Leading best practice as an early years teacher

All about how early years teacher status can equip early childhood professionals to make a substantial, positive difference to their settings and children's lives.

Save the Children’s recent report[1] is very clear that the early years workforce needs more Early Years Teachers. The charity says they are necessary to continue and sustain the impact of graduate leadership on the quality of provision for our youngest children, particularly in areas where families are currently experiencing economic difficulties.

Despite the fact that numbers applying nationally to enter Early Years Initial Teacher Training have declined, at Best Practice Network we continue to see Early Years Teacher Status as a tremendous success story and most definitely encourage graduates who want to make a difference to young children’s lives to apply. Working across England we have sustained our numbers over the past few years and are currently working with groups of trainees, in partnership with excellent settings, in locations across the country. We are very proud to share some success stories of how newly qualified Early Years Teachers are successfully leading practice in their settings

In a unique position...
An early years teacher trainee is in a unique position to critically evaluate practice in their placement setting. Trainees  need to be able to meet Standard 8 of the Teachers’ Standards (Early Years -  to ‘take responsibility for leading practice through appropriate professional development for self and colleagues’ and to ‘reflect on and evaluate the effectiveness of provision, and shape and support good practice.’ This can  be a tall order for a teacher in training so in agreeing to support and train an EYITT trainee, setting managers must agree to to both provide these opportunities and to support the trainee in giving constructive, sensitive and supportive when they feed back their reflections and analysis and work with colleagues to move practice forward.

Constructive criticism and improved practice
Sandra Matthews manages Acorns Pre-School in Harrogate, Yorkshire. Sandra is also a tutor on our EYITT programme and provides placement opportunities. Here she reflects on the sometimes uncomfortable process of opening up to constructive criticism as she  shares experience  at Acorns.

'When Early Years Professional Status was first introduced, we had a trainee who identified a range of improvements that enabled us to move forward in our practice, but I will be in honest in saying that at the time I found it quite uncomfortable being criticised, even more so by someone less experienced than me. However, several years later, the ideas that the trainee introduced are still part of our practice, perhaps adapted over time, but her influence has remained in one form or another, demonstrating the value of accepting the advice of an outsider, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable to hear.

'I believe that I learnt from this experience to become more open to criticism. On a group visit to Danish nature kindergartens, our facilitator used a saying, "If you want to know about the water, don’t ask a fish". This phrase has resonated with me over the years and I have tried  to seek a different perspective. In the same way, having someone from outside your own setting to reflect on your practice and provision, though perhaps unsettling, allows you to gain a perspective which you may never have seen yourself.'

Welcoming a critical friend...
Sandra continues: 'Last year we trained Tracy as an Early Years Teacher. I wanted to embrace the opportunity of welcoming a critical friend who, as a new employee, could look with fresh eyes. I wanted the evaluation to be methodical and based on those aspects of our practice that were important to our ethos. I had been on Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-being Scales training (SSTEW) (Siraj and Kingston; 2015) and felt that this  approach would help us. So, I charged our EYT trainee with assessing all staff against the scales which assess interactions between adults and children and look at a range of aspects of practice. Using the SSTEW Scales alongside other environment scales (including ECERS-E, ECERS-R or ITERS-R) gives users a clearer picture of what high-quality early childhood education and care can look like. It is an aspirational approach  that considers high-quality pedagogy and practice,.

'Of course, the biggest challenge was  finding the time to be able to step back and observe. Having done the observations, Tracy was able to assess staff against the scales and make recommendations on ways we might improve. She had to be very diplomatic and was careful that no one was singled out as falling below expected standards in wider feedback. All suggestions were directed to all staff and examples were given of good practice as well as areas for improvement. So, it became an easy process for staff to recognise how they could change their practice to meet the targets set.

'The SSTEW scales are a strong methodical framework for evaluating early years settings and we found the assessments valuable. We have asked our trainee, now employed as an Early Years Teacher with us, to continue to regularly use the scales to help us to improve in other aspects.'

Reflecting on personal practice
Tracy Hatten, now employed as an Early Years Teacher at Acorns, take up the story.

'Sandra charged me with assessing the whole staff team using the Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-Being Scales. My first task was to study the scales and the research which informs them and decide how I was going to carry out my observations. I decided that I would initially concentrate on just two  of the five sub-scales, making it more manageable and meaningful. I selected: "Supporting and extending language development” and “Assessing language and learning".

'When the day of the observations came, I felt prepared.  I had done my research, including finding out how other practitioners on the EYITT programme had used the SSTEW scales. However, the prospect of observing and assessing my very experienced colleagues, three of whom were my managers and employers, was daunting to say the least. The setting had been rated outstanding by Ofsted and the whole staff team are continually reflecting on practice and making improvements so I wondered whether there was anything useful that I could contribute. However, I was also aware that, as reflective practitioners, my colleagues had confidence in their own practice and so were comfortable with receiving criticism and I felt sure they would view it as an opportunity to improve.

'I was careful to ensure that each of my colleagues was observed throughout the allocated day and that I noted everything relating to the sub-scales. I then analysed my observations in relation to the SSTEW scale scoring system, arriving at a score for the setting as a whole in relation to each sub-scale. I produced a report detailing our setting’s successes in relation to items in the scales and also put forward recommendations for improvement in some areas, being careful to provide examples which supported my observations.

'When I presented my report I enjoyed telling everyone how well we had done. I ensured that successes were praised specifically and directly to individuals. When explaining areas where we had, perhaps, not quite met the highest scores, I was careful to detail why we hadn’t, in a general way, not picking out individuals. I wanted to show my team that I understood why we did things the way that we did in those areas and that I wasn’t picking fault with anybody, or the setting as a whole, but merely highlighting what the SSTEW scales suggested and explaining why another way would have positive outcomes for the children.  For example, one of the criteria for achieving the highest score in the "Assessing language and learning" sub-scale is to encourage children to give positive feedback to each other. I pointed out that this is what the scale states and that peer assessment can help children to foster a deeper understanding of their own learning.  

'I also informed the team that this exercise was very informative to me as it allowed me to reflect upon my own personal practice. I waited with bated breath as I finished the presentation, hoping that I had been successful in delivering the feedback positively and enabling colleagues to reflect constructively.  I was relieved that the first comment  was that the whole exercise very informative and that this colleague was now going to put some of the improvements into practice.

'I think that I was in a great position to give this feedback because I’d been charged with the task by my manager, the research-based SSTEW scales were behind my recommendations and I had a staff team who are already seasoned and effective reflective practitioners with a joint vision to provide the best for our children. The whole experience has given me the confidence to take on more responsibility this year, knowing that I will have the support of the managers in the challenges I take forward and that I’ll be able to use my Early Years Teacher training to really make a difference to the children and families we support. 

'I feel privileged to have been trusted to take forward this piece of work and to be in a position to enable and encourage the reflection which the SSTEW scales facilitate.'

Staying focused on professional development
Sandra is very positive about Tracy’s leadership achievements, both for herself and the setting.

'Now that the self-evaluation form is no longer an Ofsted requirement it would be easy to forget that self-evaluation and improvement planning are still vital aspects of practice to ensure that settings are moving forward and striving to develop.  So, for me, the SSTEW scales and their equivalents are important tools for identifying areas for improvement for both setting and staff. Tracy has enabled us to recognise specific aspects we can look at and continues to help us to challenge ourselves in meaningful ways which will really have a positive impact on outcomes for our children.'

The Save the Children report calls for improvement in the induction and career support which early years teachers receive to support their retention and to help them have the most impact on children’s development.   Early years teachers with EYTS do not benefit from the statutory induction arrangements that apply to newly qualified teachers with QTS  so our programme has a strong focus on planning for the post-EYTS year, setting teaching and professional development targets with the trainee and employment setting. Tracy’s target for the year after achieving Early Years Teacher Status was to disseminate and lead practice within the work environment and to demonstrate leadership, ensuring others are working within acceptable policies and practices which she has embraced very positively.

Long term career support
The next case study is also a good example of long term career support from an employment setting and good induction practice in EYITT target setting coming together to enable a newly qualified  Early Years Teacher to take a lead.  

Abbie Hill works an Early Years Teacher at TickTock Day-care in Tockwith, North Yorkshire. Supported by the setting’s Director, Abbie has made an impressive professional journey since starting at the setting seven years ago at the age of 16 working in the holiday club.  Here Abbie describes her responsibilities and achievements since beginning Early Years Initial Teacher Training in 2017.

'Since achieving Early Years Teacher Status in summer 2018 I have taken on a range of leadership roles, including responsibility for the teaching of maths  and strengthening  opportunities for children’s communication.  At the end of EYITT we had a helpful process of setting professional development targets  and mine were to develop a programme of maths and incorporate it into the setting, to use my knowledge from the EYITT programme to train and support the other staff and to mentor apprentices.

'Mathematics is an area that often seems to fall behind in the early years and always seems to be flagged as missed in the cohort tracking.  I have found that the majority of practitioners don’t feel that they have the confidence to teach maths, maybe due to lack of success in their own education or for fear of getting something wrong.  Quite a few parents feel the same way and so there is a real need to ensure that children become confident mathematicians and break that cycle. I wanted to use my Early Years Teacher Status to drive forward maths in our setting and make a real difference to how colleagues, parents and the children feel about the subject.

'I’ve approached this by building in additional teaching time into the weekly programme where I can take small groups of children and boost their knowledge in maths through a range of fun and engaging activities, working alongside the EYFS. For example, to consolidate knowledge in shape and space I set out our big shape resources in an inviting way so children  spend time playing with and exploring the shapes, learning  their names and copying  them using lollipop sticks. The children have responded extremely well and have shown their growing  knowledge by confidently telling other members of staff what they have been doing. This boosts the children’s knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of mathematics through a fairly simple mathematical activity but one that is very visual and something all colleagues can carry out.

'For the coming year I plan to support other  practitioners by inviting them to observe me working with the children in maths. I will then observe them leading their maths activities with the children, offering my help and knowledge where needed. I make sure all the other practitioners have access to the maths planning that I have put in place, so they can see what I am doing and when. In quite a short time we have started to build the foundations of a changed attitude to mathematics across the setting, something which parents are picking up on and becoming more confident about too.

'My other area of new responsibility was to strengthen the children’s communication skills. I started this through introducing communication fobs, which all staff carry with them on a daily basis. The fobs include basic pictures with the word for reinforcement for the children to point to. The pictures include everyday actions, items and directions such as washing hands, toilet, nappy, snack, lunch, coat, shoes as well as emotions such as happy and sad. The fobs are working well. Staff report that they have seen results from the children and so we now need to build on this with more ideas to enhance our practice. I am planning to involve the staff in coming up with these ideas, so we all feel involved and part of the process. Again, it is often the simple ideas that lead to good results and can be the focus of discussion with colleagues about  improved practice and confidence.'

These Early Years Teachers are just two of the many who tell us about their achievements during and since completing EYITT. I hope that  these success stories will encourage more graduates to apply for EYITT next year.  EYTS is definitely valued by settings and it is worth studying for. As Tracey and Abbie have emphasised, achieving EYTS has given them greater knowledge, confidence and the opportunities to move to new levels of success in improving outcomes for the children in their care.

  • Key Points
    Early Years Teachers are making a strong impact on their placements and settings.Having an EYITT trainee on placement is an opportunity to use fresh eyes, enthusiasm and up to date knowledge for the benefit of the setting.New teachers need encouragement and support to frame reflective feedback – from the setting and from a credible methodical framework.It’s not always comfortable to invite and receive constructive criticism but it’s part of everyone’s professional journey and is to everyone’s benefit.

Maureen Lee is an Early Years Adviser to Best Practice Network, a national provider of training and professional development, working in partnership with early years’ settings and schools across the country to deliver nationally recognised early years training programmes and qualifications. Further information about Best Practice Network’s early years programmes and support, including Early Years Initial Teacher Training, is available here

 [1] Save the Children report here

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