Enabling Environments

Is your early years setting sustainable?

  • Is your early years setting sustainable?

The challenges of operating a viable, sustainable early years setting have become more acute in recent years.

A number of changes to policy, particularly to funded entitlements, coupled with increasing operating costs, have brought additional pressures to the day-to-day management of services.

The need to undertake a strategic review and maintain an oversight of viability has never been more vital.

Regardless of the type of early years setting you run, whether urban or rural, profit or not-for-profit, within a purpose-built or pack-away environment, there are a number of important aspects you’ll need to consider when planning for, and reviewing, your future sustainability.

Creating and developing a sustainable setting is not just about money (as important as that is), so reliance on fundraising and grant aid is no long-term solution.

Instead, sustainability requires you to focus on all areas of the organisation. Detailed below are pieces of what might be called the ‘sustainability jigsaw’, which together are crucial for your early years setting to survive and thrive…

Effective leadership and management

Effective leadership and management are central to ongoing sustainability. Great leadership is about creating relationships with the team and inspiring them to go ‘above and beyond’ their own expectations.

In order to initiate and sustain this, it is important to develop a vision – explore your organisational values, such as caring and integrity, valuing creativity and problem solving, respecting honesty and trusting each other, and committing to excellence.

Acknowledging that an organisation is bigger than its leader, once values are embedded, a sense of a ‘life beyond the leader’ can be created.

Perhaps more importantly, your organisational values (both those that are obvious as well as those that are less so) will be absorbed by children every day and contribute to providing them with a moral foundation for their future.

Importantly, in terms of business advantage, ensuring your organisation is values led, will enable you to operate confidently, coherently and consistently, and be perceived by parents as professional and competent – which in turn, contributes towards a reputation for high quality.

Financial management

The sustainability of your early years setting relies on having accurate and timely financial information to inform your business, strategic and operational decision making.

For example, careful budgeting and managing cash flow will inform your plans with regard to staffing, marketing and the delivery of services. By looking regularly at your current financial position, you can ensure that everything runs smoothly.

A business plan is a useful tool in helping to estimate the future activities and needs of your setting. The forecasts of income and expenditure from the budget will provide the expected financial activity for your setting, based on planned operations for the upcoming period.

The business plan will also help to give an indication of the risks and development opportunities that may potentially occur for your setting.

Not every eventuality can be prepared for, but by considering the likelihood of different events occurring and the possible effect they could have on your finances, a more reliable estimate of required reserves can be created to counteract, for example, a temporary drop in child numbers or an unexpected expense.

Marketing and communications

Effective marketing is an essential tool to help fill your current childcare places, continue to attract new customers in the future and ultimately to support your childcare business to be sustainable in a challenging marketplace.

Such activities may take some time but should not necessarily need a significant financial investment.

Accessing relevant and up-to-date market research is a valuable tool for businesses in any sector; it will provide you with an insight into the market, trends and customers.

For instance, while a good working relationship should be developed with other settings in your area, there will always be an element of competition.

A unique selling point (USP) is a factor that differentiates your services or products from your competitors.

A USP should be used as a promotional tool to highlight what makes your service more attractive than that of other providers in the area. It offers something that competitors cannot, do not or will not offer, and is attractive enough to attract potential and new customers.

High-quality provision and practice

Traditionally, the quality of provision and practice has been seen as distinct from business functions. However, viewing the quality of practice alongside these activities is vital for sustainability.

Quality improvement is a continuous process embedded in everyday practice, only limited by your capacity to improve and, most importantly, by the ability of your staff and management team to reflect upon their own thoughts and actions.

In doing so, you can evaluate your provision, recognise areas for improvement and take full ownership of strategies implemented to bring about change.

A number of tools and packages are available to support reflection and discussion of quality practice and provision. However, the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) itself is often overlooked as an effective quality audit tool.

By understanding and adhering to the EYFS requirements conscientiously, a high quality of learning and development and safeguarding and welfare can be achieved.

As well as complying in those areas denoted as ‘must’ according to the framework, also complying where it specifies ‘should’ means ensuring best practice wherever possible.

Making connections

The diversity of provision and the current financial climate means there is no single recipe for success. In a time when local authority resources are restrained, accessing support from peers and from organisations is more important than ever.

Meeting up with colleagues from other settings, whether as a formal or informal network, has many benefits, and can…

  • Increase awareness of local and national issues, such as funding developments, training opportunities and changes to legislation;
  • Be a forum to respond to local policy consultations and link to other organisations such as the local Schools Forum;
  • Create opportunities to gain strategies from others in supporting sustainability of settings;
  • Help build solidarity in a local area and build a collective voice to support the wider early years community;
  • Enable sharing of and learning from best practice.

The Early Years Alliance is an early years membership organisation. This article is an edited extract from Operating a Viable Early Years Provision (Early Years Alliance, 2019), which is available to Alliance members at £13.65 and to non-members at £19.50. Visit eyalliance.org.uk/shop.