Rashid was appointed as Director, Children and Families at London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), a charitable Social Enterprise, in November 2013.
Rashid leads the provision of early education services in a growing portfolio of nurseries seeking to transform the lives of children in London, with a particular focus on serving the most disadvantaged communities.
Rashid was until recently a trustee of Transform Justice, a national charity that works to secure a more fair, more effective and more humane justice system.
Tell me a little about your career to date.
I’m a great believer that your career never makes sense looking forward. It often it only makes sense when you look back. At the moment, when I look back it seems that there’s always been something interesting about the intersection between education and care. Early in my career, I ran the students’ support service for students attending higher and further education. I then moved on to work in running admissions and welfare services and being part of the pastoral support in educational institutions, for those who were attending them. In my spare time and outside of employment, I was either teaching through community provision or leading and supporting community groups, or doing lots of creative stuff. I was part of an art collective that engaged with young people all over the country. I did a whole welfare rights training and worked in Liverpool where the welfare provision was very much shaped by the cultural context of Liverpool at the time, which was a time of the decline of heavy industry, such as shipping in the ‘80s and 90s. I supported people transitioning into and out of poverty and education.
I guess coming to LEYF now, looking back I can sort through these themes. Vocational training and career childcare is sometimes hugely underappreciated. It should be imbued with care and love. I often think that in childcare we work in the economy of love. You trust people to love your children fundamentally. That’s creates a huge community asset. So the challenge is how do we create in a vocational world an appetite and a capability for love- to enable people to love someone else’s most precious child or relationship?
How you would define both education and care?
I think they’re symbiotic. You can’t have one without the other, but particularly in the early years. Our babies need love. Without that love, which you might use synonymously with ‘care’ and which fundamentally nourishes their wellbeing, their physical development, their health and nutrition—they can’t grow.
I think across my career with all education, all ages of learners that still holds true. Every school, college and university has some kind of institutional care system that underpins and acts as an enabler of education through love and care. You can extract that same approach and philosophy to managing teams.
How did you learn to manage others?
I’ve been working for 20 years now. I think it’s probably fair to say that I didn’t really have much of a clue earlier on in my career. I learned on the job.
I think you go through that phase of becoming a technical expert and competent in your own role, in the early part of your career. Then you have that paradigm shift of then trying to move up and manage others. Suddenly it’s no longer sufficient for the ‘I’ to be good or ‘the best’. It’s about the ‘we’ being good. That’s a very big shift. I think that lots of people stumble at this point, because you sometimes hear yourself thinking, “Well I can do it, it is pretty simple do this and to do it well” But people are looking at you, saying, “I’m not you!”
I think probably as a younger person and as an ambitious young manager I was fixated on the outcome for the individual and for myself and my immediate team, rather than thinking about the whole system and my role in it. I see the same pattern now with some of my technically very competent and ambitious staff. Actually they often struggle to make that transition between the ‘I’ and then the small ‘we’ which is, “My team is the best”, to the bigger ‘We’, which is “how do we all change the system”.
You do need a bit of a competition. You need a bit of hunger, drive and entrepreneurialism amongst your upcoming managers and you need to nurture the aspiration of your leaders to get things done. But, importantly they have to shift from the ‘I’ to the ‘we’ to the system and to work on creating, shaping and leading a culture and an environment. It becomes less about what you do and more about what you enable others to do. I think that was probably very bumpy for me in the early part of my career, particularly as I had to learn to actually care and pay attention to what people thought about me!
Are there any other things that you’ve taken up and adopted or styles or approaches that you’ve discarded and look at supporting others?
One of the things that I’ve adapted recently, as we grow, as LEYF grows, is thinking through what’s important. What are the priorities? There are a couple of things that I am interested in. One is about the 80/20 rule: where does that apply? What is it in LEYF that needs to be done this way because it’s the LEYF way and there is no alternative? What is it that the organization is more relaxed about and can encourage individuals’ autonomy, creativity and decision making? What is the optimal balance between the telling and the engaging, pushing and pulling? The core production and core construction?
The other approach that has changed is my obsession with succession planning. When I left my last organisation we had built a £10 million business unit from almost nothing. It was the only growing part of the organization. The rest was in static or in decline. That growth was primarily through contracting and the provision of children’s centres and nurseries, which was and is one of my passions. As I left, I saw that unit being dismantled. I realised that actually what I’d help drive through my own force of passion and energy and a ‘Che Guevaraesque’ standard bearing was fundamentally flawed because it rested upon a single person or team. What I hadn’t left was a strong legacy of people that could take on the baton for me.
At LEYF we have 40 apprentices starting this week. I gave an induction talk, during which I told them: “One of you needs to take over from me because I’m leaving. When you start in LEYF, you don’t start to do a job. You start to do a vocation and a career. If you want it, this job—my job—is going to be vacant soon. If that’s what you want to do, you are going to have to work to get it done. Some of you just want to be great practitioners. Some of you will never want to be managers in your life. All that is fine. For the one or two of you that might want that progression, I’m just letting you know there’s going to be a vacancy here in the future.”
Now, as I said it’s not just about me, it’s more about the ‘we’ culture and system, and it’s more about the aspiration of the leaders throughout the system. We have an aspiring leaders program which I support. We have an ambition for 50% of our future leaders to come from our existing workforce, and we are delivering against t this aim.
How do I create a legacy in leadership? I’ve shifted a little more from telling to nurturing, from pushing to pulling, although I will always be switching between the two. I think when you’re a revolutionary or someone that sometimes has to be a rebel and a fighter then that forces you or requires a different mind-set. They say, and I have experienced the truism, that the forces of reaction, of counter-revolution, are always stronger than the forces of revolution. You only need to look at the political world to see this. So, delivering a deep, cultural change or a seismic shift requires you to think about building a legacy from the start.
How do you then help translate a culture like this or of other examples into giving people the confidence and ability to be able to take things on and do it themselves?
As always in these processes there’s a little bit of a messy period where you’re trying to get the definitions of what’s an input, what’s an outcome, how does this relate to whole performance measures entirely if it’s only a SMART target?
A recent example that comes to mind is this. We gave a mock Ofsted to one nursery team and they underperformed. We came back with, “Here is the framework within which we want you to improve. Here are the outcomes we think you need to achieve. We would like you to tell us how you plan to achieve them. So, get your heads together as a team and come back to us with a plan”.
That nursery struggled, the leadership team in particular struggled and no plausible plan was produced that tackled the issues that we could see, from the outside, was relatively obvious. What we were trying to do was to give them ownership of their own improvement journey. But, they hadn’t yet done the work, the real work required, and they hadn’t yet collectively got into the space where they could do that. So, we switched to a task list. The nursery manager revealed to our area manager that she was struggling. As a result, we switched much more to a ‘show and tell’ process. That was a conscious process, born from reflection, whereby we concluded our preferred approach was not helping that team. The more autonomy we’re giving the less they understand. The more freedom and responsibility we hand over, the more it’s overwhelming their collective capability, even if they are able individuals.
I think it was partly because they hadn’t understood themselves as a team or done the work with themselves as a team. We wanted to get them to the stage where highly directive intervention was not needed. But we had to step back and work with them to scaffold them to a stage where they more effectively recognised themselves as a team. Now they’re flying. They’re on that journey, back on that journey and they are leading much of it themselves.
How do you scaffold learning and development for your staff?
Different people in terms of scaffolding learning have different stretch. I think we’re very conscious of that in our approach because we have a much higher than national average of outstanding nurseries, as graded by Ofsted. Those outstanding leaders need stretch and need support, in as much as those nurseries that are in the good category or are going through a period struggling to maintain that good, need more of an approach to embed and reinforce skills and processes.
We also acquire a lot of nurseries that are struggling, for one reason or another. We also see a lot of nurseries that are inadequate or on the brink of tipping into inadequate. Through the acquisition process, we bring them into the LEYF family and we help them improve. We can see into the bottom, in the middle, at the top if you like of the hierarchies of that Ofsted performance framework which we are aware isn’t the only or indeed the best measure of excellent performance but in terms of the framework everyone in the sector understands. There are scaffolding and development requirements for all the settings and their teams in each of these categories.
One of the things that we do for our outstanding settings is we buddy them up with other settings. We get them to peer support other settings. It’s not just the managers that we ask to support other managers, it’s the practitioners too. Each of them will have a different area that they’re working on and can learn more from by sharing and teaching with others. The peer-to-peer approach is a different kind of development that has the additional benefits of helping to knit the organisation together along network or lateral, relational lines. It’s a stretch to both give and receive.
We also expect our nurseries to undertake action research. Some of those action research projects are based upon core values that they’ve identified themselves or things that they don’t think they’re doing as well or where they’re doing well but they want to do even better. It’s not always a deficit position.
Our expectations around people’s learning is relentless. I have at some stage said to a manager who’s just got an outstanding result from Ofsted, “ You understand I hope that actually anyone could get an outstanding once. Come back when you got a third one and then we have really got something to talk about.” I believe in pausing to celebrate success, but then it’s back to focusing on the next task.
How do you encourage positive attitudes among your staff?
There’s a constant reinvention and giving people constant areas of stretch, but also it’s about being conscious that they do sometimes need to go back to the thing that drove them to this career choice, in the first instance.
For lots of our staff, they don’t want to lose contact with children, especially as their management career progresses. I don’t want to lose contact with children. One of the delightful things about working with LEYF – and I experienced it today because our head office is in a nursery, is the proximity to children we have. I walked in this morning without taking my headphones off, in my own internal world, into our offices. Then suddenly there’s a three year-old child—let’s say she’s called Y—who I know relatively well. She’s knocking on the window and waving to me and wanting my attention. I get to go into the nursery and say hello. We have a two-minute chat. That keeps me grounded and takes me out of my task list and into being present in the moment with the child. What could be better?
On any given day it’s easy to be reminded that I work with children. All of my top team ‘adopt a child’ in one of our nurseries. They are asked to check in regularly on their development and wellbeing and report back, and to think about the impact of any decision we make on that child. They have a photo of their child and they bring the photo of that child to our meetings. We have a gallery of our children around the table. The top team are thus constantly connected, even just symbolically, to the reason that they joined this area of work in the first place, that’s one way in which we aim to remember why we’re here and what we are for.
Based around the Paulo Freire model, have you got any further thoughts on the benefits or the limitations of co-construction and co-design beyond what we’ve been discussing already?
We actually use both Freire and Vygotsky in our own pedagogy. We have a pedagogical approach to leadership. We have a defined leadership model.
One of the reasons why I love our apprentices so much is because we have apprentices for two years. You can do apprenticeship in child care in six weeks in some organizations. We do it with two years. They learn all this stuff, they understand development and learning theories. Our most knowledgeable staff are often our apprentices. They’ve grown up and will continue to grow within the organisation to be managers and deputy managers and room leaders.
But there is a period at the beginning of an apprentice scheme which is very much like parenting, because you are supporting children and then young people becoming young adults. A lot of the apprentices are under 21 and are finding a way of fitting into this strangely familial structure of care. Around 80% of them will stick with us, and a number of those will go onto our Aspiring Leadership programme.
One group of nurseries has an action research project which they’ve just launched. There’s an 11% gap in school reading age between boys and girls. They’ll do what we call a sounding board or a pizza evening. One of the things that I keep reminding our teams is that we’re a social enterprise. Don’t forget the ‘social’- it’s a critical shaper of who we are and how we work. So we have pizza evenings. It’s essentially a meeting but we call them pizza evenings. How we name things is important. We call them sounding boards. When I need advice or the Chief Exec needs advice we open up a sounding board. Anyone can come. It doesn’t matter where you are, who you are, you can help- construct a way forward or help solve a problem.
I ran a sounding board in July about British values as I’m at times conflicted about this. We have our LEYF values. We’re a British company and a London based company. How do we translate this whole debate around British values, both the explicit and implicit purpose and politics behind this into something that’s useful and meaningful for a child? I asked, “Does anyone want to come?” 20 people came in their own time in the evening. We had pizza and good discussions. We came up with some ideas which converted to a policy which we then launched.
That was great because I don’t have all answers. I said to my team, “You guys have got over 200 years of childcare experience between you. I haven’t got that. My experience is not your experience. Around this table your experience is what you add. Give me your advice and give me your wise council. That’s what I need from you.”
Are there any processes for recognising personal attributes or personal strengths?
Yes, we do recognise individuals but equally we recognise team strengths. We give chocolates and cards as a way of saying ‘thank you’ and are always searching for new ways to give recognition that are appropriate to our organisation and sector. I think and we try and always remind ourselves to work from a strength-based position rather than a deficit model, as well as to value intrinsic motivations, rather than extrinsic. We try and show everyone that there’s a system, there’s a team and we work to address our issues and challenges. I do also try to focus my appreciation on the behaviours we most value and need to cherish as an organisation, this includes collaboration and cooperation, not just competition.
How would you define a manager or a leader?
For me, a manager is a function defined by its place in a hierarchy system. It draws authority from the place in that system. A manager’s job is to initiate or ensure the delivery of a set of replicable processes that give them the best and most predictable chance of success in a particular task. That for me is what a manager does.
A leader is very different. I believe leadership is a verb, not a noun. You lead. Once you call yourself a leader that’s the end, say good bye, it’s over. You are garlanded into ineffectiveness and praised into conformity.
A leader is someone who does something brave, who goes beyond the expected boundaries of their role. They have intent. Their intent is aligned in our world with our mission, which is to help children be the best that they can be and to work to change the world one child at a time. It’s the language that we use. Leadership without intent, to lead without intent is to manage or to manipulate.
The authority to lead is not drawn from a position in hierarchy like management. It’s drawn because there is a moral, social, ethical purpose that creates followers in the wake of a leadership momentum. In our world, the world of social enterprise, that’s how we need to teach leadership. An apprentice can lead. You can join in today and effect an act of leadership on your very first day by doing something that helps us improve what we do with the purpose that it helps children in a better way.
I’m not interested in “leaders” per se. ‘Leader’ is a self-serving, counter-intuitively self-defeating title. Labelling someone too much is a way of ensnaring them in narcissism and thereby attenuating their potential impact and disturbance upon the established system. Calling someone a ‘leader’ can neuter their nuisance potential or trap them into the same pattern of behaviour that once made them successful but may not be enough for the next but more significant challenge. I am much more comfortable talking about acts of leadership, or actions that lead or inspire and cause other to follow.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’ll leave you with a little insight. Last year we had children starting meetings in our nurseries. The children meet to plan what they want to do, no matter their age. They have meetings, they minute them—albeit in a symbolic way- and the outcome is an activity at the setting that the children choose. Last year we had nearly a thousand children’s planning meetings in our nurseries where staff supported children to ask them what it is that they wanted to do. Hopefully that little fact gives you insight into how we try to live what we believe.