The power of professional confidence

by Lewis Fogarty

Nothing should grow there, right? In dark conditions, with a lack of light and a malnourished environment, but despite all odds there is immense beauty all around. This is true of the lotus flower that grows in dark and dirty waters and is also true in early years, where despite immense challenges of underfunding, misinformed political initiatives and harsh regulatory controls, beautiful and literally life-changing moments happen daily and children all around the world grow and shine.

But how long can this go on for?

I suggest here that professional confidence is part of the solution to ensuring this growth can be sustained as the waters possibly become darker and more challenging for growth. Professional confidence emerged from my doctoral research with a sample of fifteen early years professionals representing each type of provision available in the early years. This is combined with my experiences of running a small group of three nurseries and being a dad to two wonderful little boys.

Simply put, professional confidence is the confidence you have in your professional role. In my unpublished thesis I have defined this as:

Being aware of injustices and confusions in the sector and actively correcting them, through thoughtful and skilful advocacy for collective action, working towards a better future for the ECEC [Early Childhood Education and Care] workforce and children.

I will suggest here that if leaders can provide an enabling environment, promoting professional confidence in their team, there can be positive change in the sector. As Birth to 5 Matters suggests, high quality early years provision “provides personalised learning, development and support – tailored to the needs of individual children”. The adults in our teams need to be treated uniquely too. In other words, the leader is the team’s “key person”.

Being aware of the injustices and confusions in the sector is about embracing the lotus flower analogy above and understanding this is the reality for the sector. That doesn’t mean accept it and do nothing about it but understand it for what it is. From here, we can work together for collective action through thoughtful and skilful advocacy to actively correct these wrongs. This requires us all to find our voices and spread the word. We need to be engaged in our own learning and challenge respectfully if we disagree with something or are met with “this is the way we have always done it here”. This also means we need to role model exemplary practice and be the change we want to see.

Collaboration is key, so if we can come together and find a shared voice, recognising everyone’s strengths and seeing ourselves as one sector, with one purpose, to do the absolute best for the children in our care, we can engage, grow and share together. This will be beneficial for all stakeholders and reinforces a key message within the Birth to 5 Matters guidance that states “learning together with adults and with other children is important across all contexts”.

Fostering togetherness and empowering individuals to have a voice is not an easy challenge and is one that requires everyone to engage in it, not just leaders in a formal sense. We need to get past personality issues and feelings of a disparate sector in competition with each other. We need to work towards enhanced professional development and genuine career trajectories for the sector and continue the fight for fairer pay.

I urge you to consider your role as an early years professional (or interested and supportive outsider) and challenge yourself to raise the status of the sector. We need collective action and we need it now. More broadly, consider your own level of professional confidence and the level of those around you and support the growth of this for the betterment of your organisation and the sector as a whole.

Practically, I would recommend you reaching out to neighbouring settings and opening your doors to them to visit. This can be true not matter what part of the sector you work in. When was the last time you spoke with someone other than a direct colleague about your work? All the organisations involved in the Early Years Coalition which produced Birth to 5 Matters can provide valuable networking opportunities and new insights to challenge your thinking – why not explore how they can help you build your professional confidence?

Lewis Fogarty runs a small group of three nurseries in Berkshire, leads the MA Education programme at Brunel University, is a trustee of TACTYC, co-convenor of the BERA ECEC SIG, an Area Lead for the DfE Experts and Mentors Programme and is in the final stages of writing up an EdD thesis focused on a new understanding of leadership in ECEC.