Nursery Chains: Staff - Unsung heroes

Five ‘back office’ employees – spanning health and safety, customer services, recruitment, finance and catering – tell Annette Rawstrone what inspires them in their role


Mark Bird

Role: health, safety and environment manager

Appointed: November 2012

‘Childbase, as an employee-owned company, is comparable to my previous job as health and safety officer in the charity sector because there is a high level of responsibility to spend carefully. This is a challenge because what price can you put on safety?,’ questions Mr Bird. ‘It’s made more complicated with the early years sector because the fallout from just one incident can be huge. We want children to engage in risky play, for example through Forest Schools, but it can lead to some interesting discussions with insurance people and we need a strong compliance principle with clear processes.

‘I like that my role, covering 41 day nurseries and overseeing a team of three, is broad and varied. My team is responsible for undertaking surprise health and safety audits, overseeing nutrition – we have Food for Life accreditation across all the settings and nutritionist-endorsed menus – and environmental initiatives.

‘We’re committed to giving children the best possible future, and you can’t achieve that without addressing the business’s environmental impact. Reducing our carbon footprint is a primary focus, but we’re also dedicated to ensuring the children in our care learn respect for the environment and how it can be protected, including participating in the Eco-School programme. Our children reprimand their parents for not turning lights and taps off.

‘Now 99 per cent of our nappy waste is diverted from landfill, all food waste is recycled through exterior anaerobic digestion facilities or nursery composting bins, and nearly all of our general waste is recycled. Our settings are powered by green electricity from renewable sources.

‘I’m working on an environmental toolkit to hopefully be used alongside the EYFS. We’re also introducing monitoring the air quality of settings, starting with those in highly populated urban areas, and sourcing carbon filtering machines. It’s a busy role and the past six years have flown by.’


Lynn Gorman

Role: customer services manager

Appointed: June 2018


‘Finding the right nursery can be a daunting experience, especially for first-time parents. Often they don’t know what to look for or the questions to ask. I enjoy holding parents’ hands and helping them,’ says Ms Gorman.

‘I work across Nelly’s Nurseries’ [part of All About Children] four settings and support parents from the point of enquiry through to registration and settling in their child. We have huge waiting lists so I advise parents on waiting times. On average these are a year, but it depends on the size of the nursery and the days and hours needed.

‘I was a nursery manager for more than 25 years so I bring a lot of knowledge and experience of working in partnership with parents to my role. Now I work from home responding to email enquiries, answering the designated enquiry line and arranging nursery visits. I put parents at ease, chat about the nursery group’s ethos and set the scene before arranging for them to see a nursery. This means that their visit can be more focused. I advise parents to go with their gut feeling when viewing nurseries, they have to feel in their heart that it’s the right place.

‘The enquiry line has been recently introduced so that prospective parents can come straight to me, which allows nursery managers to spend more time interacting with the children and staff rather than filling out forms. I’m seeing more job adverts for customer service or admissions managers as nursery chains realise the importance of positively engaging with new parents and removing the workload from practitioners.

‘I only see parents at open days, which I can find tricky. I’m used to having personal contact and giving big hugs to parents who are upset about returning to work, but I try and reassure them over the phone. There is a lot of satisfaction when I receive emails thanking me for my help.’


John Cassidy

Role: recruitment manager

Appointed: June 2018


‘A critical part of any business is to attract the right people, and the biggest challenge faced by the early years industry is recruitment. Sadly the market is not buoyant so it is hard to find the right calibre of people. My role is key because without hiring high-quality practitioners, it is not possible to run a sustainable and profitable business,’ says Mr Cassidy.

‘I need to bring together the right people, with the right skills and the right ethos, and by virtue of this it is hoped they will stay long-term. I recruited on behalf of Kiddi Caru as an agency recruiter so I knew the organisation well, but I’ve always worked in childcare, starting as a practitioner 20 years ago. This role brings together a lot of my previous experience and wraps it up nicely.

‘I’m mainly office-based – drumming up candidate interest, overseeing the entry process and training nursery managers in interview skills as well as conducting interviews myself – but I do visit nurseries to support their recruitment a couple of times a month and try to spare five minutes to say hello to the children.

‘My role entails having an eye for detail, being organised and understanding the childcare industry. I enjoy interacting with hundreds of people and working with employees across the 36 nurseries at every stage of their career.’


Jeff Loo

Role: director of finance and social investment

Appointed: August 2016


‘I’ve worked 30-plus years as a corporate man and began to question what my legacy would be. Getting behind children in the early years has a huge impact on their lives. I was meant to be on a six-month contract at LEYF but I enjoy working for the social enterprise so I’ve been happy to stay on,’ says Mr Loo.

‘June O’Sullivan, the chief executive, is inspirational and passionate and I like to think that I complement her early years knowledge and experience with my financial expertise and business background. I started as an engineer before doing a business degree and qualifying as an accountant.

‘When I began working for LEYF, I visited nurseries and spoke to the managers and learnt that they needed to get qualified staff, have administration taken away from them and gain better management technology. I’ve overseen a huge technology revamp in order to replace the finance systems, centralise administration and improve workflow so that staff can look after children, not paperwork.

‘Employing 650 qualified practitioners is a huge issue. We were spending some £2m in agency costs, which was depleting resources and causing performance issues. Now we have developed our own bank of temp staff, which works out cheaper and is more efficient.

‘LEYF quickly went from 23 to 37 nurseries, and as with a lot of businesses that grow rapidly, this involves expensive loans. We are in the process of refinancing these from 8 per cent interest to 2.5 per cent. Rather than making single-minded decisions based on profit maximisation, as a social enterprise and a charity we have to strike a tricky balance between the finance and the sustainability and delivery of our social mission. I like to think it’s finance with a nice warm feeling.’


Lisa Denehy

Role: head of catering

Appointed: May 2018


‘If children develop a love of good nutritional food at a young age then they will benefit from it for the rest of their lives. I strongly believe that every child should be introduced to a wide range of foods and flavours, learn how to cook and understand where their food comes from as part of their best start in life,’ says Ms Denehy.

‘I have a background in catering but have always had an interest in working with children. I’ve been working in early years catering for eight years, primarily for Kids 1st, but then moving to Busy Bees three years ago when they acquired the group.

‘Busy Bees has a centralised menu across its 353 nurseries which we change each season. I work with my team and NHS Startwell to design nutritionally balanced menus. We choose seasonal products and reduce food miles by working with a supplier that works with approved local providers. I also spend a lot of time researching how to accommodate a wide range of allergies so that the dishes can be adapted for children with intolerances.

‘I like to visit different nurseries most days to support our chefs and managers and receive regular feedback on the menus. It’s also so important to talk to the children – they’ll always give their honest opinion and that’s what matters the most. We take their comments on board and alter the recipes where we can. Classic dinners like sausage, mash and beans always go down well, but we try to make healthier versions. We incorporate dishes from all over the world, with the stronger flavours of chilli and vegetable curry and rice being popular. I know I’m doing my job well if the plates are empty.’

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