“There’s so much research to say how important the first 5 years are, so why aren’t the people who educate young children respected?” asks Lewis Fogarty.
From the outdated ‘hair or care’ pathway to the pay packet, Early Years practitioners are fighting to be respected as the professional educators they are. According to a government report, “[Early Years workers] saw inadequate pay and underfunding as characteristic of the low status. Workers believe they do an important job but want to leave [the sector] because they do not feel valued.”
And they do leave. More than a third of Early Years workers who responded to a recent survey said that they were actively considering leaving the sector.
So what can we actually do?
I sat down with Lewis and his co-director at nursery group Always Growing, Ben Bausor to talk about professionalism, perks, and pay, including how the hourly average across Always Growing is £11.89 compared to an average of £7.42 across the Early Years workforce.
“We want our staff to be respected professionals, as far as is possible in the wider early years context in the U.K. …which is challenging, to put it mildly,” says Lewis, “If we, I mean Ben and I as the directors, don’t respect our staff and treat them like professionals, no one is going to.”
They’re right. According to a report by the Early Years Alliance, the most common reason for staff considering leaving the sector was “feeling undervalued by the government”.
Ben and Lewis wrote a culture manual for Always Growing, to make sure it was clear for all staff how they can expect to be treated while working there. Research shows that a culture where management makes Early Years staff feel valued and listened to, and gives them a say over how they work, encourages staff to stay. Lewis presents this culture manual to all new staff personally.
Staff at Always Growing also receive ‘professional’ benefits.
And of course, the pay. The hourly average across the whole company is £11.89- around £4 more than the average in the sector.
“We pay staff as much as we can,” says Lewis, “We aren’t afraid to put our hands in our pockets and put our time into our staff”
Staff receive a weekly staff email from Ben and Lewis to support their work and personal development, following their own ‘play, learn, smile’ format:
And there’s no colourful uniform. The Always Growing team wear their own clothes and are encouraged to dress practically and smartly.
“My feeling is that when people see someone in a pinafore or a messy polo top, they don’t see a professional,” says Lewis.
But doesn’t that feel a bit ‘corporate’?
Well, that’s kind of the point.
Lewis and Ben treat their team like the education professionals they want them to feel like. Because that’s what they are.
Although a third of the Always Growing team have degrees, and Lewis and Ben themselves are both qualified teachers, the entire team are called ‘teachers’. You won’t find ‘nursery nurses’ or even ‘practitioners’ at Always Growing.
“We call all of our staff teachers, and I’ll happily argue with anyone who says we can’t do that because they are teachers,” says Lewis.
The terminology doesn’t stop at ‘teachers’ though.
The vocabulary that Ben and Lewis choose to use in their culture manual, and when speaking with staff, is centred around education, and Always Growing’s ethos. They don’t shy away from words like ‘pedagogy’ as they respect their teachers enough not to over-simplify the complex work they do.
But why does language matter?
In their recent report on the staffing crisis in the sector, one of the key recommendations by the Early Years Alliance was that the government must review “the use of language when discussing the sector, with an emphasis on early years provision as ‘early education and on the workforce as ‘early educators’” as a way to “Value and promote the Early Years sector as an education profession”
“I get so upset and annoyed when people compare running a nursery to babysitting. It’s a misconception. Even within the education sector, the lack of understanding of the Early Years is frightening, as well as the lack of respect for Early Years workers.”
Instead of promoting their star practitioners to traditional, office-based managers, Always Growing has ‘provision leaders’ instead. This means that Ben and Lewis can be sure that the best and most experienced practitioners actually work with the children, modelling good practice, where other staff can learn from it.
But that’s unusual in the Early Years sector. As Ben explains, “In education, usually the best teachers get promotions and spend less time in the classroom,”
Having the best practitioners actually working with the children seems like a no-brainer, but then who is taking care of all the administrative tasks, that a manager would usually do?
Well, Ben and Lewis look after the ‘business side’ of the business, with a little help from Famly. They also have two senior Leaders of Education and Operations, Sam and Shakiba, and an administrator. Lewis explains that Sam and Shakiba are integral to the success of Always Growing, as they are ‘the engine of the business’, keeping them all moving in the right direction. This allows the Always Growing Provision Leaders to focus exclusively on the children and allows Ben and Lewis to take on other projects too.
“One of our Provision Leaders said to me, ‘So I don’t have to worry about funding forms or the rota? And we said ‘no, that’s taken care of’. You just focus on being excellent at what you do.” explains Ben.
As well as being one half of the directorship of Always Growing, Lewis also lectures at Brunel University in leadership and management in education. Lewis gives the leadership team monthly coaching sessions to support their progression and leadership skills.
But you don’t need to be a lecturer to do the same.
Supporting your team in taking more ownership of their professional development, or how the setting progresses, can be as simple as encouraging feedback about business decisions, or allowing staff more freedom to lead their rooms their way.
You can encourage your team to have faith in their practice and be confident to learn or try something new because you show you support them.
As Lewis puts it, “If you can teach someone to be curious, you won’t have to teach them (as much) anymore.”
Despite the outlook in the sector sometimes feeling a bit bleak, there could be some real change on the way.
The government’s Early Years Education Recovery Programme promises a desperately needed cash injection (£153m over three years), with a focus on upskilling and training Early Years educators.
Even so, you can also look beyond Early Years for your own inspiration to improve your setting (and the sector).
“We’re always open-minded to see what we can learn,” says Lewis, “But not just in the childcare and early education companies. When we were writing our culture manual and creating our pedagogy, we were looking at Netflix, for example.”
But for now, they’re choosing to focus on the challenges and opportunities within Always Growing, because, as Lewis explains, “As soon as we start thinking about the ‘out there’ issues, we can feel powerless and then down about not being able to do anything. That isn’t to say we don’t try to do our bit towards making the sector better though, we just try to do it in our own way, and slowly, as I think that is the only way.”
“For example, we can’t control how much of the £153 million reaches us, but we can think about doing the right things in terms of keeping our outgoings lean and investing in staff training and opportunities,” adds Ben.
Of course, that’s not to say that Ben and Lewis think they have it all figured out.
“Ultimately we consider ourselves to be always learning, not just Always Growing,” says Ben.
They welcome thoughts, challenges, and ideas from outside of Always Growing because the sector grows stronger by working to improve together. You can reach Lewis at email@example.com and Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.