When this story gets published, September will still be nearly a half year away. Why are we fussing about it already?
Well, put simply, it’s the month that can bring the biggest financial instability to your early years setting, if it catches you unawares.
But this article is here to make sure it doesn’t catch you unawares. And few people within the sector are more experienced in these September preparations than Tricia Wellings.
Tricia is the Early Years Director at MBK Group, an EY consultancy service that’s provided guidance on nursery finances and funding for over 10 years. As she explains, September’s the month where you can get the biggest shock to your budget, if you’re not prepared.
“It’s not just about the children leaving in August to go to school in September,” she explains. “It’s also about planning out the places you’ll need to have through the rest of the year. It’s a bit of a balancing act, all about how you fill your nursery and plan your places.”
You might think of September as a ‘reset’ button: it’s when you can expect a sudden shift in your occupancy, capacity, staff needs, and billing rates for different age groups. If you’re not prepared for these shifts, that instability can bite at your business’ bottom line.
In this story, we’ll dive into why September is so critical to your nursery’s finances and management, and get Tricia’s expert advice on how you can best plan ahead.
Let’s get into it.
September is a transition period. It’s the high season for children to ‘age up’ — or age out — of your program. Older children might be leaving for primary school, or some of your babies might age into the toddler room.
Tracking these shifts isn’t so simple as moving a name into a different box. It means adjusting your billing rates, double-checking your staff ratios in each classroom, and possibly tweaking your supply orders for each classroom. As Tricia explains, all this can quickly snowball into a lot of extra work, and even some financial stress.
“You might look at your occupancy in the summer and see that you’re full. And that could be true then, but it might not be true come September,” she says. “It’s about planning your marketing and occupancy strategy to account for those challenges that will come up in a few months when children leave. If you don’t make this planning process part of your annual routine, September can be a bit of a shock.”
According to Tricia, these occupancy drops kick in a few weeks leading up to September, as term-time and year-round children start to drop out. But, she says, you’ll be best prepared if you start to account for these shifts months in advance.
And as you’ll see, this process isn’t as complex as it might seem.
September comes faster than you think, and these changes can catch you off guard.
To really be prepared, you’ve got to think about things like your summertime marketing efforts, special promotions, and potential adjustments to staffing hours. These things take time to take effect — so if you start too late, you won’t get the full benefits.
As Tricia says, this planning is more than just checking your occupancy.
“Most people are concentrating on getting their nurseries as full as possible. Once they’re full, though, the planning often stops there. We forget to plan ahead for children moving into different age groups leaving our program,” she says.
Planning for September well in advance is critical for two key reasons:
1. Making sure you’ve got enough children. If September’s shifts find you with much lower occupancy than expected, you’re likely to be overstaffed — so it’s costing way more than it ought to to deliver your services.
2. Taking care of your team. If you’ve misread your situation for September, or it’s caught you by surprise, you may suddenly have to reduce your teams’ hours, which puts them in a stressful position and can damage your relationship with valuable team members.
Let’s get down to it: how do you make these plans take shape?
Tricia recommends starting by checking the birthdays of every child in your care. Because August 31st is the cutoff date for age-based eligibility, double-checking birthdays tells you whether children will age up or out of your care come September.
“If you’re not doing that by now, you’ve got no concept of which children will be coming or going in September,” Tricia says.
The early years doesn’t work like primary school, with each year of children moving up as a group. In the early years, these shifts are still happening on an individual level, so it demands a little extra attention.
“It’s something we tend not to look at: how old are our babies? When are they going to be going to school? Therefore, when do we need to start advertising and doing opening days just for our baby group? Do we need to do that for our toddler group too, or open days just for the preschool? When you know how your age groups will be changing, you’re able to plan your marketing and open days in a much more strategic, effective way,” Tricia says.
Tricia recommends March or April as a good time of year to start this process. Once you’ve got a handle on your birthday situation, it’s time to adjust your marketing to match.
Like Tricia explains, understanding those birthday cutoffs gives you a more detailed understanding of exactly how your occupancy will change in September, and in which age groups.
Then, it’s a matter of planning events and outreach efforts specifically focused on filling those gaps. Here are some examples you could try:
This whole process might sound like a lot of work all at once. But when you’re planning well ahead of time, it’s much easier to spread these tasks out over time, and fold them into your regular workflow.
Here are a few ways Tricia recommends, to help make this planning as simple as possible.
If any of this still feels daunting, don’t worry — you don’t have to do all this overnight. As Tricia points out, a small start on this is better than no start at all.
“Just taking action is the biggest thing. It doesn’t have to be complicated — use the systems that are out there, and the methods you know, to focus on these numbers. If you take the time and effort, it’s not as scary as it might seem to achieve some of these results. Just rolling up your sleeves and trying often shows it’s easier than you think.”
Enquiry conversion rate. If that sounds like a boring business term, it isn’t.
Well okay, maybe a bit. But it’s important.
In simpler terms, this refers to the share of parent enquiries that actually end up enrolling their child at your setting. Knowing this figure can help inform your decisions about when to start running promotions, and how much you need to do before September rolls around. If, for example, 20 percent of all your enquiries end up enrolling, how many enquiries would you need before September to fill your empty spots?
You can learn more about how to calculate this figure, along with other handy business tricks, right here.
I asked Tricia: if she could wave a magic wand and have every nursery do just three things to prepare for September, what would they be?
Here’s what she says is most important:
1. Make sure that you prepare for how many children will be leaving in September. Knowing this single thing shapes every decision you make afterward, from planning to promotions to staffing decisions. This is that ‘birthday check’ process we talked about up above.
2. Review your waiting list and outstanding enquiries. This is the easiest, most immediate way of being able to fill any upcoming vacancies you may have. Plus, in some cases you can do this even before September rolls around.
3. Plan your marketing strategy and your open days in spring. Don’t leave this for July, because your marketing needs time to work its magic. You can always scale these efforts back if you meet your goals before September — but if you start too late, it’s hard to catch up here.
Tricia Wellings and the MBK Group have been helping early years practitioners get a stronger grasp of their nursery finances since 2016. To learn more about MBK Group and get resources to help your setting, visit www.mbkgroup.co.uk.
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.