There are 82 children’s centres in Hertfordshire, organised into 29 groups, serving a total under-fives population of 76,560, of whom, over 14% live in poverty compared to 20.7% of under-fives nationally. Children’s centres are complicated places delivering a wide variety of services in partnership with other agencies for families who often have complex needs. They are innately complex and systemic sites of practice.
In 2014, Megan Wilcox, from Herts for Learning, who is responsible for the professional development of children’s centre staff in Hertfordshire, decided to fund support for these leaders. She commissioned me to design and deliver a 9 day leadership development programme, ‘Future Leaders’, with 24 heads of children’s centres from across Hertfordshire.
We planned the programme using system leadership and distributed leadership as central concepts, bolstered with an associated wide set of tools and skills. We collected data and wrote a case study because we were interested in how effective the programme was, and because we wanted to raise the profile of leadership in children’s centres.
Literature on work in children’s services documented the difficulties of working in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous context but did little to support the practical daily actions of leaders working in this space. System and distributed leadership were well documented conceptual forms of leadership, but mostly written about from a school perspective. We wanted to see how well these translated into children’s centres, and so a project was born. The programme was a combination of theoretical inputs, discussion of practice, analysis of practice in the light of theory and theory in the light of practice, reflection and practical activities.
20 of the 24 leaders completed a pre and post needs analysis against seven different aspects of leadership. Despite the leaders’ very high initial scores of 71% - 76%, there were positive gains across all seven areas of leadership for the group. The increases ranged between 8% and 12% with a mean 10% increase. This is a striking increase in leadership skill in a group already performing at a high level, demonstrating that the action research approach and practical tools did support leadership development.
The leaders all thought that the outcomes had been met and rated the course content highly for relevance, appropriateness, quality and pace. It would seem that taking a needs led approach was a key factor in the success of the programme.
The leaders commented they had learned from the combination of theory and practice. For example when asked what helped them to learn leaders said:
· Linking theory to practice deepening my knowledge of system leadership.
To some extent the process of being away from work also created learning for them, as did networking with other colleagues:
· Time to come away from the centre and revisit or learn new ideas
· The input and support from the group has been brilliant and enhanced my learning greatly.
The tools and models that we used were cited as particularly useful:
· I felt very positive about having new tools and models to refer to
· The tools you are sharing with us and the opportunities you are providing for us have given some of us our positivity back
Providing underpinning skills was vitally important to the successful enactment of system and distributed leadership. As indeed was good quality facilitation of learning and development:
· Facilitator was great, interesting, thought provoking, inspirational - content bang on!
A further unexpected outcome from the programme was the validation that the heads of centres reported as a result of the programme:
· I appreciate how hard you both worked to make it work for us all but mostly I wanted to say thank you for validating us.
Finally, a cost benefit analysis showed that there was a 6.6:1 cost benefit ratio or £6.60 of cost benefit for every £1 invested.
We sincerely hope that:
· Leadership in children’s centres gains more attention as a niche area of leadership nationally and internationally.
· Models used in other settings are transferred and tested out in children’s centres in the UK and elsewhere.
· System and distributed leadership concepts are underpinned with practical tools and techniques of leadership and management.
· High levels of facilitation and an action inquiry approach are used to deliver programmes to staff working in complex contexts such as children’s centres.
I was really struck by some key concepts at the wellbeing festival and how they resonated with my experience of delivering this programme:
· Respect and value: respecting one another was a key theme in many of the conference workshops, and was inherent in the festival itself. This resonated with the needs of the leaders of children’s centres to feel respect from the Local Authority, partners and other agencies in the children’s workforce.
· Love: I was really struck by the common occurrence of love as a theme in plenaries and workshops. This made me consider how the leaders of children’s centres gave out love consistently to staff and families and were in need of getting some back.
· Burn out: the festival sessions on managing the wellbeing of people who support the wellbeing of others really resonated. Thee leaders were working in complex situations needed their wellbeing supporting if they were to survive their demanding lives.
· Connection: connection within and across organisations, across agendas and nations was championed at the festival. Connecting isolated heads of centres in a supportive learning process really helped them to reconnect.
· Sustainability: one of the festival themes: man cannot live on air alone, and children’s centre leadership cannot be sustained without support. We are delighted to be able to now run a second cohort of the Future Leaders programme for deputy heads of services.
You can find the link to this and all submitted papers here at the Leading Wellbeing website, or via the IFLAS Research page here
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