The work we do in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) is driven by a social purpose – by the desire to make a genuine difference. We want to make the world a better place by giving children the best possible start in life. That means we need a model of leadership that puts social purpose at the heart of leading. This is what the social leadership model is all about. In this article we’re going to explain why we developed the model, how it emerged through global research and conversations, what the model involves and how it looks and feels on the ground.

Why do we need the social leadership model?

While we can all agree that ECEC is first and foremost about achieving a social purpose, we also all know that there has been lots of under-investment in the sector in most parts of the world. This has made it hard, if not impossible, to come up with a clear and unified vision for ECEC and what it means to lead an ECEC organisation.
The pressure to make ECEC into a viable business proposition means that many leaders are having to juggle pedagogical leadership, community leadership, organisational leadership and financial leadership. Leadership starts to look like quite a thankless task of making everything balance: balancing the demands of pedagogical quality with the financial demands, balancing staff well-being against the realities of struggling to pay a living wage. What gets lost in this balancing act is the focus on social purpose.

We’ve developed the social leadership model as a way to respond to this conundrum. We’ve based the model on the practices of global leaders in ECEC who are managing to have a significant social impact. This is not about us inventing a brand new way of leading, but instead, we have aimed to capture and document some of the amazing leadership that is out there at the moment. By finding it, naming it and understanding it, we can strengthen social leadership across the sector. 

How did we develop the social leadership model?

The social leadership model came about in two halves. First, we looked within the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), where June is CEO, to see how leadership is discussed and practiced in this renowned ECEC social enterprise. Second, we interviewed 14 global leaders in ECEC renowned for their contributions to the sector and their emphasis on social purpose. We wanted to find out what these leaders do in order to prioritise the social impact of ECEC. Through these conversations, we came up with the six-element model of what social leaders do in order to fulfil their social purpose day to day.

What does the social leadership model look like?

The model is made up of six elements, shown below. By applying pressure to these ‘levers’, social leaders have the maximum social impact. Let us look at each one of these in turn.

Leading with social purpose

This is where social leadership starts and ends. Social leaders must have a clear understanding of how ECEC and their organisation contributes to a better society. Not everyone has to have the same social purpose articulated in the same language, but social leaders do need to know how and what they do every day makes the world a fairer place.

Implementing a social pedagogy

In ECEC, social purpose can only be realised if the social pedagogy is aligned. A social pedagogy is a vision of how learning happens in the ECEC organisation to support the fulfilment of the social purpose. For example, in LEYF, the social purpose centres on increasing the social capital of children and families so that they are well connected socially, feel belonging and know how to access social services and opportunities. The social pedagogy at LEYF is deeply aligned with this purpose. On a practical level, there is a clear focus on children getting out and about in their local community through regular outings, whether to the market or the dentist or a trip into the centre of London on public transport. If social purpose is the heart of social leadership, a social pedagogy is the heartbeat. 

Creating a culture of collaborative innovation

Social leaders know that if you really want to make a difference within the resource constraints of ECEC, then working with others is absolutely essential. Social leaders prioritise partnerships and connections that break down traditional barriers. For example, Jacqueline Lamb, CEO of Indigo Childcare Group in Glasgow, has pioneered the integration of speech and language therapy in ECEC settings as a way to radically improve the early support and intervention offered to the families most in need. She recognised that within current working models, where health and ECEC are held apart from one another, it is pretty much impossible for children to get the early support they need. Innovating together, whether within the setting, with other settings or other services, is the only way that we can truly get support to all children and families.

Investing in others’ leadership

Social leaders love to give others the opportunity to lead, recognising that this is the best way to improve day to day practice and create a much-needed leadership pipeline within the sector. Social leaders overturn cultures of permission-seeking by prompting everyone in the organisation, whether an apprentice, room leader or manager, to engage in problem-solving and continuous improvement. In the Learning Enrichment Foundation in Toronto for example, supervisors avoid giving direct advice and guidance and are instead trained to coach and mentor staff to build problem-solving skills among more junior staff, using the question: ‘What do you think we could do?’. 

Facilitating powerful conversations

Powerful conversations need to happen at all levels of an ECEC leader’s activity. There are pedagogical conversations with staff and parents, coaching conversations to improve practice in the organisation and also advocacy conversations that need to happen right across the sector. Social leaders know how to take a typical conversation and turn it into a powerful one, changing hearts and minds and prompting positive action.

Sowing the seeds of sustainability

ECEC has to be part of the solution to the huge global issues we face: poverty, lack of education, climate change, environmental degradation and so on. Social leaders commit to integrating sustainability into every element of their leadership – from articulating the social purpose to living the social pedagogy and organisational culture. In our model, we use the UN Sustainable Development Goals as a way that social leaders can get a handle on sustainability.

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

About the author:

June O’Sullivan MBE is Chief Executive of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), one of the UK’s largest charitable childcare social enterprises which currently runs 39 nurseries across twelve London boroughs.

An inspiring speaker, author and regular media commentator on early years, social business and child poverty, June has been instrumental in achieving a major strategic, pedagogical and cultural shift for the award-winning London Early Years Foundation, resulting in an increased profile, a new childcare model and a stronger social impact over the past ten years.


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