Childcare fees: a contentious issue (I know!), and one that, as a nursery owner, I hear a lot about. Parents are right to feel that childcare costs are a high outgoing each month. Indeed, the UK has the highest cost of childcare of any country, apart from Switzerland.
A recent survey, by the Daycare Trust and Mumsnet, found more than one in five parents have left their job - and more than a third have thought of leaving their job - because of the high cost of childcare. I believe strongly that high quality childcare is something which should be accessible to all, particularly as research shows that children who attend an excellent setting (nursery), followed by receiving a high standard of teaching in a primary school, have a significant boost in their development.
The issues around childcare costs and fees are complex and, of course, political. By writing this blog, I aim to shed some light on the costs associated with running a good nursery, which might not be so obvious. More importantly, I want to talk about the purpose of that expenditure and how it ultimately translates into better provision for children.
Staff training and qualifications
Training and qualifications may seem like an obvious one, but absolutely vital to the success of a nursery. Research has shown that high quality early years provision narrows the gap between disadvantaged children and others and that staff qualifications improve quality. The benefits are huge and make a tangible difference to a child's experience in nursery - from safeguarding children (it's imperative that staff know exactly what to do if they have concerns about a child), valuing the role of the key person, to having a fundamental understanding of child development and how to use it in the most playful and engaging way. Staff who are well trained and qualified can balance perfectly professional competences, with the caring approach that someone either new to the role or with experience but no qualification simply cannot.
Environment and Resources
Children do not need expensive toys to learn and have fun. However, what they do need is an 'enabling' environment - one which has the space and basic resources that will support how children naturally play and explore. This involves spending money on key items that last; resources, such as different size wooden blocks, home corner resources, children-sized table and chairs, pushcarts, room panels, art easels, easy access resource and display shelving and nursery play gyms for all ages and stages. Other resources, including purchasing all-weather suits, quality art consumables, good books and small world toys that are replaced more frequently, are just as necessary. Add to that the wear and tear of the environment, which you can well imagine when it has around approximately 60 under fives to contend with!
The nursery environment can be overwhelming for children (and parents!) if it is overfilled with multi-coloured, noisy, plastic toys and decorated in bright, primary colours. Spending time and money planning an environment that will support and enhance learning will help children feel comfortable and take ownership of their space - it is important not only in the way the nursery looks, but it contributes to children's well-being and their ability to feel a sense of belonging.
Wages make up between 65-85% of nursery expenditure. Attracting and retaining good quality childcare staff is at the forefront of every nursery owner and manager's mind and, of course, wages matter when it comes to doing this. Setting a rate for a qualified and experienced member of staff needs to be in line with market rates, particularly local rates, but there should also be a good differential between the rates paid to unqualified staff and qualified staff. Whilst I'm not disputing that the minimum wage supports those who may need it most, it has had a massive impact on how nurseries maintain a differential between their unqualified and qualified staff, constantly pushing up both sets of pay, rather than continuing to invest in well-qualified and experienced staff.
Holding on to an established team, whilst occupancy numbers dip (traditionally around August to December), is also something which is necessary in order to maintain consistency and quality, but can be expensive. Similarly, how nurseries decide to recompense their managers and teaching staff is usually a decision made around quality rather than cost.
Additional costs that all impact on the type of experiences offered to children at nursery include: quality of meals and snacks (as well as making sure we gain a five-star rating from the local authority for catering); products provided to make parents life a little easier (e.g. branded nappies, wipes, formula, etc); IT and administration to ensure invoicing runs as smoothly as possible; provision of resources and publications to support staff's continuing professional development and knowledge; as well as arranging trips for children. All of these elements contribute to how families experience our setting.
There are other examples that impact on costs, such as the government's free places for three and four year olds, which can cost nurseries substantial amounts through local authorities paying less than the hourly rate of fees, thereby forcing us to subsidise what parents believe to be paid entirely by the government. However, these are issues which will generally remain out of the domain of a parent's concern regarding high nursery fees, as they probably should.
Similarly, marketing costs (website, leaflets, brochures, etc), whilst not insignificant, is not something which parents feel they gain any benefit from, but are essential to the setting's future occupancy and success and therefore the ability to continue to invest and improve the nursery.
I hope this has been read not as a gripe about costs, but simply as a rationale surrounding why such costs are necessary. I would of course love to hear any comments you might have (bracing myself...!).