Will a focus on leadership result in consistent high quality provision and raise pupil achievement in Nursery ?

By Fatma Suleiman



A study was carried out over a year to see the impact of leadership on improving the performance of nursery nurses and further raising pupil attainment.

The study was based on the idea that consistent practice and accountability of nursery nurses directly impacts the quality of provision in the Early Years. The aim was to achieve this by encouraging staff to  reflect, regularly monitor and assess practice and provide staff with ongoing professional development; while at the same time work on personal leadership skills and professional self confidence by building a team culture, having a clear vision and interacting and communicating effectively with staff.

Context of the school

The school opened in 2013 following the amalgamation of a former infant and junior school. It was awarded National Teaching School status in April 2014 and works with other local schools as part of the Gants Hill Partnership Teaching Alliance. The school is much larger than the average primary school, with three classes in each year group.  Pupils from minority ethnic groups make up nearly the whole school roll. The majority of these pupils are from Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and other Asian heritages. The vast majority of pupils speak English as an additional language.



Ethnographic Research

“Ethnography literally means ‘a portrait of a people’. Ethnography is a written description of a particular culture – the customs, beliefs, and behavior – based on information collected through fieldwork.” –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson, 2000.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method often used in social sciences, particularly in anthropology and in sociology. It is often employed for gathering empirical data on human societies/cultures. Data collection is often done through participant observation in which the researcher becomes a part of the community on which research has to be done. Data can also be collected through interviews, questionnaires, etc. Ethnography aims to describe the nature of those who are studied (i.e. to describe a people, an ethnos) through writing. It can also be called a “case report”. Ethnography can be widely used in education. It helps in addressing the educational problems of a particular groups. The researcher has to become a part of the particular group in order to conduct ethnographic study where the focus is to get familiar with group’s culture and then sense the underlying problems.

Action research

Action research is an approach to professional development and improved children’s learning in which teachers systematically reflect on their work and make changes in their practice. ” Undertaken by practitioners, action research involves looking at one’s own practice, or a situation involving children’s development, behavior, social interactions, learning difficulties, family involvement, or learning environments, and then reflecting and seeking support and feedback from colleagues. Patterson and Shannon (1993) describe action research as “inquiry in which practicing teachers try to understand the particular individuals, actions, policies, and events that make up their work environment in order to make professional decisions” (p. 8). Garner (1996) defines action research more specifically as a systematic, reflective, collaborative process that examines a situation for the purpose of planning, implementing, and evaluating change.


A review of research which informed this study

Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations: ‘Of all the lessons in the past decade, the critical role of leadership is perhaps the most important one to take with us into the new century. Leadership is imperative if we are to improve the lives of children, their families and communities.’ (Annan, 2002, p. 6)

According to Ofsted “Strong and effective leadership makes a setting good or outstanding. It drives up the quality of a setting‟s work and ensures that all children are helped to reach their potential.”

“Leadership is often identified as a key element in delivering high quality early childhood programs” (Hujala, Waniganayake & Rodd,  2013).

The relationship between effective leadership and pupils’ achievement is strongly evidenced through school inspection. Effective leadership has a perceptible impact on pupils’ learning (HMIE, 2000). While leadership has been found to be central to successful schools, equally there is scope for improving the quality of that leadership (HMIE, 2000): This link between leadership and effective provision is also true for early years settings, where research indicates that leaders play an important part in the provision of quality services. Effective leadership has been found to be a key element of effective early childhood provision (Muijs et al, 2004; Harris et al, 2002; Rodd, 2005). Other factors that have contributed to the focus on leadership include pressure for increasing professionalisation and accountability from within and outside the profession (Rodd, 2005).

Hard and O’Gorman cite a number of authors as they consider the leadership challenge, including MacBeath (2004), Lingard et al (2003) and Stamopolous (2003) to emphasise the ambiguities of leadership, leadership and learning links, and the association of good leadership and change, respectively (p55). The importance of those providing leadership of early childhood settings attached to primary schools having a strong knowledge and understanding of the early levels of the curriculum is emphasised by Stamopolous, who writes of specialised staff and resolution of philosophical differences; she states: ‘Inadequate leadership may have serious implications for program quality, accountability, student learning and staff training’ (p200).

An overview of actions

This study made the following changes to the nursery’s current practice:

  • High expectations of nursery staff
  • Leading by example
  • Gradual change
  • Hold staff to account
  • Access to continual training and professional development for nursery staff
  • Encouraged and inspired staff to take ownership – distribute the leadership
  • Research into quality leadership

This study was supported by regular networking visits to four other settings, coaching and mentoring from Early years leader.


  1. Most children have made a very good rate of progress in the key areas of learning. Starting points were much lower than age related expectations, as well as last year’s cohort. The results represent a very high rate of progress and the level of attainment is also higher than last year.


2. Nursery staff have adjusted well to changes and take a more proactive role in nursery life

3. Practice in the nursery is becoming consistent

4. High quality adult child interactions

5. Positive learning environment where risks are encouraged and mistakes are opportunities for further learning



The quality of organisation, leadership and management is key to ensuring provision supports positive outcomes for children. Early years leaders need leadership training in order to be able to face the challenges of leading and managing a team.


The leadership role is isolating and challenging to early years practitioners. Things to consider:

What skills and knowledge do you have and what is your leadership capacity?

What do you know about leadership in an Early years setting and can you use it in your setting?

How do good leadership practices transform children’s experiences?