Getting an ‘Outstanding’ judgement from Ofsted is a huge achievement.
But over a decade’s worth of Outstanding Ofsted grades is truly something special.
In 1991, with her NNEB certificate in hand, Joanne Routledge and her husband bought a nursery and renamed it Kinder Park. Now, you might think that 22 is pretty young to run any business, let alone an Early Years setting. But 30 years later (and with all those Outstanding grades under her belt) Joanne is still running Kinder Park, in Carlisle.
“I could not do this without my staff. The whole operational side is to ensure you have the best staff team,” says Joanne.
So what’s kept Kinder Park on the right track all these years? And what can you learn from a setting like Joanne’s, especially in regards to keeping hold of such a dream team of staff?
I met with her to find out…
One of Joanne’s deputy managers has been at Kinder Park for 24 years, one 20 years and the other deputy for over 18 years. She has two other staff members who have worked there for over 20 years and most of the rest of her team have been with her 10 years or more. And, she’s had several members of staff who’ve moved on to other settings and come back.
“Treat your team with respect and have open and honest lines of communication,” says Joanne, “It is all about communication.”
But this doesn’t just mean talking shop. Joanne stresses the importance of talking to your team on a personal level.
“You’ve got to make the time to speak to them on a daily basis,” she explains, “Ask them what they’re doing over the weekend. Take the time to be interested in them, personally. It sounds common sense but it matters. Remember who is important in their lives, like a partner, parents, or pets and ask after them. That’s key in any organisation.”
Taking an interest can mean a kind word each day, or remembering a special occasion. Joanne also celebrates her team’s birthday by buying a gift and card because, as she explains, you don’t know if that person will receive anything else.
“Get to know them and what they’d appreciate as a gift,” advises Joanne, “Demonstrate that you genuinely care.”
But showing appreciation for staff has to go further than just presence and presents. At Kinder Park, Joanne shows the team how valued they are through her investment in their working environment, such as their recent investment in their baby and toddler room.
However, Joanne didn’t just bulldoze in and hope the staff would just get on with it. As she was removing 6 internal walls to create one big room, Joanne hired an architect, an interior designer, and Community Playthings, to create the perfect space.
“We wanted to increase outcomes and opportunities for our youngest children, providing them with a truly enabling environment, and for the teams to work together in,” explains Joanne
Victoria Musgrave, Kinder Park’s Quality and Operational Lead, worked with the Baby and Toddler Room teams on how to most effectively use the new space (and begin to work as one team within it), taking on their feedback and ideas too. This effort and foresight meant that the newly united team had every chance to be successful in their new environment - it wasn’t just left up to chance.
“I love change,” says Joanne, “But I have to appreciate not everybody does. Not all the staff do. We had to take on board their opinions, their worries, their concerns, and their ideas, so I hope they do feel valued. After the change, the team have really come together as a team of 5 and they’re excellent. They’re empowered, their friendships have grown, and the practice has developed.”
“Everybody has to be accountable - even me. Why shouldn’t I have the same treatment as everybody else?” Joanne Routledge, Managing Director, Kinder Park Nursery
Despite being the managing director, Joanne recognises that hers doesn’t have to be the last word. “It’s a bottom-up approach rather than top-down,” she explains.
Joanne’s three deputies conduct her appraisal and set her targets, as well as conduct supervision meetings with her throughout the year, meaning the team get a say in her development too.
And, annually, Joanne meets with an external coach and leadership advisor to set business priorities, as she acknowledges that’s where she needs support. Once the goals are agreed on, Joanne then delegates some of these to her team, so they can feel part of the progress and take on some responsibility outside of their normal role.
“Everybody has to be accountable - even me.” says Joanne, “Why shouldn’t I have the same treatment as everybody else?”
But how does this culture of accountability benefit practice?
Recently, Joanne and the team tried out a popular pedagogical approach that they’d seen a lot of online. Part of this approach meant that the team were encouraged to remove the plastic from their environment, a change which Joanne was keen on making work.
However, Joanne noticed that her colleague Kath Armstrong was slowly introducing the plastic and character toys back in. In some settings, Kath may have found herself in trouble with Joanne, but instead, Kath explained her rationale and Joanne took the time to hear her out.
“They gave it a try and they valued what I was suggesting,” says Joanne, “But Kath explained how the children were so much more engaged in their play with the toys we had before. So we’d never keep pushing something onto them that wasn’t working or benefitting the children”
Katy McNulty, Deputy Nursery Manager at Kinder Park then introduced a giant plastic castle to her room, which Joanne was unsure about. However, Joanne has instilled in the Kinder Park team the confidence to back up their decisions.
And not just to their manager.
“I said ‘we can’t have that when the Ofsted inspector comes!’” laughs Joanne, “And Katy told me if the Ofsted inspector questioned the castle she’d tell them that the children love it, and about all the benefits it was bringing.”
Ultimately, the staff’s feedback to Joanne meant that it was decided Kinder Park would go their own way, and not continue to ascribe to the pedagogy they’d tried out. But this decision, to the benefit of the children and the staff, couldn't have happened if there wasn’t a culture of mutual respect and openness between Joanne and her team.
“We came back together as a team and asked the staff what they thought,” says Joanne, “They said it wasn’t working the way it is, but we did keep parts of it in our ethos. It’s about having the confidence to give these things a try but to say as a team, ‘this doesn’t work for us.’”
It’s the fundamental desire to provide the very best for the children and families that come through the door.
Joanne Routledge, Managing Director, Kinder Park Nursery
After a 6-year waiting period for their most recent inspection, staff were naturally nervous. Joanne, however, was confident.
“I re-read the inspection handbook the night before,” says Joanne, “We have it hanging in the office anyway, so we’re familiar with it, but I took the time to make some notes too so I felt really prepared.”
However, maintaining an Outstanding grade for over a decade means Kinder Park’s team are always looking for ways to be better.
“We’re continually, as a team, ‘preparing’ for inspection day,” says Joanne, “We had our last one in July and we don’t think ‘Oh, they’ve been now, put your feet up!’ We’re continuously looking at ways that we can improve the setting and what we deliver to the children and their families. It’s an ongoing programme of development.”
Like the Kinder Park team’s experiment with the new pedagogy, this improvement might mean trying something new. It can also mean rolling back that change when it doesn’t work for your setting. But Joanne believes that investing in your staff is the most important driver of outstanding practice.
“You’ve got to have trust in your staff team, so give them opportunities to upskill and attend training, “ she says, “Whether it’s a level 3 qualification or a short course online. You have to look at their skillset and where they might benefit.”
Providing an ‘outstanding environment’ is also enshrined in Kinder Park’s Vision, Values and Behaviours, which hang in the setting’s staff room. A commitment to being outstanding in the very ethos of your setting is certainly ambitious, but this too has come from the staff themselves.
“They underpin everything we do,” explains Joanne, “But they’re not from Victoria and I in the office - we didn’t sit here and think of an ethos. The team put them together themselves, from what they felt was important. It was about 10 years ago but we recently revisited them and the team didn't want to change a thing.”
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.