From their abundance of graduates to their policy of performance-related pay, Jackie and Chris Townson are striving to deliver profitable daycare of the very highest quality. TEY visited Toybox Nursery to find out more…
Nurseries present something of a conundrum: they are businesses, carers and educators all at the same time. Where the balance lies varies by setting and provider; sometimes it shifts too far in one direction, and either financial sustainability or children’s outcomes suffer as a result. But, say Chris and Jackie Townson, owners of ‘outstanding’ Toybox Nursery in Great Denham, it’s perfectly possible to find the sweet spot – and when you do, everyone benefits.
“First and foremost, this is a business – it has to make money otherwise we wouldn’t run,” Chris says. “But if the staffing is right, the outcomes for children will be right, and then parents will pay more – and that means we can pay staff more money, and we can get better qualified staff…”
“...and we’ve got the capital to continue to invest,” Jackie concludes.
If you can detect more than a dash of business acumen in those few words, it’s because both Chris and Jackie have come to nursery ownership with considerable experience of working for corporate companies. Indeed, it was in the late 90s, while Jackie still occupied a senior position at McDonald’s, that she decided to set up her own setting – unhappy with the nursery her children were attending: “I sat down on a Bank Holiday weekend, worked out a profit/loss statement on a scrap of paper and thought, ‘I can make this work, and not only that, I can do it better’,” she tells us.
The rest, as they say, is history. By 2012 Jackie and Chris – who joined the business in 2005, bringing with him the expertise acquired from a marketing career taking in several major car manufacturers and Lloyds Bank – had three settings to their name. There had been challenges along the way – not least the 2008 recession – but Toybox was a thriving business set to expand again. Then they were approached to sell, and signed on the dotted line…
“It wasn’t a difficult decision to make,” Jackie says. “When a business gets to that size, it’s very difficult to manage – if you want the level of control I want, if you want to be perfect.” Under the terms of the sale, Jackie and Chris were left with their brand identity, their Great Denham setting – then still under construction – and five members of staff, among them four graduates.
Their new 73-place nursery opened less than two months after the money had changed hands. Six months later it had secured Ofsted’s top mark, Jackie and Chris’s third consecutive ‘outstanding’, and while it is very much in the mould of those preceding it, there’s a sense that this is their crowning achievement – a setting closer than ever to that ‘perfect’ ideal.
Success here is founded upon razor-sharp attention to detail and a longstanding policy of recruiting both highly qualified and, as importantly, hard-working staff. The former is evident in the structure of the building itself – in the way the eaves have been extended to provide children with shade from sun and rain; in the way the rooms are linked, enabling free flow between them when practitioners throw open the doors; in the way the sinks have been positioned in islands, to ensure staff are never facing the wall; and in the way underfloor heating is in place throughout, removing the need for radiators and the safety issues they pose.
Perhaps it is best illustrated, however, by the setting’s all-encompassing policies and procedures – inspired by Jackie’s knowledge of the McDonald’s way of working – which take in everything from how to wash children’s faces after meals to how to load the dishwasher. Nothing has been overlooked, and new staff are observed carefully to ensure they’re doing things the Toybox way, and know why. “It’s not because we want to make the job hard; it’s because we’re under so many regulations,” Jackie explains. “It ensures we don’t miss anything.”
The keen focus on standards extends to practitioners’ training and development, which is linked into a system of performance-related pay. Chris puts the thinking behind the latter into straightforward terms: “If you’re outstanding in what you do, you’ll earn more money working for us than in any other nursery in the country. If you’re average at what you do, you’ll be on minimum wage and you’ll go somewhere else, because they’ll pay you more.”
“We only want the best staff,” Jackie agrees.
That might make Toybox sound like a high-pressure environment, and expectations are high, certainly. But there is support for practitioners from the moment they join too, and it doesn’t let up. Targets are set early on and improvement is rewarded with a step up the pay-scale (see Talking points). In between three- or four-monthly appraisals progress is encouraged by the setting’s senior practitioners, in particular Early Years Quality Director, Hannah Street – one member of Toybox’s three-strong management team – who is responsible for maintaining the setting’s good practice.
“One of Hannah’s roles is to achieve the highest possible outcome for each practitioner on their appraisal framework,” Chris explains. “She’s driving the outcomes for the staff, to help them to be as good as they can, to get as paid as much as they can. Every month she will observe, and model to, every staff member, for an hour, and then provide verbal and written feedback.”
“We ensure they all have clear guidance as to what we’re trying to achieve and where we’re trying to get them,” Jackie says. “They all have regular one-to-ones with their team leader, too. We expect improvement.”
Chris and Jackie’s commitment to quality early education is also apparent in Toybox’s lengthy roster of degree-qualified staff. Alongside Hannah, a QTS and EYT, work co-managers Jen Grimshaw and Dinah Combe, and three team leaders (one for each room) – all of whom are EYTs. All are supernumerary, Jen and Dinah charged with supporting Jackie and Chris with the accounts and sales and marketing respectively; the team leaders responsible for overseeing the practitioners beneath them. As if that weren’t enough, two more EYTs are poised to join the ranks – the latest beneficiaries of a graduate programme run in partnership with the University of Northampton – and Jackie and Chris intend to continue in a similar vein; as they point out, with funding available to subsidise graduates during their EYT training, early years settings really have nothing to lose.
Degree-qualified staff are a crucial piece of the Toybox jigsaw – underpinning the outstanding practice upon which the business model is based and ensuring the latest academic thinking is always flowing into the setting. But that’s not to say that staff with fewer qualifications are regarded as less important to success – as Jackie stresses, you don’t need to have a degree to be brilliant at what you do, and those at all levels deserve to be rewarded for being outstanding: “A room practitioner can earn more than a manager on an hourly basis, if they are absolutely 100 per cent on their appraisal,” Chris tells us.
In an effort to secure the quality of its practitioners for the long-term, Jackie and Chris have now launched the Toybox Academy – an apprenticeship scheme, whose intake will again be overseen by Hannah. It’s just one more example of how nothing is being left to chance, and how the quest for perfection goes on.
1. Growing leaders
Toybox’s graduate programme is proving a great success. “We don’t take team leaders or managers now unless they have a degree; we don’t have to,” Jackie explains. “And when they join we put them through the teacher training programme. Some of our Level 3s have now said ‘I want to go and do my Foundation Degree’ too.”
2. Paid to perform
Toybox’s system of performance-related pay operates using a 36-point questionnaire covering practitioners’ training needs; for each point, staff rate their own performance on a scale of one to five – from ‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’. Managers do the same, before the two are compared and an outcome agreed. The higher the score, the higher the hourly bonus staff receive on top of their minimum wage basic rate.
“Toybox Academy is in its infancy because we’ve only just taken our apprentices on,” Hannah Street explains, “but we’ve got clear plans about what we want to do with them. We can mould them to our expectations. They’ll be exceptionally well trained, and hopefully we’ll see them develop with us – if we do our jobs right, they won’t be ones we want to lose.”
4. Working together
“We prioritise working with parents as partners, so it’s very important to us that they make contributions too,” manager Jen Grimshaw says. “We have six-monthly parent consultations, where we sit down for an hour and go through a child’s development in depth, and parents can send in videos using eyLog, which we can link to the curriculum.”
5. A matter of time
Toybox operates a 20-hour (four session per week) minimum policy; this is designed to enable parents requiring full-time places to have them, and, Jen explains, to give practitioners enough time to accurately assess and develop each child: “If they’re only here for one day a week, we don’t get the observations we need, and we’re not able to stretch them.”
“Once or twice a year we’ll sit down with the staff individually ourselves, to ask, ‘Are we delivering what we said we would at your interview?’ ‘What are we getting wrong?’ People tell us they’ve never worked anywhere that spends as much time getting to know them, getting involved. That doesn’t cost you anything – it’s just a bit of time.”
“This business is built upon the premise that we’re outstanding in everything we do – that’s where we want to get to. If we can deliver that 24/7, everything stacks up. But the difference between a ‘good’ and an ‘outstanding’ nursery is very fine in the margin, and so is the difference between a good and an outstanding business. The moment you slip by five per cent, you’re in trouble.”
Teach Early Years visited Toybox Great Denham in 2015.