Jump to accessibility statement Skip to content

“I have always advocated for the rights of children”

Home / More / News / “I have always advocated for the rights of children”

Published on 29 September 2023

Helen Haygarth
Helen Haygarth

A University of Sunderland graduate whose degree took her career from nursery practitioner to a community leadership role that is transforming families’ lives - is in the running for a national award.

Beating off hundreds of other entries from across the UK, Helen Haygarth has been named a finalist in the Early Childhood Graduate of the Year category at the Nursery World Awards 2023, to be held in London this weekend (Sept 30).

Helen says: “I can’t quite believe I’ve got this far, just to be nominated is such an honour. I’d never have believed this would have been possible, given the journey I’ve had to get here.”

Mum-of-three Helen, from Peterlee, for many years worked in nursery settings, 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 north-east 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 Family Hub Agenda aims to offer universal support to families when they need help and support and Durham are one of the government’s trailblazer authorities.

Helen, whose two older children have both now graduated from University, says: “I have always advocated for the rights of children in my care and held the view that they should have quality opportunities to play and develop in a nurtured environment at their own pace which in turn will support their flourishing. 

“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.” 

Helen says the University has helped build her confidence and skills, and admits she finds herself in strategic management meetings she never would have imaged, offering guidance and advice from struggling families to professionals in heath, childcare and local government.

“My family are very proud at what I’ve achieved, and as a parent you want to make them realise anything is possible.”

She added: “When I look back now, I often think about my own upbringing and how challenging life can be and how I can relate; my first nursery job I was offered I didn’t even have the bus fare, or the right clothes to wear, but I pushed on through and here I am now having been selected as a finalist for this award, it’s unbelievable.”

Gayle Blackburn, Senior Lecturer in Childhood Studies, at the University of Sunderland, who nominated Helen for the Nursery World Awards 2023, said: “Helen really is an inspirational early years’ advocate. 

“Ever since Helen started at the University, all she has ever wanted to do was develop her skills and knowledge around childhood and child development. Since achieving the Early Childhood Graduate Practitioner Competencies, she has worked alongside the Childhood Studies team to share her expertise. Helen is committed to changing the lives of the children and families she works with and she feels that a part of this starts by supporting the next generation of Early Years’ practitioners. We are very lucky that Helen chose the University to develop her academic knowledge and now have her supporting the upcoming graduates.” 

Karen Davison, Strategic Manager for Early Help Service, Children and Young People’s Services at Durham County Council, said: “We are immensely proud of Helen’s achievement, it is so well deserved. Since working within the One Point (Early Help) Service, Helen has made a huge impact through not only her own excellent work but through sharing her expertise in a caring and nurturing way, helping other colleagues to authentically and honestly gather the voice of children and their parents in innovative and creative ways. She is truly inspirational!”