Research shows that high quality professional development experiences are essential for improving practice in the early years. Professional development matters because it impacts positively on staff motivation and retention, and when it is well thought out and delivered, it can directly improve the outcomes of children (Rogers et al., 2017).

But while we know that professional development is important, early years settings often lack the budget they would like when it comes to developing staff. Data from surveys in the UK for example repeatedly show that professional development budgets are small and often used purely for fulfilling non-negotiable training requirements, such as first aid or safeguarding training (e.g. Ceeda, 2019).

So what can leaders do to demonstrate their commitment to quality professional development opportunities for their staff when budgets are severely limited? This article presents four steps that innovative leaders take to support professional development when money is tight.

 Investing in job-embedded professional development

First, we need to flip the way that we think about professional development so that it is more associated with what happens in the everyday environment of the setting, and less about ‘special days out’. This is because effective professional development depends on day-to-day practice and coaching (Rogers et al., 2017). Even if a staff member goes to a professional development workshop hosted outside of their day-to-day work, it is fundamental that they are coached to bring their learning back into the setting. This is called ‘job-embedded professional development’ (JEPD).

The research on JEPD shows that it has a huge potential to make a difference to practice. A powerful pedagogical conversation that a staff member has while they are ‘on the floor’ with children can change the way that they approach what they do. For example, in the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), managers and room leaders will ask teachers and teaching assistants to explain how an area of practice that they have set up in the room (e.g. a writing table) demonstrates the LEYF pedagogy in action. These conversations are professional development. They are effective because they not only challenge the individual staff member to think about what they are doing more consciously, but they also further the strategic aims of the whole setting. In this case, they promote and embed the LEYF pedagogy in a way that external or one-off training never could achieve.

While research on JEPD suggests that it has huge potential, the same research also shows us that investing time in establishing systems of JEPD is vital. JEPD doesn’t work unless there are a) people who are ready, willing and able to have these kinds of conversations and b) time for the conversations to emerge and develop. Leaders at all levels therefore play a fundamental role in making JEPD work, through developing their own practice so that they can make the conversations happen and are able to prioritise them in the context of the everyday environment.

Creating a coaching culture

Innovative and agile leaders seek to embed a coaching culture within the organisation. A coaching culture is one in which everyone expects to make progress personally and professionally through the support of others. You might have heard the business saying ‘If you’re not growing, you’re dying’ and we can apply it here to professional development. If staff feel that they are not supported to get better at their work and follow their interests, they are unlikely to want to stay in that organisation. If we accept this, then coaching becomes essential.

Principles of coaching can be embedded in small and big interactions. Take for example leadership of a team meeting. This is the kind of experience that we can approach differently if we look at it through a coaching lens.

Nadine, a Baby Room Leader in Scallywags Nursery in Scotland, explained that when she wanted to see more time spent by the 0-2-year-olds in the outdoor space, she approached this through open questions in the team meeting. “What do we think about how we’re using the outdoors at the moment?” Asking this question raised a range of issues and potential barriers to using the outdoor space, as well as ideas about how this could be overcome and what solutions the team wanted to try. This is a coaching approach because everyone has the opportunity to identify and solve problems.

Asking others to lead

Let us stay with the discussion about the outdoor space in the team meeting. In the context of the dialogue and the ideas that emerged from it, Nadine wondered whether there was an opportunity for others in the group to take the lead in designing, implementing and assessing change.

Asking others to lead a change process, small or big, is an excellent form of professional development. In LEYF, they call this ‘action research’ while at Indigo Childcare in Glasgow, they talk about it as ‘the ideas process’. It doesn’t really matter what you call it – the point is finding opportunities for staff at all levels in the organisation to step up and make meaningful change.

Use the label ‘professional development’

In order for professional development to impact positively on staff motivation and retention, everyone needs to know that they are experiencing professional development. It is important to label ‘professional development’, particularly when it might appear different to what staff were expecting.

If a staff member decides to take on a particular pedagogical responsibility, flag that this is professional development. If they receive coaching and support to make this responsibility work, explain that this is part of the professional development package. Leaders might say something like “I would love you to take responsibility for that – it would be fantastic for your professional development” or “I think this conversation has been really important for your professional development. Do you feel the same?”.


Rogers, S., Brown, C. & Poblete, X. (2018) A systematic review of the evidence base for professional learning in early years education (the PLEYE review). London: Nuffield Foundation. Accessed 07.03.2022: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10053553/1/Rogers_PLEYE_A%20SYSTEMATIC%20REVIEW%20OF%20THE%20EVIDENCE_Nuffield.pdf 

Ceeda (2019) About Early Years Workforce Report, 2019. Accessed 07.03.2022: https://www.eymatters.co.uk/ceeda-about-early-years-workforce-report-2019/ 

About the author:

Dr Mona Sakr is Senior Lecturer in Education and Early Childhood. As a researcher in Early Years (EY) provision, she has published extensively on creative, digital and playful pedagogies including the books ‘Digital Play in Early Childhood: What’s the Problem?’ (Sage) and ‘Creativity and Making in Early Childhood: Challenging Practitioner Perspectives’ (Bloomsbury).  

Mona's current research is an exploration of pedagogical, organisational and community leadership in EY and how leadership can be more effectively developed across EY. Current funded research includes a Nuffield Foundation project looking at online leadership development across the EY sector, a BELMAS project looking at leadership in the baby room of nurseries and a BERA project examining ethnicity in the early years workforce.  

Forthcoming books (include an introduction to Social Leadership in Early Childhood Education and Care (written with June O’Sullivan, CEO of London Early Years Foundation), and an edited volume on EY pedagogical leadership around the globe. 

Email: m.sakr@mdx.ac.uk  

Twitter: @DrMonaSakr

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