News Release

Flexible leadership: The key to successful early childhood education and care

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Economic & Social Research Council

There is no single style of adult leadership that is suitable for all types of nursery, day care provision, reception class or children’s centre, according to new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The research, led by Professor Carol Aubrey of the Institute of Education at the University of Warwick involved a team of researchers looking into the qualities of leadership that made for the most effective care and education for three to five-year-olds. The research was based on 12 case studies and aimed to analyse what leadership meant, both to leaders and staff working in early childhood education. The project sought to establish what were the essential components and characteristics of effective leadership and also sought to provide those working with pre-school children a guide to best practice.

Key findings included:

  • That the most successful early childhood leaders were those who created a 'participative culture' and gave their staff the opportunity to exert ’bottom-up’ influence on their own professional practice.
  • That effective leadership involved adopting different forms of leadership in order to provide different services and to achieve greater clarity of professional roles.
  • That even the best possible models of early childhood leadership are constrained by internal institutional factors and governmental or local authority regulations.
  • The researchers spoke both to staff working in early childhood units and those carrying out leadership roles. Staff - who were mainly female and under forty - were observed to be good at two-way interactive teamwork and also showed great enthusiasm to take part in leadership training programmes.

Commenting on the findings Professor Aubrey said:

"Our study has uncovered the need for greater application of models of leadership that are not hierarchical, that distribute responsibility and acknowledge the wide range of skills available in a multi-professional team. But it is also important to recognise that a level of maturity within the organisation has to be achieved before this can be effective.

"In addition, there is strong argument for embedding early childhood leadership training in initial training qualifications. This should continue through the career cycle, including training opportunities for those not currently working in children’s centres and thus ineligible for the new National Professional Qualification for Integrated Centre Leadership."


Professor Carol Aubrey on 024 765 24486/07941944161 email:

ESRC Press Office:
Alexandra Saxon Tel: 01793 413032/07971027335, e-mail:
Annika Howard Tel: 01793 413119, e-mail:


1. The study, "How do they Manage? An investigation of early childhood leadership", was undertaken by Professor Carol Aubrey, Professor A Harris and Mrs M Briggs of the Institute of Education, Warwick University and Professor D Mujis of Manchester University.

2. Methodology: The researchers used both survey data (covering 131 respondents) and case-study material. This included: questionnaires and interviews with staff and leaders; diary records and video-taped observation and the collection of documentary evidence. 194 questionnaires were distributed and 131 returned (68 percent response). Twenty-nine out of thirty-six of those carrying a leadership responsibility responded (81 percent).

3. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2006-07 is £169 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at

4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at

5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as ‘good’.

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