Investment in infrastructure should capitalise on human potential and opportunity

The 2019 general election illustrated how neglected and distanced from opportunity and investment the Midlands and North felt compared to elsewhere in the country.

Since then we’ve had the COVID-19 pandemic and one Rishi Sunak Budget. Now, as his second budget looms, what happens in response will be key. I have heard only verbal commitments to invest like never before, especially in infrastructure. This is to be welcomed, but there are risks.

It seems de rigueur to lay out one’s working class, comprehensive school educated, northern credentials, but I know from personal experience the effects of living in disadvantaged mining communities and lack of transport for young people striving to realise their dreams. Such conditions stifle opportunity at home and drive young people away to seek their opportunities in the big cities. These circumstances are also found in all areas of the country, not just in the North.

However, the government would do well to look beyond traditional road and rail projects, important as they are. The government should build foundations around children and families in some key policy areas. Every family needs something different, not an off-the-shelf service that achieves little impact. That is why I think a return to the peak of the one-size-fits-all children’s centres programme would be a mistake. Too much emphasis was placed on building and resourcing centres, then filling them with services that did not always hit the mark. That said, I have seen lots of amazing centres, built in the right location and constructed appropriately, and staffed by teams who truly know the meaning of community engagement, co-location, multi-agency working and evidencing impact and outcomes. Services for families happen everywhere – not just in dedicated centres. They happen in our amazing early years and childcare settings, in health centres, in the home, at school and across local communities.

Of course, children’s centres really were not afforded a proper or focused opportunity to embed and prove their worth before they were subject to the consequences of austerity. Any new investment would need to be more patient, but not without upping the expectations on achieving outcomes, collecting evidence and demonstrating return on investment. Much has been learned over the past 10 years through the hard choices local areas have made when they have changed, restructured and refocused. Investment is required to reverse what, for many, has become a tipping point of decline that has only served to further diminish the energy and commitment remaining in the sector. Investment needs to ensure our early years and childcare entitlements and providers are able to deliver their services and contribute to wider outcomes on a level playing field of resource and professional respect. I always say, the more you fund early years, the more we will deliver.

New foundations should build individualised and non-stigmatised route maps of services acting as partners with families. They need and want early, available and personalised services to support early parenting, identifying of children’s needs, useful intervention where it is needed, and high quality, properly funded early years learning, childcare and education for their children. All to support learning, health, wellbeing, childcare, and parents’ learning and employment goals. Such foundations for families investment should attach itself to these multiple outcomes – not just the current priority of a sponsoring department.

Building futures and opportunities isn’t all about bricks and mortar. Let us truly connect with families and their children and make the difference everyone wants for their futures and communities. Investment now is proven to save all sorts of unnecessary costs later.

Photo by Skitterphoto on

A version of this blog was published in Children and Young People Now magazine 07/02/20

Let’s focus on what children HAVE learned this year, rather than what they’ve missed.

With this weekend’s reports DfE officials are considering plans to extend the school day so children catch-up with lost learning, can we not consider what children have gained or need instead?  Let’s stop and think for a moment about what could be in the COVID-19 curriculum.  What are the things we should all acknowledge, applaud, and accredit, before we return to bad habits?

There is an opportunity to put recent wellbeing and mental health rhetoric into practice; and truly support this generation to make sense of the year and be supported to recover appropriately.  We should not cause even more harm through our own poor choices. 

At the best times, children’s education can feel like an unstoppable treadmill. One full of pressure, urgency and the inevitable build up to exams. This year, much of the public and political focus has been on a deficit model; the things that haven’t happened in children’s learning. But I argue the past 12 months have been a rich learning environment – good and bad. We should be awarding GCSEs for all the learning COVID-19 has brought.

  • Children and young people have learned about politics. How it connects to day-to-day life and legislates for our individual liberties.  The year has shown how imperfect, controversial and beneficial politics can be, as different people react to it, have conflicting opinions, and respectfully debate it – or not. There’s a chance we could motivate social interest or public service here. 
  • They’ve learned about viruses, infections and risk; the importance of personal hygiene, health and safety and handwashing. The role of the NHS, scientists, testing and vaccinations in tackling the pandemic. Have we opened up the world of science for many more children this year?
  • They’ve learned the world can be a dangerous, difficult and unpredictable place.  And how various behaviours are thought to help keep people safe. They have observed how people can get ill, sometimes seriously, and there has been death.  Either directly through family and friends, or in the news; perhaps through high-profile people like Captain Tom.  Skills like compassion, processing loss, and experiencing grief are all vital life skills.
  • They’ve learned economics, income and employment can change in the world, the community and their family household.  Perhaps understanding how to take new opportunity, or the importance of savings and/or adapting lifestyles and budgets, or the burden, uncertainty and worry of debt. This may have forged new attitudes to work and money.
  • They’ve learned more about what their parents do at work, perhaps by observing their parents more, or listening in on conversations, work phone calls or zoom meetings. It may have given a deeper appreciation and understanding of what their parents actually do for a living. New careers could have been imagined.
  • They’ve learned more about personal relationships at home – the positives and the negatives. They may have witnessed or participated in new relationships forming; or those under strain, going through the processes of reconciliation or endings. Domestic abuse may have affected them like never before.  Have we seen the development of feelings and emotions, of a sense of right and wrong, the techniques of negotiation, protection or other interpersonal skills?  These are chances to hone skills of resilience and positive connections, love and relationships. 
  • They’ve learned the advantages and drawbacks of studying at home.  Skills and abilities to be a self-starter, to be self-sufficient, to be alone, or to be a self-directed learner have been required.  Home schooling may have brought closer relationships with parents or carers, put them under strain, or grown greater appreciation of school, college or teachers.
  • They’ve had time to learn new practical skills; anything including cooking, gardening, growing, baking, writing, drawing, hairdressing, or exercise. They’ve might have learned to be their own or the household’s IT department; supporting friends and family to be online, use new hardware and software. And social skills like patience, gratitude, conversation perhaps. Even the ability to just stop, be more mindful or mindless.  A slower, smaller life – and not one filled with meaningless activity, the distraction of busyness, thoughtless consumption and waste, and directionless rushing around could have huge impacts on future behaviour choices. 
  • They’ve learned who in their social and family circle is important to them, and how deep connections and sharing feelings help everyone’s mental health and well-being. All these rich experiences need processing to make sense of, and some to recover from, without an imposed sense they somehow lack something that 2020 took away. 

All of this, and perhaps much more, is what we should be recognising and rewarding now – and certainly when things start to feel normal again. We should not rush into an ill-judged and unthinking post pandemic pedagogy. Children and young people deserve more than that, as their lifelong learning journeys continue. We must learn from them how this unique experience can be used to positively shape what happens next for them physically, socially and emotionally as well.

Photo by Magda Ehlers on

Bye January, hello February!

It’s the end of the long month of January. The darkest, coldest and most depressing month of the year, we are told. I didn’t go vegan, I wasn’t dry, but I increased exercise from twice to three times a week. Some rules were relaxed, not that they were especially stringent before.

However, it’s been one month in a very long year. One hopefully never to be repeated. I cannot quite decide whether the past 12 months have been seemed endless, or if they have flown. The idea of a year of COVID-19 lockdown and its associated impacts is mind blowing. But it has been an experience to learn from. The passing of each day, week or month offers reflection time and an opportunity to plan.

The last day of January 2021, for me, was one of those days when motivation was low. A see-saw of emotions. I’d look in the mirror and think I needed to shave, trim my hair, wash. Whilst at the same time deciding I couldn’t be bothered to do any of that. A cycle of conflicting and mixed feelings. Thank goodness it was a Sunday. But with little that had to be done, it might’ve been better to be a distracting and task focused weekday.

To help, and deploying a well-used and effective strategy, I declared that I was “having one of those days”. I wasn’t going to fight it. Instead, I was going with it. Because it would pass. And anyway, I said I’ve only had half a dozen of such days all year, and given the circumstances that isn’t at all bad. My husband replied he thought it was a few more than six. I disputed that and conceded it was no more than 10. The strategy out of this mood was agreed. Ride with the ebb and flow. Dig deep and go for a bracing country walk within acceptable distance from the house.

It was a tough ask and if I could’ve wrapped myself in a duvet and walked through the fields and country lanes, I would’ve. As a substitute, I commandeered a coat with a huge hood, popped on a woolly hat and scarf. Thinking about it, I adopted a grumpy teenager-like demeanour and sat in the passenger seat whilst we went searching for a suitable local spot. Driving through the villages and country roads, I tutted at the fly-tipping, uttering missives about local government policy and the like.

Gradually, the mood lightened. Because like all endings there are beginnings. The end of January is better known as February. And for me, this is a much better time to plan the year ahead. Once the ‘hangover’ of the Christmas and New Year holidays has passed. February is lighter and brighter. Winter is far from over, but there are signs of a spring to come. There are snowdrops and daffodils peeping out of the cold soil. Bird song seems to get louder. The days are noticeably longer. That all gives grounds for optimism.

Today? At my desk at home, listing like a champ. Talking about and planning for exciting things ahead. Still need to sort my beard and hair out though.

Photo by Simon Berger on

Is early years trapped in a toxic cycle?

Often, we can find ourselves in a place we don’t want to be. A position we weren’t heading for, a situation unplanned, an ambition unmet, or a place we can’t escape. If that’s you right now, then it’s time to break free. And key to that, is the adage: if you want things to change, change yourself. I know from experience this is true.

What sparked this blog? It was the constant stream of lobbying reports, blogs and articles from early years colleagues. They all have in common a theme of complaining and observing about early years’ position and our status in society, and more specifically the world of education. They all ask for more. More recognition, resource and repute to at least reach equality with others.

There’s little I disagree with. Its always been part of my mission. And it remains the case. Although things have got better in my 30 years of early years, the work is not done yet. I concur that things don’t seem to join up. That there are many things that are wrong, or just don’t make common sense. They don’t compute. It’s frustrating, to say the least. There is no good reason why people should regard early years as having lower status than other learning, education or children’s services, that the workforce is somehow less important, less qualified or less able. Its just not right and proper. The opposite is true.

But, here is my problem. And here is my idea. I think we are part of the problem. We are spreading these thoughts and under-valuing prejudices by endlessly repeating them. By reminding people at every turn. And it isn’t working. It isn’t achieving our goals. As a sector, we have become tools of our own oppression. The impact? We are turning people off entering the sector or staying within it. We are giving others the words to oppress us even more. To view us with ever-decreasing respect. All of this not only sows the seeds of such self-fulfilling prophecies, it grows the crop and harvests it too. It is going a long way to reduce the confidence of the sector and diminish our right to reasonable demands and expectations of equality in children’s services, and the achievement of our ambitious goals for children, families, the workforce, providers and society as a whole.

We need to change. We need to switch our narrative to one that is much more visionary, more positive and more future focused. If we do that, more people will listen, more pennies will drop, more people will join the good cause, and others will be sure to follow. Come on early years, we can do that, if we are prepared to change the story.

The last blog of the year: The best bits of 2020.

This is the last blog of the year.  2020.  A year, well documented and much described.  And one that has prompted a range of my blogs.  Ones that focused on coping with current conditions, changing, and planning – and the impact on business and employment.  Others that shared my feelings around coping with lockdown, the emotional ups and downs, adapting to living in a smaller, quieter, and in some ways an unchanging world.  And blogs that highlighted the effects of news coverage, changing policies, uncertainties and the resultant anxieties.

I completely acknowledge the trauma and the worry, the loss of work, livelihoods and loved ones.  It has been, and continues to be, an extraordinary experience.  Today’s blog though is unashamedly and determinedly all about the four best things to come out of the year.  From my personal experience.

Being smaller.  The scale of life has reduced.  I have spent much more time at home.  Home has felt like the sanctuary, rather than the ‘basecamp’ from where I travelled for work or pleasure.  There has been no global-trotting, no business trips to London, no social life like it used to be.  And so, resource consumption, my carbon footprint, has been dramatically scaled-down.  That feels good for me and for everyone.  Despite the mixed feelings of missing the big beautiful world out there. 

Being at home.  ‘Staying in’ has helped rebalance a sense of grounding in these bricks and mortar that shelter us from what is going on out there.  I feel better connected with it.  Literally a grounding at home rather than flying around in the air.  Time has been used differently.  There’s been time to smell the flowers, scavenge the hedgerows of the surrounding countryside, tidy drawers, and make preserves for the store cupboard.

Being together.  There has been a stronger sense of connection with friends, family, colleagues and clients.   Communication online has resulted in much more time together and often in better ways. And I think many relationships have improved.  There has been a focusing on the things we have in common rather than the differences that drive us apart.  We have supported each other to cope with the effects and impact of COVID-19. 

Being hopeful about the future.  At various points this year we could all have been forgiven for thinking we had been through the worst.  But it seems at each and every turn we suffer further incremental and unpredictable challenges.  But we all resolve to ‘hope for the best’. 

What has happened has caused us all to rethink the scale of our lives and businesses, live in different ways in our homes, connect in new ways with those around us, and adapt to current situations.  We must now consider what we might want to do next, when greater choices are afforded to us.  That’s a job for 2021.

Yoko Ono 2006.