Nursery World Webinar - The X-factor

Charlotte Goddard
Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The sector is facing a challenging time, but some nurseries and nursery groups are thriving and even expanding. Nursery World and MCI gathered together an expert panel to discuss the opportunities and challenges facing settings in today’s climate and ask what it is that makes a nursery successful. Panel chair Charlotte Goddard reports

The Old Station Nursery group’s Sarah Steel said even settings that are part of a chain should have a unique selling point
The Old Station Nursery group’s Sarah Steel said even settings that are part of a chain should have a unique selling point

The panel was united in its belief that understanding local needs is one of the most vital elements in the success of a setting. ‘I think it’s about really getting to know the community, and the children and the families that are in the community,’ said Preeti Patel, head of education at Montessori Centre International (MCI).

Communication needs to be ongoing, as community needs shift: a poll of webinar attendees found almost a quarter of respondents (23 per cent) said local childcare and education needs had changed due to the pandemic.

N Family Club has opened a number of new settings, and regional director Stacey Bailey said flexibility was crucial. ‘You might have parents that are changing what they need, and it’s about us as an education environment to support their needs and be flexible and go beyond for each of the families,’ she said.

Sarah Steel, chief executive of The Old Station Nursery group, said it was important for nurseries to have a unique selling point, even if they are part of a group. ‘We’ve encouraged each nursery to think about what it is that makes them different,’ she said. ‘Each nursery very much reflects what’s happening in the local communities – it might be one has got a really good outdoor space, it might be one is really into music, but whatever it is, it will reflect what the children at that setting are interested in, and also what’s good about the setting.’

Leadership

Strong leadership is another key element for any successful nursery. ‘Parents don’t really care about the brand and the head office team, they want to know about the nursery manager and who’s going to be looking after their child,’ said Ms Steel.

The panel agreed that both leaders and aspiring leaders in settings need support. ‘Some practitioners fall into leadership,’ said Ms Patel. ‘It’s not something they ever intended to do, but they start off as practitioners, and then decide they want to open up settings.’

MCI provides training and mentoring to Montessori nurseries in its network so managers and aspiring managers ‘can really grow and develop in their own personal development so that they can support the personal development of their team’, she said.

Staff training

The number-one resource for a successful nursery is its own workforce, and settings need to find a balance between external training and in-house support. The pandemic has impacted training, but it is important that settings continue to provide opportunities for their staff, said Karen Chetwynd, director of academic quality and partnerships at MCI.

‘We all came into the first lockdown thinking that we could defer some of it, it would only be a short wait, but we are now substantially into a period where it’s about those young people and getting them qualified rather than halting their career,’ she explained.

Training around the ethos and the philosophy of a setting should always be delivered in-house, suggested Ms Patel. But in some cases, external trainers can be more effective – when lockdown restrictions allow. ‘As an ex-nursery manager, I think having an external voice is always beneficial – I always felt the practitioners within my team responded in a different way, because they were hearing another voice say the same message,’ she said.

Building in time for reflecting on practice is key, she continued. ‘As individuals, and as a team, I think it is really important to have those opportunities, because if you don’t reflect on things, you can’t think about what went wrong, and why it went wrong.’

Financial pressures

Funding is an ongoing issue for nurseries, with the pandemic set to exacerbate existing pressures for many settings. ‘When schools have to send year groups or bubbles home they still get paid, whereas we don’t,’ said Ms Steel.

‘Funding has not been fair, for a very, very long time,’ agreed Ms Patel. ‘There are discrepancies between areas, there are discrepancies within regions, and I think there needs to be something that brings some sort of levelling for everybody.’

A Sutton Trust report published last year found that parents in disadvantaged areas were more likely to keep children at home, while increased unemployment could also lead to decreased occupancy. On the other hand, increased disadvantage could lead to a rise in the number of funded two-year-olds. Webinar participants reflected this mixed picture: 13 per cent said they anticipated the number of funded children in their setting would decrease significantly, 22 per cent believed numbers would decrease a little, 39 per cent thought they would stay the same, and 26 per cent anticipated more funded children. Parents are often unaware of the pressures nurseries are under: 69 per cent of poll respondents, for example, said parents in their settings were not aware of the funding formula and how it impacts the nursery.

With a question mark over occupancy and funding in the near future, word-of-mouth recommendations based on a good local reputation become ever more important. ‘In the Montessori community, reputation is everything,’ said Ms Chetwynd. ‘We have an accreditation scheme, we have our quality stamp, and we have a good network – we use our website to promote the members and our community more widely.’

‘It’s important that you measure where your enquiries come from,’ urged Ms Steel. ‘If you do nothing else, then ask every new parent how they heard about you, and then use that to make a judgement on where you want to spend your limited marketing budget.’

Boosting morale

Salary and training opportunities are important when it comes to staff retention, but so is providing a workplace that people want to come to, said Ms Steel. ‘It is important to make people feel valued and to give them a chance to progress and places to go, and also accepting those people who don’t want that – it’s absolutely fine to be a practitioner and to stay in your current role.’

Ms Bailey described the ‘happiness survey’ N Family Club uses to track the morale of its staff, and an online portal used to recognise staff members who have gone above and beyond. ‘It could be a manager, cleaner, chef, anybody – we do shout-outs and the whole company can see that,’ she said.

In the same way that a setting has to get to know the needs of the community, it should also get to know the needs of its staff, suggested Ms Steel. ‘We have a wellness budget which our managers are given and they’re encouraged to meet the needs of their team,’ she explained. ‘So it’s finding what makes your team tick – some people like scented candles, some people like cake.’

‘Happy staff mean happy children,’ said Ms Patel. ‘It’s important to keep your own well-being positive so you can give the most to the children you’re going to engage with.’

MCI: putting the importance of early years under the spotlight

Montessori Centre International (MCI) is delighted to have sponsored this webinar discussion. Preeti Patel, our head of education, and Karen Chetwynd, our director of academic quality & partnerships (both pictured left), who were joined by two other experienced practitioners from our sector, provided an engaging session. We are grateful to both Sarah Steel from The Old Station Nursery and Stacey Bailey from N Family Club for their participation.

The importance of the early years has come into the spotlight since the start of the pandemic and particularly among the broader community, including the public, policy-makers and government. MCI, along with its sister organisation Montessori St Nicholas charity in the Montessori Group, has been active and vocal in highlighting the importance of quality early years education for our children, supporting alliances such as NDNA, PACEY and EYA in that work.

MCI, with roots back to Dr Maria Montessori, has for more than 65 years provided quality early years training for those wishing to become practitioners, and CPD for those in practice. Its expertise extends to supporting governments and educational institutions through its standards, training and accreditation framework.

Through the Montessori Network, parents and those interested in early years, particularly Montessori education, can access free resources and information to support them at home.

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