Hiring the best educators and managers for your setting most likely sits as a high priority for your nursery business. Not only to ensure quality childcare is provided to the children but to scale your business and keep staff, and parents, happy as well. However, this is often easier said than done.
Recently Blossom interviewed Gemma Lester, Operations Manager at Inspire Montessori, and Tim Hopkins, Operations Manager at Humpty Dumpty Day Nurseries, on ‘what makes a good nursery manager?’ as well as answers into what the hiring process looks like. Having both operated Ofsted Outstanding nurseries, we have put together their invaluable insight.
Every setting needs a nursery manager to instill leadership, drive, as well as accountability to take the nursery forward. Nursery management is no easy or simple task. Essentially, the nursery manager is the key to everything. They are ready to take on the challenges facing your nursery daily and they also know the nursery inside and out.
All in all, a nursery manager is an integral part of any successful nursery. Therefore, it is important to hire the right one for your setting. The benefits of a nursery manager are going to differ depending on how your setting works. To meet the statutory framework requirements, you need to have a manager of your setting. But more than that, they are the go-to person for your staff team.
“It could be that you are an owner or proprietor of a setting and you want to spend more time doing things you enjoy (for example building curriculums and looking for opportunities for your setting to develop). The nursery manager is able to step in and carry on the day-to-day runnings of all your hard work. The benefits will far outweigh the cost implications of hiring a nursery manager for your company,” Tim Hopkins, Operations Manager at Humpty Dumpty Day Nurseries.
Having the word ‘manager’ in the title does not always mean that they have this one and only role to play. In fact, a nursery manager has many different ‘hats’ to wear. And when you’re at the top, often these ‘hats’ tend to pile up on top of each other. A nursery manager is a childcarer, a parent, an agony aunt for their staff, and much more. They deal with ratios and staff shortages one moment, then jump to someone who has a mysterious rash that they must go help with the next.
But they are also a salesperson who is able to sell their nursery, and who also knows their occupancy and can talk about budgets. So you can see that this is quite a niche market of people who would fit into this category. That is why the nursery manager is probably the hardest role but also the key role to a successful nursery.
The nursery manager has to be able to be the person who: greets parents at the door, can hold professional conversations, and be pulled for a quick chat on a child’s development. They may find themselves singing nursery rhymes and being the ‘big bad wolf’ one moment, and next dealing with Oftsed professionally when they turn up announced at the door. In short, they must be adaptable and have that personable touch. They must be able to have a conversation with anyone at any time and not get flustered.
And of course, they must be knowledgeable and experienced in their field. Without a doubt, our best learnings come from mistakes and dealing with difficult situations. So when someone has been managing for a while, or in multiple settings, you will find that they are usually the best candidate.
The deputy nursery manager is responsible for supporting the nursery manager in all delegated tasks as well as being a leader themselves. Ensuring that quality education and childcare are being provided, while the staff is supported and parents are satisfied are just some of the many tasks they will face daily. Additionally, they will make sure that policies and procedures are being upheld and followed properly. Should you wish for some of the roles and responsibilities to be shared between the deputy nursery manager and nursery manager, this is an option to be discussed with the Operations Manager.
Deputy managers have to have the majority of the skills and knowledge that a manager has in order to step into that role when the manager is absent (whether it be planned or unplanned). Deputy managers often have multiple roles to play. They can take up some of the HR roles, or be the Safeguarding Lead for the setting, for example. This allows them to learn those skills that they will need to be a good nursery manager. The role of a deputy manager is and can be very difficult. They are a manager, so staff goes to them with their issues and concerns. Therefore it is important that they have that downtime with their own line manager or senior leaders. So in some instances, the role of a deputy manager can actually be a lot more arduous than a manager’s.
There are also many agencies that specialise in hiring professionals in childcare that you can explore. We recommend finding a specific agent, within the agency, as this is really helpful in finding the right candidate for your setting. When selecting an agency, make sure that your agent understands the Early Years sector well. They need to understand the importance of this role that you are hiring for – and get it right!
“Finding the right person is a bit of a minefield, especially when you have high expectations – as any group leader would! At our own setting, it took us well over 6 months to hire our nursery manager, “ Gemma Lester, Operations Manager at Inspire Montessori.
Another point to highlight is succession planning. Look for that talent within your existing staff team. Is leadership something they are interested in? There need to be opportunities for those who want to develop, to develop. Discuss their aspirations with them so that you can start to develop those skills for them to be able to step up and take on the role of manager.
There are so many different bullet points that you could put into the job description. And if you put them all down, odds are it would be too overwhelming and no one would ever apply! A good way to go about it is to highlight your nursery’s core principles and beliefs. Talk about your ethos. You want your potential candidate to match up to what your setting stands for. This also lets potential candidates know that if they thrive in a setting with a particular ethos, they should apply.
Of course, there are qualifications and experiences that must be met, so make sure you include those as well (we dive into this below). Putting all of this into a job description can be a difficult task. The main idea is to get across: this is who we are as a nursery and this is who we are looking for to join us. If this matches you, then let’s have a chat!
“The job description must also have enough room for a person to grow into the role. This allows the person to truly take ownership of their personal and professional development,” Tim Hopkins, Operations Manager at Humpty Dumpty Day Nurseries.
In terms of qualifications for a nursery manager, they must have a minimum of a level 3 in childcare. Naturally, anything higher than that is more desirable – anywhere from level 4, 5, 6. Another option is the Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS). In truth, there is an open list of qualifications that a good nursery manager can have – but the basic is a level 3.
It is also essential that your nursery manager understands the new EYFS – both Birth to Five Matters and Development Matters. They must understand where they can find out essential information as well. This is where your support to the manager steps in.
“Great communication skills are absolutely key. Both face-to-face and using tools such as Teams, Zoom, Skype, etc. They must also have the ability to communicate well in writing. Whether this is to parents or staff. Remember, emails and letters are interpreted in a different way as opposed to when you are sitting next to the person and having that conversation,” Tim Hopkins, Operations Manager at Humpty Dumpty Day Nurseries.
When it comes to practical experience (whether it be as a manager or be it other suitable experience), 2-3 years is ideal when hiring a good nursery manager. However, it all comes down to the individual person. You can write up a never-ending list of the qualifications and experience you would like this person to have, but in reality, it rests on how that person delivers themselves. Conducting themselves with professionalism at all times, as well as having experience working in a busy nursery are all points to look out for.
After finding a candidate that looks ideally suited for your nursery on paper, you can move into the interview process. It is advised to conduct the interviews in stages to ensure that you are being thorough in your search.
Once you come across a CV on Indeed or via one of the agents, and if you like what you see, give the person a call and have a chat. This will be a simple introduction to each other. But there are certain elements to look for on the first call, such as:
If you are pleased with this, invite them for an in-house interview at the setting you are looking to hire a nursery manager.
This stage involves introducing the candidate to the setting and letting them spend some actual time at the nursery. Provide them with sufficient background information about the setting, and then you can leave them with the team for about 1-2 hours. This allows them to get a real feel for the nursery. After this, you can have another chat with them.
“Naturally, you would love for them to praise and compliment your setting, however, that should not be all. You want to find out how would they would do things differently or in a way they think is better. Their feedback must be balanced. Because as a nursery manager that is their role: always having that critical eye for improvement,” Gemma Lester, Operations Manager at Inspire Montessori.
If you are pleased with their feedback, invite them to meet with the Operations Manager in person and a fellow director. Here you would have a full-on interview lasting about 1.5 hours to give you a chance to ask all the necessary questions. During this time, the conversations would consist of scenarios and questions where you are testing their knowledge. Up to this stage, they have done well and seem to tick all the boxes – but do they really know their stuff? We dive into examples of questions to ask below.
“Get the children involved in the interview process. Children say it how it is. So they will say exactly what they liked (or didn’t like) about the activity the candidate did or the story they read. Children are really great judges of character,” Tim Hopkins, Operations Manager at Humpty Dumpty Day Nurseries.
After the initial three stages, there is still a fourth (and thankfully final) stage we recommend for conducting a thorough interview process. During this last stage, host another brief meeting with all the directors together, during which you would generally make an offer (provide an offer letter). Remember, because this person is so integral to your setting, the process needs to be thorough. You need the right match for your setting.
During the in-person interview, you want to test their knowledge and experience and get a feel for their approach to managing a nursery. We recommend talking through safeguarding scenarios as one point of interest. Therefore you can ask questions such as:
They need to know these processes to handle them correctly should they arise. Also ask questions about budgeting and occupancy:
Then you can ask questions around managing people – again with scenarios.
Sometimes, if the candidate is successful, they would end up managing someone within their team who applied for the manager role as well. So ask how they would go about handling this dynamic.
The point here is not to focus on the specific scenarios, but on how the individual dealt with them. How was the candidate able to manage the situation or calm people down? What practical skills did they use for this/ do they think is important to turn the situation from a negative to a positive?
Asking about their history is also advised. What have they been doing up until this point? Childcare is a large sector, so you will have individuals coming from schools or nannying – but these are very different. The whole process of getting someone through the door is so long that you don’t want it to be the wrong person. And what you don’t want is to spend 2-3 months searching for the right person, only for the candidate to spend 2 weeks at your setting and say “this is not for me!”
Why not ask the candidate to bring in an object that best represents themselves? This gives them the opportunity to show who they are and their creativity.
“We’ve had people do all sorts of things for this. One candidate baked cupcakes with photo toppers of their crowning moments in their life. Another brought along a toy jelly, sticky person to show how malleable they were and that they ‘stick’ with things they enjoyed. We’ve also had people who brought more personal objects along such as a photo frame in the shape of a family tree to demonstrate that they would fit into our one big Humpties family ethos,” Tim Hopkins, Operations Manager at Humpty Dumpty Day Nurseries.
Once the individual has been offered (and accepted) the role- confirm in writing that they want to accept. This is when your robust procedures should start. Obtain 5 years’ worth of references – you do not want any past surprises down the line. If they have been with one company for all those 5 years this would make it much easier. However, people tend not to stay in the same place for more than 2-5 years. Generally, this is because once the nursery manager has come in and helped the setting reach that Ofsted Outstanding most of the time they feel that they want to move on to other settings that need their help. So gathering this referencing can take a while. Make sure that if there are any gaps you find answers as to what happened during that time.
After that, you must apply for DBS – which involves its own process. Whereby identification is checked, address history and filling out the necessary forms must be fulfilled. This needs to be paid for, which you as the nursery would cover. Read more about the DBS application process.
After this, you can put contracts into place. You must also provide a session (with relevant documents/access to documents) that informs them of your setting’s policies and procedures. Only once they have actually started attending the setting, the induction and probation process can start. It’s vital that they know all this information as they are the ones who will be leading your setting.
Additionally, you want to make your expectations of them clear, but it is also important to let them know of the support they themselves have from you. Starting any job is daunting so you need to inform them that they are not alone. This is where the Operations Manager comes into play. Here the Operations Manager would be very hands-on and supportive during those first 6 months. They are the nursery manager’s go-to person.
It is important that they are introduced to the role gradually. Of course, there is an element of when a new manager starts they hit the ground running, but it can’t be that from day 1 they are solely responsible for everything. When you start something new you are learning as well as doing. It needs to be planned and executed as a team.
Nursery managers are integral to the running of a successful nursery. They are knowledgeable and experienced, yet are able to connect on that personal level with anyone at any time. Therefore, do not rush into hiring just anyone. Finding the right one can be a time-consuming task, but by implementing thorough hiring processes you can enable your setting to find the person who will take your nursery business to the next level.