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Rachel Fay was a primary school teacher, teaching in reception when she began mulling over the idea of an early writing programme for children.
She observed that some children had not been exposed to any mark-making tools, such as pens, crayons or paintbrushes before they started school. This could have a negative effect on them when they came to learn how to write given that some would even lack fine motor skills such as a pincer grip.
Rachel recalls that some pupils, although very clever, struggled to write. “I felt something had to change,” says Rachel. “Government guidelines can sometimes put too much pressure on young children. If they could get used to using their fine motor skills in a fun environment before they start writing it could help so much.”
Rachel developed the idea on maternity leave in 2015. She visited preschools with her son Oliver and realised there was a gap in the market for a literacy-based programme that would encourage children to become confident in both their fine and gross motor skills before they picked up a pencil and started to write. There was also a shortage of messy play sessions in the Gateshead area where she lived.
She decided to create a fun programme for children from five months old that would address that gap and spent her last month’s SMP choosing and assembling resources. She did two sessions with local parents. The response was “overwhelming”, she says. Both sessions were full and the demand for more classes was high. She provided classes at four further venues and started getting inquiries from across the UK.
Getting the programme right
Just at that point her maternity leave came to an end. She returned to teaching and began to work her notice, During this period she trialled her mark making programme with her pupils. The children loved it, including older children who struggled with handwriting. “When they are not sitting down being told how to form a letter, it is much easier for them to learn,” says Rachel.
Her programme involves putting a massive tarpaulin on the floor. On it she puts scented playdough, paintbrushes and other tools such as wooden spoons, a dry tray full of rice, flour and other ingredients which children can make marks in and a wet messy tray full of things like custard. There is also a scribbling area with black and white boards and chalks, pens and sugar paper and a dance area. Rachel starts sessions with a dance with scarves. Her view is that children should move from mastery of big movements to the smaller, finer movements.
She teaches one mark a week: Lionel, the soldier mark [straight up and down], Archie, the rainbow mark [a hump or curve], Swirlo, the magic mark [circles and swirls] and Ziggy, the zigzag mark. The idea is that you can build all the letters with these four marks – an h, for instance, is a soldier and a rainbow. By making mark making fun, children learn to form letters before they are in a more formal setting, says Rachel.
There are different levels of learning depending on the age of the child: a baby learns how to grab items, for instance, and build their core strengths; a toddler learns to identify characters, while older children are introduced to letters and numbers.
Rachel knew that there was huge potential for the business, but she wasn’t sure how to grow it quickly enough. She looked into franchising and talked to her partner. “I really believed in it and knew how popular and different it was. I thought let’s go for it. If I don’t franchise it I will never know what could have been,” she says. “I was the main earner, but I knew it would work.”
She also knew teachers who were parents who said their workload meant they didn’t have enough time with their own children. She spoke to other franchisers in the North East, including the owner of Lingotot and got good advice. She recruited franchise experts to help her create a manual and to help with other parts of the franchising process.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. When she handed in her notice at school, Rachel was really happy, but when she got home later that day her husband told her he had lost his job. “We were both jobless with a six-month-old baby,” she says. Luckily, her husband got another job quite quickly. Rachel signed her first franchisee in January 2016. She now has 17 across the UK. Around 90% are teachers.
She says if she hadn’t franchised the business she would probably have become a franchisee herself so she bore in mind what she would have been able to pay as a new parent and what she could realistically do when she created the franchise programme. A franchise costs £3,995 and lasts for five years and payment plans are available to suit needs. Little Learners gives realistic calculations of earnings based on number of classes and years of being established.
In terms of training, Rachel either goes to see the franchisee or she does the training over Face Time. She also does a broadcast every night over the franchise’ Facebook group to keep in touch and keep franchisees up to date with developments. As so many of her franchisees are teachers, they tend to need more training on the business side of the franchise, rather than on the teaching side. “I tailor the training to the franchisee,” says Rachel. “It is very flexible.”
The franchisees, who all have young children, also come together once a year for an annual meeting. Their children can come too and Rachel hires a soft play area.
Rachel’s own son is two and a half years old now. He spends most of the working week with her which means Rachel has to make good use of his nap times, answering emails and doing a lot of administrative work in the evenings when he is asleep.
The Little Learners Facebook group is a good source of support for those struggling with small children, she says. “It’s very hard running a business and looking after toddlers. I am going through it too. I try to make sure my franchisees know how well they are doing both. I think some people don’t realise the extent of work involved in doing both.”
She is keen to offer any support she can and is easily reachable on the phone. Franchisees flex their work around their childcare responsibilities and can choose how many classes they do. They can also take their children to their sessions. One mum has taken her daughter to classes since she was nine months old. She is now two and Rachel says she is like a second teacher!
A second child
She describes Little Learners as a second child. She is currently looking to hire an administrative assistant so she can be freed up to spend more time on her franchisees.
Rachel says hiring the right people is crucial. She has learnt over time to trust her gut instinct and she adds that she is clear what it takes to make a franchise work. “I get a lot of teachers inquiring, but not always for the right reasons,” she says. “I feel some are looking for a part-time job with an employer, but I am not an employer. They will get out of the franchise what they are prepared to put in. It can be scary at first, but it’s good to be challenged.”
One area where she had a head start was in running a business since she had had a face and body painting business in addition to her teaching work for several years.
As a businesswoman, Rachel saw the need to provide diversified income streams to her franchisees, including parties, classes and events and makes it easy for them to calculate their potential income from each stream.
Several franchisees run their Little Learners business alongside other work. One in Milton Keynes is head of early years in a primary school. Another in Liverpool is a secondary school teacher. The majority, though, have quit employment to spend more time with their children alongside running their franchise.
The franchise is growing at a pace across the country. Rachel plans to develop a structure of area managers once she gets more than 25 franchisees. Her son starts nursery in October, which means she will have more time to work on building the business. “I am excited to see what I can get done,” she says. “I hope to be able to move forward quickly.”