Nursery Chains: League Tables - Changing times

Although the top of the table remains the same, this year’s top 25 ranking reveals evidence elsewhere of the shifting early years landscape. Catherine Gaunt reports

In Nursery Chains’ 20th year, nursery groups across the country are meeting the demands and challenges of an uncertain political landscape head-on.

In 1998, a new Labour Government was embarking on an expansion drive to provide universal childcare, with hundreds of Sure Start Children’s Centres soon to emerge and the introduction and expansion of the free entitlement for three- and four-year-olds.

Twenty years on, the UK faces its most unpredictable future for decades, with the possibility of a no-deal Brexit looming and another general election next year more than likely.

Two decades ago, the 1998 issue of Nursery Chains contained the details of just 70 nursery groups. In 2018, our directory contains 179 names.

We published our first league table listing the 20 largest groups in the UK in 2001, providing a combined total of 33,506 places. The directory listed the names of around 140 nursery groups.

In 2018, the groups in our league table of the 25 largest nursery chains in the UK own or manage 1,433 settings, providing 110,271 childcare places.


Busy Bees remains at the top for the 11th year running with 353 settings, offering 31,514 places.

Outside the UK the group is continuing to expand globally, announcing plans in February to open 32 nurseries in China over the next five years.

Closer to home, Busy Bees has continued its run of acquiring medium-sized groups, buying the Mace Montessori group of nine nurseries and one school, all in London, in May. This was followed two months later with the purchase of Daisy and Jake’s six Wirral-based nurseries in July.

The largest nursery group in the UK also rebranded in August for the first time in 35 years with a new logo featuring a reimagined version of its original character, Buzz.

Meanwhile, Bright Horizons, which remains the second-biggest group in the country, has also been busy with deals this year. The group has acquired the Yellow Dot group of 12 nurseries, based in Hampshire, and Zoom’s five London nurseries, between them adding more than 1,100 childcare places.

Bright Horizons has also entered into a partnership with investment bank Morgan Stanley, which is offering its employees workplace nursery places at the group’s settings in London and Glasgow. It also runs workplace nurseries and other care services for more than 100 corporate clients.

Monkey Puzzle, which operates as a franchise, has jumped to third place in the table, adding ten more nurseries and more than 700 places in the past 12 months.

The group allows local owners to buy the right to run the setting under its name with a package of ongoing support and training, enabling speedy expansion.

The Childbase Partnership has been pushed into fourth place. The group moved to full employee ownership last year, claiming to be the tenth-largest employee-owned company in the UK. In January the group paid £850,000 worth of dividends to more than 1,700 employee owners, who each received a tax-free partnership dividend payment of up to £680.


If we needed evidence of the impact that 30 hours’ underfunding has had on some areas of the early years sector in the past year, we need look no further than the Pre-school Learning Alliance.

Previously the third-largest group, the alliance has moved to sixth place with the loss of 28 settings and around 800 places.

As Nursery World revealed in September, the provider has closed 23 settings since January as a direct result of under-funding of 15- and 30-hour childcare entitlements.

Writing for Nursery World, alliance chief executive Neil Leitch said that ‘stagnant funding levels’ were forcing settings to close their doors for good.

‘Some of these offered the 30 hours, some just the 15 – but all suffered from the ongoing, unsustainable lack of adequate funding, to the point that when faced with yet another year of rising rents, wages and other costs, but little to no change – and in some areas, a fall – in funding, we could simply no longer find a way to square the circle,’ he said.

Further down the table, up two places to number 11, Kids Planet has opened nine new nurseries in the past year. Since the initial £10 million investment secured by the group from Business Growth Fund (BGF) in 2016, the family-owned business has expanded rapidly, acquiring existing settings in the North-West.

This year the group received a further £6.5 million investment from BGF and plans to double the number of settings it owns over the next five years.

In September, Kids Planet celebrated its tenth birthday, marking the anniversary with the opening of its 30th nursery in Great Sankey, Warrington, and is opening a 100-place nursery in Hoylake.

In 12th position, All About Children has also expanded rapidly this year. It too has opened nine more settings and now operates 30 nurseries, with plans to acquire a further six nurseries in 2019.

We have two new entries to this year’s top 25 table.

Our biggest new entry in 20th place is ICP Nurseries, founded in 2016 by Tracey Storey, who has previously been a director at Leapfrog Day Nurseries and Happy Child. She co-owns the group with private equity firm Innervation Capital Partners.

Last year, the group was awarded £8 million in funding from Oak North Bank – which provides business loans for entrepreneurs – to fund expansion for 20 to 25 sites.

ICP says it plans ‘to acquire a collection of the very best nursery settings in Greater London, the Home Counties and the South East’.

Chestnut Nursery Schools jumps into 22nd place with 17 nurseries and intends to expand in Cambridge, London and Norwich.

Making the grade: Ofsted league table

This year, we have expanded our analysis of the Ofsted reports of the largest gorups to include all 25.

Congratulations to Kids Allowed, who are top of the table for the first time, achieving the highest score possible, with all six of their inspected nurseries graded Outstanding.

Kids Planet, which was top of our quality table last year, is now in second place, with 17 nurseries graded Outstanding and two Good, with 12 nurseries awaiting inspection after recent rapid growth.

Fast-expanding ICP comes in at number six, but with only five of its 20 nurseries yet inspected.


  • Compiled from the latest published Ofsted reports.
  • The percentages given are based on the number of published Ofsted reports.
  • We have only included nurseries registered and inspected by Ofsted, and excluded nurseries in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which fall under different inspection regimes.
  • We have noted where Ofsted reports are unavailable, for example if settings are new registrations because they are newly-launched or have been acquired and re-registered.

Table rankings
We allocated points to each setting on the basis of its Ofsted report. For each group, the total number of points was then divided by the number of reports to give a final score. Figures in brackets show last year’s position.

Outstanding: 5 points
Good: 3 points
Requires improvement: 1 point
Inadequate: -2 points

NB: Nursery World has revised the Nursery Chains Ofsted league table (23 November) since its original publication on 12 November. We have always included the grades of nurseries that have been acquired by a group, as Ofsted linked them as associated providers. Now that Ofsted no longer does this, we have concluded that we should not include former grades of nurseries that have been bought and re-registered, effectively meaning that they are awaiting inspection.

This has been reinforced by the recent rate of market activity, meaning that groups tend to have more newly acquired settings than previously, plus the increased wait for an inspection, which means that a newly acquired nursery might not be inspected for up to three years.

Therefore, we have recalculated the table on this basis, to exclude nurseries that have not yet been inspected under their new ownership. The new table will be published in Nursery World magazine on 10 December.

Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £119 per year


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £119 per year


© MA Education 2020. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved