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Nursery World Award win for Sunderland graduate

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Published on 03 October 2023

Helen Haygarth
Helen Haygarth

University of Sunderland graduate Helen Haygarth beat off hundreds of other entries from across the UK to be named the Early Childhood Graduate of the Year, at the Nursery World Awards 2023, held in London at the weekend.

Helen says: “I honestly can’t believe I've won! It was such a joy to receive the award in a room full of so many people I admire, respect and have referenced in my academic work. The win is a result of every practitioner, academic, child and family I have ever worked alongside, and particularly the staff from the University. I am thrilled!”

The glittering awards, hosted by actor and comedian Paul Whitehouse, are open to everyone involved in childcare and education and highlight the inspirational work that goes on. Winners are chosen by a distinguished panel of expert judges, representative of the diversity of disciplines and organisations that make up the sector. 

In presenting the award, the judge panel member said: “I feel that Helen is what we strive for in the sector, demonstrating the belief that there are graduate roles out there and how these professional can make a difference in early help for children and families.”

Mum-of-three Helen, from Peterlee, for many years worked in nursery settings for many years, but realised she couldn’t progress in her work without the right qualifications and took a major life decision to return to education at the age of 39. She completed a Foundation degree at East Durham College in 2017, followed by the University’s Education and Curriculum Studies top-up degree in Childhood Studies. 

The gamble paid off and not only did she achieve First-Class Honours, but alongside her degree she also became the first graduate of a national pilot scheme – the Early Childhood Graduate Practitioner Competencies, which helps shape the identity of the early childhood workforce and strengthens the professional practice aspects of the degree. 

Helen is also in the process of completing her Masters in Childhood Studies, to further her professional practice. 

But it’s in her day job where she’s making a huge impact with Durham County Council in the Early Help Services, as the Engagement and Participation Lead for Family Hubs. The hubs were introduced by government to local authorities to offer early support to families and young children to help them overcome difficulties and build strong relationships. 

Helen says: “Thanks to all the research and theory throughout my degree, it’s helped drive my current role which is to facilitate a panel of parents and carers to have voice across the Family Hubs provision in Durham. This role relies on my ability to build relationships, be inclusive, and truly listen and act upon the views and opinions of the panel. 

“I am so proud of what we have achieved with the teams and families so far. We are getting the right level of support to those who need it. Every module I have done I have been able to connect and relate to every aspect of my job.” 

Dr Bruce Marjoribanks, Interim Associate Head of School for Childhood, Health and Society at the University of Sunderland, said: "Helen's award is a well-deserved success. She is an inspiration for others to follow.

“Helen embodies the values of this institution and is the type of practitioner that our communities need. She is a committed advocate for children's rights and we look forward to working with her in the future."

Gayle Blackburn, Senior Lecturer in Childhood Studies, at the University of Sunderland, who nominated Helen for the Nursery World Awards 2023, added: “I was confident Helen would win this award and so pleased my intuition came to fruition! 

“Helen so deserves this and all of the recognition and praise which it comes with. She really does represent everything which this important sector needs.”