Travel to learn – return to inspire! Guest post by Geraldine Leydon

Alistair Bryce-CleggUncategorized3 Comments

Hello, my name is Geraldine. I am a Primary Partnership Tutor working in primary teacher training.

For the most part, during my twenty years working as a teacher and senior manager in primary schools in the North West of England, I felt fulfilled and always eager to be in the early year’s classroom surrounded by the children and their families.  I felt privileged to be part a community and was very aware of the impact I could have on these young lives. Over the years, as I grew in confidence and experience however, I found my values and developing beliefs about effective pedagogy did not align comfortably   with some successive national educational initiatives.  I was frustrated as I passionately wanted to provide an effective environment for young children to flourish.  I was also fearful for my livelihood as I was incredibly frustrated by some practices viewing it as a barrier to effective practice in an ever-spiraling accountability culture.   I was embroiled in endless paperwork that rather than enhance my practice, inhibited it. I didn’t want this culture to mould and dictate my professional practice.   I clearly remember one day when a child was really engrossed in their play and I swiftly moved to get a pen to record the number of the then profile point they were meeting.  The practice of giving a numerical number was no longer in place but I was ingrained in it.    I was seeing children’s play through numbers for the profile rather than the value in their play beyond accountability.


Through this discomfort I acted.  I now see this pivotal time as the catalyst for encouraging the change of direction in my career. I decided to give myself something very precious which was time to think and reflect. It was not an easy choice but fortunately for me it was an economically viable one.    I did supply work which I hoped would develop my employment repertoire and concurrently studied for a Master’s in Education. The deep desire to feel fulfilled in my career stayed with me throughout this time


As luck would have it, during this time, I had heard about  the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship as my sister had successfully been awarded a grant in the  Mental Health category. The Trust empowers individuals to learn from the world and transform lives across the UK. The innovative ideas absorbed are expected to be of benefit to people which informs the Fellowship adage ‘Travel to learn, return to inspire’. In 2015 there was an Early Years category and I applied and was awarded a grant to travel in the summer of 2016. Clearly, I was thrilled but I felt, and continue to feel a real desire and responsibility to ‘inspire’.

My plan was to visit New Zealand as this was a unique opportunity to observe, in situ the neatly woven and sturdy mat of the New Zealand Te Whāriki early years curriculum framework and the impact of its longevity.   My scope was open-ended, as I did not want to limit the potential to what I could happen upon.  My visits in New Zealand’s winter months took me throughout the country from the subtropical climate of the Northland down to the temperate oceanic climate of the Southland.    As I was keen to observe children’s broad holistic development in an educational context, I visited a variety of preschools, two kindergarten associations   and two early year’s teacher-training colleges. Many of the settings were Reggio inspired which was a significant contributor to my list of reasons to explore New Zealand.

Experiencing Reggio inspired settings was an amazing opportunity to observe early years environments. The pedagogistand inspiration for the preschools of Reggio Emilia, Loris Malaguzzi believed the physical environment to be of fundamental importance and referred to this as the “third teacher”.   I found experiencing these physical environments had a clear impact on me and if I were still classroom based, I would introduce more natural objects and consider the use of light rather than my plastic, albeit matching resources that I once took pride in.   As one practitioner said, ‘You just want to see the colours pop.’


            Lightboxes were very common in the Reggio inspired settings. This is one that I saw in Tot’s corner Auckland                                                        


 ‘You can see the colours pop!’  This photo was taken in Mairtown Kindergarten Northland                                                                                          

I found planning processes in New Zealand to be completely anathema to me.  Planning was rarely recorded and if it was it was in hindsight and in note form. Often, I saw scrap books that were in effect the planning files! Significantly, there was an inspectorate body, the Educational review Organisation (ERO) but I learnt that they were viewed as a supportive and developmental body. Whilst In the settings, I witnessed democratic processes that enabled teachers to research their own questions, which arose from the complex realties and challenges in the context of their own  early years setting.  Practitioner research was common place and encouraged when practitioners wanted to explore different approaches in early years. These practices served to forge the centrality of the child in their practices.

Southland Kindergarten Associations outdoor area

Dispositional learning  was a recurring theme I encountered on my journey.  One of the highlights was when I visited the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit at Otago University.   Here I was able to discuss first hand research-based evidence from the longitudinal Dunedin Study.  This study began in 1972 and was designed to investigate broader questions of child health and development and not originally conceived of as a long-term study. Remarkably, it is still going today and provides a vast amount of data at regular cycles provided by the participants. My response to these findings was that it challenged the oft centrality in some English early years practice of formal academic teaching. For example, in the study, indicators of successful life outcomes have been tracked back to early childhood with unexpected findings.  One key disposition was the child’s level of self-control at an early age and its relationship to successful life outcomes.

Otago University with Dr Sandhya Ramrakha

The Te Whāriki early years curriculum is celebrated for its bicultural framework. I was excited to visit Rotorua which is an area the North Island renowned for its Maori culture.      Here I had a chance conversation and heard about Puna Reo early childhood centres which are Maori immersed but are funded and supported by the Ministry of Education. This differs to the Kohanga Reo settings which are predominantly Whanau (family led). I was privileged to visit a Kohanga Reo and I learnt of the complexities of pursuing Maori culture and tradition.  Funding of the Maori Kohanga Reo settings is less than mainstream.

One point of contention was that to achieve full funding there must be trained staff to a requisite level whereby the Maori culture has a very strong link with Whanau. There are qualifications in these settings, but the authorities do not recognise some of them and therefore funding is affected. Discussion arose as to the Kohanga Reo’s level of autonomy.  There was a suggestion that ERO, had ‘mainstream thinking’.  A further struggle for the Kohanga Reo was having Kaumatua (elders) involvement which is central to Maori culture.  What is problematic is that many of this generation do not have Te Reo (Maori language) due to past governments actively discouraging the language.  My brief discussion then served to further my understanding of the complexities of Maori preschool education beyond the Te Whāriki curriculum.  A complexity that would be well worth exploring further.

 Staff at Rotokawa Kohanga Reo in Rotorua

 An additonal reason for visiting New Zealand, not that I need any more was to see the programme Babywatching in action in a girls school in Tauranga in the North Island.   I had seen this highly efficient and effective attachment based programme in Germany where it originated as the first part of my travelling fellowship.

As expected, on my learning journey, I witnessed variations in practice between England and New Zealand.  A key theme however is applicable to all teaching professionals wherever they may be. The reality is that the discipline and practice of teaching in the early years is highly complex. Teacher expertise including a highly developed, current and multidisciplinary knowledge of child development in its widest sense is paramount in executing the discipline of teaching young children today. This is key to enhancing the long-term life chances of all children wherever they may be.

Significantly, beyond the knowledge I acquired, the people I met and the experience of seeing this stunning country, I have changed.   As I said at the outset of this blog, I was worried for my career and livelihood and it felt all consuming.   I now feel differently about bumps in the road.  I expect them and now view them as although sometimes unsettling,  they are temporary and often good things can and do come from these experiences,

You can find my full report by visiting the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust website link below.   You can also read my ongoing recording of my travels by visiting The Foundation Stage Forum and search for WChurchill under research.  I have also contributed to the book Te Whāriki in Naomi, M, Giardiello, P (ed)(2019) Empowering Early Childhood Educators where I discussed the revised Te Whariki curriculum.

To find out more about the Fellowship follow the link below.   Why Don’t You Go For It?


Thanks Geraldine – that was a really interesting read. It is always good to reflect on our own and others practice – especially from the other side of the world! – Alistair













3 Comments on “Travel to learn – return to inspire! Guest post by Geraldine Leydon”

  1. Hi Geraldine, I am so glad you got to see the wonderful Mairtown Kindergarten! I am an expat living and teaching in a Northland primary school and Mairtown is one of our feeder kindergartens. As a New Entrant teacher, I get to visit all the kindergartens that our children are coming from and Mairtown is no exception! Now we are focusing on developing Continuous Provision in our New Entrant and Year 1 classes to build on the excellent start from Early Childhood centers.

  2. I agree with Annie, your post is very inspiring Geraldine and makes me want to research and study more. It is good to be able to read about someone who has ‘travelled to learn, returned to inspire’ I hope to do this one day myself.

  3. Thank you inspiring and leaves me with a thirst to want to explore these pedagogical approaches first hand

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