15/10/2015 07:49 BST | Updated 15/10/2016 06:12 BST

Ofsted is Recognising Exceptional Leaders in Nurseries - Let's Do That With Pay as Well as Praise

The UK's nurseries employ some amazing people.

They don't just work tirelessly to do their best for the children in their care - they also inspire excellence in those around them.

They are true, shining beacons of great practice and professionalism.

It's great that Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw has announced plans to recognise and reward "exceptional leaders" in early years settings, when they are spotted at inspections.

A letter full of glowing praise is nice. But a more fitting salary, all year round, would be preferable.

It's ironic. As a sector, we are pushing for higher and higher standards and priding ourselves on excellence. But we are also very worried about paying all our eligible staff the National Living Wage from April.

The National Living Wage should be an absolute bare minimum for such dedicated practitioners, not an aspiration that will see many nurseries having to scrape together to achieve.

NDNA welcomes the National Living Wage in principle. Our vision, after all, is for a well-paid, highly-trained and qualified, world class workforce.

But we are concerned about the impact on childcare providers' finances and we've made this clear in our submission to the Low Pay Commission for its current consultation.

NDNA's own research reveals that the initial uplift will mean, on average, a 10% rise in pay roll costs as employers work to maintain pay differentials across their staff and reward everyone fairly.

In the longer term, as the National Living Wage rises steadily to a projected £9 per hour in 2020, childcare providers are looking at a 35% increase in their wages bills - a frankly scary prospect for many owners and managers.

Supermarket chain Lidl has become one of the latest major household names to embrace higher wages and is now paying 9,000 of its UK workers at least the full living wage.

The move represents an average pay rise of £1,200 per year to at least £8.20 an hour, and £9.35 in London, past the level recommended by the Living Wage Foundation of £7.85 and £9.15 in London.

The Chancellor, George Osborne's National Living Wage is lower than both of these levels, but will still create a headache for many nurseries. So how can it be right that our high street coffee chains and supermarkets can achieve what nurseries would love to, but cannot?

It should be relatively straightforward to pay nursery practitioners what they deserve for doing a very important, aspirational job at such a key stage in children's development.

As we're all aware, childcare is a difficult sector in which to sustain a business. Margins are tight even without the chronic underfunding of free places in the financial mix.

It's this chronic underfunding that's the real problem. I talk about it all the time in this blog but explain it in full here.

The details of the criteria for Sir Michael's exceptional leaders are still to be discussed and agreed.

But I'm picturing people who put children at the centre of everything they do and are generous with their skills and knowhow, sharing wherever they can.

I'm thinking about those who can encourage and inspire co-workers to raise their game and looks at the bigger picture, influencing and contributing to changes in the sector around them.

They might be a bit of a maverick and do things differently and they are fiercely ambitious for the children and families they serve, standing their ground to achieve great outcomes.

Does this look like you? Or anyone you know? Do you even agree? Or would an exceptional leader look very different, in your eyes? It's an interesting debate.

We're not talking about caped crusaders with dazzling charisma - just fantastic people who work very hard and whose drive and ethos rubs off on everyone around them.

These are real-life superheroes with mortgages and families to feed.

As he approaches his Spending Review 2016-19, we urge the Chancellor George Osborne to take a real step change in early years funding, so that we can pay our superheroes what they're actually worth, not just what we can afford.