Seeking Excellence in Early Childhood Education
Not so long ago, my journey as a researcher in the UAE, led me into a number of preschool classrooms for the purpose of observation. The interesting element for me was the range of practice(s), as well as the obvious difference in curricula. In addition, the interpretation of the curriculum was somewhat fascinating. Some settings were ‘good’, others, ‘outstanding and some were ‘unsatisfactory’.
2018 has led me to a place of reflection and I have decided to seek excellence within early childhood education (‘ECE’), in Dubai. Looking for the good in ECE and showcasing it, so that my colleagues in the field are able to pick up tips that work, techniques that are tried and tested within the context of the UAE.
This takes me to my first interview with Ashleigh Thompson who has a BA Hons in Literature and Language, a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education, a Post Graduate Certificate in Teaching Creative Writing and an MA in Creative Writing in the Classroom. Ashleigh is the founding director of IDEA Early Learning Center (ELC), a successful pre-school, based in Victory Heights, Sports City, Dubai. It opened in October 2016 and presently has a pupil population of 158 children aged between 9 months and 6 years, with happy parents and a waiting list in a number of the classes.
I asked Ashleigh a series of questions linked to concepts of:
Systems that are in place to ensure high standards and sustain success.
Here are some of the highlights from our discussion. This is written as part of an ongoing series.
3 Non Negotiables for Effective Practice
For Ashleigh, parent involvement has been pivotal for success. Not only receiving feedback from parents, but also addressing the feedback. Linking the results to what they, as a team at IDEA consider to be effective.
Qualifications and/or experience. For Ashleigh, it helps in having a team that is balanced in high qualifications and experience. Qualifications ensure teaching staff have the pedagogical background needed to be an effective practitioner. Experience brings wisdom and reflection. When these two elements are combined, the collective potential is limitless.
IDEA ELC has a Board of Governors. The board's involvement has been clear and supportive, due to the fact that it has a combination of investors, educators, and parent representatives.
The Essence of Leadership for Learning
At IDEA ELC, Ashleigh has established a collaborative ethos between the leaders and teaching staff. She understands the importance of looking at the professional capacity of the whole team and believes that the professional capital of the center accepts that teaching can be hard and requires adequate support. Human talent alone, is not enough, but using the whole group to effect change empowers the team and this, in turn, leads to more commitment and, ultimately, staff retention. Talented teachers are stronger together.
Ashleigh stated, "Reflection is key to the process for all staff. Looking at the power of the whole team, not one person or 'star teacher', only". At the recruitment stage, Ashleigh is careful to cover all the bases, so that the team is sufficiently well staffed, with requisite skills that can be shared across the center, enabling success.
Continuous professional development ('CPD') is another factor. Thinking about CPD, not as a one-day course, or three hour session, but having leadership involved, disseminating information, following up, implementing new practice(s) and showing evidence of the impact. Ashleigh explained that If CPD is not viewed in this way, then attending a one-hour 'messy play' workshop (for example) is insufficient and, perhaps, ineffective. She also insists that CPD should be linked to proven action research, actively looking to reflect on what others are doing well, nationally and internationally. Allowing teachers to open up to teachers, even in other countries; learning from global best practice.
As a leader, Ashleigh has used her experience and her qualifications to influence her team. She has a very strong research based approach. She understands that success is linked to impact; therefore if something has not been working then it is changed.
Retention of staff is important. In practice, the leadership team at IDEA aims to grow their own leaders from within and thereby, they grow their own future.
Measures for Improvement
Ashleigh - "..we have to react to the amazing place that we live in. For example, the recent inclusion policy published by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority ('KHDA') and the UAE's National Agenda. Developing plans, targets and actions that reflect the special nature of the UAE.
Having external opinions are also important, through collaboration with professional external providers. For example, the Abundance Project initiated by the KHDA, that encourages outstanding schools to share best practices. However, Ashleigh noted that 'good' and 'outstanding' in ECE, manifests in different ways and this can change from year to year depending on the cohort of children.
Other factors leading to improvement - avoiding complacency, regularly seeking change, revisiting practice and procedure even if a preschool is outstanding. Staying at the high level of best practice. Ashleigh states - "It’s about what we as an ELC can DO, and what we have improved over time. Showing that we are unique at doing and sticking to the promise that was given to parents at the onset".
As stated above, this is part of of a series and I will be speaking to more leaders in the near future. Special thanks to Ashleigh Thompson.
Patricia Mezu is the Director of Professional Minds FZ LLC, a Dubai based early childhood education consultancy. The company specialises in pre-school improvement, as well as nursery start up. Patricia facilitates the ECE Leaders Forum, that meets in Dubai.