Kerry Brown, manager at Bright Horizons’ Teddies Southfields nursery, is modest about her setting’s ‘outstanding’ practice, but she and her team have lots to shout about, as TEY discovered…
Companies in the business of providing early years education and childcare don’t come much bigger than Bright Horizons Family Solutions. The second largest nursery group in the UK – though it is top of the tree in terms of number of individual settings – it is a global organisation, operating from the US and into Europe and India, and providing services as diverse as client childcare solutions and college counselling services. Despite its ever-widening footprint,though, it is also one that hasn’t lost sight of the value of individuality and the importance of quality – a fact that its Teddies Southfields nursery illustrates perfectly.
Judged ‘outstanding’ (and with highest gradings in all but one area) at an Ofsted inspection last July – and this just six months after the arrival of manager Kerry Brown –Teddies Southfields is excelling for lots of different reasons. The 50-place nursery,which is based in a converted coffee mill built over the River Candle in the London Borough of Wandsworth, benefits from having access to the wide-ranging educational initiatives that have been developed by the Bright Horizons group; similarly, it has the support of head office and regional support teams, which combine to make managers’ and their staff’s lives as easy as possible. Closer to home, it has a well-qualified team complemented by carefully chosen visiting specialists; and,perhaps most importantly of all, it has a strong leader in place, whose efforts to engage with parents, children and practitioners alike have made a noticeable impact in a short space of time…
“I left school at 16 and went straight into childcare, straight into training,” Kerry says when asked about her journey to management. “After I’d worked my way through that, I went on to do childcare assessing and did my A1, but I didn’t like that because it was drawing me away from the children; I felt a little bit lonely! So, I went back into nurseries. I’ve been in childcare for 14 years now, and came over to Bright Horizons three years ago and here, two years later.”
Success at Bright Horizons did not come out the blue for Kerry, who had already received a ‘good’ inspection at another setting and brought with her considerable experience of shaping a successful team. “I joined Bright Horizons as manager of our Pimlico setting,” she explains. “I had been manager at my previous nursery for a good six years, helped open it up, wrote all the policies and procedures, and kept all the same staff throughout that period. But I started to feel there was nowhere left for me to go – and I’d up-skilled the staff to takeover when I wasn’t there – so I was getting a little bit agitated; I needed something else to try! I did a lot of research on Bright Horizons and found the nursery in Pimlico and went from there,” she concludes.
As worthy an achievement as earning an Ofsted ‘outstanding’ is for an early years setting, the short space of time Kerry had to work on the setting she inherited before the inspection day arrived marks the feat out as particularly impressive. But what is also clear from speaking to her is that success has come as the result of a team effort. “I came over originally to cover for a couple of months and then never went back,” Kerry laughs. “But because by the time I took over officially I’d had a chance to see the nursery and listen to the staff, I already had it clear in my mind what I wanted to do.
“It was about six months after I’d arrived that we had our inspection,” she continues. “During that time we worked together as a team – we had meetings, we discussed what we wanted to change as a group and agreed on things to work on going forward. A lot of the staff had wonderful suggestions, so we took on board what everyone had to say, nothing was brushed under the carpet – after all, not everything the manager comes up with will be the best option!
“The team needed a connection again and that’s what we’ve managed to do,” she adds. “It’s changed a lot here since I took over. We have a mixture of old and new staff – when a manager who’s been there for a very long time goes, some of the staff who have been there with them often go too. But it’s all worked out for the better. We’ve de-cluttered the nursery, got rid of things we didn’t need, put people on training, worked on the garden – everything!”
With administrative responsibilities on top of the important work of supporting staff and ensuring high-quality practice is maintained, Kerry has plenty to keep her occupied: “I manage my time quite well, I suppose,” she says. “It’s something I’ve learnt over the years how to do; I’ll come in, check my emails and respond to any urgent ones, then I’ll do my walk around, come back. I like to keep myself involved in the rooms, so that the children know me as more than just ‘that lady who sits in the office’.
“I’m not a key person, so I can just sit down on the carpet and read a story, or do an art activity, or help out at lunch time. I think that when you’re a manager and you shut yourself away in the office it’s easy to forget what goes on in the rooms, you forget the importance of being in there – and that’s what I came into childcare for, not to sit in the office doing paperwork but to look after children. Every day when I go home I always look an absolute mess, but that’s a part of my job I enjoy!”
“Another thing that was important to us was getting the parents on board,” Kerry says of her nursery’s rapid development. “We held a big parents’ evening where I introduced myself and asked the mums and dads where they wanted to go, what they wanted to see, and we got a lot of input from them.”
But parental engagement doesn’t end with the odd evening here and there: Teddies Southfields also offers weekly email newsletters covering the learning that has taken place over the course of the week, and has introduced a parents’ forum, designed to help Kerry and her team keep on top of parental priorities and deal with areas of frustration before they become significant grievances. “You need to invite parents in on a regular basis because there may be things that are in the back of their mind niggling away,” she continues. “Their child’s coat peg might get moved one day, the next they’ll have lost their socks – parents won’t send you an email or give you a call, but one day they’ll explode! At our forums we get the coffee and biscuits out and just sit down and talk – we find out if they’re happy with what’s going on in the nursery, they help with planning the menus, things like that.
“We didn’t have anybody coming in to begin with, we just ate the biscuits ourselves,” she admits, “but it’s getting better as time goes on. We’ve made changes – people didn’t always want to go home and then come back out again, so now we hold the meetings earlier, straight away at quarter past six, with the children still playing in the rooms.”
Despite the regular, formalised opportunities to engage with parents, Kerry is quick to stress the importance of having an ‘open door’ policy too. “Our parents like the fact that they can come to the office and chat for a 10 or 15 minutes about what their children have done,” she says. “It’s good to show them that I know all the children and I’m not just sat in here asking, “Have you thought about increasing your sessions?”! I’ve even given the office to tw o parents, made them a cup of tea, shut the door and left them because they were friends and one needed a chat. I think those personal touches help make parents more happy.”
With engaging day-to-day activities, bought in specialists and a host of Bright Horizons initiatives, there’s no shortage of things for children to do at Teddies Southfields – whether they’re in one of the well-resourced playrooms or the outside area. In particular, Kerry speaks enthusiastically about the nursery’s regular ‘Natural Play Builders’ session and Alistair, who comes in each week to deliver it – allowing young children to lead their own explorations of lengths of hose and water, piles of bricks and cement, wheelbarrows to cart everything around in, and much more, is a recipe for focused play and learning it seems!
Then there’s Bright Horizons’ own stable of enrichment programmes. At Teddies Southfields, Gardening club sees a green-fingered grandfather visit to share his experience of growing vegetables, with children taking home their carefully nurtured produce. Cookery club is run by nursery chef Azzedine (or ‘cooker man’, as the children prefer) and gives budding Jamies and Delias the opportunity to don hats and aprons and mix and make. Growing Readers, on the other hand, brings home and nursery life together by advising parents on how best to support their children’s developing literacy skills, and recommending popular storybooks centred on various themes, with accompanying ideas provided to continue learning.
But it’s not just about visiting specialists and initiatives; the nursery team are a multitalented lot too: “We’ve got Bella who does Spanish with the children,” Kerry says. “As well as Cookery club, Azzedine speaks French and Arabic to them too. Then we’ve got Jen who does music and movement…
It is impossible to ignore the positive impact the wider Bright Horizons group has had on successful settings such as Teddies Southfields. Staff speak in glowing terms about the company and its leadership, sentiments backed up by the fact it has made the UK’s top 100 ‘Best Workplaces’ list for the last seven years running. There is, we’re told, a strong company culture – but rather than homogenising settings, this has been based upon recognising the differences that exist between, for example, those nurseries based in the city and those found in the countryside, and between the diverse brands that have been gathered under the Bright Horizons’ banner over the years (amongst them Bupa’s former Teddies chain, as part of which Southfields originally opened its doors). As a result, the needs of individual areas and parents are being met and a one-size-fits-all approach has been avoided.
HEART principles – Honesty, Excellence, Accountability, Respect and Teamwork – are used to guide and unite a workforce in which attitude is valued above all and asking for help is positively encouraged. There is also an emphasis on finding the fun in what is, after all, a job many do for the love of children – and even a staff appreciation month, during which colleagues can leave messages recognising each other’s efforts, and parents can register their gratitude.
Alongside the feel-good factor there is, of course, no shortage of practical benefits that come from being part of a large company too – from regional cluster meetings that make sharing good practice and finding support easy, to support with marketing, HR and accounting, all of which frees up managers like Kerry to use their talents to maximum effect.
With 90% of staff at Teddies Southfields holding an early years qualification, Kerry and deputy manager, Marie Hair, who worked together at Pimlico, head up a team well equipped to nurture the children in their care – but improving and expanding skills remains high on the agenda. Monthly staff meetings provide opportunities to train practitioners, while informal Friday morning get-togethers – held over a bowl of breakfast – allow senior staff to reflect on what has gone well over the week and what not so well (“Funnily enough, that was what we were doing when the Ofsted lady knocked on the front door – everyone went running back to their rooms!” Kerry remembers).
These scheduled contact times combine with more informal chats and plenty of external training opportunities. But according to Kerry, allowing staff to contribute their ideas and help to develop the setting’s practice is an important part of the learning process too: “I think that’s a big part of how you up-skill your staff – you’ve got to give people that time to shine,” she says. “Plus, if they’re doing well and feel appreciated, they’re going to be with you a lot longer and work harder!”
1. Ready for inspection
“It was just a normal day, really,” Kerry says of the nursery’s most recent inspection. “In our staff meetings we always say that ‘everyday is an Ofsted day’ – you never know when they’re going to turn up, but if you’re running the nursery the way it should be run, it shouldn’t be an issue when they do.”
2. Candy Floss
A colourful zebra called Candy Floss might not seem the most obvious way to promote health and safety, but at Bright Horizons he’s making a real difference. With a name and appearance voted for by children, he’s present across the group – at Teddies Southfields he helps children conduct their own risk assessments and to learn to recognise which activities require adult supervision.
3. Having their say
Just as parents are consulted about what they want for the nursery, so too are the children. Bi-monthly children’s committees offer preschoolers the chance to have their say on what toys are made available in the rooms, what they’d prefer to see on the menu, and even in recent times the layout of their outdoor area.
4. New arrivals
Extra care is taken when welcoming new children to the nursery. Practitioners work with parents to produce ‘All About Me’ books for every child, and a month is allowed for the settling in period: “The parents appreciate that because it shows we’re not just interested in their money – we care about whether their children are happy,” says Kerry. “Sometimes, though, it’s the mummies and daddies that need settling in!”
Teach Early Years visited Teddies Soutfields in 2013.