A big early childhood education day

hey! conference 15 March 2023

15 March 2023 was a date that will go down in early education and childcare history.  For us at the start of the day, the significance was all about our first hey! face-to-face event, and a rare occasion to gather in the same room to share thinking and ambitions.  That was big enough.  However, the Chancellor had other ideas. 

The day ended with a huge gasp of astonishment after some surprising and unprecedented announcements.  Whilst rumours had abounded in the weeks and days in the run up to the spring statement, we knew from experience that early education and childcare can be all too often missed out of government’s learning and employment ambitions.  Not this time.  

Back to hey! and our event set out a challenge to the sector to consider how we all could, no should, nay must, reframe the future of early childhood education.  It was a follow up from our launch in the summer of 2022, and our hugely popular online conference in the October.  1,600 people signed up for that free three-hour event, over 950 attended on the day, and almost 1.5k people have viewed the recording since.  That all made us feel like a movement has begun.  That day in October was also when we launched our policy paper outlining the conditions and actions needed to achieve what children, families and practitioners need, no deserve, to make such change happen. 

Fast forward to March 2023, and we came together and dedicated more time in the same room.  After a welcome from Carol Homden CBE, CEO of Coram, our location for the day, we began with Jan Dubiel, hey! Programme Director.  Jan explored in more detail the policy paper and set out the actions required.  He called for a mission that could take the messages from the sector out to the wider education community, to better nurture and grow everyone’s understanding of the work we all do.  Jan asked for us all to identify the things that connect us, and not focus only on those micro-details that can all to easily and unhelpfully drive us apart.  He suggested that we need to embed the understanding and use of children’s learning behaviours and as a consequence of this; proposed the Characteristics of Effective Learning supporting the EYFS be reviewed and brought up to date. 

We also heard from a stellar line up of expert input and these contributions added extra layers of richness as they focused on key elements and focus of the hey! Agenda. They reframed their descriptions, intents, evidence and research, and processes and values throughout.

Dr Jools Page, reframed her seminal work on the concept of ‘Professional Love’ to locate it within the demands of COVID impact, especially for children who have formed their view of reality and enculturation within an atypical context. She explored the nature of Emotional and Social Development and how effective understanding, and strategies can support this and ameliorate some of the direct challenges.

Dr Lala Manners, focussed on the importance and relevance of Physical Development and how this aligns with a greater context around health, self care and appropriate development. Integrating this knowledge, both specifically and holistically will be vital to ensuring that children grow, thrive and succeed. She also proposed the establishment of a new Institute for Early Years to enable the profession to gather together the sometimes disparate voices and elevate the public perception of the status of the profession.

Sarah Tillotson from the Education Endowment Foundation brought together the current research evidence that identifies the importance of language acquisition and development and how this is integral to success, achievement and attainment. Supporting the importance of an avowedly and unashamedly ‘evidence-led approach’ ECE provision, she outlined how research supports and identifies successful strategies for implementing this for all children in the EYFS.

We all felt a collective sense of togetherness and commitment. 

All of this before lunch. 

The lunch break coincided with the budget statement and the inevitable drip feed of information, speculation, second-guessing and expectation began.  There was much chatter and it set us up for a full hour of deep debate and informed discussion.  This was ably chaired by former Nursery World editor Liz Roberts.  The room came together under the idea of a new and complete voice for the sector, a single message from a much more effective source. 

Then it was time to sum up under the guidance and insight from James Hempsall, director, Hempsall’s.  James wove into the summary the observations from the event and connected them to the emerging and eye-wateringly huge commitments being announced in the House.  We acknowledged how the sector had matured and had grown its research and evidence base significantly – all within a generation – and that must be used to inform and empower the mission.  We heard how very many policies, strategies, priorities and plans there were from all angles, and the need for us to navigate those to best outcomes.  We agreed there were dusty corners that needed attention.  All outcomes and aims need to be integrated and not segregated, and the expertise and practice of effective observation and assessment, and curriculum and pedagogy be properly presented to the public, other practitioners, and politicians alike.  And as for the news, then we must work hard to ensure fresh policy and asks from the sector are appropriately structured, delivered, and positively impactful.  


Stop, take a minute, and imagine a world without pre-school learning 

What would that world be like? We wondered…

Maybe children would arrive on their first at school, around the age of four, with much less developed personal and social skills.  They may have a deep sense of unfamiliarity, being unaware of expected routines and behaviours, they may not have many friends in school – or have the ability to readily make new ones. They might come from a large extended family and have experience of peers – but equally they might be the only (or first) child and find the social element overwhelming and bewildering. They could be distressed at detaching from their care-givers for even the briefest of moments. They would be unlikely to be used to adults they had not always known, and this could be a very challenging aspect for some children. Their experience of the world would be entirely dependent on their parents, grandparents and relatives, and possibly limited to their immediate environment and the people within it.  Factors compounded when influenced by the characteristics of disadvantage and inequality.  They may not so far had access to a broad enough range of books and media to understand there is a safe and stimulating world outside their immediate community. At school there would be many tools and materials that would be unfamiliar to them and resource areas that we currently take for granted, like sand, water and role play – all could be entirely alien to them.  

Children’s parents and families may be much less conversant with talking or working with others, or professionals, to meet the learning or health needs of their children.  Many of the early signs of children’s developmental delay, or SEND will not have been objectively noticed, nor sensitively and appropriately raised and discussed.  Children will most likely not have been referred to, or gained access to, early help or early intervention to support their emerging needs.  Their parents, especially mothers, would be economically disadvantaged by struggling to reconcile being primary care-givers and their career ambitions.

And let’s face it, the resultant pressure would start right away. Many children would not necessarily have had the experiences needed to support the conditions of their continuing learning and development.  The gradual and early processes of induction to an educational setting provided by early years providers and the enculturation of expectations would not have even begun.  Schools would have to invest an enormous amount of time working with children and families to address this deficit.  And in doing so, schools and other professionals around children and their families would need to start the process of identifying and meeting needs, and to support engagement and participation in the whole system.  Children’s progress and educational achievement would be slower to get going. Worse still, depending on their informal pre-school experiences, the divide between advantaged and disadvantaged children could be even bigger and grow even more rapidly.

All of this surely shows the importance of investing properly in early years, the consequences of not doing so are real enough.

Written in collaboration with Jan Dubiel.

Photo by Yan Krukau on

Bosses should sit on reception – and this is why.

I have noticed something.  The more senior someone is in an organisation, the more likely they are to be the furthest away from its actual activities.  CEOs seem to relish in being on the top floor, in the far corner, locked away in private offices, away from the door, or nearest the windows (with the best view and light I might add).  What are they hiding, or what are they hiding from, I wonder?  Their location results in them being far away from the hustle and bustle of the activities of their organisation, its workforce, and its end users. 

I’ve been in plenty of corporate headquarters in all sectors (private, charitable, and public) and seen this happen time and time again.  I’ve also seen it in too many local council offices, and early years and childcare settings (including children’s centres).  In contrast, I’ve been looked after by some amazing people on reception, and sometimes struggled to identify the boss.

Strikes me there’s a whole load of wasted opportunities here. If you are so far away from what is happening, you aren’t noticing the day-to-day reality of your team’s activity and practice.  Nor are you witnessing first-hand the lived-experiences of those receiving a service or product.  How can you be sure of the outcomes and impact?  You don’t get the chance to overhear ad-hoc or natural conversations, read people’s body language, or contemplate how things are going across all aspects of the business.  You aren’t doing your own research on your own organisation.  That is an oversight.  Instead, you run the risk of relying upon data or information, that could have been manipulated by others, and presented to you in a form that suits the convenience of the message-giver.  Think, about it, your head of HR tells you that all is well in, er, HR!  the customer service lead tells you all customers are happy and delighted, and so on.  That type of report has its place in any organisation, but triangulate it!  Base your thinking and actions on what you observe yourself, and what you are being told, from more than two sources.  That has a greater chance of giving you good information.  That means being in the thick of it.

Think undercover boss.  I love that US TV programme that sends CEOs of large corporate businesses, in disguise, to work on the shop floor.  They get to mix with the workforce, engage directly with customers, and navigate the workplace systems.  More often than not, they learn better about what their workforce needs, and they improve and recognise loyalty and innovation, typically accepting ideas and helping to put them into action.  They listen to the direct experience of customers and make service or product improvements.  They overhaul unhelpful systems and processes, and bring in new, better-informed, and practical ones to make things easier and more effective.  They invest time and energy in real and authentic interactions for everyone’s benefit.  What else?

  • Move your location permanently, or for temporary periods.
  • Make time to mix and mingle, at different times, with different objectives.
  • Experience the service – if you can, which is easier said than done.
  • Observe things in their natural and informal state – unannounced, don’t wait for announced visits – they rarely feel authentic.
  • Engage with and listen to the customer – informally, using probing or investigative questioning styles.
  • Use real the experiences, thoughts and feelings you collect for everyone’s benefit.

Every boss needs to be on reception – what better place could there be to make all that happen?   

People are striking because they want to do a better job.

It will not have escaped your attention we have an epidemic of strikes.  This last week has seen the largest scale industrial action for over 10 years.  in recent weeks we have seen teachers, train drivers, ambulance staff, NHS, and university staff, the list is long, and getting longer.  Much is being discussed, publicly, professionally, and politically.  We are debating the right to strike or not, the ability of the government to prevent them or not, and the scale of impact of strikes on other sectors.  We are curious about their timing, their aim and purpose, and their effects.  Many have asked ‘why people are taking action?’  I am not sure there is a convincing consensus.  We cannot seem to agree on a consistent conclusion.

What strikes me (pun intended) is that sometimes it is around pay, often terms and conditions, some is around the type of work people are doing, the status of it, its level of recognition, the scale of workload, and working conditions.  There isn’t a single narrative here.  Wage inflation has certainly grown out of step with general inflation, the way in which we work, and want to work, has shifted exponentially over the past generation, the workforce appears smaller in a post Brexit era, the pandemic has rebooted people’s needs and demands, how we work has changed (most likely forever), and the rising costs of living and energy have all created a perfect storm.  

Every day I work with people affected by change.  They are always somewhere on Kubler Ross’ (1969) change curve.  Most frequently stuck in shock, denial, frustration, or depression.  It is my job to help them experiment, make decisions, and integrate change into their personal or professional lives.  To make that happen it is vital we together explore their relationship with change, their response(s) to it, and their ability to work through it alone or with support alongside them. 

The fact remains that all sectors, all professions, have been profoundly affected by change in recent years.  The past three pandemic years haven’t had a monopoly on change, it was certainly omnipresent before then.  But it has ramped things up considerably, if you would please forgive the understatement. 

This is the thing.  Everything has changed, sometimes not enough, sometimes too much, or too slowly or too quickly.  When change happens, we all need to change in response.  Some of it is easier.  We have individual or micro-environmental control of it.  We can change because we have the power, the resources, the choice, and skills to do so.  And we can see the need to change – and we want to do it.  Some, in contrast, is challenging and difficult.  We don’t always have the tools to make it happen.  We may also be resistant to change.  Such resistance can lead to a freeze, to inaction, industrial action in fact, whether that be for a day, a series of days or for extended periods.

The common cause here, seems to me, to be about everyone wanting to do a better job.  To be able to deliver and discharge their roles in meaningful ways, to deliver a quality service that makes a real difference to communities.  And in doing so they want and need recompense and recognition, to not only survive, but to thrive.  That isn’t something that should be ignored or swept under the carpet until later.  It is something that should and could bind us together.  We can have shared ambition and journey through necessary change, if we are prepared to do it together and be equipped to experiment, make decisions, and integrate change for now and the future.

Pack your sun cream AND your CV on your next holiday.

Why you should update your CV whilst you are away from work. 

We should all have a current CV, whether or not we intend to change our jobs, or take on additional roles.  CVs should be an as-live record of you and your career. Updating it is something to be done routinely.  That is something often said, and less frequently achieved.  This is because life and work can get in the way.  Without a fixed deadline, it can be a task all too easily overlooked.  However, it is essential practice to stop for a few moments and to consider what your CV is saying, and what is missing.  But why? 

Reviews give us a reflection opportunity to acknowledge, recognise, and celebrate our achievements, growth, skill development, and workplace-worth.  You never know when you need your CV.  It could be a short notice invitation, or an unexpected job opportunity, or an invite to speak at an event or join a committee, for example.  It would be shame to miss these prospects simply because you don’t have the chance to kick your CV into shape at the time.  If it is done regularly, it shouldn’t take too much time.  A little and often my mum always says. 

So here is an idea.  Take it with you on holiday.  And make sure you don’t return home until you have given it a much-needed polish.  Aren’t holidays supposed to be all about stopping work, and creating distance between you and your desk – you ask?  They are, I agree.  But it is the uniqueness of holidays that perhaps gives us a rare moment of objectivity for looking again at our CVs – and thinking about how we present our own professional ‘shop window’.  It is a time when arguably we are most authentically ‘us’, as a person, an individual, and not flavoured, distracted, or preoccupied by all things ‘work’. 

I say this because I have done just that. At the end of three weeks from work, two of them away, I found myself thinking differently about the core characteristics of what makes ‘me’ at work, including my skills, qualities, experience, and strengths.  The things that might set me apart from others.  I made notes on my ‘phone, editing them when the mood took me.  The outcome was an update that created a new opening summary paragraph for my CV.  And it feels more authentic, different, fresh and contemporary.

There is another good reason.  This helps us prepare for that awkward question: ‘tell me about yourself’.  The question that, without proper preparation, we all usually fluff and waffle through (I have before – trust me).  Which can lead to missing an invaluable and unique chance to sell yourself.  A well thought out opening paragraph of a CV should give you sufficient prompts to do a better job of you.