In today’s economic climate, the challenges may seem greater than ever to sustain your childcare business. It is essential to deliver a high quality education and care program for children and their families, and to run at a profit. Most owners and managers know you need a business plan to inform your business for the future, and for your staff in the present to operate the service for success—this remains vital.
The following 10 tips to take your business forward in 2016 are based on issues I frequently encounter during my consultancy work with services, particularly during operational reviews and due diligence. It only takes a few skilful changes to revitalise your childcare business in ways that result in better outcomes, such as more consistent quality care, better use of time and resources, happier staff, an improved NQS rating, and increased profitability.
- Consistent service name and contact details: The name used for your service needs to be the same in every forum (signage, online and documents). Every detail connected with it also needs to be current and accurate. It is common to encounter a service with several variations of its name (e.g. Amazing Childcare Centre, Amazing Kindy and Preschool). The website might have a different name again, and the address provided varies. When you add to this a mishmash of designs on websites and signs, out-dated contact email addresses, and mobile phone numbers that are no longer connected to the service, you can see how confused your business might appear to the outside world.
- Transparent management structure: The management structure and how the service is governed needs to be documented clearly and accurately—preferably with a diagram—and displayed in a prominent place in the service. The name of the Approved Provider should be highlighted. Everyone needs to know the decision-makers. Often the Nominated Supervisor is the only known face and point of contact with parents and staff. When she/he leaves, parents and staff can become uneasy about what will happen to the service with the ‘leader’ gone.
- Clearly articulated philosophy, mission and goals: Your philosophy, mission and goals underpin operational decision-making, policies, procedures and everyday practices, so they must make sense and add value. They will evolve further as the service becomes more established, but with the Approved Provider’s ongoing influence. They need to be constructed prior to the recruitment of staff. With this in place, incoming staff members will know what is required of them, both in terms of delivering education and care, and also operating a business.
- Effective policies and procedures: Policies and procedures should guide every aspect of the service’s operations. They need to be consistent with all relevant legislation, standards, and codes of practice. They also need to be user-friendly and a collaborative responsibility between the Approved Provider and their staff to ensure they are appropriate. Nominated Supervisors sometimes spend inordinate amounts of time modifying a service’s policies and procedures to replicate those in their previous positions, or incoming staff rely on practices from a previous service rather than following the policies and procedures of their current service. This behaviour can cost the service considerable time and money, and result in confusion and inconsistent performance.
- Well-established recruitment, orientation, professional development, staff performance appraisals and management processes: Your staff members bring their everyday practices from other centres, which could have little to do with your mission, values and goals. Sustaining your business is about having clearly defined roles and recruitment processes, which ensure formal qualifications and other requirements are in place, including referees always checked. Also make the same effort to document staff assessments, professional development and training as you do a child’s portfolio. Exit data for staff and parents leaving the centre is invaluable, as it is provides information from parents and staff about their perceptions of the service’s strengths and areas which could be improved.
- Quality Improvement Plan (QIP): A skilfully written and well-presented QIP is a valuable asset. It should identify the level to which the service meets or exceeds the National Quality Standard, as well as strategies and timeframes for improvements where necessary. It is the service’s blueprint for action and articulates where its time and resources will be directed. In reality, Nominated Supervisors can spend countless hours developing a QIP, and they might not possess the skills to do this well or how to involve staff and parents. This can lead to a disappointing rating, because the team members and parents have little or no idea of how they could have contributed, and do not know how to best present their day-to-day practices or the service on the review days. ‘Unfair’ ratings are often the outcome of much misdirected time, effort and money.
- Effective and extensive networks: The value of professional networking with the Department, the community, local and national training organisations, and with other Nominated Supervisors is often overlooked. These networks have an impact on the long-term success of the service as a business, as well as how it is perceived as an education and care provider.
- Well-presented documentation: All of your documentation needs to look as though it belongs to the service, and not prepared as a mismatched collection of poorly written and presented items. Every document you produce should present a consistent message to the parents, staff and the community, and government departments. It is worth investing in professional support and tools to do this efficiently and cost-effectively.
- Known succession plans: Every service needs succession plans for staff in pivotal positions, including guidelines for the first few weeks after a transition. Nothing is more unsettling to staff than not knowing what will happen when a pivotal team member leaves. Pivotal team members are highly valued employees, but the service will not collapse when they leave. Succession plans counter the likelihood the Nominated Supervisor will be perceived as indispensible and the only point of familiarity and contact with parents and staff. Also identify what aspects of the business are not open to an incoming Nominated Supervisor to change. Think carefully about what must remain steady, regardless of who is at the helm, and balance being open to change with valuing aspects of the operations that have been already purposely embedded.
- Business support: While some of the tips above can be implemented internally, others are best addressed by the knowledge and skills of outside experts. Your Nominated Supervisor is an expert at providing childcare services, but is not usually also a business expert. You need to work together to identify the right expert support, and scaffold your valuable team with those services that will amplify their efforts and keep them focused on their strongest contributions to sustaining your business. Acknowledging this and freeing staff to direct their attention to the areas where they can make the most impact for your business is a good investment.
Dr Brenda Abbey has more than 30 years’ experience in the early childhood sector and owns and operates Childcare by Design. As Principal Consultant, Brenda provides technical expertise in early education and care to: federal and state governments; city, regional and local councils; childcare peak bodies; and, national and international corporations. She also writes for a variety of sector publications, develops EYLF and NQS related resources, presents at conferences and workshops, and mentors service leaders and educators. Brenda has expertise and a special interest in collaborating with architects and clients to develop exemplar early education and care services with creative yet functional designs.