Over the last year or so, I have had several professional discussions with colleagues about whether the knowledge and skills deployed by early years practitioners is innate or taught.  There is no doubt that many aspects of the role become embedded in practice to the point where “unconscious competence” is an appropriate descriptor, or “tacit knowledge,” but having just had our first face-to-face training days of the year, I have been reminded of the ways in which training sessions can inspire, refresh and give lasting insights, which have a long term benefit for both practitioners and for the children they are educating and caring for.

This time around, we spread the training days across three separate days (each nursery closing for one day) in order to be able to spread internal training resources more effectively, and also to maintain manageable group sizes.  The feedback from our staff teams was fantastically positive across the whole range of courses.  We cover different subjects each time, and this time we had several first aid courses running (playing catch up after lockdown, as these need renewing every three years); the imminent EYFS reforms (for under 2’s and over 2’s separately); early years nutrition; safeguarding; health and safety (apparently our facilities manager Steve managed to make fire safety interesting!); team building and communication; induction sessions for new staff; ‘leap into language;’ mental health – practical steps; and developing leadership skills.   

During the pandemic, training inevitably had to move online, and although we found a wide range of excellent courses to offer our staff teams, no-one enjoys a whole day on Zoom or Teams, and early years practitioners are used to being active and engaged, so on-screen learning was for many courses far less enjoyable – and as we know from educating children, high levels of engagement make for more effective learning. It was really lovely, then, at the managers’ meeting following the training days, to hear about the feedback from our teams – and then to read their individual feedback.  For the latest training days, 100% of respondents rated the quality of course content and trainers’ knowledge of their subject as good or excellent, and the words used several times to describe the training courses included ‘engaging,’ ‘informative,’ ‘brilliant,’ ‘practical’ and ‘enjoyable.’

It obviously costs us a lot of money to provide the four training days a year for our staff teams, not least because closing all the nurseries for four days is a significant loss of income for us. We have been asked why we don’t just offer training at weekends, or by sending staff individuals on courses, but we feel very strongly that the cost of the four closure days is repaid in several ways.  Firstly, there is a very evident difference in the level of enthusiasm, appreciation and commitment from our staff when the training is not eating into precious downtime, when they would understandably prefer to be enjoying time with their families and friends.  Many of our staff work 40 hour weeks, so I think it would be unreasonable to expect them to give up part of their weekends too.  If we want our practitioners to be early years professionals, we should treat them like professionals, just as much as if they were working in schools. Sending staff on training courses during the normal week is beset with difficulties – it only takes unexpected staff absence for attendance at a training course to be cancelled, and individual training doesn’t bring the benefits of group learning. 

Learning together with colleagues enhances the value of the training tenfold – I love listening to the professional discourse at training sessions, when my colleagues begin planning how they will implement their new learning in their nurseries. The time spent together at coffee breaks and lunchtime also creates new opportunities for building professional relationships, within and between nursery teams.  Finally, the sessions take place across several nurseries, so there is also the opportunity for practitioners to have a good look at another Acorn setting, and to gain ideas about the environment, resources and to catch up with colleagues across the organisation – we have really missed our summer and winter social occasions, and the training days are a valuable way of creating a more cohesive organisational culture.

One of my favourite comments in this latest batch of feedback was “I felt like a valued member of staff” as this really highlights the point of it for us.  Early years practitioners work incredibly hard, and it’s very difficult in nurseries which are open for the full working day for team members to be able to step back together and reflect together on how they do what they do.  The knowledge and skills may become tacit and embedded in their practice, but the opportunity to take time out to reflect and to have fresh ideas is invaluable.  We are very grateful to our nursery families for their support in enabling us to continue with our training days, and look forward to developing them to be even better in the future.