Running a nursery with 50 children can be challenging enough. But what happens if there are 250? Does five times the number of children mean five times the difficulty - or is it five times as good?
There is a trend towards bigger nurseries, with three of the UK's nursery chains, Busy Bees, Kidsunlimited (part of the newly-formed Nursery Years Group) and Ravenstone House, now operating settings with more than 200 places. Busy Bees operates four huge nurseries in Blackpool (238 places), Chorley (303), Preston (239) and Lancaster (204). The Busy Bees chain acquired these settings from Kindercare two years ago and, despite not being responsible for the initial development, the company is supportive of their size.
For Margaret Randles, director and co-founder of Busy Bees, one of the biggest advantages of running a huge nursery is the greater flexibility it affords. 'These large settings allow us to offer a flexible range of care and education to a wide range of children of different ages,' she says. 'I think bigger nurseries are better able to respond to the needs of parents and children.
'Because the nurseries are large we can easily offer places to siblings of children who are already at the nursery. We can also help parents who don't send their children to the nursery regularly. For example, we offer parents emergency childcare for times when their regular childminder is ill and we run mother-and-toddler groups. These are for people who don't want full-time daycare but enjoy meeting other parents from the local community.
If they decide to go back to work at a later date the children are already familiar with the nursery staff and buildings.
'In addition, Social Services asks us to provide spaces for some children and we can easily do this. I think sometimes smaller settings can be more limited.'
Large nurseries can also have the edge when it comes to providing resources and equipment for children. Ms Randles says, 'Obviously nurseries have set budgets that they can draw on to buy equipment. At bigger settings the budget is larger, so we can provide a larger range of equipment and share it out between the children.' The Busy Bees nurseries at Blackpool, Chorley and Preston have gymnasiums, a ball pool and acres of outside space.
There are also plenty of extra facilities at Kidsunlimited's two huge nurseries in Stourton, Leeds (237 places) and at its combined Milton Park unit in Abingdon, Oxfordshire (247 places). A spokesman says, 'Large nurseries allow us to provide extra facilities such as training rooms, staff showers, purpose-built bathrooms and changing areas. We also have multi-purpose areas for shared activities and groupings, giving the sites a community area and a "heart".'
Yet some early years experts are concerned about these huge nurseries and suspect that increasing the size of settings may not translate into tangible benefits for children and staff.
One concern is that the experience of a large nursery could be upsetting or unnerving for children. Sprawling buildings, hundreds of children and many staff may be overwhelming for young children and even parents. But with good organisation, the nursery chains are adamant any potential problems can be overcome.
The spokesman for Kidsunlimited says, 'Our nurseries are designed around the principle of a homebase nodule, containing a space that is manageable for the child. A larger setting simply contains more homebases and will typically have more outside space.
'Soft furnishings, blinds, carpets and cushions are always designed to provide a nurturing atmosphere in the room. The recent Ofsted inspections of our larger units have resulted in positive judgements of the standard of care and education.'
Hilary Pauley, chief executive officer of Ravenstone House, is also certain that large nurseries can feel as welcoming for young children as smaller settings. Ravenstone House runs Milton Keynes Preparatory School, a 500-place co-educational day school that includes a 250-place nursery called Tattenhoe Lane. 'The children at Tattenhoe Lane are divided into small groups in different parts of the building. I suppose the overall look of the building is big, but once inside, each little room provides a homely atmosphere. I think as long as each group of children has its own space, it doesn't matter whether a nursery has one room or ten.'
For early years consultants Marjorie Ouvry and Margaret Edgington, the biggest concern with large nurseries is undoubtedly management. 'As something gets bigger it can be harder and harder to hold on to quality,'
warns Ms Edgington. 'These huge nurseries would have to be exceptionally tightly managed. We've all seen over the summer how things can go wrong in nurseries, and the larger the setting the harder it can be to keep an eye on what's going on.'
Ms Ouvry agrees, 'Management is exceptionally complex in large nurseries. I ran one of the biggest maintained nursery schools in the UK in the 1990s.
It had 170 full-time children aged three to five and it was highly complex to co-ordinate. A manager must have good leadership skills and effective training to ensure consistent policies and consistent high quality education and care.'
Ms Randles acknowledges that it is harder to manage operations at a huge nursery. 'Having good managers is crucial,' she says. 'We understand that it is more difficult and so the staffing structure at Busy Bees is well organised. In our largest settings we have two supernumerary managers, deputy managers, senior nursery nurses and team leaders.'
Busy Bees also runs its own management course and employs administrators to take the pressure of paperwork off its managers, enabling them to focus solely on looking after staff, children and parents. The chain also uses the Coldharbour computer system to organise advance bookings, invoices and waiting lists. 'Having a clearly defined and well-structured administration system is vital,' says Ms Randles.
Yet however well managed a nursery is, high staff turnover can still be a perennial problem. And Ms Edgington suspects this problem could be exacerbated in larger nurseries. She says, 'I agree that there can be the potential for huge nurseries to provide more facilities and equipment, but what children really need is security. It is important that there is regular and consistent staffing. Staff turnover is high enough in small settings, and surely the chance of high turnover in a big nursery is even greater.'
The Busy Bees nursery chain disagrees with this, suggesting larger nurseries may be better equipped to cope with the loss of staff members. Ms Randles says, 'Busy Bees operates nurseries that range in size from 22 to 303 and staff turnover in our biggest nurseries is no higher than in the smaller ones. I think turnover can actually have more of an impact in small nurseries. If a small nursery loses two staff this could represent a quarter of its total staff number. In a large nursery, the impact would be felt considerably less and there would still be lots of familiar staff faces around for the children.'
Ms Pauley concurs, 'We have a stable staff at Tattenhoe Lane and we pay well. In many ways staffing issues are easier at a large nursery because we have so many supernumerary staff.'
She also believes big nurseries offer staff better opportunities for training and career advancement. Ravenstone House operates its own NVQ centre at Milton Keynes Preparatory School and runs training courses for the nursery staff once a week. 'We offer superb opportunities for staff training and our staff have wonderful promotion opportunities that you might not get in a nursery with only 20 or 30 children. There are so many staff around that they also meet up socially which is lovely.'
So, if huge nurseries can offer better opportunities for staff, parents and children alike, will small nurseries be phased out in favour of super-size settings serving hundreds of children? Probably not, with demand for childcare placing certain limits on size, especially in rural areas or areas with a low population threshold. And there will always be staff, parents and children who prefer the intimacy of smaller sites, where there are fewer strange faces for children to become familiar with.
Although Busy Bees has no immediate plans to enlarge any of its other nurseries to more than 200 places, Ms Randles says it may well happen in the future. 'We wouldn't rule out the expansion of more really big nurseries in the right place at the right time,' she says. 'If there was a great enough demand for childcare in an area, then we would be happy to deliver.'