Reflecting on leadership development in the context of workforce crisis

by Kayla Halls, Early Years Research Fellow at Middlesex University & Mona Sakr, Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood at Middlesex University’

Leaders in the early years (EY) set the tone for the way settings run. Whether it’s nursery managers, pedagogical leaders or room leaders, leadership development is essential for improving how EY organisations work and what they deliver to children and families. However, in the context of a recruitment and retention crisis, when we’re struggling to find the right staff and hold onto them, leadership development can fall by the wayside. On 2nd February, we led a webinar for Early Education called ‘Leadership Development in the Context of Workforce Crisis’ to discuss exactly what can be done in these difficult times to support EY leaders in the essential work they do. In this blogpost, we offer a summary of our discussions and raise some reflective points for you to consider in relation to the particular context you’re working in.

Our research

Working with the Nuffield Foundation, our research team have been studying leadership development in the UK EY sector. This involved conversations with 24 training providers offering leadership development to find out what they thought about the current landscape of EY leadership development alongside their visions for the future. Looking back on these conversations, we noticed that participants repeatedly shared how the recruitment and retention crisis negatively impacts on leaders’ ability to access high-quality leadership development. The conversations suggested three ways that we, as a sector, need to respond to the situation:

  1. Embedding leadership development in a coherent workforce strategy
  2. Resourcing settings to engage meaningfully with leadership development
  3. Designing leadership development that emphasises collaboration over competition

Embedding leadership development in a coherent workforce strategy

The staffing crisis is taking much of leaders’ day to day focus at the moment. Sarah Rawding, a Principal Lecturer in Early Years at Sheffield Hallam University, described how many of us are feeling about leadership development against the backdrop of the staffing crisis:

‘I feel like we’re at such a crisis point in the early years that, although I want to think about leadership for the future, until we start investing more broadly in early years, it almost feels like we’re focusing on the wrong end of the issue.’

But leadership development shouldn’t be seen as something separate from resolving the most urgent challenges we face. Instead, we need to reconceptualise leadership development as a thread running through a robust and coherent workforce strategy that will help us get out of this hole. Mireille MacRaild, Education Services Director (Early Years) at HfL Education, put it best:

‘We need to get qualified practitioners into settings to ensure that we are really growing that leadership workforce. How can we get funding to enable us to grow those future leaders? Otherwise, we’re going to have a big gap.’

The EY sector needs to push for a coherent workforce strategy that both calms the staffing crisis and supports the growth and sustainability of leadership in the sector.

Resourcing settings to engage meaningfully with leadership development

The staffing crisis negatively impacts how and when leaders can be released to access professional learning. With leaders increasingly drawn into the ratios on the floor, it can be nearly impossible to find the time for high-quality, reflective leadership development.

While training providers are working around this barrier by providing professional development in the mornings and evenings, over the weekends, and in bite-sized chunks, this isn’t a sustainable solution. Sarah Shreeve, Head of Early Years and Primary at Teach First, a social enterprise training provider in England, noted that ‘EY practice done well is inherently hands on. I think that leaders deserve to be inspired by each other’s practice. Some of my most meaningful leadership development was visiting other people’s settings.’ This kind of leadership development takes time and relationship building. It’s not something that can be done on a computer in the evening – which means that it only works when settings feel supported to engage. Such support might come centrally or from local authorities, offering more flexibility to leaders to invest in their own learning and development.

Designing leadership development that emphasises collaboration over competition

With such intense pressure and stress on leaders to keep their doors open with fewer staff, it becomes easy to see other settings as competition instead of potential collaborators.

However, leaders and their settings benefit from connecting with others – and this is even more essential amidst the current challenges. Helen Williams, Head of Training, Learning and Development at Mudiad Meithrin, an EY charity in Wales, reflects back on the opportunities her training offer provides.

‘We’ve been able to encourage our learners to share information and to share experiences. There are so many examples of good practice going on. Other people need to hear it.’

Building up a network of peers that can encourage, support and challenge you is essential to making the sector as great as it can be. High-quality leadership development encourages such networks to emerge, pushing back against the business focus on competition.

Reflecting as a leader

Prioritising leadership development in the context of the workforce crisis depends on sector-wide change, but here are some reflection points that any EY leader can begin to consider:

  • What are your experiences of leadership development at the moment? How much time and energy do you have for leadership development? What are the barriers preventing you from engaging in more leadership development? What are the facilitators?
  • When’s the last time you had an open discussion with a fellow EY leader? What are the realities of your local context when it comes to collaboration over competition? Do you find yourself connecting with the setting down the road? If you do, what do you gain from this relationship in terms of your leadership development? If you don’t, what are the barriers to developing this kind of relationship?

Early Education have a programme of local and national events, which facilitate members from a range of settings coming together to discuss and explore current issues and challenges they might be facing. In particular take a look at the upcoming Maintained Nursery Schools conference, but also the ongoing local branch events.

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