Childcare Conversations

Interview with LEYF’s June O’Sullivan MBE

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Author June O’Sullivan is a committed standard-bearer for early years, social business and child poverty, and her role as CEO of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) affords her ample opportunity to address all three causes. Awarded an MBE in 2013 for her services to London’s children, June offers First Discoverers some thoughtful childcare reflections informed by the realities of her executive experience and inner-city location.

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June’s first taste of childcare administration came as Operations Manager for a small charity based in Westminster. Here, her work involved eight nurseries and focused on three primary areas of responsibility: ‘working with children and families for social services, supporting childminders and additionally developing community support for young mothers.’

Determined to make a success of her post, June saw the chance to actively use her business and academic experience to inform and enhance her approach to the task. Some years later, June now heads LEYF and manages a family of 36 community nurseries spread throughout the London area. Needless to say, her present job description is a just a little more expansive: “… my job is to ensure that we have the right strategy to keep the business sustainable, effective and delivering its ambition, which is to provide best-quality community nurseries to 5000 children across London by 2017.”

“We … do this with inadequate funding, … confusing and unhelpful government policies, and a misunderstanding of what we do from the wider public.”

Being a cause-driven social business, LEYF has a dual operational focus which the organisation defines as being ‘not just a successful business’ but also ‘a catalyst for long-term social change’. For June, this means balancing a matrix of responsibilities whilst operating at the interface between business and charity. Though her task is rewarding, it is rarely easy, and many childcare professionals will recognise her description of some of the difficulties she must regularly face:

“We are trying to provide a really high quality provision for all children but particularly for those from poorer families. We need to do this with inadequate funding, many confusing and unhelpful government policies and a misunderstanding of what we do from the wider public. It grieves me that organisations like LEYF show categorically that it is possible to run very good quality nurseries in poor neighbourhoods, yet our Government continually fails to recognise this, or support it adequately.”

“…the power of a good nursery”

June O'Sullivan playground_chalk

Thankfully, any childcare environment also offers committed early years specialists daily reminders of why they remain so passionate about the job. Recalling some instances from her own career, June highlights a particularly special event which demonstrates how the best early years education can shine a light into the darkest deprivation:

“… one that comes to mind is of a child lying on her bed listening to Handel and being completely mesmerised by the music. She turned and said: ‘This must be the Angels’ music and it makes me very happy!’ This was a three-year-old little girl from a deprived background who may never have heard such music in her own home. [What] struck me forcibly [was] the power of a good nursery.”

EYFS: A child-centred foundation

The LEYF seeks to support the ‘next generation of people who will shape our world’, and June’s account of the transformative impact of Handel’s ethereal melodies is a good example of her organisation’s focus on ‘changing the world one child at a time’. Clearly, a well-designed curriculum is a core component of such strategic interventions, and June acknowledges the influence of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) on the LEYF’s own curriculum planning:

“I believe that the introduction of the EYFS has made a significant contribution to how we best create learning for our children. As a foundation it is child centred and therefore allows practitioners and organisations to build good quality curricula. When I was developing the LEYF pedagogy, the EYFS proved a very effective base for our spiral curriculum.”

June O'Sullivan children_learning

In terms of curriculum content, June goes on to list the LEYF essentials which she believes will help children become ‘healthy, happy adults’:

“They need to learn about themselves and how to use their bodies and minds best. They need to experience a range of diversity including friends, food, outings and activities. They also need to learn to relate with other adults outside of their families.”

“Access to IT – nursery is a place where children can better form relationships with each other …therefore technology needs to be balanced”

Moving on to more specific topics, June – like many others in early years education – admits to having ‘a mixed view’ on the educational value of technology for nursery-age children. Observing that ‘many children have access to IT in their home’, she feels there are other priorities which must take precedence in childcare settings: “I believe that nursery is a place where children can better form relationships with each other, and other people, therefore technology needs to be balanced in the nursery.”

And reflecting on the pressing need for research-based evidence about the benefits of IT, June flags up one concern which childcare practitioners may wish to carefully note:

“… US research has reported a risk of limited wrist action as a consequence of children using swipe phones. This is problematic for those children who want to become surgeons, hair dressers, dentists and those professions requiring specific fine motor skills. In response to this problem LEYF has increased weaving activities, use of tongs, writing and other activities to balance this out.”

“Follow your heart…”

Given LEYF’s commitment to apprenticeships for young adults, it is no surprise June is wholeheartedly upbeat about careers in childcare. Discussing the desirable qualities aspiring applicants should possess – and seek to develop – she concludes:

“They need to like children and want to give them a fun learning experience. They need to understand child development and how children learn, so that they create the right learning environment and experiences that will extend children’s ability and potential. They also need to have good social and communication skills and demonstrate warmth and emotional intelligence as they form and nurture relationships with children and adults.”

Above all, she advises prospective candidates: “Follow your heart! Build your resilience … get fit and enjoy it, there is nothing better than working with and for children.”

And in return, she promises: “No day will ever be the same again!”


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June O’Sullivan MBE is Chief Executive of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), which runs 33 nurseries across eight London boroughs. An inspiring speaker, author and regular commentator on Early Years, Social Business and Child Poverty, June has been instrumental in achieving a major strategic and cultural shift for the award winning London Early Years Foundation, resulting in increased profile and profitability over the past eight years.  As CEO of the UK’s leading childcare charity and social enterprise since 2006, June continues to break new ground in the development of LEYF’s scalable social business model. She remains a tireless campaigner, looking for new ways to influence policy and make society a better place for all children and families.

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