Since she founded New Beginnings back in 2005, Joanna Wilkinson and her team haven’t done anything by halves. TEY visited the group’s Romford nursery to hear just how far hard work and a commitment to quality can take you…
To come from a corporate background in investment banking, at a vice-president level, to work as a nursery nurse… some people thought I was nuts; it was, ‘You know nothing about that, are you having a meltdown?’ I was at a point in my life that was quite a struggle, but I really believed that I could use my skills to start a new journey. It could have been a bit of a car crash, but it wasn’t.”
Joanna Wilkinson, managing director of New Beginnings Day Nurseries, is entitled to look back at the point she decided to embark upon a career in early years provision with considerable satisfaction – because she proved those questioning her sanity wrong; because the hard work, and the gamble she took, has paid off; because children, parents and practitioners are benefiting as a result. The journey certainly hasn’t been a straightforward one. In truth, the story of New Beginnings’ origins and expansion – the group comprises three settings, two of which are currently deemed ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted – seems characterised by a series of triumphs over adversity and successes against the odds. No one could say that Joanna has taken the easy route, nor that she has had more than her fair share of luck. It’s all down to hard work, and not just hers, as she’s quick to point out. But then, as she puts it, “Quality is about going over and above,” and if there’s one thing New Beginnings seems determined to provide, it’s early education truly deserving of the ‘outstanding’ label.
TEY is in the London Borough of Havering, at 47-place New Beginnings Romford, the youngest of the group’s three settings and the recipient of an ‘outstanding’ rating just six months after opening its doors. With Joanna are the nursery’s manager, Laura Healy, and area manager, Paula Gill, two long-standing members of a team who share Joanna’s passion for early years. Their enthusiasm for the job is obvious, and the work they’re doing nothing short of inspirational…
Rainham, New Beginnings’ first setting, opened in 2005; it was a first, and personally significant, step on Joanna’s new journey. “While I was working in the city, my eldest son, Jack, was attending daycare – it really struck me that this most precious person was going to be spending a lot of time away from me and my family. I wanted to know more about the experiences he was going to have. It surprised me in some ways that the sector was such a vast spectrum in terms of quality; it challenged me to consider what his experience would be,” she says of her first engagement with the early years sector. “Unfortunately, my second child was stillborn, and as a result of that I felt very strongly about what I wanted to do with my life. Jack became even more of a focus for me – I wanted his life to be the best it could be. New Beginnings was very much about a new start for our family, but the idea was that it would also be a new start for every child.”
It was Joanna’s background in salvaging failing projects that gave her the confidence to take on Rainham, a 26-place setting that had been closed because of safeguarding concerns in its previous incarnation, and which lacked the trust of the local community as a result. It was the success of the fledgling business in forging new links with parents and establishing itself as a trusted childcare provider that earned it the ‘Most Successful Business Overcoming Adversity’ prize at the 2006 Havering Business Awards.
Joanna’s role was not confined to that of owner. With no background in education, she gained Levels 3, 4 and 5, and Qualified Teacher Status, working beneath Rainham’s manager as she developed her own skills. “I’m not going to lie, the challenges of upskilling yourself and working full time and having family life, are considerable,” she says. “There were times doing essays at two o’clock in the morning that I thought, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ But I feel leadership is about leading from the front, about rolling your sleeves up, and I didn’t feel that I would be a sufficient leader without having the appropriate qualifications.”
In 2008, armed with the belief that New Beginnings could make a real difference to children’s lives, and that it was ready to take the next step in its evolution, Joanna and her team tendered for the opportunity to set up a new day nursery within Sunrise Children’s Centre in Loughton. Short-listed amongst 37 organisations, many with far greater experience, it was Joanna’s business that was chosen by Essex County Council. “We were very surprised, and felt very privileged – it was a big turning point for us as a company,” she reflects. The Loughton setting received ‘outstanding’ following its first inspection.
You wouldn’t know to look at New Beginnings Romford’s bright and engaging rooms now, but preparing the building for life as an early years setting was a considerable challenge. Acquired in 2011, in advance of a planned September 2012 opening, it was a former care home that had fallen into disrepair. Planning snags, an ambitious vision and problems with the builders, which led Joanna to project manage much of the renovation herself, conspired to delay matters… but only by a month.
“We embarked on a journey to create our own vision of a nursery building,” Joanna explains. “The architect had never undertaken a nursery development, so we spent a lot of time together really thinking about it. There were a lot of discussions about why I wanted underfloor heating – not just to say ‘we’ve got underfloor heating!’ but because to sleep on a warm floor when you’re two is so much more comforting than being on a cold, concrete floor. I wanted lots of windows, because to be 10 months old and crawl up to a window to watch butterflies is so much more enabling than sitting by a dark wall. I wanted a lift so we could support children with additional needs.
“We started the project in April; I took over in June, and when I brought the staff in in July, they were expecting to come in to think about the furniture that was going to be put in, and the layout of the rooms…”
“I was shocked,” Laura, previously manager at Rainham, says. “I came back from maternity leave to manage this setting and it was a building site; it took me aback.”
“We had the Ofsted inspector visit us in August, and there were some rooms that hadn’t had floors laid,” Joanna continues. “By September we had the staff team in working around the clock, laying out the equipment. We finally finished it on a Friday in October and opened the following Monday – a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this building, and there were times when we questioned whether we were doing the right thing, but we kept going.”
It didn’t take long for the hard work to pay off. By Christmas, occupancy at Romford was at 70%, and by the setting’s inspection in March, it was full. At present, there are no places available until September 2015.
The attention paid to the Romford nursery’s physical environment is just one example of New Beginnings’ efforts to meet the needs of those in their care. “I think if I wanted this article to say anything, it would be that we got to ‘outstanding’ because we’ve really homed in on what our children want out of their time with us, and what matters them,” Joanna says. “It’s very important to us to get to know the little people we care for, to enable us to really tailor their experiences, to be as dynamic and engaging as they possibly can – and I think we do that not only in the physical environment but in the emotional environment too.”
In practice this firstly means that the nursery strives to create a homely atmosphere in which the needs of the individual are placed above convenience: “If a parent would support a child to sleep at 10.30, we’ll do the same here; we place a lot of focus on care routines, because they’re just as important as children’s academic achievements; we have rolling snacks, so those who want a snack can access it whenever they want to, supported by their key person,” Joanna offers as examples.
It also means that child-initiated learning receives strong support, while opportunities for holistic play are prioritised. The presence of supernumerary staff, be they members of the management team or apprentices (more on whom later), provide greater flexibility in this regard, while effective communication and leadership throughout the nursery ensures that planned activities are regularly evaluated and refined, in order to provide as varied and meaningful a selection of experiences as possible.
“We want children to feel empowered to learn, to become life learners,” Joanna sums it up. “We want them to go into school thinking, ‘I loved my nursery and I’m going to love my school’.”
A lot of thought goes into what makes effective leadership at New Beginnings – as Paula, who is responsible both for supporting the setting managers and assessing the group’s apprentices, notes, it’s vital that strong structures are in place at the top to allow managers like Laura to spend their time developing staff and supporting children. Joanna, too, is able to offer her qualified teacher’s perspective to practitioners across all three settings, further strengthening practice.
In-house training is comprehensive – staff, including deputies and managers, are tested regularly on all aspects of the EYFS and the group’s policies and procedures, helping to identify where development is required. Managers, deputies and senior room leaders are put through team-leading and business qualifications to equip them to share their experience with those beneath them, and regular one-to-ones support staff at all levels to continually develop their skills.
“We spend a lot of time with people, be they children, parents, or the individuals who work within the company,” Joanna explains. “We find out about them and what their strengths are very quickly, and we help them build upon those strengths. At the core of New Beginnings is this idea of taking individuals on a journey that’s right for them, and a recognition that everyone is important to the whole picture.”
New Beginnings’ apprentices, trained and employed under a scheme set up in 2012 and which currently sees 12 trainee practitioners working across the groups’ three settings, are an important part of this picture. Not only do they provide extra support in the rooms, they are viewed very much as future staff members. With places in demand, the programme is set to expand by three apprentices shortly, and further expansion is on the cards.
This focus on the business’s development of staff was recognised last year when New Beginnings received the award for ‘Staff Training and Development’ at the Havering Business Awards. More success was to come: following a trip to Canary Wharf to share the business’s story to the judges of the Docklands Business Club & East London Chamber of Commerce Business Awards, the company emerged victorious in the ‘Leadership in Staff Training and Development’ category, and then – much to Joanna and Paula’s shock – was named ‘Best Small Business’, a category newly created to recognise its achievements. “It’s validation,” Joanna says of the awards’ significance to her and her team, “and about challenging the business to push itself. It was a massive shock – I don’t think we’ve taken it in; we’re still a little bit in awe of it, really!”
Getting to ‘outstanding’ at a first inspection represents a challenge for any setting. New Beginnings Romford benefited from an influx of experienced staff from the other settings in the group, but Joanna and Laura still needed to hit the ground running. “Laura and I spent a lot of time on our development plans, and Laura had to really deliver in a very short amount of time, to connect with families. That’s Laura’s strength – her ability to understand the needs of children and their families, and how best to tailor the care within the nursery to support them,” Joanna says. “We had a very clear set of targets focused on creating links with parents, ensuring the development of each individual child, and looking at how staff could connect as a group, to establish themselves as a team whose members could support each other.”
Above and beyond
“A lot of the work we do now isn’t standard childcare; it’s supporting families – early assessments, referrals, parenting skills,” Joanna explains. Our work is more like a children’s centre than a standard day nursery, and I’d say a good 50 per cent of what we do, we’re not actually required to do. That’s what ‘outstanding’ means to us, though – it’s what we stand for and what we’re about.”
“It can be hard for staff to have their managing director working in the room with them,” Joanna says, “but here it’s about using the knowledge that individuals have: practitioners have knowledge about their children and the way their room runs; as a teacher I have a different type of knowledge, and can give them suggestions for their own development and the children’s development.”
“We have regular learning walks,” Paula tells us. “Jo and I walk around with the managers, and we observe staff. It enables us to look at their all-round practice, and then, within supervisions and appraisals, discuss whether there’s any training a practitioner might need. So while there’s blanket training on things we all need, we also have unique learning plans for each member of staff.”
“You have to be very clear on your investment and your potential returns,” Joanna says of the decisions involved in expanding a nursery business. “With Romford, I needed to believe in our business plan, and the research we’d conducted, which said that our investment would pay off. If you don’t have the expertise in business planning, you need to go out and find it.”
Teach Early Years visited New Beginnings Day Nursery in 2014.