Focus: Maximising the procurement process to protect both cost and quality
Wednesday, January 17, 2024
The cost of living crisis is continuing to squeeze everyone's budgets. Sarah Hardwell, nursery director for Little Peanuts Day Nursery and Forest School in York, discusses all things procurement when setting up her nursery, and shares tips for how settings can make the most of this process to maximise savings without compromising on quality.
In March 2020, when I started to plan what would become Little Peanuts Day Nursery and Forest School, the site was being used by a tech firm which was in the process of relocating. The building was a large, open plan office with various meeting rooms, a server room and all the paraphernalia that such a business has. Outside was two acres of grass, with an impenetrable clump of trees at the bottom. I had a good look around, talked through various plans with the nursery's owner and then didn't visit again until lockdown began to ease later that summer.
By the time I set foot inside the building again, I had spent a great deal of time working on building plans, discussing fencing options and pouring over endless websites and catalogues of early years suppliers. There were very large and very empty rooms, that would be opening as a nursery in September 2020 and needed to start to look like one well before that! In the course of completing this task, I found a great many ways of sourcing furniture, resources and everything else that now just seems like it has always been part of Little Peanuts. It would have been easy to buy huge amounts in bulk and fill the rooms with endless items from the early years catalogues, all of which looked wonderful, but the costs soon mount up. Although the quality of such furniture was often well reviewed, there was a lot that, on reflection, we didn't necessarily need. Rooms could be furnished in a more varied and thoughtful way, creating an overall more interesting appearance than the uniformity of classrooms.
Putting unwanted kitchen equipment to use
When it came to furniture, items like child-sized table and chairs were something that just seemed to be best purchased from an early years supplier, given the quantity needed. There were many offers for first-time purchases, so I made a list and made one, very large purchase, gaining a big discount in the process. Similarly, for a starting point in equipping the rooms with toys and resources, I made one large order for building blocks, paint brushes, small world items, changing mats, trikes, sleeping mats, cutlery, aprons, crockery and anything else I found for a good price once, I had chosen what seemed to be the best supplier who offered the best prices and also the best initial order discount.
The rest of the furniture, mainly storage, was something that I decided to find second-hand. One of the guiding principles of Little Peanuts was our focus on sustainability, so re-using and repurposing became key watch words. We were also starting our Curiosity Approach™ accreditation, so having a homely, welcoming environment, rather than a mini school, was central too. There were some amazing finds in junk shops over that summer. My favourite purchase from the time we were setting up, is still the working record player cabinet we bought for £25, along with a Lloyd loom piano stool and side unit.
As well as rummaging around shops, I also took to second-hand websites, such as Facebook marketplace, Gumtree, Ebay and Freecycle. Sometimes we searched local sites looking for something specific, other times a colleague might spot something and then have a plan for where they would like to put it. The most significant online second-hand purchase was a small shed for our Forest School area. This proved to be larger than the specifications advertised, so required a return trip the next day to dismantle and load into the largest car we could find. This then necessitated re-building on site the following day. Although it turned out to be a much more time consuming process than initially thought, it developed my DIY skills and did save a couple of hundred pounds buying something that was sturdy and resilient.
Another person's junk is often our treasure and some of our favourite things were items people were giving away, we just had to make sure we had a car big enough to collect them! I have variously collected in my car: coffee tables; shelving units; a decorative mannequin (the children named her Margaret); rolls of unwanted wallpaper; rugs; six foot wide rolls of photographer's backdrop paper; a grandfather clock; various armchairs; picture frames and mirrors. The occasion when someone was giving away a piano, that had had the strings removed and made into a shelving unit, proved to be too much for my car. However, I offered to help them lift it into their van and they kindly delivered it for us.
The outside area after a few additions
’Margaret’ (our mannequin) taking up position on our stage
‘We often repurpose what would be considered rubbish – our home corners are full of empty food and toiletry packaging; jam jars are often pressed into service to store pencils and paintbrushes and if ever anyone has a broken kettle, microwave, hairdryer or telephone, we are delighted!’
Sometimes I fill the car with things that raise my husband's eyebrows even further than usual. Via the local Facebook group I collected armfuls of tortured hazel and teasels; it definitely wasn't clear whether I was heading to work or to the local tip! Once unloaded, these discarded prunings have been used to decorate our pre-school room, Little Owls, to brilliant effect by our amazingly artistic manager, Sam. We often repurpose what would be considered rubbish – our home corners are full of empty food and toiletry packaging; jam jars are often pressed into service to store pencils and paintbrushes and if ever anyone has a broken kettle, microwave, hairdryer or telephone, we are delighted! All are quickly pressed into service in either our mud kitchen or one of the rooms' home corners.
A continuing sources of items for the nursery is what our families offer us. We sometimes put a message in our newsletter if there's something we are looking for and we have been the happy recipients of unwanted cushions, pots and pans, curtains, lampshades, sheets and an enormous assortment of things we didn't know we needed, but which are now integral to our rooms or garden. News of our interest in all sorts of curiosities has spread and we now get approached by our neighbours before they dispose of things. We have some wonderful bongos in the garden made from plastic catering drums and the many pallets we have received have made a whole seating and dining area in the Forest School, as well as been put to many different uses across our garden.
Tyres are another popular object, mainly outside, but a few have been thoroughly cleaned and filled with cushions for our babies to practise their clambering skills on. I approached a nearby garage for their old tyres, some of which are now planters and others are used for rolling, balancing and piling; depending on that day's plans in the garden. We also have a few huge tractor tyres, which are much loved elements in our garden.
Little Owls classroom once set up
Our donated piano and art area
Three years since opening, we continue to look for new and interesting resources to enhance our children's play and learning. Some staff are keen car booters and one room now has it's very own pet dog figure, christened Spot, who is very attentively cared for! Another has an indoor sand area consisting of old suitcases, baking trays and an ever evolving selection of other interesting objects to scoop, pour and collect with. As the cohorts of children change and grow, so do their interests. So seeking resources for each room is a never-ending process. We continue to keep an eye out on selling websites, we also have a huge Barnardo's shop nearby with a vast range of children's books, toys, furniture and everything else in between. We do buy new when needed, but compare prices first across dedicated early years suppliers, Amazon or local shops. Our weekly Tesco delivery has proved to be a useful source of Tesco vouchers for cot bedding, among other things.
Equipping a nursery from scratch was quite a monumental task and, naturally, as the nursery has evolved things have been added along the way. It's also never finished; things get worn out and need replacing all time. We always try to avoid throwing items away, but sometimes this just can't be avoided. Starting with an outlook of reduce, re-use and recycle means we have given a lot of things a second chance, and they have really had a great deal of use and enjoyment from our children. Added benefits to this have been considerable savings on costs and creating a nursery that is uniquely ours, created by the collective effort of both staff, our families and the wider community.
Sustainability in daily nursery life
We are always seeking to develop our sustainability focus further and have therefore found an increasing number of ways to do this as time has gone on.
One of the first areas has been our lending library. This is for both adult books and children's books, and all our staff and families can browse the selection in our entrance hall. With an invitation to take a book or leave a book, the collection has steadily grown, as well as changing all the time as books are donated and borrowed. We have been fortunate to have a local book supplier who makes a huge range of children's books available to buy for £2 each. This has been a further welcome addition to our aim of making a wide range of books available to our children and ensuring that reading at home is something that is accessible to all.
Our next step was our Swap Shop cupboard. This has expanded the range of items available to all things children-related. Those parents who have something their child has grown out of for example, can add it to the cupboard and if a parent needs something, they can help themselves. The range of items we have had include anything from shoes and clothes, swimming aids, to toys and baby carriers. With two acres of outside space and daily Forest School sessions, wellies and puddle suits are a vital part of daily life at Little Peanuts. Children's tendency to grow out of things means families often donate their outgrown items, and each room now has a good stock of spare wellies, coats and puddle suits, as well as hats (both woolly and for sunshine). This has not stopped our supplies growing, so we have occasional donation tables where families can help themselves to the next size up from the items that have been given to us. It means all children have suitable clothing for whatever the weather requires, and we can keep the mountain of items we have to a reasonable amount.
We have also become a collection point for several local schemes. We collect items from crisp packets to pens and toothbrushes for a local community environmental project. They use the funds they receive for funding their community programmes, and enhancing their former landfill site which has become a local nature reserve in York. We also collect foil for a local children's charity and have a Hygiene Bank collection point, which is especially popular after Christmas with unwanted bubble bath gifts and the like! These collection points are used by our local community, and we often have people popping in to drop things off into the boxes in our lobby.
All of this is obviously not us procuring things, but it is supporting wider community procurement and helping to find uses for unwanted items. Doing all that we can to reduce our environmental footprint is popular with both our staff, families and local community.
‘As the cohorts of children change and grow, so do their interests. So seeking resources for each room is a never-ending process.’
Supporting staff's professional development
With the rising costs in food and fuel, as well as wages, training could easily be an area that is seen as a nice addition, but not essential to the running costs or a crucial part of a nursery budget. We see great value in supporting our staff to further their career and qualifications, as well as gaining greater knowledge in areas of interest to them.
For the major early years qualifications, we make use of apprenticeship bursaries for Level 3 qualifications, as well as the funding available through the DfE's Early Years Initial Teacher Training programme. For smaller CPD areas we have found an array of courses, articles and even podcasts that are freely available to all.
Starting out, I found Twitter/X was a great place to pick up new articles and training. The early years community online is a very helpful one and I continue to find interesting things being shared and discussed. Similarly, early years podcasts are often great entry points to different areas/issues or themes, and there is usually a website to develop your knowledge further. There are a few podcasts episodes I have shared several times with colleagues and also families – most notably Circle Time – The Early Years podcast: ‘The one about “sleep” with Rebecca Askew’ (http://tinyurl.com/yxu7e4cb). Having a half hour podcast to listen to has proved to be a popular way to develop learning in lots of different areas and makes a change from reading something online, which is what a lot of training has become.
That being said, online training has made furthering practitioners' knowledge and understanding much more diverse and accessible than was the case when I started working in early years. Any subject or topic is just an online search away, although not all online sources of information are equal and some are definitely more useful and relevant than others. For an absolutely clear focus on the early years Foundation Stage statutory requirements, the DfE has been increasing the number of training modules available over the last year or so. Six of the nine modules are already available, with the rest to be added shortly (http://tinyurl.com/bddbkn8f). With each module designed to take one-two hours they are great for staff to pick up when they have a some CPD time during the working day. Other courses offer longer term training; a few of our staff have completed Hallmark education's Level 2 ‘Introduction to Neuroscience in early years’ which is designed to be completed over four weeks and offered for free with funding from the Education and Skills Funding Agency (http://tinyurl.com/bdz9d8ud). Two colleagues have completed ‘Understanding Children and Young People's Mental Health’, also offered fully funded through Hallmark education (http://tinyurl.com/5cpajcfy). We have tried various providers who offer Level 1 Forest School training for free, which is a useful introduction before deciding whether to commit to the cost and time involved in the full Level 3 Forest School Leader qualification.
As well as online courses, we have a few favourite websites for articles that can also support CPD. The Famly blog page (http://www.famly.co/blogwww.famly.co/blog) covers a huge range of topics. Sometimes these are printed out and shared round staff to read if there's a topic of interest to a whole room at Little Peanuts. The beauty of this is that learning can be shared when staff perhaps only have a few minutes while children are asleep or at the start or end of the day. If we only did CPD when someone could commit to a whole day, or even half a day out of rooms, nothing would ever be done! By having a huge range of things to choose from, that could take from ten minutes to ten weeks, we can be flexible to both the staffs' needs and interests, as well as the time that we have available that day, week or month.
Many items have been sourced from the local community
Spot the dog!
With the biggest challenge to CPD being finding the time, it has been useful to find ways to focus on the key issues. Often organisations such as the Early Years Alliance and the NDNA can highlight new courses or current issues, so subscribing to their newsletters is helpful to know what topics they are covering. I am also the chair of the local Foundation Stage partnership and every meeting includes sharing recent training across the whole partnership, pooling collective knowledge as well as disseminating information. We have found that several settings have faced similar challenges across the years and sharing common interests has been at the heart of what our partnership has done.
As with all elements of procurement within a nursery, finding the right training for our staff has been a combination of methods and solutions blended together into a way of doing things that works for us. Variety has proved to be the key and I am sure that this will continue to be the case!
Nursery director @hardwellsarah