How Nurseries Tackle the Injustice of Poverty: June O’Sullivan (Transcript)

June O’Sullivan MBE is Chief Executive of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), a social enterprise which currently runs 37 nurseries across eleven London boroughs. In this TEDx Talk, she explains why our childcare system must work for all children, regardless of their backgrounds, in order to give them the best start in life.

June O’Sullivan – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

I’m going to tell you about Freddie and Tyler. They’re two little boys setting off on their life journey. They’re mischievous. They’re curious. They’re funny. And they’re quite fascinating, and they’re two.

And they’re both loved by their parents, and they’re both marvelous little two-year-olds. But there’s one stark difference between Freddie and Tyler:

Tyler is growing up in poverty. And that is going to set him up with some major challenges for probably most of his life.

So what is poverty? And what does that look like in the UK, the fifth richest economy?

This is what it looks like: There are 14 million people living in poverty. 8.4 million are working-aged adults. 1.4 million are pensioners. And 4.5 million are children. That’s one in four children.

And what’s worse is 50% of that are under five.

And here’s an even more stark statistic: of those people, 70% of those in poverty are working. And it’s not getting any better because poverty actually affects us all. It’s a complete social calamity, but it’s also an economic disaster.

Last year, a rough estimate was we spent 12 billion pounds mitigating the social and educational consequences of poverty. And even worse is that the Institute of Fiscal Study says child poverty is growing, and by 2022, 5.2 million children will be living in poverty.

Nelson Mandela says that there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than in the way in which it treats its children.

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So, what does poverty mean for a child?

Young children need a healthy development. It depends on nurturing care, care which ensures health, nutrition, responsive caregiving, safety, security, and early learning.

And indeed, many people living in poverty do a very good job. In fact, they do a brilliant job. But they generally have a lot of support around them.

But it becomes very difficult if you have no social support, and it’s harder to nurture your children. And we know from pregnancy to every stage of the life cycle, children born into poverty have got higher health issues, they’re more likely to have asthma, higher chances of child obesity, and they don’t do very well at school.

And that starts very early, and that starts with their language development.

And as you know, language is critical to the long-term educational success. So, the impact of language gap on children from disadvantaged family starts at 22 months.

So at 22 months, the language gap is about eight months. At three years, up to 30 million fewer words are heard by children from poorer families. That’s 30 million.

By seven, the cognitive development scores are on average 20% lower. And reaching GCSE, you might find they are two years behind. But poverty isn’t created by poor people; it’s created by the system we have built, the institutions we have designed, and the concepts we have formulated.

We need to address poverty. We need to accept that poverty is a scourge. It is a trap. And it separates children, and it separates them early.

I remember when I was a young single parent and I was a night nurse and my son was two. And we’d waited 18 months for a nursery place. When he finally got one, the whole experience failed.

My overriding memory was of a very disregarding and disrespectful nursery manager. Now, it’s true I was poor, and I was poorer than most of the parents there.

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But when I questioned what I thought were insensitive and unkind settling-in processes, she looked at me and said, “You are lucky to have this place. I could have given that to a doctor.”

I didn’t stay long. It’s true.

But in fact, it did set something off in my mind. I kept thinking there must be another way of doing childcare, where no one knows whether you’re rich or poor, no one knows where you hail from. It set a seed, and it set me on a journey to becoming a social entrepreneur.

Now, this is not unusual because social entrepreneurs generally come from a background where you want to fix something: something has gone wrong for your family, something has gone wrong for you.

And social entrepreneurs, we sort of have a continual, unshakable optimism that we can fix things.

So what did we want to do?

I thought, “Well, there must be a better way of doing childcare. There must be another way of doing it.”

So I had a look and thought, “I want to create a system where you can change the world one child at a time.”

And so I looked at the marketplace. And the market in childcare is quite broad. You have, on one side, the sort of statutory services that tend to work with the neediest and more defined groups of needy children.

And on the other hand, you have these kind of smartly branded expensive nurseries. And in the middle, you have kind of a whole mix of one- and two-sized nurseries, single nurseries, little preschool. They are often called Mamas & Papas nurseries.

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