They’ve been made worse by the devastating impact of the pandemic. There is, rightly, much discussion about skills gaps and productivity levels, the need to stimulate economic growth and create more job opportunities. But there’s precious little sense of what levelling up could and should actually look like.
A couple of weeks ago, I set off to Shirecliffe in north-east Sheffield for my first visit anywhere on behalf of the University for fourteen months. In Shirecliffe, Sheffield Hallam has partnered with Save the Children, Sheffield City Council and Watercliffe Meadows School to do something genuinely innovative: the UK’s first university-led Early Years Community Research Centre.
The project has been driven by our shared belief in the transformative power of excellent early education, and through the passion, knowledge and expertise of Sheffield Hallam’s social mobility programme, South Yorkshire Futures.
In addition to providing much needed nursery places for the local community the centre will be a hub for innovative early years education and care alongside multi-disciplinary research, improving outcomes for children in its community as well as disseminating findings across the sector.
The centre will provide up to 40 places for children aged two to five and will also house health professionals and family support services, in an area of Sheffield which faces multiple social and economic challenges exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
What has been achieved is impressive, and there is so much about it to like. From the start the centre has been planned with the local community. That means that partnership is deeply embedded, enabling real joined-up thinking with a shared vision for what the centre is intended to achieve.
The educational thinking which underpins the centre has been led by Sally Pearse, an outstanding early years educator from the Sheffield Institute of Education and one of the University’s National Teaching Fellows.
Sally has a deep commitment to working together for children. It also means that there has been active engagement across wider communities: partnerships have been built through the Business in the Community network which has brought pro bono support for equipment and – probably just as important – volunteering time to shape the hard landscaping.
Building on Watercliffe Meadows’ approach of involving families in their children’s education as early as possible, the centre’s first research pilot, funded by Save the Children, will bring together early years researchers with health and home visiting partners. They will work with families and with 2-year-olds entitled to Free Early Learning and children identified as needing extra support.
We think this centre is a UK-first and we hope it will become a national blueprint for best practice, innovation and delivery in early years, benefitting those children who need it most.
I am incredibly proud of this project. It demonstrates the vital role universities have to play in tackling the economic and social inequalities embedded in the regions they serve. It demonstrates how powerful universities can be in linking teaching, research, practice and innovation to shape futures and really transform lives. It is an excellent example of the impact collaborative partnerships united around a shared purpose and bold vision can have. And it sits at the heart of Hallam’s commitment to providing young people with every opportunity to thrive.
Following an incredibly challenging year for education settings, the Centre opened its doors to children at the end of April, following extensive renovations to transform a disused part of Shirecliffe Community Centre, adjoining Watercliffe Meadow School, into the new community nursery. My visit was an early one. There was the unmistakable, and always wonderful scent of new furniture in a building which has been revamped and re-equipped. The children were lively and engaged and the staff were clearly delighted with their new setting. The enthusiasm and excitement of all involved in the project was wonderful to see.
As we move into a post-pandemic world, the government is once again beginning to focus on the compelling, if vague ‘levelling up’ agenda. For any politician looking for a way to define a soundbite, the university-led Early Years Community Research Centre in Shirecliffe is fabulous example of levelling-up in action.