Want higher occupancy? Try offering fewer sessions.

Part 2 of 2: Little Beehive removed transitions and went from 65% occupancy to 98% in 6 months.
Matt Martin of Little Beehives explains their strategy to boost occupancy by offering fewer sessions
March 6, 2023
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In a rush? here’s the quick run-down.

  • In part two of this series we’re following up with Matt Martin of Little Beehive about how they removed transitions at one of their settings. You can read all about why they did that in Part 1 right here.
  • Matt could see that too many sessions, and therefore transitions, were disruptive to children and educators, and left too many empty spaces in the setting.
  • Simply reducing the sessions on offer and moving all the children through the setting in ‘peer groups’ (as opposed to individually) has increased occupancy, children are more settled, and staff are happier too.

When we first spoke to Matt Martin of Little Beehive about his plans to remove transitions, he explained he was trying to solve three fundamental problems.

  • The disruption caused to children as they or their peers were moved from room to room as individuals.
  • The uncertainty for staff who might have their planning and teaching disrupted by an unsettled new child at any point.
  • Sessions he couldn’t sell, as they were ‘blocked’ by a child starting later in the year.

Now Matt’s back to share exactly what their new model looks like and how they’ve made it work in practice, to tackle the issues above. Read on to see the results of his pilot, 6 months on.

And now, over to Matt…

Julia Rose, Early Education Editor, Famly

Transitioning as a group, not as individuals

Last year at our Kirkcaldy setting, we stopped doing individual room moves and created ‘peer groups’ instead.. We now have one transition a year and children move into their next ‘class’ as one peer group, every August. 

Our teachers and practitioners have the same children all year round and we even offer them the option to transition with the children to the next room, if they want to. 

We categorise our peer groups as E1, E2, E3, E4, and E5. The ‘E’ stands for Early Years, to match how Scotland’s school years are labelled - years P1-P7 in primary school and years S1-S6 in secondary school.This is how the peer groups look at Little Beehive:

A chart describing the new transition model at Little Beehive's settings

We then divide our peer groups into classes. E1 and E2 come together as one class in our baby room, E3 are in our toddler room, and E4 and E5 are in preschool. However, you could group your peer groups into any kind of class formation, for example, E1/E2/E3 and E4/E5, or an E1/E2 class and an E3/E4/E5 class. The most important principle is the yearly transition in August as the oldest children go to school.

As the number of children that adults can care for increases each year, as the children age, you can invite new starters to join as new spaces open up. The key aspect is enrolling new starters at the same time as the peer-group transition between the stages, to minimise disruption.

And, when the school-leavers leave the preschool room in August, the next peer group cohort are ready to move in and fill the spaces, preventing the drop-off in occupancy settings usually experience.

The results: increased occupancy and revenue

Potentially the biggest improvement we’ve seen from this pilot is in nursery occupancy. Under our new peer-group model, our nursery is at 98% occupancy, a marked increase. This is purely because we are utilising our historically transition-locked places to their full capacity.

In fact, we could be at 100% occupancy, and there is now nothing stopping this from happening. 

From a revenue perspective our business has never looked healthier and, in fact, we recently gave our staff a 10% pay rise and trainees a £250 cash bonus. 

And, from an Early Years Education perspective, we are now facilitating more children than ever in our communities to come and get a high-quality early years education (and more parents more ‘childcare’ so they can work). There is an Early Learning Childcare place shortage; imagine if all nurseries moved to this model, we would open up 25% more spaces overnight in Scotland!

Staff are happier and more able to do their best work

Now we are 6 months through our first year of this model, we asked the team to complete a survey to find out how they think peer groups work compared to the age-based transition system. Here are the results:

  • 92% of staff prefer the new peer groups model
  • 93% of staff think children benefit from the new peer groups model, only 7% felt it made no difference
  • 61% of staff find work more enjoyable, the rest enjoyed their work the same amount
  • 70% of staff feel they have more time to deliver Early Years Education, the rest said it made no difference
  • 76% have seen an improvement in the overall nursery experience, the rest felt the experience was the same

In all the questions asked, none of the staff answered that the new model had been detrimental, or made their experience worse.

Rooms are calmer and more settled

Staff also responded to the survey that they feel that the rooms are more settled now. Staff would often complain about the volume of noise in the rooms, especially around the times of transitions or new starts, so we installed a decibel monitor for our preschool room (now E4/E5). 

Since July, when our group transition process began, we have had a slow decrease in average volume from July to January. To further prove the point, we noticed a spike in the volume from the first visit day in July. 

The new model allows children to transition with their peers and allows staff to get the hard work of transitions (and settling in) out of the way in 1 month. And, although that first month is challenging, once all the children have settled in, we have had very calm learning environments. Staff know their children, know their needs and learning requirements, they know what days and times they can plan certain activities and trips. 

We will be monitoring this to see if the trend continues as the children continue to settle over the final 6 months of the pilot. 

How do ratios work with our new transition structure?

Maintaining ratios in this system does require some consideration, as you can have different ages (and therefore ratio requirements) in the same peer group. 

For example, the E3 class at the start of the year may have children as young as 1.5 years old but by the end of their time in E3, children may be as old as 3.5 years old. Here in Scotland, that’s a difference between needing to staff to a 1:3 ratio and a 1:8 ratio within 12 months. 

Under the new model, we staff up to the requirement at the start of the year, then reduce the amount of staff in February, if the peer group ratio has changed. This is because the peer group collectively age into lower ratio requirements, so fewer staff are required for that group. 

With that member of staff now available, we then have the possibility to create a “February Intake” in our baby room, for babies who were too young to join us (or not born) for the august intake.

We also have the option to have a member of staff supernumerary, so the manager can use them as support. This means that rather than paying agency prices to cover sickness or holiday, we have a member of staff on-site, who already knows the children, the families, and the Little Beehive policies and procedures.

Learnings for the future

While I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with the traditional age-based model that we currently use in Scotland, it is expensive and not the best use of our facilities.

I also don't think my peer-group model is perfect. I would love to see partnerships with our local authorities and national government about how we can improve it, deploy it effectively, and how we can allow nurseries and preschools access to the system.

For example, we would need to re-assess training and curriculum to support rooms with a broader range of ages and needs. Instead of the knee-jerk reaction of moving children away from their peers when their learning needs progress, we bring the resources to them to facilitate their learning and development in a manner that is the least disruptive. 

We are six months into our journey, but it’s already had a marked improvement and I would implore anyone who is interested to come and visit us!

The big ideas

Matt Martin is the Business Manager at Little Beehive, you can reach out to him at matt@littlebeehivenursery.co.uk

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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.