Interview - Helen Wong


Ms Wong has recently set up her own practice, Helen Wong Solicitors, after working as partner at a larger law firm

Helen Wong
Helen Wong

WHAT DO YOU SEE AS A MAJOR ISSUE FOR THE SECTOR IN 2020?

A large proportion of staff coming into the sector is now unqualified young women employed on apprenticeship schemes, and the recruitment and retention of staff is a major problem.

HAS THE UNCERTAINTY OF BREXIT OR THE STATE OF POLITICS HAD ANY IMPACT?

Yes. Three key issues are: employability and qualifications; eligibility for childcare support of EU 27 children living in the UK; and uncertainty that will lead to increased costs for finance, food and goods.

Present Home Office plans are to extend the rights of EU 27 citizens to live, work and claim benefits in the UK, even in the event of a no-deal Brexit. If a deal is secured, rights will remain as they are throughout any transition period and be covered by any agreement on the future EU-UK relationship. We don’t know what the situation will be for employees, as new Home Office immigration policy is expected to be ready for January 2021. It is possible the existing rights will roll over until then.

WHAT IS THE IMPACT ON THE WORKFORCE?

A report by Save the Children concluded that 10,731 nurseries, playgroups and Children’s Centres – out of a total of 21,041 – do not have staff with qualified teacher status (QTS), Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS) or Early Years Professional Status (EYPS).

Currently, EU qualifications are recognised in the UK and vice versa. In the event of a ‘hard Brexit’/no Brexit deal there will be no mutual recognition of qualifications. There is a risk that nursery employees from the EU may need to re-qualify, which presents a barrier to employment in an already understaffed sector.

Also, uncertainty in general is bad for business. The cost of food, goods and borrowing money will go up. This squeeze on households may impact parents’ financial ability to send their children to nursery.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE ANYONE NEW TO THE SECTOR LOOKING TO TAKE ON THEIR FIRST NURSERY?

Make sure you have cashflow, sufficient staff and a clear business plan. Choose your location and business carefully.

GOING FORWARD, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO HAPPEN TO THE MARKET?

The UK market is highly fragmented with more than 20,000 operators, many of which are single-site nursery care providers, and no individual group has a market share above 5 per cent. As a result, the structure of the current market provides significant opportunities for investors looking to consolidate. With private equity and international groups interested in buying in the UK market, we are seeing significant activity, making the market extremely buoyant. UK nursery groups represent excellent buy-and-build platforms for further acquisitions.

Given the sector is ripe for consolidation, there is potential for growth and increase in prices, even with Brexit on the horizon.

See Market Outlook, page 32, for a summary of the key players in the childcare property market of 2019.

Stay up to date with Nursery World’s regular coverage and analysis of the property market on our website.

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