Business Challenges: Part 3 - Reaching out

Charlotte Goddard
Tuesday, May 31, 2022

How should settings strengthen their connection to local parents in a shifting landscape, asks Charlotte Goddard

Post-pandemic, perceptions, needs and demands of childcare have changed for many families. Lockdown led some to a greater appreciation of the benefits of early education and childcare, but others are still keeping their children at home for all or some of the time, due to changed working patterns, reduced income, or continuing concerns about safety.

Ofsted, for example, recently reported a decreased take-up of funded places for two-year-olds, while University of Leeds research found that 15 per cent of parents interviewed in autumn 2021 had decided not to return to work after parental leave. ‘Parents might have got used to having their child with them and decided they can live on a smaller income,’ says Blue Simmons, owner of Abbotswood Nursery and Pre-School in Kent. For some disadvantaged or vulnerable families, the idea of mixing with other families has felt too much of a challenge.

The Leeds research also found that childminders have been particularly impacted. Most childminders surveyed (90 per cent) attributed reduced occupancy to reduced demand from parents due to changes in their work. ‘This is a wraparound childcare issue and one that out-of-school providers have also been deeply affected by,’ says James Hempsall, director of consultancy Hempsall’s.

Being flexible

The recruitment crisis in the early years sector is such that many providers are having to cap the number of children they can take on rather than increase occupancy. However, business success remains dependent on building a strong, positive local profile, especially given that settings lose a cohort of children to schools every September.

Understanding the needs of local parents, and how these might have changed due to the pandemic, is key to establishing a strong local connection. This should involve talking directly with them to understand what they expect from a provider.

‘People want to do all sorts of things more consciously, and many remain concerned about their health and safety,’ says Hempsall. ‘We all should watch and consider these changes to our work and personal lives and respond to them in the short to long terms.’

Flexibility is increasingly demanded by parents, but since the pandemic, most providers (65 per cent) have made no notable change to choice or flexibility in hours, according to the Department for Education. ‘The landscape has shifted, there is a demand for more flexible childcare,’ says Olivia Feltham, SearchChildcare project manager at Pacey. ‘Some providers are struggling with that.’ On the other hand, Hempsall has witnessed providers returning to more inflexible models ‘to respond to demand for shorter hours and to protect sustainability’.

Being visible

Word of mouth is one of the most important weapons in a setting’s promotional arsenal. ‘Word of mouth references are huge, especially for childminders,’ says Feltham. ‘Posters in cafes, activity centres, schools are also a classic way of reaching families. But it is important to have a link that you can direct people to, so parents can go online and see your setting rather than just hearing about it.’

There are a number of early years directories, including and Pacey’s free SearchChildcare directory allows childminders, group settings and nannies to link to their Ofsted reports, Facebook pages and websites, indicate availability and list fees. ‘Childminders offer an invaluable service, and to see their business bloom, they need to be visible online,’ says Feltham. Each entry has a direct web address so can be used as an alternative to a website. ‘It astonishes me how many settings I meet do not make sure they are kept up to date or accurately listed on these,’ says Hempsall.

To maximise success, Pacey suggests choosing photos that show the main features of the setting, and including key features in the description such as staffing, opening hours, extra activities, resources and specialisms. ‘I encourage providers to tell the story of a setting through words and images. Perhaps a setting is outdoor-focused, or maybe it’s family-run? Whatever the ethos, displaying it within a profile is key,’ says Feltham. ‘That could be describing what a child’s “day in the life” may look like or displaying quotes from current parents.’

Building a positive and professional profile includes taking a look at day-to-day details such as your email address, your email signature, and your mobile phone and voicemail messages, says Hempsall. This is particularly important for childminders where sometimes personal and professional boundaries can be blurred – it is not advised to use a ‘fun’ email address you set up in our teens as your professional contact.

Email signatures should include your business name, logo, website address and a regularly updated marketing message, he advises, while voicemail messages should include your setting’s name, a link to your website and a reference to your culture or aim, for example, ‘the place where children learn’. ‘This is all about first impressions if someone has been motivated to contact you from a poster, a recommendation, or an online directory,’ Hempsall explains.

Parental worries

Settings can assuage parental concerns to some extent by highlighting food hygiene certificates, health and safety policies and risk assessments, and showing those policies in action. However, Simmons says she finds parents are no longer so concerned about issues like handwashing, and are more worried about whether their very young children will cope at nursery after spending most of their lives in lockdown. ‘We are seeing children aged two and three coming in and their personal, social and emotional skills are not where they would have been pre-lockdown – they are not as resilient, they cry more easily,’ she says.

To counter this, early years settings can highlight that early education and childcare supports children’s socialisation and wider cognitive development. ‘It is important to emphasise the benefits of mixing with other children. Childminders typically have smaller settings than nurseries, so while children still benefit from socialising with other children, they often build a special bond through increased one-to-one time,’ suggests Feltham.

Abbotswood Pre-School and Day Nursery uses social media to educate parents about developmental benefits. An Instagram post on laughter, to coincide with World Laughter Day, combined a video of toddlers interacting with practitioners and laughing their heads off, with information on the positive effects of laughter.

Another showed children asleep on mats in the garden, alongside facts about how sleeping outdoors can boost cognitive development. Social media platforms allow settings to maintain a high profile, both on their own pages and through activity on local parenting and community groups. ‘I keep an eye on the quality of images I am using, not just on social media but also on eyLog, which we use to communicate directly with parents of children in the setting,’ says Simmons. Of course settings should always obtain parental consent to use children’s images and never identify them. Abbotswood uses Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, but has decided against Twitter and TikTok. ‘We are not going to get more children in the setting by debating early years policy on Twitter,’ says Simmons. ‘We use Facebook for driving sales because there are more mums on there asking about nurseries. Instagram is more of a showcase.’

Post-pandemic, says Hempsall, the most successful childcare businesses will be the ones that are quick to spot a need and meet it. ‘This requires us all to keep an eye on the external environment and to embrace our powers of estimation and prediction to inform good risk-taking and innovation,’ he says. ‘We should listen to the values and feelings that demonstrate the need for all of us to offer real connections and social value to our work now and in a sustainable future. That way we can stand out from the crowd by being “bang on trend”.’

Practical tips on staff deployment by James Hempsall

Early years can learn from post-pandemic retail trends as well as reacting to sector-specific developments such as changes to childcare demand.

Increase in online ‘shopping’ Use of technology increased over lockdown and people expect much more of your website and online presence. Online is hugely important in how we reach, inform, connect and communicate with families to tell them about who we are and what we do. Make sure all your content is where it should be, so people can find you, for example national websites and local Family Information Service directories. You need a constantly updated website that functions perfectly on mobile phones.

Virtual experiences We have all entered a much bigger online world that we had before. We should embrace the functionality of technology to manage initial enquiries, have discussions, offer setting show-arounds, and provide setting inductions and tours. Social media needs to be current, accurate and regularly updated.

People want to support local businesses In times of crisis or trauma, there is an enhanced need for a sense of togetherness, and customers are seeking out real people, running local, independently owned businesses. Those settings remaining open throughout have seen their connection with families become very strong. There are opportunities for childminders and smaller settings, and the larger and even chain settings, to reconsider their local credentials.

Retail is growing its local delivery offer This trend is about real people providing personalised and flexible services, not relying on generic solutions or delivery service providers. For early years and childcare this is an opportunity to build on our strength of real interpersonal connections and to individualise delivery. If you are the business owner, now is the time to be visible at the front of the business, to connect and to be more present.

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