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Report on the Inaugural Meeting of the Early Years Education RIG

09.03.17

10th Feb 2017 at the University of Warwick

This Research Interest Group (RIG) was formed with the intention of trying to promote the understanding of leadership within the early years context as well as developing the relationship between research and practice. This inaugural meeting brought together 13 BELMAS members from both academic and practice backgrounds to discuss these subject areas and consider future activities for the RIG. To prompt group discussion, 3 speakers were invited to give their own perspectives on research and practice around educational leadership in the early years.

The first speaker was Emeritus Professor Carol Aubrey from the University of Warwick. Carol drew upon her own research along with that of other experts in the field to provide an overview of the theories around educational leadership and how those theories apply to the early years context. She highlighted a concern that would become a theme throughout the presentations and subsequent discussions: that it is important to situate early years leadership within its context, particularly in light of the changes that have been a feature of both early years policy, but also society at large. Carol provided the group with some fundamental questions to consider: whether there was robust enough theory around early years leadership and whether such theory related to and informed practice. She finished by examining how leadership might be developed by individual early years practitioners, calling for changes in both the traditional structures of early years education and in approaches to professional learning.

The next presentation was given by Sue Webster, also of the University of Warwick. Sue's focus was on the difficulty of developing leadership in the early years when top-down definitions of leadership are constantly shifting. Her presentation was grounded in her experiences of leading Children's Centres and the effects that drastic policy changes had upon the sector. Sue lamented the loss of many leaders who were trained via the National Professional Qualification for Integrated Centre Leadership (NPQICL). She also highlighted a need for the new generation of early years leaders to 'lead upwards' and even adopt a more Machiavellian approach to their work in order to try to influence policy, particularly as evidence alone seems to be a devalued currency in the current climate. In line with Carol Aubrey's presentation, Sue's vision of early years leadership was firmly contextual - it needs to be embedded in early years practice at all levels, and responsive to both micro and macro issues. Accordingly, she argued that research in the subject area should both be disseminated to and carried out with early years leaders.

Finally, Linda Findon of Cygnets Education and Childcare Trust, Stratford upon Avon, provided us with a personal insight into what it meant to become an 'Accidental Leader' - a familiar experience for many in the early years. Linda recognised that her own development has been enabled by theory and practice working in tandem. She mined her own biography to remind the group of the changes there have been in policy and training practices and highlighted the most important insights that she felt she had gained along her career trajectory. Linda highlighted that although there had been many advances in recent years, leadership development in the early years is still rather ad hoc and does not tackle the problem of the early years leader 'doing it all'. She noted that those leaders who had the opportunity to pursue postgraduate degrees often picked up valuable skills along the way and that there are techniques available that can be adapted for leadership development. However, Linda made a strong case that a systematic approach to leadership development is required by the sector.

Following the presentations, discussions were held regarding our own interests around leadership in the early years and where we thought the RIG ought to focus its attention. Much of the discussions centred on the fact that, in our experiences, leadership is an element that appears to be lacking from many development programmes for early years practitioners. We felt that there was scope here to attempt to fill this gap, but recognised that a certain amount of groundwork needed to take place, not least in identifying precisely what early years leadership looks like today. We have decided that the way forward will be to begin by collecting case studies of leadership in high-quality early years settings. We will then collate these and bring them to discussion at a later meeting, date to be arranged. Case study collection is by no means limited to those present at the meeting - should any colleagues be interested in contributing to this project, please contact the RIG convenor, Maddy Findon

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