We are often told that working in the early years sector is a ‘vocation’. Danielle Lilley, manager of Fennies Epsom Nursery – an Outstanding setting – would agree.
At the same time, though, she’s keen to point out that this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a career you have to choose at 18, or even earlier.
“I started out as ‘bank staff’,” she explains. “I had no qualifications, and no experience, really, other than looking after children for friends and family. But I didn’t have a job, and so a friend set me up for an interview.
“I worked part-time for six months, then took a full-time position as an unqualified nursery nurse, which was when I really found my passion. I started doing my childcare qualifications, and six months after passing my Level 3, I became a room leader. Three months later I was third in charge; after another three months, deputy.”
At this point, Danielle decided to try something a little different. She took her health and safety knowledge, and became regional quality and standards manager for the South at one of the UK’s largest nursery chains.
“I loved working with all the different nurseries,” she recalls. “It’s so nice to be able to go in and suggest changes that will definitely lead to improvements for staff and children. But after a while, I realised I needed a base; I wanted to be the person making those changes!
“So, when I saw an opening for a deputy at Fennies Epsom Nursery, I went for it.”
This was six years ago, and it’s fair to say that, when Danielle arrived at the Epsom setting – housed in the same building as Fennies’ headquarters – it had yet to evolve into the truly outstanding nursery it is today.
“There were a lot of new staff,” says Danielle, “and the ethos wasn’t really embedded; there wasn’t a lot of teamwork going on. For me, that was an exciting challenge. It gave me that chance to do all the things I wanted to do, rather than stepping into a nursery where all that groundwork had already been done.”
Two months later, Danielle was manager of the Epsom Nursery. Six years (and two babies of her own) after that, not only is she still leading Epsom, she’s also a senior manager, charged with spreading good practice across other settings in the Fennies family.
And, as its current Outstanding rating indicates, there is a lot of good practice to be found and shared around at Epsom.
In terms of the environment, the Epsom Nursery is blessed with that most useful of resources for any setting: space. There are three floors; the top floor is ‘head office’, where the central teams for finance, recruitment, marketing and so on work (“on-hand support, all the time!” grins Danielle).
Below, there are two large and airy baby rooms, and on the ground floor, another huge area for toddlers (one to two years), and a fourth for preschoolers.
Everywhere is beautifully maintained, and neutrally decorated, with splashes of bright colour and plenty of textures and sensory input – but nothing too overwhelming.
“Fennies is always investing,” Danielle points out. “There’s a constant flow of improvements, which keeps the environment fresh and stimulating for the children.” Of course, there’s a generous outside area, too; babies go out at least twice a day, and the older children have continuous access.
Crucially, as well as all the space for the children, the Epsom Nursery also boasts something that definitely sets it apart from many other settings – a vast room that is dedicated to training, which is something that Fennies as a company takes extremely seriously.
“Our induction process lasts for four days,” explains Danielle. “We have an in-house training team, and it’s incredibly important to us to invest in our staff, right from the start.”
Alongside investment in its buildings and staff, Fennies also pays very close attention to its curriculum, which combines a strong awareness of every child’s entitlement to be exposed to a wide range of experiences (the company employs its own peripatetic teachers for P.E., art, Spanish and French, for example), with a deep understanding of the importance making sure each child’s journey of development and learning is individually tailored.
“We follow the children’s interests,” elaborates Danielle. “And we focus strongly on their confidence and wellbeing, too – teaching them that they have a voice, and they deserve to be heard. When they leave us, they happily run into school, knowing that if they feel unsure, it’s OK to say that to a grown-up.”
Inclusivity is another strand of the Fennies ethos that resonates strongly with Danielle’s own values. “We have children here with lots of different additional needs,” she says. “Autism, speech and language delays; all kinds of issues – and in every case, it’s our job to make the changes and adaptations that are needed so that we can give that child what they need.
“We had one boy come to us with brittle bones. His mum had been told by every other nursery she’d approached that they couldn’t take him; they couldn’t cater for his needs. And that broke me – I believe through and through, that every child deserves the best.
“I wasn’t going to turn him away; so we changed our setting so he could access the learning he deserved. We got special chairs and steps; a toilet he could use; we had a team from Great Ormond Street hospital come in and do a risk assessment – we had to take up carpets, so he couldn’t trip over.
“But we can help; we can do all that. It might take us a little bit of time – and he had an extended settling in period, so we could adjust our processes to care for him correctly – but I never want to be the one who says, ‘No, we can’t take you’.
“Quite apart from anything else, it’s so important for children to see that we’re all different, and all equally valuable – and you don’t do that by excluding a child who might seem a bit more challenging at first.”
Danielle’s pride in her setting is obvious, and it’s not surprising to learn that, when Ofsted last came to visit, she wasn’t going to let a little thing like being on maternity leave get in the way of her chance to shout about Epsom and all the people who make it what it is.
“I got a text, saying, ‘they’re here’,” she laughs. “And there was no way I was going to miss it! So I brought my baby in – the staff knew him anyway, and he had a great time.
“At the end, I was talking to the inspector, and she asked what I really wanted to tell her. And it was about the staff. About how I might be the manager, but that we’re a team – we all run this nursery, we all support each other, and we are constantly upskilling.
“Everyone here is respected, and valued. They all love coming to work – they want to be here, and we share the same vision. It’s all of those things together that create an outstanding nursery.”