Nursery Chains 2021: League Tables - Ups and downs

Catherine Gaunt
Tuesday, March 2, 2021

There is no change at the very top of the table ranking the 25 largest nursery chains in the UK, but there is plenty of movement elsewhere. Catherine Gaunt reports

Kids Planet Day Nurseries are top of the Nursery Chains 2021 Ofsted League PHOTO Katie Whirledge at Papillon PR
Kids Planet Day Nurseries are top of the Nursery Chains 2021 Ofsted League PHOTO Katie Whirledge at Papillon PR

For the first time since it became an annual supplement, this is a spring edition of Nursery Chains.

You probably don’t need me to explain why that is.

However, despite the unprecedented challenges of 2020, nursery groups of all sizes across the UK have continued to valiantly support families during the Covid-19 pandemic, and at the time of writing are open for all children, while schools are closed.

Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, given our times, some groups continued with their expansion plans last year, opening new sites or refurbishing acquisitions.

In this year’s table, Busy Bees and Bright Horizons have retained their first and second places respectively, as they have done for many years, but there is a new group which is now in third position.

This spot goes to Kids Planet, after it bought Kids Allowed, last January, just prior to the pandemic.

Set up in 2008 by CEO Clare Roberts with her father John Hoban, and her sister Lucy Kaczmarska now childcare director, Kids Planet, also based in the North West, has grown rapidly in the past three years following a multi-million-pound investment from BGF. Kids Planet also operates a training company and has recently partnered with the Men In The Early Years campaign to recruit more male apprentices.

Kids Allowed is the highly successful Manchester-based group founded by Jennie Johnson, which in 2019 was named Nursery World’s Nursery Group of the Year, for the second time.

Commenting on the deal last year, Ms Roberts noted, ‘Both companies were started by working mums when we were faced with the challenge of finding flexible and excellent childcare for our own children. We both felt there was an opportunity to improve standards and options in the market. There are so many synergies, which has made this acquisition feel like a natural move.’

In other moves in the top half of the table, the YMCA is now the eighth-largest group, running 73 nurseries across the country through a federation of local YMCAs, as well as running out-of-school and holiday clubs.

Also rising up through the ranks is ICP Nurseries, which has increased in number by 12 settings to move into ninth place.

Set up by CEO Tracey Storey in 2016, it now owns 45 nurseries, with settings stretching from the Midlands and Oxfordshire to London, the South East and across to Cambridgeshire.

New groups

Our league table of the biggest groups in the country also includes some new entries.

Notable is Welcome Nurseries, a group which was established less than two years ago, backed by private investor Jonathan Jay. It has grown at a rapid rate to 28 settings, offering 2,940 places, with 650 employees.

Its expansion puts it in 13th place in the league table, and the group has ambitious plans. In an interview with Nursery World last year, Welcome’s director of childcare and education Linda Cuddy said the aim when starting the group was to have 100 nurseries.

It is certainly well on track, and is in the process of acquiring five more nurseries, which would add a further 350 places to its offer.

Another new entry to the table, in 19th place, is The Old Station Nursery, which now operates 32 nurseries across the Midlands and the South of England.

The group acquired Sunhill Daycare, a group of 11 nurseries, last November.

Its founder, Sarah Steel, who opened the first nursery in 2002, continues to lead the group, which in 2019 became a subsidiary of international operator La Maison Bleue, the leading childcare provider in Switzerland and the third-largest in both France and Luxembourg.

Old Station says it has several more acquisitions planned for this year.

Finally, Snapdragons Nurseries is a well-established group of more than 20 years, which has made it into the table for the first time with ten nurseries offering 1,310 places.

The family-run business set up by Rosemary and Paul Collard opened its first nursery in a farmhouse in Atworth, Wiltshire, in 1998.

Snapdragons’ newest nursery is a 185-place purpose-built setting, which opened in South Gloucestershire in the autumn.

Elsewhere in the directory, new groups that are growing fast include MiChild, a new entrant to the nursery sector in 2019, which now owns 18 nurseries and has further acquisitions in the pipeline.

Also featured for the first time is Little Barn Owls in Horsham, West Sussex, which last month was named Nursery World’s Nursery Group of the Year 2020.

In numbers

The total number of nurseries operated by the 25 biggest groups in the UK is 1,571, an increase of 57 settings, up from 1,514, compared to November 2019.

The number of registered childcare places provided by the 25 biggest groups now stands at 125,786, up from 118,587.

However, while this year’s directory includes expansion stories, some of the nursery groups in the table have decided to rationalise during the pandemic and close some nurseries.

While Bright Horizons remains the second-largest group in the UK, it is nevertheless operating 11 fewer nurseries in 2021 than in our 2019 table.

Two major groups from the voluntary sector have also seen their numbers fall, with both the Early Years Alliance and Spring, which is operated by Action for Children, losing ten settings.

This trend is also reflected among some of the other groups in the directory, which have also closed settings during this time.

Ofsted table

This table is based on our analysis of the latest Ofsted reports available for each nursery owned by the 25 biggest groups. This means that we do not take account of re-registered settings that are awaiting an Ofsted inspection as new registrations after being acquired by another group.

Kids Planet is now top of the Ofsted league table, following in the footsteps of its latest acquisition, Kids Allowed, which has also been top in previous years – although in this instance Kids Allowed’s grades were not included as the nurseries are awaiting inspection as new registrations.

In second place is Children 1st, and in third place the Childbase Partnership. Both the London Early Years Foundation and Co-op Childcare have moved up one spot, to fourth and fifth places respectively.

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