How to manage a nursery

13th December 1996 at 00:00
Susan Hay is a nursery manager with a mission to blaze a path others can follow. Linda Blackburne met her.

The belief that private nurseries are in business to make a fast buck is a myth which managing director Susan Hay is anxious to dispel. She believes sub-standard nurseries cannot survive, and in a 197-page book on nursery management, she explains all aspects of running a high-quality establishment.

Ms Hay, who manages five London nurseries, says: "People think the private sector is not high quality. They think it is in business to make a fast buck without necessarily delivering a quality service - but I don't think this is an accurate reflection of the private sector as it is today. The sector is unsustainable unless it provides a quality service."

But this was not the only reason she decided to write Essential Nursery Management. The 45-year-old mother of Neil, 17, Holly, 11, and Adam, 7, is constantly asked to teach about managing nurseries, and she believed there were few books on the market about running a nursery as a business.

"Managing a nursery is difficult," Susan Hay says. "Very few people have been trained to be managers. What tends to happen is the best nursery nurse is suddenly promoted, and it is assumed she knows how to do the job. She becomes frustrated and takes every opportunity to go back into her old job. It is a very, very small percentage who are trained - absolutely tiny. And the margins for running a nursery are terribly tight."

Susan Hay is well-qualified to write the book. She represents the private sector as chair of the Childcare and Education Association and has successfully run her five London nurseries - collectively known as Nurseryworks - for six years. She also has a degree in business studies, and worked as an economic analyst for a planning consultancy and as a manager of an architects' practice. But she has ended up in her current job more as a result of fate than design.

She and her husband, Alistair Hay, decided to send Neil to a workplace nursery run by the quango, the Centre for Environmental Studies. But it was 1979 - Margaret Thatcher had just come to power and the squeeze was on the quangos. Suddenly, the centre was forced to close. The parents, including Ms Hay with the support of the architects' practice, eventually saved the nursery by negotiating an agreement with Camden Council. Chandos day nursery was created and is still running under a voluntary management committee.

From these early beginnings Ms Hay went on to help a group called City Child set up a nursery; found herself in journalists' contacts' books because of the babyboom stories of the mid-1980s; began working for property developers; and helped develop the Midland Bank's childcare policy.

Finally, she was approached by three venture capitalists to set up a network of nurseries, and Nurseryworks was born. They invested a substantial amount of money to set up the first nursery - Floral Place in Islington.

Essential Nursery Management explains what a manager is and how to manage a nursery business; quality childcare; planning; policies and procedures; advertising; dealing with conflicts; communicating with parents; training; recruiting staff; understanding the language of finance; setting fees; performance measurement; and using consultants and advisers.

In short, it is packed with invaluable detail which nursery managers and would-be nursery bosses need to know. There is even a chapter on letter writing and the correct use of English (including the use of the apostrophe).

Case studies pepper the text and provide down-to-earth examples of the complex decisions nursery managers have to make every day. How do you appoint a senior nursery officer, for example? Or, a rash has broken out in the baby unit - the parents' doctors cannot agree on the cause of it and cannot confirm that it's contagious, but the staff are concerned that such a significant number of babies have got the infection. What should a nursery manager do?

There are also chapters on speaking effectively, stress and health. On speaking, the book details some figures which are worrying, not only for nursery managers: "It is generally believed that each of the following elements has a specific value in transmitting the 'true' message: words 7 per cent, tone 35 per cent, non-verbal or body language 58 per centITo back up the importance of body language at the beginning of a conversation, it should be noted that, of information relayed, 87 per cent is via the eyes, 9 per cent is via the ears, and 4 per cent is via the other senses."

And a chapter on staffchild ratios argues: "What you say you do, must be done. Strangely, this is often not the case." If staffchild ratios are "always maintained", are they really in place at lunch breaks, during staff sickness and when a member of staff shops for the nursery?

But writing a book has not inflated this modest nursery director's ego: "The moment you think you have cracked it is the day to give up," she says.

Essential Nursery Management by Susan Hay is published by Bailliere Tindall. Pounds 13.95.

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