Last reviewed 25 February 2021

Rebecca Fisk discusses what makes a good leader in the early years and encourages leaders and managers to make time for their own professional development.

“Good leaders have a clear and ambitious vision for providing high quality, inclusive care and education to all. This is realised through strong shared values, policies and practices.” (Ofsted 2019:40)

Leadership and management are words that are often used in the same breath, but it is important to make distinctions between the two. Leaders are required to have vision, understand strategic issues, facilitate change and transformation, and ultimately focus on the people in an organisation. Managers often have operational oversight of the processes, systems, and policies that work towards the strategic direction of the organisation. Managers are skilled at keeping all the plates spinning! It is inevitable that some early years provision is not large enough to have several senior roles, and one or two people carry the responsibility for all the leadership and management duties. Taking some time to analyse where your time is spent – on leading or on managing, might help enable a better balance.

Recognising staff as the greatest asset to provision

Strong leaders recognise that their staff are their greatest asset. It is key that all staff know what the organisation ‘stands for’ and where it is going for continuous improvement to take place. The quality of the provision, and hence the reputation of the provision in the community, and ultimately its sustainability, will depend on strong leadership.

Investing in high quality training and professional development for staff is key in progressing and maintaining quality early years provision. The Education Policy Institute (2019) reported that professional development opportunities are decreasing for early years practitioners nationally, including funded access to graduate training programmes. This is partly due to increased employment and business costs for providers, meaning that professional development may no longer be prioritised. In addition, many local authorities have also suffered decreasing budgets which restricts the amount and level of training available for the sector, beyond statutory requirements. A lack of more highly qualified staff and an aging workforce could lead to a loss of experience and competence across the sector. Low wages are a significant factor in the recruitment of well qualified staff nationally, and many providers report a struggle to employ staff of the calibre they require for leadership and management.

“Leaders ensure that they and practitioners receive focused and highly effective professional development. Practitioners’ subject, pedagogical content and knowledge consistently builds and develops over time, and this consistently translates into improvements in the teaching of the curriculum.” (Ofsted 2019) Oustanding criteria

Having belief in the staff’s abilities and harbouring an ethos where they are encouraged to give things a try, even if they do not work out straight away, can go a long way to supporting staff development and retaining staff over time. Ensuring you plan for the succession of staff, growing your own leaders and managers from within the organisation, and mentoring staff well to take on new learning can contribute to retaining younger staff.

Staff need leaders that promote and develop trust and good relationships both within and outside the organisation. Trust means that leaders have to let others do things. Staff need clear roles and responsibilities. Leaders need to be able to delegate as part of developing staff. Trust and encourage them to try things out and have their own ideas. Recognising that there may be several ways to a goal rather than just one way, can be a difficult lesson for leaders to learn. There must be effective supervision processes in place the support staff and ensure self-evaluation and reflect improvement of practice. Being able to inspire and motivate staff as well as support and appropriately discipline staff in line with procedures are all part of a leader’s responsibilities. Leaders will need to work especially closely with managers, listening to feedback from practice, being open-minded about what works best and encouraging them to develop their own leadership skills too.

Educational approach and pedagogical leadership

Pedagogy is defined as the method and practice of teaching. A good leader will communicate the educational pedagogy of the provision. For example, a Montessori provision may have a different pedagogical approach to a Forest school provision. Leaders will have a clear understanding of what good teaching and learning looks like for different ages and stages of child development. For example, the importance of relationships between staff and children in building social connections and developing young children’s brains. They will be confident in and able to communicate their rationale for their educational approach to staff, parents and the community, and guide staff to a deeper understanding of how this relates to practice. Leaders will understand what has an impact on children’s learning, care and development and know how to improve their outcomes, based on evidence. Leaders will be able to communicate this vision to managers who can put the requirements into operation of a day-to-day basis.

Organisational leadership

Organisations have lost of ‘cogs’ keeping them turning. Leaders will have a strategic overview of how the organisation works and different parts relate to each other, such as financial systems and personnel, or marketing and sustainability. A leader does not need to be an expert in the different component parts, but to be able to recognise when expertise is needed, use that expertise wisely, and maintain an overview. Belonging to national organisations and keeping abreast of early years sector developments will inform compliance with employment law, update knowledge regularly and build leadership confidence. Leaders also need support, and making time to keep up with the changes and developments in the sector through continuing professional development is important.

Communication and clarity

Clarity and communication are central to strong leadership and management. Leaders will have an intended direction of travel for their organisation and are much more likely to enable this to take place if they co-construct this with their staff and customers. By facilitating others to become involved in developing the vision for the provision, then leaders support co-ownership of that vision. Children and parents are central to the business of childcare and education, so why not make them central to developing the ethos and values of the setting too? A strong ethos, knowing what your purpose is, and a clear rationale for these will help share the message with all who come into contact with the provision.

Managers are often the person ‘on the ground’ that staff and parents go to if there are any issues, including workload difficulties or for support with children and parents. They need to be approachable and friendly, open to feedback and able to handle difficult conversations. This equally applies to leaders. Their communication skills are essential in sorting out any problems, liaising with a wide range of people, suppliers, and external organisations. Leaders need to be able to communicate well to children too. Children are the business of the early years sector, so having an excellent understanding of child development, teaching and learning, and how to include all children to make progress is crucial to leading provision.


Leaders and managers in the early years sector are often the same people in a small business. However, distinguishing between the different roles is a useful exercise and can focus areas for development. Using the Ofsted guidance (2019) to unpick how the leadership and management of the provision will be assessed is a useful starting place. Safeguarding and statutory duties will always be the priority, and once these are all in place, then the challenge and adventure of leading provision can really begin. Developing a shared ethos, knowing the community, building relationships and developing staff are all part of this adventure. Deepening professional knowledge, transforming policy into practice and motivating others comes with the leadership territory. Drawing on the skills of managers and staff, leading a setting to thrive with happy and settled children is a joy.

References and Further Reading