A lifetime of Early Years

16 Jul 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 16 Jul 2018

Siobhan Fitzpatrick CBE, CEO of Early Years - the organisation for young people, was awarded an honorary doctorate by QUB last week. Scope talks with her about four decades of pioneering child development.


Early Years - the organisation for young people is Northern Irish non-profit which has turned itself into a huge success and influence on the world stage.

It has helped transform local pre-school provision (from a baseline of almost nothing); helped revolutionise attitudes to early child development and how positive experiences in formative years can improve individuals' prospects throughout their lives; and used their pioneering local work on anti-sectarianism to help other conflict and post-conflict countries and regions across the globe.

Last week, Chief Executive Siobhan Fitzpatrick CBE was awarded an honorary doctorate by Queen's University for her work over the past three decades and more.

Her significant achievements are too many to list - but, in summary, include playing a crucial role in virtually all current early years services in Northern Ireland; creating a respecting difference scheme aimed at promoting tolerance in young children that has been emulated around the world; and establishing and leading various international programmes in child development.

In his citation for the award, Professor Paul Connolly said QUB was "privileged to recognise and honour Siobhan's outstanding contribution to the field of early childhood".

Dr Fitzpatrick CBE has become a world-renowned expert on child development, has headed and advised international programmes, and even addressed the United Nations.

Her work has been tied up with Early Years, which was a small organisation when she first started working with them, but which gave her an enthusiasm for both child development and the third sector - and led to a career which has made a huge impact in Northern Ireland and further afield. 

However, this path was not something that was planned - at least to begin with - and instead wider personal circumstances steered her that way.

Falling into place

Dr Fitzpatrick originally studied social sciences at Queen's - psychology, sociology and economics - and her first professional job was in social work.

However, five years later she had one young child and was pregnant with twins and, because of an absence of support, she left her job.

"Back in the day it was even worse than it is now. There was no early years provision when I lived in South Down. I gave up work but got involved in supporting women's initiatives - helping people set up parent-and-toddler groups.

"That led me to help others organise and then a part-time job came up in NIPPA [the Northern Ireland Pre-School Playgroup Association], the pre-cursor to Early Years.

"Then in 1989 when I was thinking about going back to my original career, in social work, the job for what was then the director of NIPPA came up, people encouraged me to apply for the post and the rest is history.

"One of the things I said to the graduates last week [during her address at the ceremony] was don't think that whatever you have qualified in now would naturally be the only career path open to you.

"I was jobless, had a marriage and three kids under two, and out of that fairly unpromising situation I set out on a career path that has enriched and absorbed me for the rest of my working life."

Adapt and thrive

Early Years - the organisation for young children started (as NIPPA) in 1965 and provides information, training, administration and advocacy - be that to parents, childcare provides, employers, statutory organisations or politicians - all to support the general development and wellbeing of children aged 0 to 12.

It has changed its name a few times in the past 50 years and this is emblematic of what the CEO says is its ability to change and adapt in a fluid way.

This freedom is one of the key differences between the public and third sectors. However, while it is a strength of non-profits, it is also something that made Dr Fitzpatrick know she had made the right career choice.

"It's scary, you don't have the same safeguards as in the public sector, but the opportunities for creativity, innovation, risk taking, avoiding too much bureaucracy, being able to be nimble - all of that suited my personality and way of working, and I don't think I would have been as fulfilled in the public sector."

She said this is directly relevant to her key advice for anyone working in a community or voluntary organisation.

"Hold on to your vision and values but within that don't be afraid to innovate, take risks, be creative, see around the next corner - sometimes before other people - and anticipate what those challenges and opportunities are going to be.

"Don't be afraid to lead. Sometimes leading in that way can be scary - maybe your ideas won't work - but you have to have the courage to do it."

At the same time, she stresses that you can't be "whimsical" in making dynamic changes, and that mission drift should be avoided, but that clear-headed decisiveness and flexibility has been the backbone of Early Years' success.

"Right across the whole 30 years I tended to think in five year slots, and thought about that strategic implementation, if you like, about what could be achieved in three-to-five years. However, within that, I would definitely continue to add value within the vision and values of the business of the organisation.

"And in many ways we didn't lose our connection with our vision and values in any of those incremental jumps but we did definitely continue to reinvent ourselves.

"Looking back, that's why the organisation has continued to grow and continued to be successful.

"The other thing as well to be outward looking as well not just to have your perimeters defined by Northern Ireland or the UK or the British Isles, but there is so much learning and so many opportunities globally and I sometimes think we are not as good in the third sector as we should be seeing ourselves as part of a global network of organisations."

Mistakes and pride

Of course, this was not a frictionless history. If taking risks is a key part of your model then making, and using, mistakes has to be as well. If your gameplan is to make many gambles that all absolutely have to come off you are set for catastrophe.

When Scope asked Dr Fitzpatrick if she would do anything differently she laughed before listing almost every type of error an organisation can make - not fully understanding the implications of taking on new work, recruitment problems, using reserves to fund projects because costs grew higher than expected - adding that "the culture of the organisation allowed us all to make mistakes but always learn from them."

Alongside the mistakes, and probably more fun to look back at, come the successes.

No-one thinks early years provision in Northern Ireland is perfect, as things stand, but compared with the almost empty space, several decades ago, we have come a long way - much of the fuelled by Early Years and Dr Fitzpatrick, who said there are a few things of which she is most proud.

"I think what we were able to do in Northern Ireland around making pre-school services universal and free, and really driving up the quality in the voluntary and community sector, that really stands out.

"And then our work internationally, linking what we did in terms of anti-sectarianism, with the media initiative and respecting difference programme, and linking that to other countries emerging from conflict, or in conflict, and seeing that programme resonate globally - those things have been the highlights of the work."

Overall, she said, the new important regard in which early years development is now held represents a huge step forward.

She cites the UN and organisations like Unicef, and the fact they now see early development as a critical pillar of improving lives and societies around the world, as a welcome sea change.

The future

Receiving this award was a great honour but Dr Fitzpatrick says she is not done yet, and that "there are a couple of big things I want to achieve before I hang up the boots."

Firstly, Early Years is planning a £5m rural innovation centre, based in Clogher Valley, that she hopes will have an influence not just in NI, or island-wide, but instead do work that makes progress of relevance everywhere.

Furthermore, she says there is still plenty to be done for children aged 0-3 and their families "but that depends on having an Executive."

Another possible target for reform is the transfer test. It is only in the past couple of years that Early Years extended it remit from an organisation that focuses on 0-6 to one looking at children aged 0-12.

The eleven plus, as well as the NI school starting age, are two areas about which Dr Fitzpatrick feels strongly - and she sees them as related issues.

"We have the youngest school starting age in the world. Many parents think that if you get children into formal schooling earlier you will increase their chances of passing the 11 plus. It is totally wrong to have young children in formal school settings at the age of four years and two months and it is very unhelpful to select academically at the age of 11, for many reasons.

"A lot of kids, boys in particular, are not well-enough developed. But also giving children, who are good and very good in other ways, the feeling that if they don't pass an academic exam at 11 that they are somehow failures - what that does in terms of destroying potential is no longer justifiable, if it was ever justifiable."

Early Years, it seems, is an organisation that will continue to set itself fresh goals.


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