Early years business sustainability: case studies
Four early years settings that are adapting to the challenges they face and using new techniques to run a sustainable childcare business.
Successful techniques for filling a nursery’s places
Toad Hall Nursery Group has 15 settings in the south-east of England. Under the leadership of Chief Executive Ruth Pimentel, Toad Hall has tried a number of different ways to increase occupancy (the number of places that are full) across the nurseries. The following ideas have been particularly successful.
Using social media
It is common for some of Toad Hall’s nurseries to have quieter days on a Monday or a Friday. The nursery group has started advertising short-term places on social media. This has been effective in quickly spreading messages throughout their network of parents and beyond, helping to fill places when they become available. It has also led to a shift in the way parents think about their bookings. Ruth says:
Parents become aware that they can add on additional sessions as they need them - when their more informal arrangements, with grandparents for example, have let them down.
Specialist sessions for quieter days
The nurseries recognise that some periods of the week will always be quieter than others. For these periods, they now offer specialist sessions with experienced leaders, including music and movement, football, gymnastics and language lessons. They offer these sessions at no extra cost to the parents, but they also encourage children to attend the nursery on these days. While the sessions are optional, they are very popular, and this allows the nurseries to increase attendance and create additional revenue on quieter days.
Toad Hall has also trialled offering additional sessions at certain points in the year to fill vacant places. For example, the nurseries ran a series of popular ‘Christmas shopping’ days for parents to book their children into while they did their last-minute shopping.
Online booking system
Toad Hall is currently introducing a new nursery management software system. This will allow parents to book extra sessions online through an app called Parentzone. Most parents are comfortable online and keen to take advantage of technology that simplifies their childcare arrangements. Ruth is hopeful that this software will increase occupancy and flexibility for parents. Toad Hall plans to launch the booking system in early 2017.
A sustainable early years setting that’s flexible to change
Funfishers is a charity in York that offers out-of-school care, playgroups and holiday clubs. As an ‘early implementer’, the setting is already offering 30 hours of funded childcare for certain families. Lesley Calvert, the manager of Funfishers, says that an openness to change has been essential to Funfishers’ sustainability over the past 10 years.
Re-evaluating space for different age groups
When Funfishers first opened to pre-school children in 2007, they were surprised by how much demand there was for places for younger children. Since then, they have welcomed children as young as 9 months old. They have also installed a new floor that they’re currently using as a baby and toddler room.
This wide age range has allowed Funfishers to become more versatile. They adapt each of their rooms to the current age group that uses it, and they change this often to fit current attendance. Constant re-evaluation is important, and “no room is sacred” says Lesley. This flexibility allows the setting to accommodate as many children as possible within the age range they cater for.
Funfishers also partners with local childminders to offer ‘blended childcare’, where parents combine 2 or more different forms of childcare. At Funfishers, childminders drop off children at the start of the day and pick them up at the end of their session. This adds further versatility for parents, and allows childminders to care for more children since more of their day is freed up.
Introducing pre-booked late sessions
Shifting parental demand has also affected the sessions Funfishers offer. Recently, they have introduced pre-booked late sessions until 6.30pm. This is aimed at parents working further out of town, who had been regularly picking up their children late and getting fined. This had also affected the staff, who would take it in turns to stay late with the children. The introduction of late sessions meant that Lesley could plan her rotas around pre-arranged later pick-ups, factor this into staff wages and save parents late fees.
A nursery adapting to the needs of a local community
The Play Den is a family-owned nursery in Swindon, owned and managed by Kate Adams. As an ‘early implementer’, the nursery is already offering 30 hours of funded childcare for certain families and is adapting to meet its challenges.
Running Saturday sessions
As working patterns change, parents need childcare beyond the working week. This observation has led Kate Adams to provide childcare on Saturdays as part of the Play Den’s 30 hours of funded childcare offer. This aims to support local shift workers at the Great Western Hospital in particular.
Kate calculated exactly how much it would cost per hour to open the premises on a Saturday, including things like utility bills. She only went ahead once she had identified the number of funded children necessary to make it cost effective, taking into account staffing ratios.
Play Den will hold Saturday sessions from January 2017, and families have already shown a lot of interest. Provisionally, Play Den will offer an 8am to 2pm session. Kate acknowledges that if the setting is to be of use to as many families as possible, it must offer parents more fixed sessions than it has done before. She identifies this as one of the biggest challenges she faces as a setting manager. If a parent wants an additional hour outside of a fixed session, the nursery will then charge for that hour.
Partnering with peers
In January 2016, Kate found the perfect setting for Play Den, but the owner of the site was reluctant to lease only a portion of it to the nursery. Kate approached her local authority to find out if others were also hunting for premises. She collaborated with Swindon’s Autistic Resource Centre and Uplands Educational Trust to take over the whole site, since the owner was more comfortable leasing the full property.
Kate acknowledges that the planning process was challenging, but is a firm believer in the mutual benefits of partnership. She suggests building up relationships with the community and getting to know your setting’s catchment area. You can support local events, like taking the children to the local primary school’s nativity play, or attending cake sales and book signings. This helps you develop these relationships and become part of the community. This also has business benefits beyond supporting the local community. Organisations are often happy to return the favour - for example, the local primary school has offered to loan Play Den its minibus and driver for upcoming trips.
Kate has also set up a group for pre-school setting managers to meet regularly and share ideas and challenges. “If you form links with other settings, you can lean on each other”, says Kate. This can be invaluable if a setting loses a staff member unexpectedly, for example.
Using social media to promote a rural pre-school
Blackboys Pre-School is a committee-run rural charity pre-school in East Sussex. Former chair Daryl Willcox introduced Blackboys to the benefits of a social media presence. This has connected the pre-school to parents, friends and the wider community, as well as reducing its advertising costs.
When Daryl first joined Blackboys there were financial concerns at the pre-school because not enough places were being filled. Instead of cutting back on their services, Blackboys decided to confront this challenge through digital marketing. Their social media presence was just one of a handful of approaches to sustain the pre-school through this difficult period.
Developing social media guidelines
The first and most important step was to get staff on board, Daryl notes. Their sense of ownership and control of the pre-school’s Facebook page was essential to the initiative’s success. Blackboys also felt it was important to establish social media guidelines for staff and parents. These included rules like never identifying individual children online and only uploading photos of children whose parents had agreed to this. The pre-school added a line to an existing parental consent form to include this. Since then, staff have embraced the use of social media as a marketing tool.
Designated members of staff and committee members act as administrators on the Facebook page. They keep an eye on what is being posted and regularly update the content. Typically, these updates are photos of activities and outings, although the page is also a great place to remind parents about upcoming events and dates for their diaries. Once staff were routinely using the Facebook account, the pre-school introduced Twitter and is using it to reach out to its wider community.
Creating an online ‘shop window’
Blackboys’ Facebook and Twitter accounts have helped to spread the word about the pre-school to parents and friends, who in turn engage with and share their content, spreading the word further into the community. This raises the school’s profile in a very cost-effective way. Blackboys doesn’t spend a penny on Facebook marketing, and their social media presence has meant they spend less on other advertising methods.
Daryl notes that this constant and cheap visibility works well for smaller settings because the Facebook page almost becomes a ‘shop window’ for the setting, where parents engage with the page and post questions and comments.
The present manager Jenny Novkovic believes that social media is a great tool to promote the pre-school. She also points out that settings should not forget to maintain existing areas of marketing. This can include organising and attending community fundraising events, and raising awareness by word of mouth and up-to-date leaflets and prospectuses.