What is it and who is it suited to?
A nursery is a pre-school childcare facility and is staffed by trained carers. They are typically open all year round and all day to cater for working or busy parents.
But, if you aren't sure about committing to a full-time business, there are other ways that you could be involved in childcare – from running a crèche to a playgroup. You could even set up as a self-employed childminder at home. Not all require you to be fully trained or to work full-time. But anyone caring for children under the age of eight will need to be registered with the local authority.
Running a nursery is certainly not a 'get-rich-quick' plan. In fact, you could probably make more money driving a taxi than running your own nursery. But, if you want a job – and a business – that offers hourly challenges and a lot of rewards then this could be just right for you.
It is a business that tends to attract working parents – either because they think they could do a better job than the nurseries already on offer, or because they discover that there is nothing available in the area at all.
After her children were born, Kate Willink decided to leave her job as a management accountant but kept on some work by doing the books for the local nursery. When one of the nursery nurses left, she decided to set up her own nursery called The Wooden Horse in Easingwold, North Yorkshire.
"I couldn't go back to my job," she explained, as the hours that she worked meant that she would never see her children. "This is the next best thing. It isn't as much money but I get other things from it. It is mine and my partner's business and I get to see the children develop."
But don't fall into the trap of thinking that looking after your own children will give you the experience necessary to run a nursery. You need to have the patience of a saint. One child screaming or crying can be tiring, but imagine 20 or more kids all competing for your attention. You will need endless enthusiasm and energy. Don't expect to win prizes for your fashion sense either. Nappy changing and baby feeding could soon spoil your best clothes. But if you can cope with the tears and tantrums, this is a business that offers much more than financial gain.
The Business Plan
First things first. You need to check out the competition; to help you, your local council will have a list of all registered childcare providers. As well as checking out existing nurseries, look at playgroups, mother and toddler groups – anything that will be your competition. And don't forget that might include nannies.
Find out whether there is a market for another nursery. A census can tell you local birth rates, the number of nursery-age children and the general economics of an area. Not only will this give you information on how many children there are but it should allow you to build a profile of your typical customer.
Kate Willink, founder of The Wooden Horse in Easingwold, explains that she and her business partner spent six months simply writing the plan for their nursery. She used the local library, the council and the internet to find useful background information on the area, the average wage and even figures for how many children go to nurseries in the county. Armed with demographics, customer profiles and a financial projection for the first 12 months, her business loan was quickly approved by Barclays.
You should also think about how many children you want to look after in your nursery as this will affect the property, staff and pricing. If this is your first venture, don't try and compete with the chains that offer places for over 100 children. But to be viable, you will probably need to have at least 25-30 places.
Once you have looked at the competition and defined your ideal customer, you should start to get a feel for what to charge. Prices will vary across the country; the average cost of care for children under two years old is currently around £150 a week nationwide, while in inner London it is more than £200 a week, and over £350 a week in some places.. The price will also vary according to how old the children are, as it costs more to look after babies than toddlers.
But like any business, it will take time to get set up properly. Your business plan should allow some time before parents are beating a path to your door. It will probably take at least a year before you are full and it can be hard going on the way, says Ilana King of Blooming Babies Day Nursery in Stamford-le-Hope, Essex. "I assumed that the children would come in at a steady rate but that isn't the way it happened. We had a very long period with very few children and then a huge influx."
The good news is that you don't have to hire all the staff until the nursery fills up and there are flexible finance packages available – for example, loans with capital repayment holidays.
Rules and regulations
Childcare is a very sensitive issue. So the amount of red tape covering this area should come as no surprise.
Under the Children Act of 1989, anyone providing day care for children under the age of eight that exceeds two hours must be registered with the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted).
The registration process looks at the ability of the day-care facility to provide care which conforms with the 14 national standards for day care and childminding. The 14 national standards are a baseline of quality that you, the staff and the premises must adhere to. During the registration process, you will need to demonstrate to Ofsted that you comply with the standards which include:
All members of staff must be ‘suitable’ to look after children, which means making sure they have had the appropriate police checks, and no unvetted person is left alone with the children. The manager of the centre must also have at least two years’ experience as a qualified nursery nurse, between one and two years’ experience in a supervisory role, and a relevant nursery qualification.
All staff must meet the necessary training requirements. At least half of all staff must have appropriate qualifications (at least level 2 qualification for a day-care setting). All staff must have health and safety training and a child protection procedure induction within their first week of employment.
The size of a group of children must also never exceed 26, and should follow the following staff-per-child and space-per child ratios.
|Age of children||Space required per child||Staff ratio|
|Up to 2 years||3.5 square metres||One to three children|
|Two-three years||2.5 square metres||One to four children|
|three to seven years old||2.3 square metres||One to eight children|
*Table information taken from the National standards for Day Care and Childminding.
You must also provide a minimum of one toilet and one wash hand basin with hot and cold water available for every 10 children over the age of two years.
The children’s needs and welfare should be promoted through appropriate activities and play, which develop children’s emotional, physical, social and intellectual capabilities.
The premises must be safe and secure, and any furniture and equipment must be well maintained and conform to safety standards.
If you are intending to convert a residential property, things get a little more complicated as you will need to apply for planning permission. In particular, the planning authorities will check for adequate parking for all the parents dropping off and picking up their children. And if the local residents aren't behind the plan, your application could be held up for a long time.
"It took us 12 months to get planning permission for one nursery because it was in a residential area," explained Pat Perkins of the Wingfield nursery in Leicester. "The residents didn't want a nursery and twice we were given permission but they challenged it so you automatically lose it and we had to go to appeal. But we met the criteria 100% and we didn't go away."
You should also seek advice from your local environmental health department to ensure you comply with legal obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Food Safety Act.
Ofsted will also notify your local fire authority of your registration application, and they may contact you to arrange an inspection. You will then have to meet any recommendations made to you by the fire authority.
Once you are registered, Ofsted will assess the nursery at least once every three years to make sure it conforms with the national standards.
More detailed information on the registration process and the national standards can be obtained from Ofsted or your local authority.
How much does it cost to start?
Firstly, and most importantly, you must find suitable premises. The regulations set out how much space you will need per child, so once you have worked out how many children you want to have you will know the minimum space required.
You can either rent or buy. But if you want to rent, make sure that you have a reasonable lease on the property. It will be very hard – and expensive – to move after only two or three years in a property.
If you don't want to build the nursery from scratch, you could look at modular nurseries. They are significantly cheaper and can be up and running very quickly. But they might not be popular with the local planning authorities – particularly if you are in a green belt area. So before you make any investment, make sure that the local planning department will give approval for them.
Based on a nursery for 25-30 children you should expect a minimum outlay for a modular nursery to be upwards of £80,000. But to build a nursery from scratch the sky is the limit depending on the location and size of the building.
If you are making structural alterations to a building that already exists, you will need to factor in several thousand pounds depending on its current state. The building might also require some work to bring it up to fire safety standards; for example, ensuring that you could evacuate all the children in an emergency. You should also ensure that there is adequate security, for example, extra locks on doors and windows to keep strangers out and children in.
You should also budget at least £8,000 for toys and equipment. This can include anything from books to tricycles, and puzzles to bean bags. And don't forget that with 25 children playing all day long, the equipment will wear out more quickly than normal. Setting aside a regular amount for replacement should help when the bills come in, but you can also save by buying second hand, as long as the equipment comes with a Kitemark, and is thoroughly disinfected before use.
How much can you earn?
Once you have established the nursery and a reputation in the area, you should find that the places fill up fairly quickly. With more mothers returning to work and the government providing extensive support for nursery places, good quality childcare is in short supply in many areas.
But this is not a business for anyone looking for early retirement. Even when your nursery is full – and remember that this could take some months to achieve – you are likely to find that up to 75% of your fees from the children go on fixed costs. Staff and premises are likely to be the biggest costs but food, nappies and equipment all add up.
If you are looking for a business to make a tidy profit, this probably isn’t the best industry to get into. According to research carried out by the National Day Nursery Association in early 2011. 62% of British nurseries regard making a profit as their biggest challenge.
Despite the fact that demand for childcare is high, full-time day care can constitute a large proportion of a parent’s wage. Your costs will inevitably rise, but when you try to put prices up you are unlikely to get a positive response from parents. You should also remember that many of the costs are fixed, so expansion is the only way to grow the business.
Based on the competitive nature of the business, anything above breaking even could be considered a success. Remember also that because of the relatively high start-up costs and low profit margins involved it could take several years before you are close to making back what you originally invested. Jennie Johnson founded Kids Allowed, a successful chain of children’s centres. Turnover reached £3m in five years, and Johnson has earned a string of accolades, including an Inspiring Women in Business award in May 2011.However the business cost a heavy £5m to set up in the first place.
Freya Derrick set up her Hopscotch Day Nursery for 600,000 and is now turning over £50,000 per month with 82 children currently attending the nursery. “You’ve got to decide right from the beginning if you want to run the business as a lifestyle choice, or as a profit making thing, and that will determine the size of the operation. I wanted to have the freedom to spend time with my children, but I also wanted to run a successful business.”
So if this isn't just about money, why do people do it? Working with children, creating an enjoyable environment, training young people to be nursery nurses and working within a community are just some of the reasons why Blooming Babies founder Ilana King loves her job. But, as she says, "it is not just about working with children. The children are the first priority but you are still running a business."
National Day Nurseries Association
Department for Education and Skills