Yesterday’s spring statement offered little relief for working parents struggling with childcare costs, despite calls for greater investment in the sector to boost gender equality. Nursery chain Bright Horizons has just announced a £10m investment in recruitment, retention and training, and HR director Janine Leightley spoke to Personnel Today about why this is important.
In December 2021, the Institute for Fiscal Studies published research that made a sobering point. That while a sharp increase in female graduates in the past 25 years has led to a narrowing in the gender pay gap, women are still less likely to be in paid work than men, and more likely to work fewer hours per week. Even in households where women were the higher earner, they were more likely to take over the bulk of the childcare due to “gendered norms”, the think tank said.
One of its recommendations was that improved policies and investment in childcare provision, alongside the normalisation of equal paid leave for both parents, would help overcome this barrier. Even the Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood, led by the Duchess of Cambridge, has called for more investment in the UK’s childcare infrastructure, saying “early childhood represents one of the best investments we can make for the long-term health, wellbeing and happiness of our society”.
But despite overwhelming evidence of its value, yesterday’s spring statement failed to address the rising cost of childcare and investment in the sector to attract and retain staff.
As HR director of the UK’s second biggest nursery chain Bright Horizons, Janine Leightley knows these challenges all too well. The company has more than 7,500 staff across 300 nurseries and pre-schools, but faces a tight market when it comes to hiring early years practitioners – a situation that has been exacerbated by both the Covid pandemic and Brexit.
This year Bright Horizons will invest £10m in salaries, benefits and training for its current and future workforce, she explains. “We wanted to change the way people think about early childcare – our practitioners do some of the most important work there is,” she says. “Caring for and teaching children at this age has lifelong implications, so we need to invest in them.”
Salaries in London-based nurseries will be above the London Living Wage of £11.05 (as recommended by the Living Wage Foundation), and the company will remove the lower age-related national minimum wage so all staff receive at least the national living wage for 23 years and over. According to job site Indeed, the average salary for an early years practitioner is around £20,600 – equivalent to an hourly rate of £9.90, so this is competitive.
Offering a higher wage is not just about securing the best talent, Leightley insists. It’s also about “elevating the status” of workers in the childcare profession. “We want to reinforce the vital role they play in the wider economy – they provide an important service to employers in helping people to have fulfilled and productive careers,” she adds.
Bright Horizons’ investment includes a commitment to taking on 700 apprentices this year, as well as a new graduate scheme. The apprenticeships will be open to existing workers who wish to gain a qualification as well as new recruits, and the company has become a member of The 5% Club, a network of employers who aspire to achieve 5% of their workforce in ‘earn as they learn’ positions. Apprentices are given a defined career path so they can see the skills they need to move from one role to the next.
We help employers identify care needs for their employees, so it’s important that our own workers have access to the same.” – Janine Leightley, Bright Horizons
Graduates spend their first year working in nursery settings as practitioners and after that more exposure to and experience of leadership responsibilities, explains Leightley. The company has partnered with a number of universities both in terms of helping them develop their early years curricula but also to offer students work placements as part of their degree.
Bright Horizons also recognises the importance of wellbeing in keeping staff engaged along that career journey. “We help employers identify care needs for their employees, so it’s important that our own workers have access to the same,” she says. The company’s approach focuses on emotional, physical and financial wellness.
“We run a benefits survey each year where we ask colleagues what they would like,” explains Leightley. “We’re now focusing more on preventative tactics that get to the root cause of issues – so with finance we offer good childcare discounts, early access to wages and financial advice, for example.”
And while flexible working might not be available to all site-based workers in the same way we’d expect for office-based workers, they do get the option to sign up to the company’s internal Brightflex “agency” of bank staff. “This is more complex when we have practitioners in settings, but if someone wants to work more flexibly they can sign up to the bank and work hours that suit them, or in another location if their partner is working away,” she adds.
Employee voice and empathetic management play a vital role in keeping workers engaged, too. The company runs a forum called Be Heard, where representatives across the organisation meet regularly and feed back employee suggestions to the leadership team. Support for managers is scaffolded: so they get tools to help their teams but know when to escalate or step away. “We want to help managers to support the wellbeing of their teams, coaching them to understand the part they can play in that but also putting in clear boundaries to their involvement,” Leightley explains.
It will be frustrating for working parents that chancellor Rishi Sunak did not mention childcare once in yesterday’s spring statement, but refreshing to know that at least employers in the sector are prepared to invest in its crucial role.