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.
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.
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.
But I just thought, “There must be a way of doing something else. There must be room for a social enterprise. There must be room for a model where prime ministers and cleaners want to come because you are so good, you are so good at what you do, and nobody knows who pays, who doesn’t pay, nobody knows where you hail from.”
So the result was the London Early Years Foundation, a group of social enterprise nurseries, best-in-class, high-quality childcare, social value at its core. But of course a business model isn’t enough, is it?
I had to have a system, a fee system, where the children could be funded. And I wanted to do it so maybe 40%, annually, we could support. I did not want poor children saddled with the poorest quality childcare, because we know what happens is – it’s a double disadvantage for them.
We know that if you have childcare, it has to be really good quality, and we know that if it’s going to be good quality, then that will make the difference. But actually, the research says, continually, that children from the poorest families are not accessing the best quality nurseries. So I wanted to change that.
Now, to have a fee structure and a business model is all very well, but then you definitely need a pedagogy, a means by which you’re going to educate those children, something that’s going to bring them forward.
So I created a seven-dimension pedagogy, sort of rooted-in excellence and culture alignment but also with the child right there at the center.
And so what does it look like?
Well, it’s all about language. Everything we do is all about language. The language gap is a trap. And you have to attack it. And you have to attack it early.
We know that children who have limited vocabulary and poor management of grammar are less able to articulate an argument and to analyze abstract ideas. Our entire education is based on that.
So I wanted to do something where we were all about the spoken language. Everything would enrich those children’s languages.
So what do you do?
You find the child’s spark, and you ignite it. And so we did, with drama and stories and singing and science experiments, maths – everything you can possibly think of, including filmmaking and drag queen storytime.
We also know that reading floats on a sea of talk. So we discovered a means of teaching the children to read called dialogic reading, which is how you build children’s reading skills through vocabulary and make them the storyteller. And it’s also proven to work particularly well for children who come from disadvantaged families.
Our children have access to cultural experiences. We take them to museums, to art galleries, to libraries, but also to the market and the local places of interest.
Tyler loves the bus. He loves the 507 bus, which takes him over Lambeth bridge, past Lambeth Palace – so he can be the archbishop – and on to the park. Sometimes we get out and plant the bulbs in the park, sometimes we go to the market and buy some fancy cakes, and sometimes we just go for the ride.
We serve those children the best food, so much so that we have now created a chef academy and a chef qualification so those children have the finest foods. Our children do yoga, gardening, swimming. We work with other social enterprises like Bikeworks so every child has a bike.
And what we’re trying to do now is set up a bike scheme across London to loan bikes to people. Our relationship with parents is through our home learning, and we use conversation, pedagogical conversation, a most natural way to build trust and harmony with a parent – to talk about your child’s interest and look at how you bridge that learning.
Mum has discovered that Tyler loves red. So we’ve been to the hardware shop, we got all the paint cards, and we’re learning a whole range of colors of red, expanding their vocabulary from maroon to puce and beyond.
Our nurseries are multi-generational. We invite people in, older people. We also invite students in, some at risk of exclusion. They are warmed by the welcome they get from the children. And for some, the children teach them to play.
And what about our profits?
Our profits are all about continuous improvement for the setting, so we’re always going to be high quality.
And where are we now, 10 years on?
38 LEYF nurseries, 4,600 children a year, 720 staff, 60 apprentices. Our nurseries are all good and outstanding. In fact, 61% of them are outstanding. I’m particularly proud of that because the national statistics is 22%. And we subsidized 38% of our places last year.
And what about Tyler?
Tyler is doing grand. He’s really catching up with Freddie. Tyler’s mom has discovered that they both like singing: strengthening their bond, expanding their vocabulary, and developing his listening skills.
He’s also loving storytime, especially if it’s about red buses. But that’s good for Tyler. Tyler is going to be OK.
But what about all the other Tylers? What about the one in four children living in poverty? Is that fair that they should bear the brunt of our failings and our failing policies?
Child poverty touches everybody. There is no escape from it. Ignorance is the enemy. We can’t hide. We know that childcare and education is the most powerful lever for success. So we should be all pulling really hard on that lever.
What we need is a society where every child matters and where childcare and education is available to every child no matter what their background.