Early Years Voices: Learning on the job

TJ and Laura from Always Growing on how to support your apprentices
TJ and Laura from Always Growing with an illustration of an Early Years educator in her classroom
September 26, 2022
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February 2019

"No question is silly."

That's Laura McCullough's advice for anyone supporting an Early Years apprentice. And Laura would know, as she was one herself.

If you're looking to hire an early education and childcare apprentice, the best people to talk to about how to support your new colleague are those who are (or were) apprentices.

Laura is now the Provision Leader for Under 2s at Always Growing in Windsor, after 15 years in the Early Years sector (starting with an apprenticeship). As someone who'd always wanted to work in childcare, Laura saw the apprenticeship training as a way to progress her career and become an even better educator.

Laura's colleague TJ (Taylor Jones), on the other hand, recently completed her Early Years apprenticeship with Always Growing, after progressing from an after-school provision and having never considered working in full day care.

I sat down with both of them to talk about how it feels to be an apprentice, what we can do to better support the newest members of the sector, and how leaders can get the best from the next generation of Early Years educators.

The big ideas

  • Be encouraging
    While it's easy to learn what the Early Years foundation stage is, where to read the educational programmes, and how to wear the correct personal protective equipment to change a nappy, it's a lot harder to develop confidence in your own practice. Support emotional development as well as just teaching policies and procedures.
  • Be approachable and ready to listen
    A professional team listens to one another. Interact directly and work co-operatively with your apprentices, so they know you're available if they need to talk, to ask questions, or need help accessing support services.
  • Be supportive
    Apprentices are learning from your setting as well as their training providers. Take an active role in their learning and development and offer assistance and support where you can.
  • Be respectful
    An Early Years apprentice is a future Early Years practitioner. If you want to keep your team of highly trained professionals, value their contribution right from the start. Welcome and encourage apprentices as you would anyone else in the childcare sector.
  • Be empathetic
    We all started somewhere. Nurseries, children's centres, and pre-schools should be where young children learn empathy through adult-led example. That includes modelling empathy towards our apprentices.

Be encouraging

Like many of us, TJ didn't initially know where her career path might lead, but she was pretty sure it wasn't going to take her into a nursery.

"At the time, I couldn't think of anything worse!" she laughs.

However, having worked with the directors of Always Growing, Ben Bausor and Lewis Fogarty, at their after-school club, the pair told TJ they were keen to keep her on board.

Once she finished her A-levels, TJ says that Lewis encouraged her to come and see what life as an Early Years teacher was really like. And she fell in love with it.

"I didn't know a lot about the children's development, or the EYFS, but I learned quite quickly from the great team here," she explains.

And now TJ's preparing to become an apprentice all over again, by starting her level 5.

"Lewis told me, 'We want you to develop further,'" says TJ, "I'm not a very confident person in terms of telling people what to do. So Lewis said, we want you to do your level 5 and build up to being a provision leader. He's so supportive."

Be approachable and ready to listen

Supporting the development of apprentices' skills, through sensitive responses to questions, is a key responsibility of leadership in the Early Years. If there is a concern about a child, practice, or their own well-being, new apprentices need to know who they can talk to.

"I'm quite a confident person," says Laura, "So I'd just say if I thought someone was doing something wrong. But, for young people, or newer apprentices, they know they can go straight to Ben and Lewis, or come to me."

In this way, early years apprentices (alongside other professionals and staff in the setting) can play a key role in raising potential concerns about children, without the fear of feeling like they're asking a silly question.

"It is hard at first," says TJ, "Because I felt like I didn't know anything. But Ben and Lewis were there so I could ask them. If I was a bit unsure they'd reassure me that 'No, no, that's fine,' or they'd say 'Thank you for bringing that up,'"

Be supportive

"You can go to Ben and Lewis with anything, where they know the answer or not, they'll always listen and they'll find the answer. The same day or a couple of days later. They'll always come back to you."


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During lockdown, TJ found herself completing her apprenticeship coursework at home, instead of in the setting, as planned.

"It was hard, but I knew I could call Ben and Lewis if I needed them. They offered to look over my work and help me out. The relationship was so important."

That availability and flexibility really made the difference to TJ, who was able to complete her apprenticeship training on time, despite missing out on learning in the setting.

And don’t forget, support to learn and develop shouldn’t end once an educator is qualified.

Beyond apprenticeships, the team at Always Growing also have monthly ongoing training and 5 inset days a year for their continuous professional development.

A group of Early Years educators in a circle doing the 'hands in' gesture together

Be respectful

Although apprentices are often touted as the solution to the Early Years staffing crisis, they are not just sources of cheap labour.

It's essential to recognise the meaningful, unique contribution of apprentices and not just view them as an economical substitute for an already suitably qualified professional.

"Even as an apprentice, I'm needed in the classroom," says TJ, "We're all depended on."

An Early Years apprentice is learning the most up-to-date practice and bringing that into your setting, along with new ideas and fresh enthusiasm.

"They can teach us some new tricks," says Laura "We all have different strengths. Where TJ may lack something, and I feel like I can support her, and where she has the newest knowledge, she can help me too."

And that means giving apprentices ample opportunity to learn new skills, work on their development areas, and take responsibility for real job roles.

"I started as an apprentice at 17 and back then, Early Years apprenticeships weren't seen as ...as great as they are now. Apprentices were given the dirty work that no one wanted to do," remembers Laura, "Now, apprentices are taken more seriously. Here, our apprentices aren't stuck cleaning the bins, for example."

And this is what makes the difference as to whether your newly qualified apprentice stays at your setting or not.

Laura's experience meant that she qualified, and worked her way up, but ultimately left the setting.

Be empathetic

While apprentices are fountains of knowledge regarding up-to-date best practice, they are still learning, and need the grace to make mistakes. If you're supporting an apprentice Early Years educator, don't forget to put yourself in their shoes from time to time, or think back to when you were learning yourself.

"If you've been through it yourself, you know how you would have liked to have been treated." says Laura. "At, first, it's like 'Woah! What's going on?' I was a 17-year-old and I'd started in the baby room. I was like 'They're all crying. What do we do?' But you very quickly pick it up when you have good members of staff around you to show you what to do."

Things that come as second nature to seasoned members of the Early Years workforce, like safe disposal of nappies, serving balanced meals, starting a spontaneous activity while out on a walk, or teaching young children correct hand washing, are all things apprentices need to learn.

And, while training providers do teach apprentices outside of the setting, what they learn about providing the very best childcare comes from you.

"I had Ofsted in my first two weeks!" says TJ, "I was so new, I hadn't even logged into Famly yet! Luckily, the room leader I had at the time was so supportive."

A lot of TJ's fear came from not knowing what an Ofsted inspection actually entails. But, her room leaders and the directors Ben and Lewis, took the time to support TJ, so she knew what to expect. Rather than focussing on making sure everything was ship-shape to show off the setting, the team understood Laura's fear and helped her through it.

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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.

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