Everyone now recognises how important it is to have a first-rate headteacher at the helm of primary and secondary schools. The interest in developing leadership skills has even led to a national system of training courses and the new National Professional Qualification for Headship launched this year.
However, there has barely been a mention of the importance of such skills for those who manage nursery schools and centres, even though the early years are high on the political agenda. People who run provision for young children recognise that effective leadership, rather than routine management, is the key to high quality as well as to making the field in general more "professional".
Many women in the early years have been reluctant to identify themselves with the traditional concept of "leader" with its autocratic, top-down overtones. Consequently they have had difficulty identifying how leadership is demonstrated in their work. Recent research has shown that women prefer to take a more consultative and co-operative approach to leadership than many men do. Such information is being used to build up a picture of the qualities associated with good leadership in the early years.
Vision, the ability to define an image of future direction and communicate it to others, is the essential characteristic of a good early years leader. Effective leaders can paint a picture for staff and parents about what changes might happen in the short, medium and long term in areas such as the nursery curriculum, meeting parents' needs and the development of staff skills.
Good leaders do not impose their views but seek others' opinions, promote sharing and discussion and work to bring the ideas of all involved into being. They influence rather than dictate.
Good leaders understand the importance of team work. They consult staff and parents, provide opportunities for them to participate, and delegate. Such a leader understands that delegating the responsibility for the development of a parent-toddler group to a staff member will increase motivation and commitment. Asking parents to help develop policy on discipline involves them in a meaningful way and can increase their satisfaction with the nursery.
Good early years leaders work to create an atmosphere of trust and co-operation. They understand that staff and parents may have differences of opinion and that this can be healthy, providing an opportunity for discussion. An effective leader will acknowledge that people may disagree over the introduction of computer technology to the nursery curriculum, but will provide opportunities for talking about its advantages and disadvantages. Staff and parents will feel that their opinion is respected and valued.
Good leaders understand that they have to support and supervise staff in ways that will enhance professional development. If you talk with a staff member about alternative ways to work with a demanding child, they may feel more competent to handle the next incident. Learning about the individual strengths and limitations of staff and the personal circumstances of parents will help a leader to know what type of support will be helpful and when support is not required.
In the present climate, a good leader needs to be able to adapt to change. This does not mean that she will simply acquiesce to all requests for change, but that she will diagnose the need for change systematically, will plan for the introduction of new ideas and will monitor their effects.
Finally, while there are differences between routine, day-to-day management and future-oriented leadership characteristics, the good early years leader will understand that she needs to engage in both aspects.
Apart from her expertise in young children's development and learning, she will have organisational knowledge and skills, such as budgeting, meeting deadlines, prioritising, and conducting meetings, which are required for the smooth running of the nursery. She also will make time for thinking and planning.
The picture emerging about who is an effective leader in the early years reveals a person who is concerned about the well-being of staff, parents and children, who invites involvement, contribution and participation in the management of the centre, who encourages communication and negotiation and who inspires and influences staff and parents to a mutually defined vision of the future. It is the development of such qualities that those who prepare future early years leaders need to address.
Dr Jillian Rodd is senior lecturer in early childhood studies at Rolle School of Education, University of Plymouth.