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June O'Sullivan MBE

Inspirational Female Founder Spotlight: June O’Sullivan MBE

June O’Sullivan is Chief Executive of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), a social enterprise which currently runs 39 nurseries across twelve London boroughs, supporting over 4,000 children. An inspiring speaker, author and regular media commentator on Early Years, Social Business and Child Poverty, June remains a tireless campaigner and disrupter, looking for new ways to influence policy and make society a better place for all children and families but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?

LEYF was born out of the Westminster Health Society, a small local charity set up in 1903 to help mothers and children living in poverty. With an increasing focus on making social change through nursery provision, in 2006, LEYF became a social enterprise focused on providing access to high quality, affordable nursery education and care to all children across London, with a specific focus on supporting disadvantaged children in the most deprived areas.

LEYF provides unprecedented access to high quality Early Years education through its social enterprise cross-subsidy model, which enables the provision of sustainable funded places balanced by fair fees. There is a raft of research which shows the benefits of high quality education and care and how it sets children on a successful life pathway as well as better preparing them to succeed in school.

LEYF’s nursery offering is underpinned by a training academy that supports staff’s teaching practice and development, and a unique social pedagogy, designed to strengthen children’s educational success by widening their social and cultural capital, and giving all children an equal chance to thrive.

How did the idea come to you to turn LEYF into a social enterprise?

I wanted to make sure every child could access a place no matter what their background and I did not believe I could do this if I was reliant on grants and traditional fundraising. I wanted to build a sustainable business model which could be grown and replicated and have control of our own destiny. I want every child, no matter what their background, to have access to the best nursery and a business with a strong social purpose right through its core.

How have you been able to gain funding and grow?

Over the past 15 years, we have grown from supporting 500 children to over 4,000, through the acquisition and integration of 28 nurseries into the LEYF family. This growth was funded by some philanthropic funding from our long-term partner, Social Business Trust, and through social investment debt, which we fully repaid in March 2021, amidst a global pandemic. Now, our social enterprise model is entirely sustainable, and can reliably provide services for our children long-term.

During Covid, we sought support from philanthropists and grants including the Permira Foundation and Barclays 100 x 100 COVID-19 UK Community Relief Fund to extend our hours for our most disadvantaged children who were arriving at nursery hungry, anxious and developmentally delayed as a result of lockdowns and the impact of living in poverty (exacerbated by the pandemic). We conducted research which showed that we could deepen our impact more quickly if we doubled the number of Government funded hours from 15 to 30 for those most in need who were not entitled to access the 30 hours.  

We set up the Doubling Down programme in October 2020. Between October 2020 and July 2021, 97 children were offered an additional 15 hours at nursery each week. This research provided a strong message to the Government and to global investors, demonstrating that we need to think carefully about how we respond to the fast-emerging problems we are seeing across the country as a result of the pandemic and reverse the alarming decline in the health, wellbeing and education amongst our young children.

What are the key successes?

There have been many including the launch of our Early Years Chef Academy in Stockwell and the development of the first professional Chef qualification for those chefs working in nurseries and schools. The intention is that by training chefs how to provide nutritionally sound meals we can increase the delivery of healthy food menus and also impact on child obesity. In fact, The Duchess of Cambridge came to visit our Early Years Chef Academy when she launched her landmark survey ‘5 Big Questions on the Under Fives’, which sparked a UK-wide conversation on raising the next generation.

Other successes include launching the UK’s first ever male-only cohort of apprenticeships in Early Years to help boost the number of men joining the sector, partnering with Bikeworks (a not-for-profit social enterprise) which has kindly donated hundreds of bikes to our nurseries over the past few years and with which we did a piece of research about how we better use bikes in nurseries to improve physical development and impact on the complex child obesity situation – especially as so many of our children live in tower blocks and do not always get adequate outdoor exercise when they are at home.

We also launched the first ever Early Years Level 4 Diploma to teach about the principles of sustainability through pedagogy, process and practice and create Green Champions across Early Years settings – not to mention writing numerous books on best practice – covering everything from sustainability, social leadership to wellbeing.

The list is endless…

What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?

The pandemic has certainly been a challenge, especially when 21 of our nurseries had to close temporarily in 2020 against a set of health and safety criteria. This came as a huge shock considering nurseries are the lifeline in keeping people in work and the economy afloat. Thankfully the remaining 18 nurseries formed hubs across London to ensure all children entitled to a nursery place could have one.

Other challenges have been the Government’s reluctance to give the Early Years sector the recognition it truly deserves including proper funding so that we can train and retain staff and pay them a decent living wage.  Currently, the Early Years sector accessed only 5% of the Department of Education. The sector is currently facing a major staffing crisis as many operators were hit with the double whammy of changes to immigration rules post-Brexit, and many workers deciding to return to their country of origin in Europe as a result of the pandemic. We are currently lobbying London’s Mayor and the Government for much needed change.

What are your plans now/for the future?

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are being left behind by the Early Years system in the UK. While 1 in 10 children in the most affluent areas of London can access an Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ nursery, only 1 in 30 children in the most deprived areas can.

LEYF wants to transform Early Childhood and tackle the education inequalities that prevent all children from having equal opportunities to succeed.

Our ambition is to provide ~10,000 children with access to high quality and affordable Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC), targeting support for the most disadvantaged children in London, while we continually enrich the experiences of each child through innovative services and initiatives. We will use our unique replicable model to act as a catalyst for driving sustainable, systemic change in Early Years.

What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?

Go for it! There will be times when it’s incredibly challenging but always remember The WHY – why you are doing it – and stick to your beliefs and vision – no matter what. Also ensure you have good people around you and never be afraid to ask for help, advice or direction.

Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?

Be brave, be humble, be patient and keep your sense of humour.

Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?

Mark Simms CEO of P3 because he always keeps his moral compass right at the heart of all his decisions.

Charles Handy whose writing was always ahead of his time and gave me confidence to pursue the reason for doing things.

Jenny Holloway CEO Fashion Enter for her ability to demonstrate resilience, flexibility and innovation.

Alice Sharp from Adventures with Alice for putting children right at the heart of her fun and inspiring training.

Professor Christine Pascal for recognising the importance of connecting Early Years staff with the power of action research to drive bigger and more informed debates that give us the power to really stand up for children.

What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?

Failure is not the opposite of success, it is part of success.

A well-developed sense of humour is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life : William Arthur Ward

A day without laughter is a day wasted : Charlie Chaplin

What are social media handles / website

Website: Leyf.org.uk

Twitter: @JuneOSullivan