just the crucial moment.  This has undoubtedly been helped by more desk time, and less rushing around appearing busy, and taking the long train or car journeys.  Indeed, this has resulted in the business surviving a rocky 2020, and bouncing back through an unpredictable 2021, and breaking the records we have set in over 20 years of business in the process.

For my revised CV, there are key themes around: planning, leading, communication, adapting, technology, self-care, product development, sales and marketing, client relationships, external environment, finance, and improvements.  I wonder what yours could look like?

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

Who is in charge?  You or your inbox?

I’ve reached a point when action needs to be taken.  I feel like my working day can be too connected to my email inbox.  Managed and directed by it even.  Sometimes I can seem to be constantly checking my email in case something important or exciting has arrived.  What feeds this is that every so often important and exciting things do manifest and require my attention.  I need to follow my own advice.

I remember supporting a client a few years ago. He had lost control over his working day.  He told me he needed to continuously and relentlessly check his emails because important and urgent things might demand his time.   There was a sense of impending doom.  He felt out of control of his working day.  His time management was non-existent.  He was reactive not proactive.  The result was he wasn’t achieving many of his work objectives, he wasn’t being able to attend to his important non-urgent tasks (the ones his performance was assessed on).  These tasks always got left, and people were starting to complain.  We talked about segmenting his day into half hours and hours and allocating tasks to them.  Allowing him to switch off the email for a moment or two.  The new routines needed to match his natural work rhythms and preferred working styles.  For me, that is to fill the morning with productive time, so I have a sense of getting things done, and ticking things of that ‘to do’ list.  See I love lists – so can you. – James Hempsall OBE: workstyle-lifestyle (workstylelifestyle.blog) The afternoons?  Well, any distraction will do – believe me.  As will offering support to colleagues, listening and talking.  My client wasn’t too sure.  He remained reluctant to let go.  Sceptical even.  The idea of an hour away from the inbox was sort of terrifying for him.  His fear was one of ‘missing out’ (FOMO).  He asked – what if there was something urgent and he missed it?  We settled on the principle that if something was truly urgent, someone would ‘phone as well!  That worked.  That cognitive reprogramming was enough to effect the change needed.  And it is a useful theory to apply.

Then there is the matter of quantity.  Another client of mine complained she was getting too much email.  It is a fair point and completely understandable.  Again, the impact was a sense of being overwhelmed and overly obligated to the needs of others.  For me, there were a few things that came up as useful solutions to what is a common issue.  First is about how we ‘feed the monster’.  Have you not noticed that the more email you send the more you receive?  You may have returned from time off or a holiday and been relieved that there wasn’t as much email traffic as you might have feared.  That’s good if you do, and it proves the theory.  You want to get less email?  Send less.  Think twice or three times if an email is needed.  Pick up the phone to bring some variety to the day. 

If this doesn’t resonate, then there are other practical ideas.  The first is use software tools, because they can sort your inbox into folders and automatically file emails into them.  It amazes me how many people do not know this – if this is news, then look into it.  The advantage is that emails from certain people, or with particular titles, are sent to those folders that you can decide when to visit.  Essential for those regular newsletter emails and the like.  That allows for a little more filter and control.  You decide when to read those email, not the other way around. 

Another idea is to consider unsubscribing things that simply are no longer a priority, or change the frequency of emails you want to receive.  Sounds obvious.  But if they remain important, think about delegating to someone else – if you can.  They can receive those emails and alert you to anything interesting or take that project on.  And if all else fails, consider getting help.  Is there someone that can manually sort your emails?  They could answer the easy ones, bin the trash, and file those that need filing.  That leaves you with a sorted and organised inbox in priority order to deal with, when you decide that is.  I hope that helps. 

Photo by EKATERINA BOLOVTSOVA on Pexels.com

Social Mobility: meaning and actions

Thank you to Cumberland Lodge for the opportunity to spend two days this month having a deep think about social mobility, in specific relation to education and employment.  Here are my reflections:

What’s in a word?

A key question for me was what does social mobility actually mean?  It is a phrase I have come to use.  We do need to reach a common ground and a shared language.  It most probably means different things to different people.  Because it seems to me, we could all travel in various and possibly conflicting directions if we don’t agree. 

According to the Social Mobility Commission, it is defined as the link between a person’s occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents before them.  We compare and contrast one with the other to identify social, economic and sometimes geographical distance travelled.  Where there is a strong similarity, there is a lower level of social mobility.  Where there is a weak one, there is a higher level of social mobility.  Beyond what might seem like a simple formula, there are many inter-sectionalities that are potent factors, such as class, race, gender etc.  These should not be overlooked.

Social mobility and ‘levelling up’ are two different agendas – why is that?  For me, one is about career/social/economic progression, the other is the local availability of options and a more equitable distribution of opportunity.  The link is tenuous but it is there.  Higher social mobility from one generation to the other has traditionally required the new generation to leave their hometown and travel elsewhere (i.e. the big city) to enable them to find opportunities not available where they were brought up.  That certainly was the case for me, moving away from a small market town, having barely scraped three O levels.  Bringing such opportunities closer, by relocating government departments, BBC offices for example, may not improve social mobility, even if it does bring opportunity closer.  Instead, it may attract ‘outsiders’ from other areas into the locality to take the ‘plum’ jobs.  A London migration that drives up house prices and doubles the number of coffee bars.

Then there is the issue of child poverty.  Which as a political policy seems to have lost its trendy and fashionable status of late.  The increase of children living in poverty, and what appears to be an impossible target to meet (eradicating it), especially under current fiscal and social conditions, combined with a lack of obvious robust strategies to properly tackle it, is resulting in a whispering of the issue, when once it was the fuel of town-criers.

Keep moving.

The core issue I think is movement.  The measure of movement away from one’s parents’ background, and the apparent predetermined blueprints of life.  These are cemented across all socio-groups.  But for many, the impacts of protected characteristics are such that they held-back, their choices limited, or their experiences of movement are just so uncomfortable and unsupported that they wither on the vine or withdraw their ambitions completely.  This is the stuff of the disaffected youth.  It is one of the things that drives children and young people’s disengagement with school, college and society as a whole.  It is petrol to the bonfire of petty crime, causing it to explode into serious and organised crime.  Not all those disaffected this way turn to crime, instead they retreat into a routine that builds and builds a deep sense of underachievement.  This is the stuff of unhealthy habits and possible mid-life crises. There are other environmental factors, and when there is a lack of opportunity, or when opportunity is unequally available, then there are often unsurmountable barriers to break. 

Some of course navigate these obstacles adeptly, they thrive, and are sufficiently resilient to make a success through all this unwelcome adversity.  Well done them I say, they are the lucky ones, or the ones with sufficient resilience and energy they manage to make it work.  Or perhaps, they had help, a parent, family member, mentor, or sponsor.  Or someone somewhere looked beyond their presenting characteristics, their ‘difference’, and prioritised talent and skills over above prejudices and a desire to perpetuate institutionalised ‘mono-recruitment’ behaviours. 

But it begs the question, what do we all need to do to level up the playing field to enable more social mobility?  So that the hills, valleys, divots or bunkers are flattened to make the journey or the game easier going.  How can we create an environment that allows for everyone to have the opportunities available, and benefit from the support of others, if they need it?  How does, and how can the world change to become more receptive and open to opportunity?

Why bother?

First we need to convince more people that this is a good idea.  We need to cogently describe to people why they should bother with social mobility in the first place.  We learned many of these lessons during years of positive discrimination.  That job is not yet done, but there are as many differences in these two strategies, as there are similarities.  It can feel threatening to those who feel their power and opportunity is being eroded.  This is about representation, so that schools, colleges, universities, organisations, and employers reflect the communities they serve.  It must and should be beyond a shallow public relations exercise.  More than that, because representation and reflection enables a closeness and trust to be developed, it feeds a better understanding of what people need, how they think, and what they want now and in the future. 

To thrive, children, young people and adults need to have a sense of belonging and this is best achieved by being visibly and genuinely represented in all aspects of life, this allows people to feel safe.  When I have felt ostracised, marginalised and discriminated against it has been when I could not see myself reflected in the language, imagery or behaviours in any environment.  When I don’t, then the opposite is the case, I feel reflected in all of those.  This is about connection, real connection. 

What has been apparent in recent years is when organisational behaviour is tone-deaf (think CEOs’ unfiltered tweeting, poor advertising campaigns, or questionable investment interests) companies can lose billions in their value overnight, execs lose their jobs, and customers go elsewhere.  Often these mistakes, either acts of omission and commission, are the product of mono-culture.  A culture cultivated by mono-recruitment.  No-one is taking the time and effort to consider actions and behaviours from all perspectives.  Because they only have one.  How can you do that if everyone in your boardroom looks the same?  Social mobility at work releases the potential for well-rounded decision-making to support social justice, equalities and inclusion, and anti-bias.  Quite the list.  There is also the argument that by extending the recruitment pool, we reach an ocean of untapped talent.  This is something of particular interest as we all appreciate the current pressures on businesses and the job market.  Finally, engaging in social mobility is an agent of change.  Change is a constant in the world and the workplace, this helps enormously.  End of. 

Early experiences.

In early years we have long been familiar with the tasks of supporting home-learning, intervening early and narrowing the gap (see Sure Start, Children’s Centres, and the latest iteration Family Hubs).  We have been asked to prepare children for school, through the provision of funded early learning for two-, three- and four-year-olds, so they can be ‘school ready’ – a phrase that has attracted much professional discourse.  I have concluded that:

If school readiness means we support children to develop their key skills in communication, speaking, listening and questioning, social and emotional wellbeing, and physical development, then count me in.  If it is about producing learning robots trained to comply with a rigid and inflexible education system, then I am less keen on the idea. (Hempsall, J. in Jarvis, P. et al p249). 

Apologies for quoting myself.  I agree socio-economic background is a predictor of long-term outcomes, that is why we have been targeting an offer to disadvantaged two-year-olds for 15 hours of early learning a week since 2013.  For me there are many actions required.  Early identification of need and intervention through such support is of primary importance, this is the early foundation stone for children when their neurological development is at its most critical.  Much has been achieved through programmes like 15 hours of early learning for the 40% least economically advantaged two-year-olds (a programme I have worked on).  And by the time children start school there is grounds for optimism, even when other early years policy (such as 30 hours for three- and four-year-olds of working parents) is argued to contain contradictions that risk increasing the attainment gap between least advantaged children and their peers. 

More needs to happen during school years.

One problem is that data reveals the gaps that exist at this stage are not being closed throughout primary and secondary schooling. There must be many missed opportunities throughout this time, so what could or should be done instead?  For me, it is a no-brainer that all education needs to consider the whole child and young person.  They need to be identified as individuals with individual circumstances, needs, stories and lives beyond the school gates.  Educators need the information, awareness and understanding to appreciate and respond to multiple factors of disadvantage, and individual learning styles.  The problem can be that they themselves succeeded in the system, and they consider it to be fit-for-purpose, elites don’t (always) understand, see: The only people who think exams are the best method of assessment are those for whom it has benefitted. – James Hempsall OBE: workstyle-lifestyle (workstylelifestyle.blog)  Too often the system is merely asking children to ‘be like them’ or to conform to the range of micro behaviours such as the three r’s: reading, writing and remembering.  And the rewards are binary, you pass or you fail.  Too many people take that sense of failure from school and carry it throughout their lives. 

I advocate a whole curriculum not one segregated into artificial divides (think GCSEs, A levels, T levels, apprenticeships etc.).  No one I interview for a job, or someone I manage, is expected to work by sitting silently alone under intense pressure and write things down, they instead have to demonstrate the widest possible range of interpersonal, problem solving, social, and teamwork skills.  There aren’t A levels in that.  There should be.  Indeed, such qualities need to be developed and integrated into all routes through education and employment.  If we value and assess all types of skill, then we are most likely to include all the talent and have the teams we need to succeed. 

Always learning.

The opening up of university education for almost half of all young people has been a true revolution, considering the numbers were more like 10% when I was that age.  Such traditional routes are privileged and out of reach to those dealing with the realities of low economics and/or disadvantage.  Many children have more to worry about than school, their lives are temporary (in terms of housing, jobs, and relationships), the future or the long-term is an alien concept.  Learning is not an essential then, but that does not mean never.  Social mobility needs to enable people wanting to study or develop careers later in life, such as after having children.  We have experienced a dramatic downturn in the availability of lifelong learning being an option for people that want or need to study at a different time.  This needs to be reversed.

What does success look like? 

People talk about the ‘working-class boy that did good’, the traditional ‘rags to riches’ or ‘American dream’.  Successful ‘poster people’ (boys, girls and others) are often lauded for their lack of qualifications gained at school, and their material wealth or fame gained despite it.  Again, well done them I say.  But they are the exception and not the rule.  They were most likely to have had other advantages, I suspect.   

Sticking out, being different.

I worry that many efforts appear to be applied in the misguided attempt to make people ‘fit in’, to be ‘people like us’, rather than bring their true selves, their lived experiences and their difference to add to the mix.  I have shared how it feels when you don’t fit in, but there is a health warning here.  Positive discrimination and accelerator programmes are helpful, but only if there is a hospitable environment to welcome people in, and properly and fully include them in career progression at the same pace as others, and to hold a fair share of the power, and the pay.  I flinch at the idea of dress codes, school ties, and the like.  Yes, let’s help people to not make mistakes, but please let us open up our horizons and attitudes so we don’t assert our own unnecessary identities and social codes on others.  I don’t think an event discussing social mobility needs a dress code either.  It is a contradiction. 

Empowerment is a four-letter word.

Disadvantaged people don’t want or need to be empowered.  Instead, they want and need those with power to not misuse it, and let go of a fair share of it, so the rest have a more equal chance.  Their fear is driving an inability to let go and to extend their network and world in turn.  Others have the power, skills, qualities and a voice and the ability to take it, given anywhere near an equivalent opportunity to do so.  This is where we need to improve. 

Some people don’t move without data.

I agree that data collection is essential and that it should be used to inform longitudinal studies, identify trends, and track impact.  It requires informed consent because if a subject feels safe to participate, they will.  But data needs to be augmented with qualitative findings – individual stories are powerful, they bring data to life on a human level.  So let us have both.

Let’s talk about class.

We need to talk more about class in learning, education and employment. Is it gaining traction to become a protected characteristic, I wonder?  I am pretty certain it was always a category in traditional equal opportunities policies.  Upon what measure though do we identify and describe and understand the subjectivity of class, or is it one of those issues we all have a right to self-identity.  I am told it is not included in the Equality Act. 

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”… 

…said my parents constantly throughout my years in education.  That sounded like a discouragement to learn and to advance my academic journey at the time.  It eroded any sense of achievement in exam results.  It is clear those holding power and privilege have exceptionally effective networks forged across family, friends, school and work/business.  The problem is, when things are not levelled up, and communities are disadvantaged, then any chance of networking or ‘knowing people’ are hugely diminished.  So that doesn’t mean much when you are in a small town.

Cash in my pocket.

Pay gap is one measure, pay equity and reasonable rates for the value of jobs and contributions are another.  How can it be just for younger people to have a lower minimum wage when rent or a coffee costs us all the same?  It is not fair for a CEO to earn 100 times that of its lowest paid staff members. 

Wish list.

So, I would politely ask for all that to be sorted please.  More specifically, an extended early years learning offer of at least 25 hours for every two-, three- and four-year-old, with more family support and mentoring wrapped around it.  For school, I recommend a well-rounded curriculum looking at developing the people we need to work and learn into adulthood.  A triple focus on school, life and work readiness.  And a reinvestment in lifelong learning for everyone to have the opportunity to feel successful in education, when the time is right for them.  Finally, a hospitable environment everywhere, created by sharing of power and the letting go of all those unhelpful social codes and behaviours that get in the way. 

The Complete Companion for Teaching and Leading Practice in the Early Years.  Jarvis, P., George, J., Holland, W., Doherty, J. (2016).  

credit requested

To email, to call, or to Teams – that is the question!

Let’s have a word about communication in ‘the office’ (whatever and wherever that is).  I think things are going awry.  Let us settle into a pattern of doing things better.

It’s been two years since the beginning of the pandemic and everything at work and in life has either been technologically fast-forwarded 15 years, paused temporarily, or stopped altogether – forever.  It has been a huge process of change.  Thank goodness for something new I say – as I have always loved reinvention.

If we are honest, none of us are sure what rhythms or behaviours we will return to next.  That is open to speculation.  In the meantime, I must admit there have been lots, I mean tonnes of really good things to come out of this process of change – for me and our business.  We have become closer to everyone in a time when we have been further apart.  Quite the contradiction. 

We accept that during any period of change and positivity there will be a downside.  That is what has stimulated today’s thoughts.  Because I would like to politely ask we stop for a moment and consider what is going on with communications at work. 

Today I had a 30-minute Teams meeting scheduled.  Requested by a client.  I agreed of course.  Having blocked out half an hour in my diary, it turns out the discussion lasted three-minutes max.  I was left wondering whether this Teams meeting could have been a telephone call (planned or impromptu), or even a quick email.  Then I reminded myself I used to promote calls and human contact over and above email as the default option. I still do.  Why would I not like this quick video call I asked? 

Well, here is the rub.  I have started to notice a trend.  One from client-side and one from mine.  I should, could, and do have complete control over my worktime (even when considering the needs of the team and of clients).  The challenge for all of us is how we choose to do so.  I have noticed the emerging trend in my diary is that it is filling up to the brim with meeting-after-meeting.  Technology and being bound to the office, or wherever I lay my device (paraphrasing Paul Young there for you eighties kids), is allowing me, facilitating me, nay trapping me, to say yes to every meeting it seems – too many at least.  This reality means I can attend a meeting with Newcastle the same day as one with Cornwall, Dubai and Hong Kong.  That was last week anyway. 

I have long been of the opinion that it is an unhealthy position to say ‘yes’ to all meetings.  Not every meeting is essential or effective, and the world does not stop spinning if you miss them – trust me.  Anything important will reach you soon enough.  The work mostly gets done in-between meetings.  I am wary of those that cram too many into their schedule.  Not only does it diminish their ability to do the work, but it also provides the perfect camouflage or excuse to why work isn’t being done, or for being uncontactable, people say “I am too busy to do that – sorry!”  For me it is a sign of not being able to say no, not letting go, an inability to delegate, and a bad case of presenteeism.  We should be accountable to outcomes and impact NOT inputs. Harsh, but true.

My ask is that we think again about how we are managing our days, weeks and months.  That we apply the method to the task at hand – whether that be a text even, an email, a call, or a Teams meeting, maybe even a trip for a face-to-face.  That we maintain human connections, but also be respectful of the time of others, allow people to choose and not attend everything, and achieve balance in our use of time so we get the work done healthily and safely.  I hope you don’t mind me saying.  It might help us with what might happen next.

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com