Fundamental role of leadership in early childhood education and care

  • Laura Caroline Kinkead

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The early childhood education and care sector has been under-researched for many decades, resulting in confusion and lack of recognition for the service as a foundation for children's holistic development and future growth. Leadership theory and practice are well developed concepts in business and higher-level educational systems, such as primary, post-primary and third-level institutes. However, the early years sector lacks clarity and does not experience the same attention as their educational counterparts. This study explores leadership in the early childhood education and care sector to understand the nature of provision, leadership identity and practice.
A qualitative ethno-case study approach was used to capture the perspectives of practitioners, leaders, governors, parents and community agents. Data was collected through semi-structed interviews, observations, focus groups and documentation from six pre-schools in Northern Ireland. Reflexive thematic analysis revealed three key themes. The identity of early years which highlights that gender and play stereotypes have resulted in a lack of value for and recognition of the service. Based on the six settings, a common philosophy of early years emerged which places the child at the very centre of an ‘educare’ model that draws upon the knowledge and experience of other professionals. How early years leadership is practiced is underpinned by distributed leadership theory; a theory that posits that leadership flows through the connection and interaction of people and practice, such as that offered by Gronn (2002), Harris (2003) and Spillane et al. (2001). Alongside this, Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems theory (1977) posits that child development involves a complex system of relationships and environmental layers or systems that surround a child. This study will propose an intersection between distributed leadership theory and ecology theory analogous to an onion model, overlaid by a webbed structure. The concentric rings around the child recognises the expertise of a range of individuals at education level, family level, community level and the web represents the various lateral and vertical connections and relationships between people which knowledge, expertise and practice flows.
I make three recommendations. Firstly, joining ecology theory with distributed leadership theory demonstrates a type of network that epitomises people working together to support the child. Secondly, the separation of education and care at a policy level needs to change to reflect the concentric and webbed organisational structure of early years, to aid the implementation of an educare model from theory to practice. Thirdly, campaigns to improve the image of the early years sector are needed to raise awareness of working with young children as a valuable career and give strength to the practitioner’s voice and identity.
Date of AwardDec 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorGavin Duffy (Supervisor) & Alison MacKenzie (Supervisor)


  • Leadership
  • early childhood
  • Ecology theory
  • distributed leadership theory
  • educational leadership

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