I’ll be honest – I hadn’t heard of footsteps until recently. But since meeting with the organisation’s inspiring and driven owner, Kevin Christie, I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone will have heard of footsteps in a few years’ time.

For those similarly ignorant, footsteps provides pre-school children and their caregivers a fully funded learning service at home from qualified early childhood teachers. Their early childhood teachers visit families’ chosen caregivers on a regular basis at their homes to provide tailored, one to one learning programmes to their children. The only requirement is for families to have home-based childcare arranged for at least 15 hours a week.

At first I struggled to see how parents could justify – or even be bothered – arranging an early childcare educator in addition to a caregiver, but then Christie reminds me that it is a completely free service, drawing on government funding wherever possible.

I also grappled with the concept of educator working alongside caregiver; I imagined the caregiver might find the educator something of an intrusion given the time spent with the child. Surely there is a fine line between providing basic care and providing the stimulus and activities toward educating the child?

However, Christie says footsteps teachers aren’t competitive with caregivers and seldom find any animosity between the parties. In fact, footsteps often works hand-in-hand with many caregiver and au pair agencies. In certain cases footsteps will assist with caregiver costs and waive administrative charges if necessary. Further evidence of the synergies exists in footsteps’ current drive to reward caregivers with a $50 voucher if they refer another caregiver to enrol their children with footsteps.

Christie also helped quell any doubts I might have had about home-based care. He is a strong advocate for home-based care and has clearly done his homework on the topic, citing research from Brainwave Trust Aotearoa and others that shows that children who receive nurturing care and individual attention from a consistent caregiver in the early stages of childhood are able to create more secure attachments. He believes the familiar environment of their home allows children to engage in what is real and of interest to them. This is what early learning is about, says Christie, not ‘educational materials’ or ‘set activities’.

The low teacher-to-child ratios are also one of footsteps’ features. They pride themselves on never having more than 30 children allocated per qualified teacher, allocating five hours per child – ratios that are superior to other home-based childcare organisations. Christie also notes with some disdain the “magic plastic” used as recourse in other organisations. footsteps aims for low cost, environmental options where possible, such as seedlings for planting and reed paintbrushes.

Whatever they are doing, it seems to be working – footsteps’ growth is impressive, boasting a leap from 280 children in 2007 to 800 in 2011. It has received outstanding ERO reviews; an A+ in 2011 with no learning recommendations, which is an industry first. footsteps has also received the stamp of approval from experts at Victoria University who reviewed their learning programme.

Despite their success to date, one gets the distinct impression that Christie and his team are just getting started. Plans are afoot to launch an early childcare service, which will no doubt supplement their existing programmes. They have also formed a charitable trust as part of a community network and are liaising with the Ministry of Social Development on this – there are currently very few early childhood community providers.

And to think just over ten years ago footsteps was virtually unrecognisable from what it is today. The organisation certainly has interesting origins. It started in 2001, known then as Linmark and run by New Zealand Nannies. In 2005, Christie, who previously worked at a prominent merchant bank in London, was approached by the owners in a consulting capacity to help with the falling enrolments. Instead of taking a fee, Christie opted for a share of the business and was made a junior partner. In 2007 he bought the remaining shares and became sole owner.

The swift career change was brought about by a love of kids. “I love helping out at the church crèche and I’m often asked to play Santa Claus,” he jokes. When based in Europe, Christie visited Romanian orphanages and vowed to try and effect change among needy children. Fast-forward a few years and he is now running a nationwide organisation based in Tauranga, aimed at doing just that. While Christie does not have any childcare education training, he undoubtedly has the business savvy to make the organisation grow wings.

Upon becoming sole owner Christie set about transforming the organisation with a small team of associates and a partner who also bought a stake in the company. “We turned it completely on its head,” he said. “We redrafted the way quality happened. We challenged traditional Western norms.” Christie set about breaking down hierarchical barriers making the organisational structure flat with 50 teachers/kaiako and just 15 others to take care of the management, financial and administrative sides to the business.

There certainly are some interesting notions underpinning footsteps and its operation; for instance, the way footsteps treats its employees is exemplary. Christie set about a cultural change, placing huge trust in the staff of footsteps. “We don’t follow up on mileage and expenses because how can you trust them with children if you can’t trust them with things like that.”

footsteps also gives its staff 20 paid professional development days a year, which Christie tells me is unprecedented in early childcare. Staff are also allocated a paid community day, which Christie hopes they will combine with their own time to help enable footsteps to truly infiltrate the community.

Christie is determined to go the extra mile for his staff. He cited the example where one teacher’s husband was made redundant leaving her short $100 per week for expenses, and footsteps came to the rescue and covered the shortfall until they were back on their feet.

People who work at footsteps are clearly happy. The annual JRA survey, which measures employees’ satisfaction with their workplace, ranked footsteps seventh among small businesses in 2010 and third in 2011. Spoken like a true philanthropic businessman, Christie says the result is that by doing extraordinary things for their kaiako, footsteps is starting to see kaiako do extraordinary things for kids.

It is, after all, all about achieving the best possible outcomes for kids; Christie says the organisation is “child-centric” – their motto: “The child is at the heart of our endeavours”.

Christie believes that to truly make a difference you need to help those in need without ignoring other children who come from our own communities.

footsteps collaborates with a number of agencies like CYF, as well as gangs, women’s prisons and other such groups. All staff members are trained to recognise the signs of child abuse because, as Christie puts it, if the child is at the heart, they need to be protected first. “Everyone talks about protecting children. We’ve decided to be different and actually do it.”

Naturally there has been the odd challenge and frustration along the way. Regulations have been barriers for helping these children. Some parents misconstrue what footsteps is out to achieve and expect handouts instead of accepting the free learning programmes on offer. And at times they “have been taken for a ride” by those who have misplaced their trust.

Such incidents are few and far between, however; the footsteps journey appears to be largely positive and destined for more growth and success in the coming years.

“Being a different organisation is not easy. One needs to see something that others fail to see and then be prepared to submit the idea to your audience for rigorous scrutiny; our aim is to expose potential solutions rather than seek consensus. More precisely our aim is to keep children at the heart of our endeavours,” says Christie.

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