Flexible approach makes Evergreen sustainable
Wednesday, January 3, 2024
The twin-site operator introduced more flexibility in placement and operating arrangements in response to changes in parental working practices post the pandemic.
As a small family-run business in Lancashire, Evergreen Early Years has proven itself to be adept in finding effective solutions to ensure it remains financially sustainable.
The early years provider operates two settings in Preston, the first of which is a purpose-built site that opened in 2017 within the grounds of an urban primary school and caters for 40 children aged two to four.
A second, larger nursery setting was opened four years later on the site of a former school located in a quieter rural area and offers places for up to 72 children aged up to four.
With a team of 21 people, including managers, teachers, early years practitioners and early years assistants, some staff regularly work across both these different settings while others are largely based at just one site.
“However, we work as one close team,” explains director and nursery owner Lisa Gregoire-Parker. “We often describe ourselves as one family living in two homes.”
She believes communicating changes to the business’s day-to-day operations effectively to both staff and families has been a key factor in its sustainability.
“It means that people feel valued and involved in decision-making. Decisions that may be difficult are received more positively when people understand the reasoning behind them,” she says.
Gregoire-Parker describes the need to introduce such changes after a “shift” was identified in recent years in the requirements families were making of the business.
But taking the decision to pivot was escalated in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which left the business forced to re-evaluate its offer at both settings once families began returning to work.
“We found that at our first setting the number of parents needing full-time [care] and long days decreased dramatically,” she says.
“In our rural setting, it was mostly families with working parents so they tended to want longer days and all-year round places.
“Our urban setting has a mix of working and non-working parents, many of whom are looking for hours that fit in with older siblings’ school times.
“Children tend to come for more days but fewer hours each day and prefer time-term only.”
An overhaul of its provision saw the business introduce more variety and choice for families: shorter sessions, “school” days, mid-length days as well as longer days.
“We had a great response to this variety and we found that this also impacted positively on children’s progress, particularly as they returned to nursery after Covid,” says Gregoire-Parker.
To facilitate such changes to its offers, the business had to address ongoing issues around recruiting staff to work full-time and all year round.
“Increasing our places for term-time children meant we could advertise for ‘term-time only’ positions that were filled much quicker and with a wider pool of applicants,” explains Gregoire-Parker.
This “positive move” has seen an increase in staff numbers that has resulted in more capacity for places. It has also allowed the business to offer funded places more flexibly, she adds.
“We place value on offering our team alternative benefits, aside from their salaries. We hold regular social events, team training and development days and individual professional development programmes.
“These all contribute to a team that feels valued for their skills, experience and them as a person and not just focusing on their salary,” explains Gregoire-Parker.
In recent years the business has increased its number of apprentices, a move that she says has proved to be “extremely beneficial” operationally as it has enabled more funds to be put into its in-house training programmes.
There have also been opportunities made available for unqualified yet experienced team members to train for an early years qualification, outside of the traditional apprenticeship route, she adds.
The addition of three former teachers has strengthened the team further allowing a bespoke curriculum to be created based on the needs of individual children and families.
Gregoire-Parker says: “Employing teachers means we can plan and provide the highest standard of education and it has really enriched us as an early years provider.
“We have developed a forward thinking and resilient mindset as a provider and this has really supported us in seeing what we can do rather than what we can’t do.
“While we are not in a deprived area, we have had several children come to us with funded early education for two-year-olds funding and the increase in this year’s base rate in Lancashire has made a real difference.”
She says although nursery fees are reviewed annually the business is careful to make its offers “equitable” for families while remaining financially sustainable. Any necessary increase in fees is balanced by offering alternative options for parents, she explains.
“Last year we shortened our day by 30 minutes which helped reduce fees and increased our staffing capacity,” adds Gregoire-Parker.
“We are registered for tax-free childcare and other voucher schemes which we recommend to all our families.”
To streamline payments and aid budget management, she says a requirement was brought in that families not accessing a voucher scheme should make their payments via direct debit.
Investing in staff development has resulted in improved outcomes for children at both Evergreen Early Years settings, says Gregoire-Parker.
“It means that our team not only improves their practice, skills and knowledge but they feel valued, appreciated and this is reflected in their work ethic.
“Our team wants to be at Evergreen and enjoy being at work which ultimately has the best impact on our children,” she says.
Low sickness levels and high staff retention rates are further proof of the business’s success in this area, she adds.
Shortening the working day has also made a “big difference” to the team’s working week freeing up two and a half hours per staff member to be used in more effective ways, explains Gregoire-Parker.
“Many funded children now attend every day for fewer hours, rather than longer sessions spread over the week.
“This gives them a better routine and helps them settle better without gaps in their attendance which also helps with school readiness,” she adds.