Strong leadership is crucial within an early years setting. This can be seen when things go wrong through poor management and the effect it has on staff and children in the setting. Good leadership skills require practitioners to ensure quality and to uphold professional standards of practice.
This article was partly influenced by Early Years Matters' definition of leadership and its wide-ranging effects. It notes that: ‘Leadership has been seen as providing direction and exercising influence… being able to inspire others, having a clear vision, thinking creatively, having a problem-solving approach to difficulties and a commitment to partnership working as well as developed interpersonal skills are qualities of leaders. More specifically in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) it is about leading others, leading learning and leading innovation in ways that are both practical yet creative.’
Ofsted has identified that strong leadership is essential in ensuring settings' and students' successes. A report in 2013 found that poor leadership in some early years settings means that some children, particularly those in deprived areas, are not starting school ready to ‘make the most’ of it. This shows that effective leadership has both short and long-term effects on pupils. Children should be ready to start school by the end of their time at nursery and if the child is not ready, this adds extra pressure to the school staff to rectify this.
It is vital that staff and children are provided with the correct support and leadership to achieve and exceed their capabilities, or as Ofsted notes, to ‘make the most’ of their time in each setting.
What are the characteristics of a good leader?
Kimberly (2015) suggests there are certain characteristics that make a good leader, which include being inspiring, effective communication, being able to delegate, and being knowledgeable and confident. Effective leadership has a huge impact on staff in the early years setting as it can provide safety and motivation. Leaders' attitudes can be infectious, and a negative attitude can spread through a team.
As the American-Austrian educator, Peter F. Drucker, said: ‘Leadership is lifting a person's vision to high sights, the raising of a person's performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.’ This quote suggests that leadership supports personal growth and the development of a person's abilities.
Effective leadership should enable staff to have a clear understanding and vision of what their job entails. This is an incredibly difficult line to tread as often in the early years setting it is a requirement to do and be all things: carer, teacher, cook, cleaner, learner, facilitator, planner, leader etc. While I am more than aware, from being a practitioner myself, that staff do wear all these various hats at any one time, I was also very conscious of what my role was within the team. This understanding of the role is vitally important. In order for a setting and a team to work effectively, all members of that team must occupy some role of responsibility and be accountable for some tasks. This can only be achieved if all duties and activities are fairly distributed.
‘Leadership is lifting a person's vision to high sights, the raising of a person's performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.’
With clearly defined roles, it becomes easier to address if anything needs development or improvement and if something goes wrong, it becomes much easier to pinpoint the problem and correct it. Fostering an environment where team members help those who are struggling can enable people to feel valued within that team. This means they will be more likely to ask for help when required and therefore uphold that quality service for the children in their care.
Once these roles and responsibilities are understood, the next logical step is to then place this within the context of the larger team and setting. By understanding the ethos and vision of the setting, it becomes far more coherent in its message. The message becomes clearer to those on the outside, such as Ofsted officials and parents. As an example, the ethos of a setting may be to promote the individuality of each pupil, or to ensure an environmentally friendly setting by providing only ethically sourced food and materials.
Supporting your team
If unsupported, staff will feel underappreciated. They will be less likely to put their full support behind the setting and its ethos, which will impact the children. Arnerich (2018) discusses how building and maintaining an ethos for your setting can actually promote a stronger team. He also argues that the ethos serves as a way in which to inspire staff. Arnerich (2018) claims that ‘Having a shared set of values that you're all working on together is a great way to instil a sense of togetherness in your staff. It's something they can go back to and helps to make them feel part of a more meaningful journey.’
In order to create an ethos which is relevant to your setting, Arnerich (2018) suggests practitioners consider:
- Why did you first get into childcare?
- What does success look like for you?
- What do you want to achieve?
- Think of the best day you've had in the last six months. Why was it so good?
- How are you different from any other nursery?
- What kind of experiences do you want children to have at the nursery?
- What is your style of learning?
- What ideas in childcare inspire you?
Having a team that feels inspired and valued is vitally important in creating a successful setting. Through leadership, individual staff members and teams within the setting are supported, valued and appreciated. Friendship and connections will be fostered, which will enable staff to be honest and open about any challenges they may face within the setting. It is important, however, to provide time and space for these challenges to be addressed. Peer-support and guidance can be provided through regular staff meetings, daily or weekly. Unfortunately, in busy periods and stressful seasons it is easy to cancel meetings and prioritise other things. This could lead to staff members, who are perhaps struggling with their workload, feeling side-lined, which will ultimately impact their performance in the setting.
An additional responsibility of a leader may be the sourcing and funding of professional training. The job opportunities and professional development provided in settings, and by other professional bodies, can provide useful training to staff, who then use this to inform and better their practice. As a leader, it is important to acknowledge each person's aims and goals, and to provide training that enables that person to achieve. Training not only allows staff members to feel their knowledge makes a difference to the setting, it also ensures they get the opportunity to develop their own interests, which can help maintain staff motivation and morale.
The main aim of leadership is to ensure both the individual and team's needs are met. Effective leadership allows team members and staff to feel supported and this leads to better quality care for the children.
- Good leadership skills require practitioners to uphold professional standards of practice.
- Poor leadership means that some children are not able to start school ready to ‘make the most’ of it.
- Being inspiring, able to delegate, knowledgeable and confident, as well as an effective communicator, makes a good leader.
- All members of a team must occupy some role of responsibility and be accountable for some tasks.
- In busy periods and stressful seasons, it is easy to cancel meetings and prioritise other things, but this can lead to team members feeling side-lined.
- As a leader, it is important to acknowledge each person's aims and goals, and to provide training that enables that person to achieve.