Early Childhood Hub

Early Years leadership: Creating the enabling conditions for effective professional development

Written By: Rebecca Curtis and Helena Moore
9 min read
Rebecca Curtis, (Associate Dean, Learning Design) and Helena Moore, (Dean, Learning Design) Ambition Institute

The important role that professional development and training can play in raising quality in Early Years provision is well reported (Callanan, 2017; Kalitowski, 2016; Mathers and Smees, 2014, OECD, 2012), just as it is for teaching quality (Fletcher-Wood and Zuccollo, 2020; Yoon et al., 2007). Seminal research into effective Early Years education – the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education Project (EPPE, Sylva et al., 2004) and Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY, Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2002), which both took place around 20 years ago – made recommendations for the importance of high-quality professional development so that Early Years practitioners developed their knowledge of child development and effective pedagogy in order to improve their understanding and practice. Effective Leadership in the Early Years Sector (Siraj-Blatchford and Manni, 2007), however, highlighted the fact that most Early Years leaders’ specific training needs were still not being met, and recent research shows that there are still challenges.

Access to professional development is not necessarily straightforward, particularly in the Early Years Sector. Rogers et al. (2017) and Siraj et al. (2018) highlight a number of issues that prevent engagement in professional development: lack of access to funds, low self-confidence among staff, lack of time and lack of support from management. Attention is therefore required to help to overcome the barriers to implementing high-quality professional development in the Early Years sector (Rogers et al., 2017; OECD, 2019), in order to meet ‘the commitment of childcare professionals to continuously improve (both to benefit the children in their care and to progress their careers)’ (Rogers et al., 2017, p. 14). Yet this commitment to continuously improve is not solely down to the individual. In their study into the impact of professional environments on promoting teacher development, Kraft and Papay (2014, p. 476) concluded that ‘teachers working in more supportive professional environments improve their effectiveness more over time than teachers working in less supportive contexts’. Leaders therefore play a critical role.

It is well reported that the Early Years education sector faces recruitment and retention challenges. It needs to increase the number of suitably skilled and qualified staff in order to meet increased demand and raise attainment through high-quality early education (Rogers et al., 2017). The 2021 report ‘Breaking point’ (Early Years Alliance, 2021) found that more than eight in 10 settings are finding it difficult to recruit staff, resulting in limiting the number of children who can access Early Years provision. In addition, the report found that over a third of respondents are actively considering leaving the sector. Yet high-quality early education is crucial; receiving effective Early Years education closes the gap for disadvantaged children, helps to shape child and adult development – including physical and emotional health (DfE, 2021) – and is a predictor for pupil attainment later in their academic lives and school careers (Save the Children, 2016). While it cannot be a panacea for all challenges faced by the Early Years sector, effective professional development can support Early Years leaders in recruiting and retaining staff (OECD, 2019). Creating the enabling conditions for effective professional development, to help to overcome the challenges that the sector has faced for years, is therefore a crucial part of leaders’ roles in Early Years settings. This article seeks to help Early Years leaders consider how they might do this.

Working environments play a crucial role in the improvement of practitioner performance and, in turn, pupil outcomes. Kraft and Papay’s 2014 study identified that there are several specific elements of school organisation context that, when practised successfully, can promote teacher improvement. It is these elements, the enabling conditions for practitioner improvement, that will be explored in the context of Early Years education and in ensuring the effectiveness of professional development, in the course of this piece.

Kraft and Papay (2014) identified the following elements as characteristic of supportive working environments, where practitioners more readily improve:

  • Order and discipline: The setting has a safe environment where, for example, the rules are consistently applied and leaders support teachers to maintain an orderly environment
  • Peer collaboration: Practitioners are able to collaborate, working together to refine their practice and solve problems
  • Principal leadership: Leaders support their staff and address any concerns that they have
  • Professional development: The setting ensures that there is sufficient time and resources for professional development and that they are used wisely
  • School culture: The setting’s environment is characterised by mutual trust, respect, openness and commitment to pupil achievement
  • Teacher evaluation: Evaluation processes provide meaningful feedback that helps practitioners to get better.


This piece will now focus on four particular elements – namely peer collaboration, principal leadership, professional development and school culture – and consider how they can be achieved in Early Years settings and the role of the Early Years leader in this.

As Kraft and Papay (2014) highlight, the time and resources for professional development must be used in a way that enhances practitioners’ instructional abilities – for example, using coaching to improve interactions that develop children’s early communication and language. A systematic review of professional learning in Early Years settings conducted by Rogers et al. (2017) concluded that when research-based interventions that took children’s context into consideration were paired with a coaching approach to professional development, the largest impact was seen on children’s outcomes. In addition, they also noted that professional development programmes that included reflection (Rogers et al., 2017; Wadel and Knaben, 2021; Siraj-Blatchford and Manni, 2007), peer discussion and regular feedback on learning and performance were most effective at changing practice and improving outcomes.

Recommendation 2 of the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) ‘Effective professional development’ guidance report (Collin and Smith, 2021) emphasises that any planned professional development activity needs to adopt a balanced approach. It needs to incorporate opportunities to build knowledge, motivate staff, develop teaching techniques and embed practice; embedding practice is key to ensuring sustained improvements in practice. Two techniques that can be used to develop teaching techniques and embed practice are reflection and coaching. A practical example of reflection is provided by the EEF’s Kirstin Mulholland (2022): she suggests the use of a reflective journal, which enables practitioners to reflect on the professional development that they have received and then self-monitor how the professional development is changing their practice. For this to be possible, however, a culture of trust and the processes for peer collaboration must be in place.

Practitioners are unlikely to engage in honest reflective reviews without a culture of trust and opportunities for peer collaboration. When reflecting on problems that occur with introducing coaching approaches, Josh Goodrich (2021) notes that if the culture is not right, then coaching will never be as successful as the research suggests that it can be. As Bryk and Schneider (2002) note, this culture of trust, which needs to be created first and foremost by leaders and reinforced by all members of an educational organisation, provides a catalyst for effective change.

A culture of trust also creates the conditions needed for leaders to understand their context and what needs to improve within it, so that they can make sound decisions about the right evidence-based interventions for their setting. Leaders cannot effectively make these decisions in isolation; there needs to be open conversation (Robinson et al., 2009) and effective assessment of teaching and learning (Coe et al., 2014) to ensure that the information they are gathering is as reliable and valid as possible.

The attributes of relational trust are respect, competence, personal regard for others and integrity (Bryk and Schneider, 2002).  Early Years leaders can develop these attributes in their settings by:

  • being explicit about the values of the organisation
  • showing that they care about their staff’s personal circumstances and wellbeing
  • holding staff to account through effective appraisal processes
  • demonstrating that they have the knowledge necessary to develop the practice of the staff and perform their own role.


A culture underpinned by relational trust can be further developed by leaders using open communication approaches. Viviane Robinson et al. (2009) advocate an approach to holding conversations with practitioners that are based on and build trust. These ‘open to learning’ conversations are based on the idea that leaders put aside any bias or preconceived ideas about why a practitioner has behaved in the way that they have and genuinely listen to them, seeking to understand the beliefs that contribute to each individual’s actions or thoughts.

Once a culture of open communication has been established, Early Years leaders can then seek to establish effective processes for peer collaboration. In their review of Effective Leadership in the Early Years Sector, Siraj-Blatchford and Manni (2007) highlight the importance of the role of the leader and of peer collaboration: ‘Success depends upon the level of unrelenting commitment by the leader to promote a collaborative environment.’ (DuFour, 2004, in Siraj-Blatchford and Manni, 2007, p. 22)

What these processes for promoting peer collaboration will look like depends on the context of the setting. Vicky Starling, manager of Blue Coat Pre-School, a committee-led setting in Gloucestershire, provides the example of the use of a 15-minute morning ‘huddle’ and weekly staff meeting time. In the ‘huddle’, practitioners reflect on successes and areas for development in their practice from the previous day. This time is also used to retrieve knowledge from previous statutory training. This provides the leader with a low-stakes way of monitoring the knowledge gained from professional development and provides the staff with a trusting environment in which to develop their knowledge. Their weekly staff meeting time also allows practitioners to work together on reviewing their practice, the assessment of the children and collaboratively planning for upcoming sessions. Vicky has promoted a collaborative environment by intentionally maximising opportunities for her team to reflect on practice, develop and retrieve knowledge.

Kids Planet Day Nursery in Salford, Manchester, have been praised for their use of peer-to-peer coaching to share strong practice in their 2019 outstanding Ofsted inspection. This approach is underpinned by the organisation-wide vision, which recognises that critical to each nursery’s success is the quality of the staff that are employed, the skills that they develop and their performance. Training manager Gill Mason explains that the vision is achieved through seeing staff as the organisation’s most valuable asset and investing in each staff member’s professional development.

Of course, as important as it is to create a trusting culture where peer collaboration can happen, we cannot escape the fact that this alone will not ensure effective professional development. The final two enabling conditions are ensuring time for and the quality of the professional development in which staff are engaged.

Finding time for professional development in all its forms, be that coaching or engaging in evidence-informed knowledge development, is a particular challenge in Early Years settings. How leaders create time for professional development will depend on context, but some practical examples include a rota for regular release time, overstaffing so that this release time can be covered, leaders covering release time and practitioners being paid for attending courses outside of their work hours.

Sourcing appropriate evidence-informed professional development programmes that are appropriate for each context can also be challenging. The EEF’s ‘Effective professional development’ guidance report (Collin and Smith, 2021) suggests that leaders should resource from or check content against trusted brokers of evidence, such as the Chartered College, the Early Intervention Foundation and Deans for Impact.

We know that effective professional development is of the utmost importance in the Early Years sector. It has the power to close the disadvantage gap, improve outcomes for all pupils and motivate and retain valuable staff (DfE, 2021). For professional development to be effective, the following enabling conditions need to be in place:

  • a culture of trust
  • peer collaboration
  • effective leadership
  • access to high-quality, evidence-informed knowledge
  • the time to engage in professional development.


Early Years leaders have a considerable impact on these conditions. If they spend the time creating these conditions, then they, their staff and their pupils will be rewarded. Time, effort and money invested in a culture of trust and effective professional development lead to better practice, motivated staff and improved culture. These, in turn, make staff more willing to stay in their jobs and the job more attractive to those new to the profession. If we are to tackle the issues faced by the Early Years sector, leaders establishing these enabling conditions could make a real difference.

Recommendations for Early Years leaders

To effectively support their staff, Early Years leaders require their own professional development that is tailored to this unique and important role. This has been recognised by the Department for Education (2021) in the creation of the National Professional Qualification for Early Years Leadership (NPQEYL) and the subsequent roll-out of this programme from autumn 2022.

Supported by their own professional development, leaders should explore:

  • building a culture of trust
  • seeking to work with staff to understand the setting’s context and provide the correct evidence-based professional development for that context
  • facilitating peer collaboration
  • creating time for professional development.
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