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Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

Towards a new understanding of leadership in early childhood education and care

Lewis Fogarty, Lecturer at Brunel University

The aspiration for a transformed early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector, providing vital development for children before school in England, characterised by effective leadership and professional confidence is long-standing. This objective has found support in academic literature, exemplified by Simpson (2011), advocating for collaborative professional practices that can enhance the quality of ECEC. It has also been championed anecdotally by groups such as TACTYC (Together and committed to young children) in England and PEMI (Professional Educators and Managers Ireland) in the Republic of Ireland, who promote collaboration and professional development within the ECEC sector. In this blog post, I offer an alternative perspective on leadership in ECEC, rooted in my doctoral research, and present strategies to incorporate these findings into your practice, with the aim of contributing to a positive transformation within the sector.

My doctoral research encompassed two phases of interviews with 15 individuals working across diverse ECEC provisions, from home-based educators to maintained nursery schools, spanning various roles from nursery owner and headteacher to apprentice. This participatory research allowed me to gain insights into the nuances of ECEC’s purpose, the challenges faced by leaders, and the attributes of good leadership. The participants in my research identified good leadership as having personal qualities such as empathy, open-mindedness and a solution-oriented approach. Effective leaders consistently draw upon up-to-date knowledge to navigate conflicts and meet the needs of all stakeholders. They actively promote professional confidence and support contextually relevant development.

‘The participants in my research identified good leadership as having personal qualities such as empathy, open-mindedness and a solution-oriented approach.’

Professional confidence is understood as the awareness of injustices and ambiguities within the sector and the active pursuit of change through thoughtful advocacy and collective action. This aligns with the insights of Sakr and O’Sullivan (2022) who highlight the importance of leadership that acknowledges the context but does not allow it to dominate. Palaiologou and Male (2018) argue that this awareness can lead to indigenous constructs of leadership in ECEC.

The question remains, how can this new vision for ECEC become a reality? This blog post offers four key pathways:

  1. Promoting Clear Communication: Encouraging meaningful dialogue is pivotal. I refer to this as your ‘tennis’ game – the aim of this game of tennis though is to keep the ball in play. Consider how well you and the people you talk to ‘return’ the ball and keep the game (conversation) flowing. The more we can keep the ball in play and go deeper into conversations the more professional dialogue can be had, and the clearer the communication will be.
  2. Investing in Reassuring Relationships: Strong and reassuring relationships are crucial for navigating difficult conversations. Relationships underpin the ECEC culture and shape your interactions with others. Actions speak louder than words, and how you make people feel can determine the strength of your relationships.
  3. Embracing Discomfort: Growth often emerges from uncomfortable conversations, as highlighted by Scott (2018). This requires striking a balance between challenging directly and caring personally about team members.
  4. Building a Strong Relationship with Yourself: Self-reflection plays a crucial role in your leadership journey. Evaluate the way you talk to yourself internally and consider if you would befriend someone who speaks to you in the same manner. Moreover, assess the impact of those you allow into your life. Are they helping you move forward or holding you back?

In conclusion, by focusing on improved communication, nurturing strong relationships, embracing discomfort, and fostering a positive self-relationship, ECEC can overcome its leadership challenges. This approach can help balance the needs of all stakeholders, emphasise leadership as a collective responsibility, and address ongoing challenges such as those posed by Covid-19. By doing so, ECEC can strengthen its sense of unity and nurture a brighter future for both children and the workforce.

Lewis Fogarty received the BERA Annual Conference 2023 – Early Childhood Education and Care SIG Best Presentation Award for the paper ‘A New Understanding of Leadership in Early Years’.


Palaiologou, I., & Male, T. (2018). Leadership in early childhood education: The case for pedagogical praxis. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 20(1), 23–34.

Sakr, M., & O’Sullivan, J. (2022). Dialogical conceptualisations of leadership in a social enterprise early years group. Early Years, 43(4–5), 938–951.

Scott, K. (2018). Radical candor: How to get what you want by saying what you mean. Macmillan.

Simpson, D. (2011). Reform, inequalities of process and the transformative potential of communities of practice in the pre-school sector of England. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 32(5), 699–716.