Following attendance at the 2024 Nursery World Business Summit, our day nursery specialists Robert Burns and Carly Wild have reflected on some of the key topics shared at the event. Below, we have focussed on our top 6 takeaways from the Summit, accompanied by some of their thoughts.
The first session of the summit was a Q&A session with OFSTED Principal Officer Wendy Ratcliff. There has been a review of process brought in by the regulator following the coroner’s report into the death of Ruth Perry, presenting as a significant focus on mental health issues surrounding inspections. In particular, there is now clearer guidance on when to pause inspections, as well as a mandatory 4-hour mental health training session for all inspectors, which must be carried out by the end of March. However, it remains unclear if there are any specific outcomes being assessed as a result of this training, and there seems to be no indication that the impact will be in any way measurable.
Despite this limitation, there seems to be a shift in attitude by the regulator, with 'The Big Listen' being advocated as a way for the new Chief, Sir Martyn Oliver, to hear views directly from parents and professionals regarding OFSTED’s current methods. The question remains though, will there be 'A Big Action' to follow 'The Big Listen'?
Since the Government announced the hourly rates they would be paying local authorities back in November, practitioners have been awaiting news of the amounts they would receive, with many still none the wiser only two months before the roll-out. David Johnston, Children’s Minister, confirmed that all local authorities would have to communicate the hourly rates by the end of February, and also stated that in future all LA’s would have a maximum window of 8 weeks to confirm rates to operators.
Is this too little too late? Profits are already being squeezed by increased overheads and higher NMW, so with no time to plan for April's changes, will we see more closures at a time when demand for places will be higher than ever?
The morning of the Summit, a pilot scheme was announced by the Government, whereby 20 areas would offer a £1,000 incentive for new recruits or staff returning to the early years profession. Coupled with the 'Do Something Big' campaign, David Johnston stated that the Government is “feeling comfortable” about staffing ready for April. However, with Nesta estimating that 27,500 early years professionals will be needed to meet the rise in demand, it’s unlikely that operators will be sharing that level of comfort.
If the Government's recruitment campaign is successful, focus then shifts to how best to retain the newly bolstered workforce. Operators were nervous that, with just 3 months service required for the incentive payment, the scheme could simply increase staff turnover and instability in the sector. The suggestion was made that it is time to change the rhetoric around working in Early Years - talk of historic underfunding, regulatory pressures and inadequate staffing levels have meant that the sector has become increasingly undesirable, for graduates in particular.
Retaining top talent means making it clear that a career in the industry is rewarding, but also that progression into management is achievable for those who desire that type of pathway. Placement students in particular are often overlooked as a source of staffing, however investment in these individuals at the start of their working lives can lead to better retention later on.
An overarching theme of the day seemed to be the key relationships within the sector. As well as OFSTED’s Big Listen, the Children’s Minister was also keen to hear the views of those directly affected by government policy. Recently there has been some level of disconnect between the needs of the parents, the providers and the children. June O’Sullivan, Chief Executive of the London Early Years Foundation, identified that the new government policy seems to focus on the needs of the working parents (who by no coincidence are also the voters in this year’s general election) whereas we need this attention to shift back to the wellbeing of the child. Although there was little to no discussion with providers in advance of the policy announcement, now is the time for open dialogue between operators and the Local Authorities regarding the challenges being faced if improvements are to be made in future, especially as the rollout in April is just the first step, with bigger changes to follow.
The last session of the day was hosted by Diane Wycherley of Tops Day Nurseries. The group’s founder, Cheryl Hadland, is a sustainability pioneer in the sector, and Diane was keen to share some quick wins in terms of Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility, some of which require investment, but others which could actually save money for operators. Reusable nappies and home-made wipes sparked particular interest in the room, as many business owners are keen to follow Tops’ lead to a more sustainable future for the sector. While there were specific examples such as these, the message was also around being curious, and encouraging operators to ask questions of suppliers to ensure they have a full understanding of the environmental impact of their businesses.