Sunday, 5 March 2017

The London Mayor's Education Conference 2017: why we should support plans to develop early years hubs in London

Here's something which is cause for optimism: Sadiq Khan has appointed a deputy mayor, Joanne McCartney, to lead on education - including early education and childcare. At the 2017 Mayor's Education Conference last week, in a gloriously sunny City Hall, Khan also clearly stated his commitment to high quality early education, and better availability of childcare.

The view from London's City Hall
I was fortunate to have a slot to talk to a group of about 120 of London's leaders in education about the "hub" project in Newham which I've been involved with, called Learning without limits.

In the Manor Park hub, which is where I am based, schools, settings from the private and voluntary sector, and childminders have been working hard, together, to improve quality and to make the whole system easier to access for parents.

We have a way to go yet, but the impact of the last few years of work has been impressive and a tribute to the joint efforts we have made and our determination to keep doing better.

In Manor Park all the early years group provision - whether in schools, or in private or independent settings - is graded Good or Outstanding by Ofsted.

Childminder quality has improved significantly and is close to the average for England.

Over 75% of children eligible for a free place at the age of two are now accessing that place.

Outcomes by the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage in Manor Park are ahead of the national average, too. In summer 2016:
  • 69.3% of children nationally achieved a Good Level of Development (PDF);
  • 72% of children in Manor Park achieved a Good Level Of Development
That doesn't mean things are as good as we want them to be.

But it does mean we have made some progress towards our big goal: working with parents to give children in a disadvantaged part of East London the best possible chance to develop as happy, curious and eager learners, pupils, students and citizens in a great world city.

So, what could the GLA hope to achieve by developing a new early years hubs programme across London?

At the Mayor's Education Conference, I argued that the current Early Years system suffers from disconnection, especially if your family is not well off. Whilst it seems unarguable to me that more must be done to reduce the shocking number of children living in poverty across London, improvements in public services can also make an important difference to children's life chances.


The disconnect is like the London Underground in 1871. The Victorian Tube system was fine if you wanted to do one simple thing, like travel from Swiss Cottage to Moorgate. But what if you wanted to go from Hammersmith to Westminster?

Similarly, the early years system is fine if you want one simple thing, like for your three-year old to attend a nursery class every morning in a primary school led by a qualified teacher. You can easily get that for free.

Or you could have flexible childcare in a private nursery to fit your shifts, say 10 hours on Mondays because that's when you work a long shift, and then a couple of mornings when you need a few hours.

But what if you wanted to make a more complex choice - what if you wanted the flexibility, but you also wanted your child to attend a teacher-led provision every morning too?


Yet in other ways, the problem with the system is its hyper-complexity. Parents can choose from lots of options, but navigating those choices is incredibly complex.

Imagine that there are 30 childminders, seven private nurseries, and ten schools in your local area - all offering early years education and childcare.

That's a lot of provision on offer, but how on earth do you find your way and make the connections you need? How do you make the right choice for your child, and for your family?

This seems to me rather like the Underground Map of 1908.

There are a lot of options.

But the way it's set out boggles the mind.

Similarly, the different parts of the early years system often work in isolation. The knowledge and experience being developed in one place, isn't connected with other knowledge elsewhere. Everyone works incredibly hard - if only we could connect better. Working hard is not good enough: we need to have more impact if we are going to sustain improvements in the life chances of London children. After all, they won't have a second chance at their childhood.

A connected and knowledge-building system

So what should the Mayor's proposed Early Years Hubs do about this?

First of all, we need to make more sense of the system for parents. We've taken a small step towards that in Manor Park, by putting details of all the childminders and early years settings who are in our network onto our website. That includes some specialist information, like which childminders are trained specifically to support children with more complex special needs. You can also drop into the Children's Centre to find out who has vacancies for children of different ages, on different days.

Instead of having to call round twenty different people, or schlep around Manor Park, you can find the key information you need quickly. And you know that Ofsted has graded the quality of all your potential choices as good, or better.

But, as Naomi Eisenstadt argued at last year's Early Education AGM, we mustn't kid ourselves that we can create a system that is both completely flexible, and also high-quality.

If a single parent is working an evening shift at a supermarket every day and needs childcare from 12pm to 6pm, there is no doubt that their child will not experience the same kind of high-quality early education and childcare as a child attending a high-quality setting from 9am-3pm.

If, like me, you've many years of experience working in early years you know the late afternoon and early evening sessions are simply not as good as the earlier parts of the day. Practitioners are tired, children are tired, for much of the year there isn't decent daylight after 4pm, etc.

We mustn't just focus our efforts on early years provision: we need to look holistically at having more family-friendly working practices and fairer contracts.

In the same way, much as I'm in favour of outdoor play - which has so many benefits for children's learning, health and wellbeing - that has to go hand-in-hand with improvements in London's air quality. Otherwise, far too many early years and primary-aged children will be at risk of doing damage to their lungs as they play.

Children need outdoor play and they need clean air.

Parents need flexible arrangements for childcare and family-friendly working practices.

We need to protect parents from having to work low-wage, zero-hours contracts, when we are in one of the wealthiest cities on earth.

A self-improving early years system

As well as joining up the early years system so that it makes more sense for parents, we also need to consider how better linking would help us all build knowledge together. The London Challenge showed the huge benefits that could be gained if schools worked more closely together. By stronger schools supporting weaker schools, by teachers working collaboratively across schools to develop more effective practice, and by supporting better leadership and more successful approaches to recruitment and retention, the London Challenge brought about exceptional improvements in the quality of education in the capital.

Why not do the same for early years, and work towards a self-improving early years system? I argued in an older post, Unleashing Greatness, that Maintained Nursery Schools could have a key role as the system leaders to bring this about.

It all depends on the funding and willpower to bring that about: and there are reasons to be cheerful. The GLA are actively investigating a hub model, and the government's new plans in its just-published Early Years Workforce Strategy include a substantial reference to the work that Teaching Schools have been doing to develop a self-improving early years system (see pp. 36-38).

Maintained Nursery Schools are well-placed to lead the system, because of the infrastructure that their funding as schools gives them, and because of their high quality. They support disadvantaged children in achieving exceptional outcomes.

But Maintained Nursery Schools must approach this task in a spirit of open-ness and humility. It will be a journey on which the Maintained Schools will be learners, as well as leaders. It will be necessary to eschew "disseminating good practice" and instead embrace the notion of joint practice development. There should be an option for larger private providers with a strong track record - like London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) and Bright Horizons - to be system-leaders, too.

In the end, it's a simple argument. We want the best for London's children, so we must offer them the very best early education integrated with high-quality children.

You can read more about how I think a self-improving early years system could be developed in the final section of my new book, Successful Early Years Ofsted Inspections

And if you're interested in finding out more about the history of the London Underground and seeing lots of historic and alternative tube maps, check out Londonist.

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