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Fostering leaders in the Early Years: The urgent need for problem-focused leadership development through a social leadership lens

Written by: Polly Crowther and Mona Sakr
9 min read
Polly Crowther, Co-Founder, Early Insights; Evidence Leader in Education, East London Research School, UK
Mona Sakr, Senior Lecturer, Early Childhood, Middlesex University, UK

Financially precarious, under-valued and staffed by a workforce in crisis, the Early Years sector in the UK is fraught with complex challenges. It faces the intense post-pandemic needs of children and families and new statutory frameworks. International research shows that high-quality leadership can enable Early Years settings to meet these challenges (Douglass, 2019). In the UK, though, there is a severe lack of professional development in the sector. Workforce surveys show remarkably few leadership development opportunities (Ceeda, 2019). Those leading day to day are often accidental or reluctant leaders, without a clear vision of their leadership identities and practice (Coleman et al., 2016). School leaders may oversee hundreds of Early Years children without experience or expertise in the phase. What can the sector do to meet the urgent need for leadership development? We make the case for a grassroots, problem-focused approach to leadership development in the Early Years, cultivated through a social leadership lens.

The problems

In 2021, leaders in the Early Years face a web of adaptive problems, challenges for which there is no known solution (Heifetz, 1999).

Operationally, many settings are in precarious circumstances. Finances are tighter, with increased costs (PPE and cleaning) and income reduced by closures. An Early Years Alliance survey reported in 2020 that 25 per cent of settings at risk of closure within the year (Lawler, 2020). ‘Free’ hours for children aged two and three years have come at a cost, as subsidies fall short of expenditure (Ceeda, 2019). A 2019 Select Committee accused the ‘free hours’ policy of ‘entrenching disadvantage’ since private nurseries avoid setting up business in areas of disadvantage due to the potential for financial loss (House of Commons, 2019). Those children and families who most need high-quality Early Years provision are not receiving it.

This is compounded by the social turbulence of the pandemic. For young children, play and interaction are crucial for development, and reduced access to play space and extended family are as serious as nursery closures (Dowd and Thomsen, 2021). Emerging research suggests that wellbeing, communication and language are most affected during the pandemic (Bowyer-Crane et al., 2021), as are children from lower socio-economic backgrounds (Weidmann et al., 2021). The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that ‘income inequality is likely to be pushed up’ (Blundell et al., 2021, p. 3). This is on top of an attainment gap that had already grown pre-pandemic (Hutchinson et al., 2019). Longitudinal research demonstrates that the Early Years has a unique role in addressing social mobility but only when high-quality provision is established (Sammons et al., 2015).

The sector is also getting to grips with new Early Learning Goals, competing versions of accompanying guidance and the compulsory baseline (for example, see DfE, 2021). These new frameworks are pushing many settings to reflect on current practice at a time when resources are severely stretched. Heated ideological debates about the latest developments make for a tense atmosphere across the sector. It is daunting for leaders to take a stand in such contested space.

Current leadership development in the Early Years does little to meaningfully address these systemic, social and operational challenges. In school contexts, there are no NPQs (National Professional Qualifications) for Early Years professionals. In private and voluntary initiatives (PVIs), the problem is much graver. Most nursery managers hold a Level 3 Early Years Educator certificate – a qualification that has no specific time set aside for leadership development – and operate without a leadership development budget. Leaders find most training focused on operational skills, rather than the combination of strategic, pedagogical and social leadership required. Headteachers may not have experience or training in leading the Early Years. Private professional development to support pedagogical leadership is embroiled in arguments (across traditionalist vs progressive methodologies or PVI/local authority divide), making it difficult to identify quality. Some generalist leadership development incorporates the Early Years, and some training in the sector incorporates leadership. But the sector clearly lags behind primary and secondary education.

Leadership matters

Leadership matters for high-quality practice and outcomes. Improvements in leadership positively influence the working environment, staff motivation, professional development across all staff and the sense of shared vision (Strehmel, 2016). These factors in turn influence the quality of professionals’ interactions with children and families day to day and improve children’s outcomes. This model is supported by numerous studies on the ground, where an explicit focus on reflective leadership development has been shown to transform organisational climate, leading to improvements in process quality (Gittel, 2016; Arbour et al., 2016).

Leadership matters not just for improvements to quality within settings, but also for addressing the systemic issues of the entire Early Years sector. Definitions of leadership in the Early Years have embraced advocacy (Woodrow and Busch, 2008), suggesting that the real need across the sector is not just pedagogical and organisational leadership, but confident community leadership and mobilisation. Early Years leaders can heal a fragmented sector by building effective partnerships that cut across traditional divides, and they can build advocacy networks to challenge current policy realities and think up viable alternatives.

A social leadership lens

It is essential to develop an Early Years -specific model of leadership in order to embrace everything that is special about working in the sector, including the interconnectedness of social work, education and healthcare, and the close relationships with families and the wider community. Social leadership (O’Sullivan and Sakr, forthcoming) has been developed to fulfil that need. Social leadership in the Early Years involves leading with a social purpose to create an organisational culture and pedagogical approach that fosters a fairer society for children and families, framed within economic, social and environmental sustainability and impact. The model offers a way for leaders to develop the day-to-day quality provision that makes a difference to children and families and to simultaneously build the vision, resources and community needed to solve systemic problems that reach far beyond the walls of their own setting. Based on interviews with Early Years leaders around the world, and a particular focus on the social enterprise model of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) (O’Sullivan and Sakr, forthcoming), the model offers five elements that help to structure leadership development. These are the ‘drivers’ through which social leaders can generate social and pedagogical impact:

  • Leading with a social purpose involves having a clear and powerful vision of how the Early Years contributes to a better, fairer society
  • Implementing a social pedagogy is necessary in order to do the day-to-day work of addressing inequalities
  • Creating a culture of collaborative innovation sits at the heart of effective organisational culture – through collaboration, we improve the quality of provision but also build healing and supportive partnerships across the sector
  • Investing in others’ leadership involves giving time and energy to cultivating the leadership of others, to create a stronger, more sustainable sector
  • Facilitating powerful conversations directs attention to enhancing quality through pedagogical conversations, coaching conversations and reflective professional conversations.

Problem-focused leadership development

How can we empower the Early Years to develop social leadership? We must look beyond the current leadership orthodoxy to carve out a methodology that works in the disparate, complex sector.

Problem-focused leadership development is increasingly popular in fields where ‘wicked problems’ require adaptive leadership that allows for iteration, collaboration and driving real change (Heifetz, 1999; Rittel and Weber, 1973). The Education Endowment Foundation (2018) employs problem-focused approaches in its implementation guidance. This encourages leaders to spend as much time understanding challenges as identifying interventions. The approach has been employed not only in school leadership (Ambition Institute: Barker and Rees, 2020) but also in international development (Harvard Centre for International Development: Andrews et al., 2015). The latter provides an interesting comparison. It is effective in contexts that cannot rely on top-down programmes and encourages grassroots, multi-sector collaborative leadership development of social leadership. If leaders can define their local problems, they will be well-equipped to articulate social purpose.

The methods developed at Harvard are promising for social leadership in the Early Years. Andrews et al.’s (2015) articulation prioritises knowledge and work on the ground, helpful for developing contextualised social pedagogies. They argue that collaboration is critical and that we must avoid the ‘hero orthodoxy’ of individual change-makers in favour of distributed, networked authority-building. It provides for scaling of solutions through influence and diffusion. These approaches align with social leadership’s focus on collaboration and rebuttal of ‘hero’ models of leadership. It allows leaders to consider not how they raise their own voice to become influential, but how to leverage the real power of collective purpose (Gunter, 2016).


The need for improved leadership development in early childhood education could not be clearer. It is essential if we are to improve outcomes for our youngest learners and ensure the sustainability of a sector on the brink. We argue that specialist leadership models and development approaches are required to drive the sector forward: a simple translation of existing professional development in education equates to employing the same hammer for driving a nail and drilling a hole (Andrews et al., 2015). Social leadership is a model developed in collaboration with and for the Early Years sector, drawing on global best practice. It is focused on developing leaders who can sustain the sector, not just their own institutions. For the ‘wicked problems’ that we face, there can be no simple direct instruction, for there are no direct solutions. Problem-focused leadership development opportunities allow Early Years leaders to contextualise social leadership for their setting and community.


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