The importance of effective Early Years leadership
Early Years education lays the foundation for a child's lifelong education and wellbeing. To ensure this, effective leadership is needed to overcome the hurdles currently facing the Early Years workforce, across all settings.
Early Years education has shifted significantly in recent years: from being viewed as an optional extra, to now being better recognised as an integral part of a child’s education. This sector has been deemed crucial to realising many of the government's aims around levelling up, and we’ve seen an increased focus on the Early Years as part of Ofsted’s new five-year strategy to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our pupils.
Early Years provision can take many forms and is more than just preparation for primary school. It focuses on the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs in order to build a solid foundation for their lifelong learning and wellbeing. Research consistently reveals the positive impact high-quality preschool provision can have on children’s long-term development and learning, which is particularly true for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (when provision is accessed for a sustained period).
There are, however, still stark inequalities in access, take up and outcomes, particularly when it comes to children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. And while the quality of Early Years provision has improved over the last decade, it remains lower in deprived areas which is widening the disadvantage gap. We are on the right track, but there’s still a way to go.
My experience as an EY leader
Having trained on a PGCE route focused on five-to-eleven-year-olds, I accepted my first role as an Early Years teacher in a three-form entry school. The school was an ideal fit in terms of my own education philosophy, as it placed high-importance on the holistic development of children and truly valued the diversity within the school community.
As September approached, and excited as I was, I felt woefully under-prepared to teach in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). My training had focussed almost entirely on teaching within Key Stages 1 and 2, aside from an afternoon spent den-building outdoors at University and a short placement of three days in a Reception classroom. While I was aware there was a different statutory framework to follow (rather than the national curriculum), I wasn't filled with confidence when I saw how different the pedagogy in the Early Years appeared to be compared to what I’d been learning for the past year. The concept of child-initiated learning through play was radically different to my training on teaching Maths in Year 6!
However, after day one I was completely converted. The strength of the relationships I was able to build with the children and their families and the rapid progress and growth I saw each child making from their unique starting points made me sure I’d found the most rewarding job imaginable. Plus, working with under fives, there is never a dull moment. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by a wealth of expertise and a commitment to my ongoing development, and after a few years I was honoured to take on the role of EYFS leader. From my experience, the joy of leading an Early Years setting comes hand-in-hand with the challenges it brings.
What makes a successful EY leader?
The EYFS is based on four important ‘guiding principles’ that should shape practice: the unique child, positive relationships, enabling environments and learning and development. In the context of the revised statutory framework for the EYFS, these lend themselves to the adoption of a truly child-centred approach. Flexibility and adaptation to children’s strengths and development needs sit at the heart of the creation of a bespoke, ambitious curriculum, tailored to children’s interests and cultural capital.
This freedom to design a curriculum, on paper, should be the educational dream come true. But to quote the ancient adage (or Uncle Ben from Spiderman): ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. To be a successful practitioner in the Early Years requires a good understanding of child development and pedagogy, alongside sound subject knowledge across all seven areas of learning and development. To be a successful leader in the Early Years requires that all adults in a child’s life (staff, parents, carers) understand how children learn, and can act on this in real and meaningful ways. It can take considerable skill to influence such a variety of stakeholders like this.
Further adding to this challenge, some leaders in the Early Years do not feel they have influence or authority to fully realise this dream, particularly those working in a school setting. This often comes down to whether the leadership in school really ‘get it’, whether they understand the principles of the EYFS and if they support best practice pedagogies. Highly refined leadership skills can be necessary to overcome such hurdles: ‘leading upwards’ to influence more senior leaders can be a challenge to a less experienced phase leader.
Challenges facing the EY workforce
Early Years leads operate in various settings beyond schools, working with a wide-ranging set of stakeholders. When leaders are successful, this can reap great benefits in collaboration with other settings and professionals, and for smooth and effective transition for children. However, once again this can be challenging, particularly for those who are new to leadership. Developing confidence in relationship-building and partnership is necessary to ensure every child’s safeguarding, welfare, learning and development.
One of the greatest challenges facing the Early Years workforce is how incredibly fragmented our Early Years system is in comparison to most other stages of children's education. We have children attending a wide range of settings, including childminders, maintained nursery schools, PVI settings and nursery provision within infant, primary or all-through schools. Whichever setting a child attends will be guided by the statutory EYFS framework and regulated by Ofsted; however there are huge differences in funding, pay and conditions, and the availability of quality ongoing professional development opportunities for the workforce across all environments.
The inequality within this sector can prove highly divisive, with facets of the Early Years workforce feeling taken for granted, overlooked and undervalued. As an Early Years leader in any setting, it can be hard to find a coherent voice to help guide our pedagogical leadership. We need stronger and more productive alliances across the different parts of the Early Years system, to ensure equity provision for all our children. To build excellence in the sector we need to:
- re-emphasise the professionalism of the Early Years workforce
- ensure that practitioners have access to better quality professional development opportunities to support evidence-informed best practice
- enable leaders to empower their whole staff teams to secure the best possible outcomes for all children.
The new NPQ in Early Years Leadership
In response to this, we are delighted to be working on the development of the brand new National Professional Qualification in Early Years Leadership (NPQEYL) here at Teach First. This new qualification is a fabulous opportunity for leaders or aspirant leaders across the rich variety of Early Years settings. We invite you to join a community of people with passion, valuable experience and a commitment to developing excellence in the Early Years, to further develop your expertise in the knowledge and skills required to lead with impact.