Is there a role for universities in developing Early Years services? A reflection after two years of South Yorkshire Futures

Sally Pearse, Strategic Lead for Early Years for South Yorkshire Futures at Sheffield Hallam University.

My background in the early years has been driven by my belief that high-quality early years provision and services are a vehicle for social justice and transforming children’s outcomes. However, since moving full-time into Higher Education lecturing at Sheffield Hallam University in 2015 I had felt slightly removed from this purpose.  I was therefore delighted when I was asked to lead the early years’ aspect of a programme to explore if the university could play a key role in working with regional partners to address the inequality that impacted on the educational attainment and social mobility of young people in South Yorkshire. This innovation was partly in response to two government initiatives around social mobility and a drive for universities to play a more direct role in schools.

The programme, South Yorkshire Futures, has three strands broadly structured around different life stages. These start at Early Years move through primary and secondary schooling, and also cover transition into Further Education, Higher Education and wider routes into employment.

At the outset, our small team did not know if a university would be welcomed into this space and although we envisioned that we might be able to play a coordinating and facilitating role to develop services across local authority boundaries, we were not sure how this would be received. Now, after two years and with SYF continuing as part of Sheffield Hallam’s core business, I feel we have much to celebrate.

We started with an intense period of work with regional representatives from across the sector to create a ‘Vision for Early Years’ and a regional approach to school readiness. This process cemented existing relationships that the university had with the sector and built new ones with strategic leaders and our vision and approach were adopted by the four Local Authorities in the region: Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield.

 The work we have subsequently undertaken has brought in an additional £2.2million for Early Years services in South Yorkshire since 2017. The projects include:

  • A partnership with the Family Lives charity to provide intensive home visiting for 140 two-year-olds and their families across the region.
  • An Early Outcomes project that has enabled the development of a regional skills framework and training strategy to support young children’s speech, language and communication needs.
  • The development of a research nursery through the School Nurseries Capital Fund based on a partnership between a local school, Save the Children UK and Hallam.
  • A course for Head Teachers and Foundation Stage leaders to support the development of evidence-based practice.
  • A research project through the Shine Educational Trust exploring how Philosophy for Children (P4C) approaches can be used to support young children’s language and thinking skills.

 What have we learned about the potential contribution of universities in developing early years provision? I asked our partners for feedback on the benefits and challenges of working with us. The response from Family Lives, which drew on our regional relationships and contacts to give momentum to their home visiting project, provided an interesting insight:

“It can often take time to find the right people to meet within Local Authorities or councils, to mobilise a project, but this was made easy by being invited to a meeting at which the right people were all present; this meant communication and vital meetings with them could start without delay. “(Senior Area Manager, Family Lives)

 The size of the University and the range of professional services contained within it also offered much-needed capacity for a small organisation such as Family Lives to deliver its programme e.g. the Sheffield Hallam press office issued news releases which helped in early stages of promotion. This relationship also provided benefits to the University through the job opportunities it offered to alumni:

“We are pleased to have recruited some former Sheffield Hallam students into our new staff project team, assisted by Hallam advertising of the posts.” (Senior Area Manager, Family Lives)

 Our largest project was funded through Early Outcomes to develop regional approaches and strategies to support young children’s speech, language and communication needs. SYF was originally approached by Doncaster council to help to pull together a funding bid for South Yorkshire, and that was successful:

 “The University was pivotal to the success of the bid and gave each local authority support, direction, advice and was able to steer and strengthen the bidding process. After the bid was successful the colleagues from South Yorkshire Futures immediately made arrangements to drive the work forward and have been instrumental to all the success the project has had so far.” Service Leader Rotherham Council

 The drive to deliver a significant amount of work in the tight 12-month timescale has created tensions but as we approach completion, partners reflected very positively on the role of the University as an ‘honest broker’ outside of the Local Authority structures:

 There has been a real value added to operational meetings and workshops with the university as an impartial body providing a more holistic perspective, a clear focus and a strong steer to meet our intended aims and objectives.

Early Years Inclusion Officer, Doncaster Council

 We are now working with Watercliffe Meadow Primary School, Sheffield Council and Save the Children UK to create an Early Years Research Nursery in a former Children’s Centre which will provide places for two-year-olds alongside a range of family support programmes. This innovative centre will be used as a research base to test what works in early years and to disseminate finding across the region. Partners have again welcomed the capacity the University brings to develop bids and projects:

 “I can honestly say that the project would not have progressed to the stage we’re at without the ongoing support and wider expertise that South Yorkshire Futures has brought. The team has been able to draw on experts and learning from a number of departments within Hallam and other networks established through their work across South Yorkshire and beyond. .” Head Teacher, Watercliffe Meadow Primary School

 There have however been tensions in developing work with partners and while I am very gratified that those who have contributed have focused on the positive it is right that we also reflect on and learn from these challenges. Each partner was under competing pressures, and in the mid-stages of some of the projects, it was hard to maintain momentum. On one side was a university attempting to understand and negotiate the complexity of different Local Authority structures, and on the other were partners attempting to deliver services and training in a large organisation like Sheffield Hallam:

“It has sometimes been challenging as an outside organisation to navigate the procedures for booking rooms and the IT systems and equipment, but this is minimal compared with having access to the rooms in the first place. ” Senior Area Manager, Family Lives

 Overall the last two years has provided strong evidence that universities can play a significant role in supporting the educational health of their area as they bring a set of knowledge, skills, capacity and existing relationships and partnerships that can support smaller organisations or facilitate the development of new initiatives and system change.

This potential role for universities has been increasingly recognised in the Civic University agenda: as Lord Bob Kerslake highlighted in his ‘truly civic’ report this is especially important to all partners in these uncertain times:

 “While universities are vital to their places, they also need the active support of their communities in these turbulent and challenging times. Put simply, they need all the friends that they can get.”


About the writer, Sally Pearse.

Sally is currently the Early Years strategic lead for the Sheffield Hallam University South Yorkshire Futures Project which aims to improve the educational health of the region through facilitating and coordinating partnership working with Local Authorities and settings. Prior to this role, Sally was the Head of Area for Early Years Initial Teacher Training (0-5 years) in the Sheffield Institute of Education. Sally worked for many years in the community early years provision, establishing a Sure Start project in Sheffield and subsequently running a Children’s Centre Nursery.  Sally is the Chair of the South Yorkshire branch of the charity Early Education and chair of trustees for a community nursery.







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