I have been asked many times about who has influenced my life and I am usually publicly quite non-committal and say 'friends'. However, my dearest friend who shared my passion for Early Years died on Good Friday and she was most definitely an enormous influence as well as a supporter of all my work that led me to founding LEYF.
I first met Sue Chambers in 1994, when my daughter Clodagh was four. One of our first shared experienced was taking Clodagh on the march against nursery vouchers up to the Methodist Hall. I think that and our shared love of short skirts and high boots cemented a 25-year friendship. Not a week went by during all those years that we did not talk, sometimes briefly but more often long telephone calls, always covering something to do with education. Long chats on my journey home were made easier by mobile phones. A habit that continued until she was hospitalised a few weeks ago.
Sue had a passion to raise the status of Early Years. She was the head teacher of Chertsey Nursery School, having come up the ranks as a nursery nurse and then a nursery teacher in Bristol before becoming a head teacher in Surrey. I loved her passion and energy. She went up against the staid establishment of the local authority, looking for and finding supporters to help her set up a Special Needs Unit and getting funds to support families. She and I worked together to set up a HomeStart in her school as well as working out the first baseline assessment for three-year olds so we could track and support those children starting school from a disadvantaged home. I was inspired by her initiatives in Chertsey, her big science projects, her garden ideas and her passion for books. Her energy and enthusiasm was infectious. Nothing was impossible! She managed to get money from many so she could fund parent trips, buy new resources and carry out school improvements to the beautiful, but hard to maintain, Queen Anne school building.
Sue’s campaigning and feisty approach meant she ruffled feathers. As we see so often, the establishment favours the anodyne and the self-serving and Sue being stubborn and determined would never sell out on her principles. It was one of the many things I loved about her. When I went through my own annus horribilis she was there to help me, hold my nerve and be the grit that formed the pearl in the oyster.
Her early retirement meant Sue could do more work at LEYF. She was one of the few I would trust. I knew she would be fair and sensible in her approach and would deliver good advice. She did many things from preparing for Ofsted, to improving teaching, assessment of NVQ students to supporting Sencos. She wrote the Men in Childcare report and then we did our chapter on wellbeing. We never got to write the book about Two Year olds that was to come out of the Twoness of Twos report. When she became too ill to continue her active support some years ago, I missed her not being able to visit and provide balanced and well-researched counsel.
Sue loved the internet, social media and all things that made her passion for research easy. She used this interest to write some great articles for many Early Years publications especially Nursery World. She always delivered on time, much appreciated by any commissioning editor. Sue was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease some years ago, it was the beginning of her slow demise. She became a member of the Addison Charity and did a huge amount of research and also provided support to many fellow sufferers. She wrote a cookery book to support the charity persuading the famous including celebrities, prime ministers and local dignitaries to share their favourite recipes. LEYF recipes also had a starring role.
She also figured out how to make good use of her phone. I was always turning up wailing about not being able to do the simplest thing and she would slowly (and with a glass of wine or one of her great cakes) calm me down and explain the rules with the rhythm, rhyme and repetition worthy of a phonic!
I have so many happy memories from paragliding on holiday in Cyprus to our health farm trip in Surrey when we couldn’t find our way round the garden, hosting my birthday party, her singing Puff the Magic Dragon as we chugged down the Thames while husband, Alan tried to ignore us! Her making Abba dresses out of pillowcases so we could do the Karaoke and sing Money Money, Money at the 80s themed LEYF New Year Party, trips we made to the Harry Edwards Alternative Healing Centre when we were both ill, gossiping while knitting as we watched the boats on the river, her shouting at them to be careful of the swans! But it’s the ordinary 'take it for granted' times and our daily chats that I will miss most.
I could go on but I am beginning to sound maudlin and sentimental and that would irritate Sue. I can’t quite believe I will never see her or hear her swear down the phone about early childhood policies or poor practice. I have lost my lovely researcher friend who always looked out for me.
In Early Years there are many ordinary women doing extraordinary things and Sue was one of the greatest. We must remember these women because we all stand on their shoulders. Goodbye Sue, gone but never forgotten.
- To purchase a copy of Sue’s charity cook book with proceeds going to the Addison’s Disease Self Help Group visit the charity's website here
June O'Sullivan (right) is the chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation