Early Years educators have their hands full.
You’ve got lessons to plan, nappies to change, a child arriving, a child leaving, a new child to settle, and observations to write. Long days, long terms, and low pay. And sometimes, it’s just too much.
Matthew Martin, the business manager of Little Beehive nurseries in Scotland knows this all too well.
When staff were leaving their settings (and the sector), Matt set about finding out why. What he discovered was that less really is more.
Here’s what he learned…
As the business manager, Matt was on a mission to find out why so many staff were leaving Little Beehive and worse, the Early Years altogether.
Exit interviews weren’t getting to the meat of why educators were jumping ship, so Matt created an anonymous survey. The survey was sent to ex-employees and current Little Beehive staff in the hope that it would shed some light on what was going on, before Little Beehive were faced with a staffing crisis.
And it did.
Obviously, salary came up as the biggest issue, but there were plenty of other things that staff felt Little Beehive could do better. Of particular interest to Matt were staff who’d left Little Beehive but stayed in the sector, usually going to council-run settings.
He found that the respondents wanted:
Matt is very much in the business of keeping his staff happy, so these reasonable requests were costed, approved by the directors, and actioned. Parents were given 9 months' notice of the settings closing over Christmas and 6 months' notice that the settings would no longer be opening at 7:15 am.
And it’s working. A follow-up survey of Little Beehive staff showed that since these changes were implemented, they are happier in their work.
“Every year we ask the staff in the survey how they are currently like working at little beehive (anonymously) and they rate it 0-100,” explains Matt, “In every nursery this year, and year on year, we have seen an increase since we started making these changes.”
In Matt’s survey he also asked about salary expectations, for one and two-year qualifications, and for degree-level educators. The idea was to find out how much money would entice the educators who’d left back to the sector.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that the answers, while in no way unreasonable, were significantly higher than standard Early Years wages. But Matt wasn’t deterred.
In fact, he put the wheels in motion to make Little Beehive a real living wage employer. But how?
“Well to start with, we had to put fees up,” explains Matt, “But we were really transparent with parents about why.”
Raising fees is no setting’s favourite thing to do, but Matt made sure that parents knew it wasn’t the directors lining their pockets.
“We produced a five-page leaflet explaining why we were doing this,” Matt says, “We showed them all our costs and revenue and the profit. On the back page there were two pie charts, showing parents the breakdown of money before and after the fee change - only the educators' wages section was bigger after the increase.”
Matt even got an email from a parent thanking Little Beehive for how open they were being.
But that was just the start.
Matt knew that sustaining (and increasing) educators' wages meant the settings had to be operating at maximum efficiency.
And that meant making some more changes.
Like many Early Years settings, Little Beehive nurseries offered a huge variety of sessions, to meet the needs of the parents.
With the choice of the morning session, afternoon session, early start, wrap-around, short day, or full day, there was something to suit every parent.
But not the staff or the children.
Having children arriving and leaving at all hours of the day made for too many transitions and disruptions, so time with the children was frequently interrupted.
What’s more, Matt realised that running their setting this way was really inefficient, as sessions constantly overlapped and blocked one another.
“I was looking at the ratios on Famly,” he says, “A room with a ratio of 1:5, if 16 children were booked in, it would show as needing 3.2 staff [4 whole staff]. To me, that was telling me that the room was under-occupied. Needing 4 staff for 16 children meant I could have 4 extra children in that room. We had hundreds of enquiries, but I couldn’t fill the little gaps between all the different sessions, as a child was coming in later, or no one wanted a weird 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm session, for example. The session was blocked.”
There were so many of these ‘grey areas’ as Matt calls them, where the setting was under-occupied but couldn’t be filled, that something had to change.
It was time for another of Matt’s famous surveys.
Matt asked parents when they ideally wanted to pick up and drop off. After creating a heat map of the results, he found that the vast majority said the following:
Using this as guidance, as well as the knowledge that morning sessions were 5 times more subscribed than afternoon sessions, Matt made a choice. There would be only two sessions from now on and no more ‘grey areas’ in the day.
Now Little Beehive nurseries offer an early finish, 8:00 am to 4:00 pm and a full day, 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. Fewer transitions for the children, no gaps in revenue and occupancy, and a full, unbroken day of teaching for the staff.
“In the Early Years, you have to balance the needs of the children and the staff and the parents, but you only have two hands. One always gets dropped. But it doesn’t have to be that way… you just have to learn to juggle!”
While Matt was reducing his ‘grey areas’, he realised that these blockers in occupancy didn’t just apply to hours of the day, but whole months of the year.
“I would ask, ‘Why is there a gap in that room when we have enquiries here?’ and staff would say, ‘Oh it’s only until October when so-and-so turns two and has to move into this room’,” says Matt.
Matt realised that the way children transitioned throughout the whole setting, at all times of the year, created these ‘grey areas’ left right and centre, but also meant there was a constant revolving door of children in and out of rooms.
“I saw that in one of our settings there were 70 transitions in and out of rooms in a 12 months period,” says Matt, “No wonder it feels chaotic.”
And that was Matt’s lightbulb moment.
With children arriving and leaving at different times, and starting and leaving rooms throughout the year, the private settings naturally felt less calm and settled than the council settings.
So instead, what if all the children moved through the setting in classes like they do at council settings (and schools) instead of just when they reach a certain age? Well, that new set-up is currently on trial, from this month.
“It’s going well,” says Matt, “Of course, there have been a few teething problems getting everyone settled into this new way of operating, but the staff are happy to get those issues sorted out now, so hopefully the rest of the year will be easier.”
Fewer transitions for children, as they get to stay with their same peer group and teachers for a whole year. Fewer transitions for educators, as they get to really settle and get to know a class all at once. And, of course, no ‘grey areas’ for Matt!
Matt uses Survey Monkey to anonymously gather data from staff and parents. Although Matt isn’t sponsored by them (...yet!) he does recommend them.
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.