So, I have been in my role for five years now, overseeing Acorn’s Human Resources (HR), payroll and training function and I will confess, that when I joined, I knew nothing about children, looking after them or the skills and patience required to be a good practitioner. So, whilst my understanding and knowledge has improved somewhat greatly, some may question, if I knew nothing coming into the sector, why was I hired? To me it was simple, Acorn already had the specialist knowledge covered, with talented, caring and intelligent individuals specifically to do just that, work with children. I like to think I brought a balance, with a perspective from outside the traditional early years framework.

So, what role does HR play in Acorn? HR suffers from the perception that we are there to ‘be the bearer of bad news’ or manage difficult employees and make unpopular decisions – all of which could not be further from reality. HR are there to guide, support, nurture, engage, coach, advise and be anything else employees or leaders need to do their roles more effectively.

One thing I had to grasp and navigate early on in my role is where did I (and by ‘I’ I of course mean the HR function) sit, where was our place, and equally, where were we not supposed to be (i.e., leaving it to those a lot more capable than us). Very fortunately for me, my job was made easy, as Acorn stands true to its values and ethic of care approach. Primarily of course focusing on the approach we have with children within our settings, but it extends to everyone we work with. Yes, we have a strategy on how to grow, engage and improve our workforce, and yes, we have policies and guidance in place to protect and follow, but all of that can always be challenged by acting on the right thing to do.

Every decision made within a setting goes back to the basic question, what is in the best interest of the child? This sentiment is echoed in the same way when thinking about our employees. Rules/procedures/policies are there to guide us on how to act and fulfill our roles; however, what those elements don’t cover, is the context to a situation.

Every day, Acorn employees interact, react and safeguard children based on how they are feeling in the moment, what took place that morning at home, how they are feeling in themselves and what they want to do and achieve that day. No framework, planning or policy can tell a practitioner what do or how to act in that given moment – and what people sometimes forget, the same applies when we are working with, managing and leading people.  

Often, our role within Acorn’s HR function, especially when supporting managers, is bringing out the ‘Early Years Practitioner’ in them when tackling people issues that arise. Now, bear with me on this, as I am not saying employees behave like children, and therefore should be treated them the same. However, like children, employees are human, with behavioral traits that they have gained since their childhood. Let’s take an upset child in a setting, a practitioner will engage with that child to find out what could be wrong by talking to them and asking open questions, and finding out what options are available within the setting to keep their mind off things and solve their unhappiness together. Now, take an employee who is not happy about a decision made within their setting by management or conflict perhaps with another employee – anger, frustration and/or upset can take over. How do we tackle it? I’d suggest engaging with that employee to find out what could be wrong by asking open-ended questions, and finding out what options are available to come to a solution together that could resolve the issue.  

In neither of these scenarios is there a policy and guidance framework on how to tackle the situation, as each is unique to the individual child/employee. What we do have is an approach within Acorn, based on our values and ethic of care, to nurture and do the right thing, to treat people (and children of course) with respect, love and professionalism.

So, if it is that straightforward, what are the barriers? Simple answer – ourselves! Fortunately, since joining, I’ve learnt practitioners rarely doubt their own knowledge or skills in decision making or getting on with their day-to-day role. To work in early years for example, there is a clear educational route (NVQ, Degree, Masters and so on) – all academically guide on how to create stimulating environments, theories of child psychology, practical solutions on wider societal influences (parent partnerships for example).

However, for managers, there isn’t such a clear academic route, nor do I believe there needs to be I would add. Managers should use lived experiences, professional gut, and personal moral compass to guide on the best course of action. As professionals, we put our own self-doubt (imposter syndrome to some degree) on what we know and how we should act, in the fear of getting it wrong. This is where HR in Acorn comes in – to work in partnership. What would you do as a practitioner, if the situation in front of us was a child in your setting? And like that, the clock (confidence) starts ticking again.