It’s difficult to over-estimate the importance of your start in life in how you thrive in the long term. More and more research shows us that early years learning and experiences shape our lives. June O’Sullivan, MBE and CEO of London Early Years Foundation has made it her lifetime legacy to try to improve that early experience for many children in the most deprived communities in London with the worst start. Her mission: to try to even out the life chances of those who are unlucky enough to be born without the best of starts. In this candid interview about her hopes she shares how inspired she has been by the Victorian philanthropists, how she created a model of community inclusion and what government and business need to do next for families.
Early Years Learning Highlights
On the Victorian philanthropists: “People such as Joseph Rowntree, Peabody and Shaftesbury and the like demonstrated deep knowledge about looking after employees, creating what we would call today ‘family flexible offers’. They supported families, and gave safe childcare to people. Sadly there are more similarities than differences between our challenges in childcare today compared to that era. The similarities are around food; it’s just that today we face a challenge around obesity and consumption of poor quality food rather than too little. They’re also around understanding the experience of being a child. Leading Victorian thinkers like Macmillain were people who introduced outdoor play and schools in 1860 – they understood the idea that childhood is an idea in itself, about being a child, not being a school statistic rushed from one stage to another, which we haven’t appeared to have learned. ”
On Business & Childcare: “It would appear that less and less businesses are family flexible. We’re seeing huge change in the workplace which is putting pressure on children’s early years experience. People don’t have same job for life, for 60% of jobs coming through we have only 20% of skills needed, it’s a tougher time for people. It’s important that we work together with businesses to ensure they can be profitable, but that they recognise that children at 2 are their future employees, their parents are more productive when not worried about childcare, and that there is a vested interest for them in helping families through difficult times. ”
On community inclusiveness: “Inclusiveness in society starts with small children. We make sure all the children are taken out on trips all the time, local art galleries, so that there is never any fear of being outside and engaging with the whole community. We have a multi-cultural and multi-generational approach, visiting streets where there are a high level of older people to say hello, having teenagers to volunteer who often turn into permanent staff. You can do this across your board and your volunteer network.
On government finance:”It’s very difficult to create a quality nursery experience without support from government. You need at least £7 per hour from a government contract for a child in need and currently we get between £3.22 and £4.50. We are filling the gap. Small nurseries can’t afford to offer free places. This where the poverty gap appears.
On the effects of the poverty gap on children: “For a child who is starting off with significant advantage, the poverty gap used to show up at 22 months – it’s now much earlier. We are measuring it to see whether what we do has an impact. It shows up in language, physical development and social skills. If parents are struggling to provide the basics on Maslow’s hierarchy, you can’t expect them to be worrying about doing a creative exercise with their children. They want to see them fed, warm and clothed first. We try to give parents cognitive, financial, and emotional space to deal with those challenges while we provide a rich learning experience for their children.”
Finding a Business Model that Works
It’s clear that June O’Sullivan is not just a social visionary, she’s also a highly competent business woman. With an MBA from London Southbank University, she’s a fan of Joseph Schumpter and Sir Peter Drucker, and has worked extremely hard to bring clear business strategy to LEYF’s development. Highlights of her strategy:-
- Converting the business model to a social enterprise as a way of reducing reliance on philanthropy or grants. She worked with the University of Middlesex on a knowledge transfer partnership to check if LEYF could grow through franchise model which in the end was rejected in favour of acquisition. “In the end the model of franchise wouldn’t work, the very nurseries I wanted were poor, outliers, run by a board of trustees as part of local charity or parents, weren’t going to able to afford the costs of quality structure that would secure our reputation. So we decided we would acquire. Target nurseries in need, affluent where we could charge a fair rate, that way I could secure places for children who couldn’t pay – then when government offered ‘free’ places, we were able to create more and more where there was no provision. Then we would secure failing nurseries where no-one had invested in them. “
- Investing in brand and marketing: “my role is supporting my marketing team through public speaking in particular. We invested a lot in developing a proper coherent brand“.
- Creating Collaborations: with the Social Business Trust who provided both expertise and finance in the form of a 10 week team from global experts Bain & Co who stress-tested the business model, looking at the simplicity and complexity of the model and also financing a full time business development role.
“We were able to shape a business model that would not just change how we developed LEYF but would change how we created opportunities for children of the poor. We aim to change the way we are doing childcare. That’s my life’s work.”
Top Tips for Aspiring Social Entrepreneurs
Know your Business & Be Best in Class: Build a strong board:get a board that understand you and can hold you to account and get you to reflect. One that asks you the challenging questions but also supports you but makes you feel not alone.
Understand your own Leadership style: understand what your responsibilities are in regard to leading and managing your own business. Be clear on what it means to you and what it looks like in your business. How does your leadership support your whole business?
Understand the broader context and stay connected: if you fail to see the external world you are in trouble. Look inside and outside and be alert to the nuances and shifting changes. Keep an eye on the outside world. Know stuff around policy, stay in touch with ministers, know other people in your sector. “I have learned so much from other people in the most casual of conversations, tea, drink after work. Having random phone calls. The most opportunitistic and serendipitous arrangements. Synergy, connection and shared opportunities emerge this way.”